What Causes Terrorism?

By Kate Roff

With recent terror attacks in around the world, we wanted to know, from the perspective of peace-builders: What’s driving violent extremism?

Melanie Greenberg, President and CEO of Alliance for Peacebuilding, said it’s important to distinguish between extremism and extreme violence.

“…one of the arguments in the field right now, is ‘how do you know when somebody who has - what we might consider - extreme views, makes a shift to violence?’," Ms Greenberg told Peace News.

Experts warn there are many reasons for extremist violence, but there are two common drivers that often appear.

1. Exclusion

"One driver of violent extremism is exclusion,” Ms Greenberg said.

“And especially young people who are feeling excluded from the mainstream, of politics, their own countries, or feel they are being discriminated against - shut out of economies," she said.

2. Identity

Lena Slachmuiljder, Vice President of Programs at Search for Common Ground, said extreme groups may provide direction for people who are feeling excluded.

"So, fundamentally, we believe that whether these grievances are real or perceived, there is a sense of people adhering and aligning behind a cause and feeling drawn to something that will give them a sense of agency, around something that matters to them," Ms Slachmuiljder told DME for Peace.

"And we've found that some groups like ISIS are wonderful at using media and social media to give a greater narrative to a young person's life - to have them feel that they are fighting for a greater cause," Ms Greenberg said.

"We're seeing that also in the north of Pakistan - young men joining the Taliban - the incentives are 'We can give you something bigger than just your small community'," she said.

This also applies to recruits from Western countries.

"Three out of four people that are joining ISIS, from abroad, they do so with friends, so you're looking at this 'band of brothers'," said Elizabeth Hume, Senior Director for Programs and Strategy Alliance for Peacebuilding.

So, what is working to prevent violent extremism?

In some cases, economic alternatives can help.

"For example, with Boku Haram in northern Nigeria, they are offering micro-loans to members of communities living in northern Nigeria, and so part of their appeal is economic,” Ms Greenberg said.

“And a way to counter that would be to give alternative economic programs," she said.

Rebecca Wolfe, Director of Mercy Corps’ Peace and Conflict team, said strengthening families is also vital.

"Helping families talk about joining these groups seems to help build a resilience, so that people don't join, or it's families that will help bring people back," Ms Wolfe said.

"And addressing those things: How do we build stronger communities? How do we give youth a sense of purpose? How do we help communities develop their own ideas about violent extremism? And it's not just us from the West coming in and imposing them," Ms Greenberg said.

Inclusion is also a key factor.

"Often times we're so focused on trying to understand why do people join, that we forget to ask 'why do people not join?', to be able to really understand how can we build on the dynamics of resiliency and the positive connecting forces that perhaps can be amplified through our work," Ms Slachmuiljder said.

One thing peace-builders all seem to agree on is the more we know about drivers of extreme violence, the better we can prevent it.