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What causes young people to join extremist groups?

09 March 2018

What causes young people to join extremist groups? That was the question asked by Fr. Patrick Devine of the Shalom Centre for Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation in Nairobi.

Kibera, Nairobi

Poverty and social exclusion leads to violence in places such as the Kibera slum in Nairobi.

Fr. Devine looked at the factors driving radicalism in east Africa. The Shalom Centre trains community leaders and elders as peacemakers. In just six years, the centre has trained over 6,000 people how to reduce conflict in their communities. Trócaire funds the work of the centre.

Radicalisation is a growing problem in east Africa. In a paper written for NUI Maynooth, Fr. Devine argues that to combat extremism we must first understand what is driving it. 

He highlights poverty and poor governance as two factors driving young people into extremism. Young men are particularly vulnerable. 

“Grievance and desperation can easily be exploited by extremist groups,” he says. 

Fr. Devine quotes examples of young men in Kenya recruited by violent groups not by ideology but by the chance of financial security. 

“There are many incidences of young men joining extremist groups lured purely by money, assurances of food and shelter,” he says. “These recruits may not necessarily share the ideological claims of these groups but the prospects offered are enough to persuade them that fighting offers more opportunity than remaining in poverty.”

Two trends have made this an even bigger problem in east Africa. 

Not only is there a young population but this population is also increasingly urbanised. Issues such as climate change are forcing people off the land and into cities. This results in a large number of unemployed young people who feel marginalised. This makes them ripe for extremist groups. 

Kibera peace

Trócaire took part in peace rallies in the Kibera slum in the build-up to the 2017 Kenyan general election (Photo: Thom Pierce)

Added to this is the problem of weak governance. 

“This region includes vulnerable, weak and failed states," he says. "Evidence suggests that weak and failed states are at increased risk of harbouring violent extremists."

Weak governance means that state structures – health, education, jobs – aren’t provided. 

This leaves "power vacuums" that result in people embracing other leadership structures. 

The response of governments to extremism can sometimes also be counter-productive, he warns.

“In Kenya, some Muslim youth joined extremist groups as a reaction to the government's policy of collective punishment or assassination of their religious leaders as part of counter-terrorism initiatives,” he says. 

Read Fr. Devine's paper 'Radicalisation and Extremism in Eastern Africa: Dynamics and Drivers'