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We Don’t Really Know How To Stop People From Wanting To Be Terrorists

For years, we’ve been trying to stop people from joining extremist groups by giving them jobs. It turns out, it’s not nearly that simple.

We Don’t Really Know How To Stop People From Wanting To Be Terrorists
[Top Photo: Salih Mahmud Leyla/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images]

It’s a common narrative: in a remote village in Pakistan or Somalia, someone under the age of 30 who can’t find a job is an easy target for a recruiter from a terrorist organization. If they had a better option at home, maybe they wouldn’t leave. The idea has inspired billions in international spending on job training programs. The only problem: those programs don’t seem to actually prevent terrorism, at least not on their own.

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“Intuitively, it makes sense,” says Keith Proctor, author of a report on the causes of political violence for the nonprofit Mercy Corps. “We think about all of these young people, whether it’s in Sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East or Central Asia, and they don’t have jobs. If we could only provide them jobs, then they won’t go the way of the Taliban, or Boko Haram, or whatever it may be. It’s intuitive, but it hasn’t received nearly enough interrogation.”

Flickr user Rennett Stowe

When researchers interviewed youth in Afghanistan, Colombia, and Somalia, and when they looked at the long-term effects of job training, they found no relationship between the lack of a job and someone’s willingness to become a terrorist.

In one Mercy Corps program, called INVEST, students in Afghanistan learned skills like engineering and mobile phone repair–all skills that were needed in the local area. Women graduated from the program at a time when they couldn’t attend school elsewhere. The program improved the local economy, and 84% of students found jobs–obviously a good thing. But when the researchers spoke with graduates, they found that they weren’t less likely to be violent.

Andrea Koppel via Mercy Corps

It’s a finding backed up by other recent research suggesting that poverty alone doesn’t explain why someone would leave a normal life to become, say, a suicide bomber.

Still, that’s the conventional wisdom, even in the places where terrorists recruit. “When you go to many of these places, many local people will echo this link between poverty and terrorism,” says Proctor. “They’ll say that young men are joining the Taliban because they’re poor, and the Taliban is paying them. When I was in Jordan, you’d have family members of young guys who’d gone off to fight for the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria–or even ISIS–and they’d say, these poor guys, they were looking for jobs, and these groups compensated them.”

Talking to recruits themselves–or looking at employment status of recruits as a whole–the researchers saw that wasn’t true.

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Instead, the motivation is more likely to be injustice: Living under a corrupt government, with little power to do anything when the system treats them unfairly. Recruits act because they’re angry, not just because they’re poor.

Why has so much money been spent on job training as a solution to fight terrorism? The Obama administration has suggested that jobs can help thwart ISIS; before that, George W. Bush said “We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror.” It’s been touted as a counterterrorism measure for years. But it’s only recently that anyone actually studied how well it works for that purpose (and found it lacking).

And that’s true for almost all approaches to fighting terrorism. It turns out we have very little idea what is effective, and we’re just beginning to find out what isn’t.

John Wollwerth via Shutterstock

One challenge is cost–it’s often been easier to get funding to set up a training center or another program than to study the outcomes in detail.

“We’re talking about issues of behavioral change, which really require many years of study in sort of big, longitudinal studies, in order to track those changes over time and figure out what works,” Proctor says. “In a lot of places, either we don’t have the funding for those kind of long term projects, or access is a really big problem.”

In a 2006 review of studies on anti-terrorism programs (updated in 2009), researchers found that only eight studies had rigorously evaluated the effectiveness of the programs. Several found that expected solutions backfired.

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The use of force, for example, doesn’t necessarily act as a deterrent. After the U.S. bombed Libya in 1986, it led to more terrorist attacks in the short term. In a more recent study looking at Israeli policy, researchers found that bombing terrorists’ homes sometimes led to more violence. Security like metal detectors in airports have reduced hijackings, but also made other types of terrorism, like taking hostages, more likely.

John Wollwerth via Shutterstock

Even job training programs can backfire. The Mercy Corps report talks about the fact that the programs are often poorly designed–cookie cutter approaches that have nothing to do with the needs of the local economy. If students are trained to do something, but they can’t get a job after they graduate, going through a training program might actually make them more frustrated with society because it raises their expectations.

That’s not to say that well-designed job training programs should stop; jobs are always important and helpful. But if the goal is to fight terrorism, they shouldn’t be relied on as a solution on their own. “Economic development is vital,” says Proctor. “Unemployment is often emblematic of systemic sources of frustration and marginalization. I just think that we need to be careful not to argue that a jobs training program is going to be the silver bullet that’s going to address the problem of violent extremism.”

In the past, the success of a program might have been measured by how many schools were built, or how many students showed up–not what effect it actually had on graduates. That’s slowly beginning to change.

Toni Greaves via Mercy Corps

Researchers are also starting to see evidence of solutions that seem to be successful. In Mali, radio programs that counter the narrative of extremist groups have been shown to make those groups less appealing. In Iraq, there’s evidence of a link between good governance and less support for terrorists. In Pakistan, partnering with moderate imams and schools seems to help.

And, of course, a complex problem will require a much more complex solution than single, isolated programs. If bad governance is the primary motivation for someone to become violent, then entire societies will need to change.

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“It’s something ultimately that’s going to require many hands pulling the rope in the same direction,” says Proctor. “Certainly when NGOs work with communities to try to grow civil society, these are important measures. At the same time we really have to try to pressure governments, especially large donor governments like the United States, to encourage recipient governments to make the necessary reforms.”

As research grows, the international community can start to invest more in proven solutions. “I would say that we’re getting better,” he says. “I think we’re making important strides in trying to address what works.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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