Employment opportunities, not religious beliefs, are the main reason behind people joining extremist groups in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The report is based on interviews with hundreds of former fighters.
While the number of deaths from terrorism worldwide has decreased over the past five years, it has increased in sub-Saharan Africa, making it the current global epicentre of terrorist attacks, according to the Global Terrorism Index, an annual survey cited in the UNDP report.
From east to west Africa, Islamist militant groups have taken control of large areas, forcing millions of people to leave, eroding people's faith in democratic governments, and causing widespread hunger. The Sahel region has been the most affected, as groups linked to Al-Qaeda and ISIS have expanded their attacks in one of the poorest regions in the world.
According to the report, 25% of individuals who joined these groups voluntarily cited job opportunities as their main reason, while 22% joined because of family and friends, and 17% joined due to religious beliefs. However, almost half of the respondents said that they joined due to a “tipping point,” such as the killing or arrest of family members by state security forces.
The study was based on interviews with over 2,000 individuals in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, and Sudan. This included over 1,000 former fighters interviewed in detention facilities, prisons, rehabilitation, or community centres, as well as 1,000 individuals drawn from the same communities to form a control group for comparison.
According to the report, low education levels and high mistrust in the government are common among recruits. Instead of a militarized approach, the report recommends investing in child welfare, education, and quality livelihoods to prevent and counter violent extremism. An additional year of schooling was found to reduce the likelihood of voluntary recruitment to extremist groups by 13%.
“The social contract between states and citizens must be reinvigorated to tackle root causes of violent extremism,” said UNDP administrator Achim Steiner. “Security-driven counter-terrorism responses are often costly and minimally effective.”