Tackling radicalization from within

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch07 Sep 2016Anne Moltès

Efforts to counter radicalization have generally adopted a security or development approach, yielding few tangible results. For a more effective approach, a context-specific perspective that considers the complexity of local, individual and group dynamics needs to be adopted. One way of doing this is to consult communities affected by radicalization on how they view the phenomenon from within and identify existing capacities within these communities to address the problem.

This expert opinion is part of our Sahel Watch living analysis

The conflict in Mali has its roots in history, but can also be seen as a product of current economic, ecological, political, security and geopolitical developments in the region.

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Why do individuals join radical groups? While conditions such as unemployment, underdevelopment, unequal access to resources, the absence of the State services, and chronic insecurity are regularly cited as causes of radicalization, they do not explain the multitude of cases of radicalization. Take, for example, the Sahel region: Macro-level indicators for poverty, inequality and insecurity are very high compared to other regions of the world, and countering the threat of radicalization towards violent extremism has become a policy priority. While some cases where an individual responds to the call of a radical group may be explained by frustration due to lack of food, income, security or access to justice, these factors do not explain why there are millions of others in the Sahel region, living in the same structural conditions, who do not join radical groups. For a full explanation, a more context-specific perspective that explicitly takes into consideration local nuances needs to be adopted.

Acknowledging existing local capacities to respond to radicalization

To understand radicalization, we need to put down the external analytical telescope and get out the magnifying glass. We must first understand how local communities affected by radicalization view the phenomenon from within. Interpeace’s engagement in Mali has demonstrated that Malians in local communities are fully capable of providing deep insight into local radicalization dynamics.1

Focus group discussions conducted by Interpeace’s local partner IMRAP have highlighted that during the 2012 Mali crisis in Gao, familiar structural factors – unemployment, the weak economy, the governance vacuum, political marginalization, frustration – gave rise to a variety of totally distinct trajectories for youth. Some joined rebel groups, some joined the so-called jihadists, others fled or opted-out of the conflict, while other still others engaged in civic resistance groups such as Nous pas Bouger (We won’t Budge).

Such diverse trajectories need to be understood within their local contexts in order to address radicalization effectively. This requires acknowledging that individuals and communities are not simply products of their environment. They exercise social agency and shape their environment, enabling them to react to violent dynamics both positively and negatively. Disregarding this inherent capacity to tackle radicalization at best opens up the risk of adopting a superficial approach to addressing the phenomenon and at worst exacerbates the negative dynamics.

From the security and development lens towards an inclusive approach

National, regional and international efforts to counter radicalization have, so far, been driven by a focus on the structural conditions. As a result, they have generally adopted either a security or development approach, or a mix of both. However, these military interventions and poverty reduction initiatives have yet to yield tangible results. There is a growing consensus among relevant stakeholders on the need to apply an approach that goes beyond these strategies. In May 2016, for instance, UN heads of mission in West Africa called for an inclusive approach that can “eradicate the root causes of violent extremism”.2

Embracing complexity as the basis of local realities

But such an inclusive approach will not be worth its label without a particular appreciation of local structures and dynamics, which must be understood as a complex system and not as single direct causal explanations. We need to recognize and understand the informal rules that govern social order at the local level at which radicalization occurs. These include, among other things, the social roots and functional roles of violence, which provide a breeding ground for radicalization.

If we do so, we will find that, beyond the structural conducive conditions, there are individual and small-group dynamics that shift youth trajectories towards violent action. These include: idleness, the quest for personal identity and social recognition, lack of family or a community safety net, resentment generated by stigmatization, and frustration with the lack of opportunities for productive and political engagement at the local level. These are issues best understood by their peers, who are well placed to find ways of addressing them. By supporting communities to transform dynamics of radicalization through their own understanding of the situation and with their own capacities, we are strengthening their resilience and allowing them to bring about positive change.

Embracing the complexity of the causes of radicalization means developing measures that are equally complex, but more effective and efficient in preventing radicalization in a given context. Towards this, we suggest the following concrete steps for governments and national and international multilateral and non-governmental organizations:

  • More effectively engage at-risk populations (communities in conflict zones, marginalized groups) to create space for them to develop their own(ed) understanding of where the problem lies. Help them to diagnose the social realities and dynamics structuring the trajectories of youth to radicalization, the dynamics of violence, and the existing local capacities to counter these dynamics. This understanding will enable communities to take action to change their own realities.
  • Document (in writing, sound, images or videos) these local understandings and disseminate them to all policy-relevant international, national and sub-national actors.
  • Focus support on initiatives that build on and strengthen existing local capacities and actions that use locally-rooted, non-violent means. These could be any capacities or actions that respond to the needs of individuals in the community, be for it recognition, identity or success, and which, thereby, maintain overall cohesion.