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March 1, 2015

Responding To: Week 6: Violent Extremism

Create Positive Experiences to Counter Terrorism

Ravi Subramanian

The popular belief is that failing economic development, weak education and poverty breed terrorism. Each year millions of dollars are spent as development assistance that aims at least in part to dampen the appeal of terrorist organizations. Vocational training for youth is a favorite based on the hypothesis that unemployment is a breeding ground for terrorist recruitment. For example in Israel, the 1993 Oslo Accords for establishing the Palestinian Authority (PA) were accompanied by the Paris Protocol of Economic Relations, which provided Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with various economic and trade incentives to stimulate development.

However, a wealth of literature makes it clear that highly educated people from advantaged backgrounds are more likely than others to participate in terrorist activities, probably in part because involvement in such activities requires a minimum level of interest, know-how, dedication to issues at hand, and effort, all of which are more likely if people are educated and wealthy enough to concern themselves with more than mere economic subsistence. 

A report released by global aid agency Mercy Corps based on quantitative research in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Colombia, three countries mired in conflict, strengthens this hypothesis, suggesting how unemployment indicators are poor predicators of violence. Experiences such as those of injustice, discrimination, being on the receiving end of corruption, and experiences of physical violence by citizens have high positive correlation towards the presence of extremism in those countries. Such experiences strengthen beliefs that all forms of institutional governance have failed at the ground level which leads to actions in the form of extremism.

The Islamic State is a powerful example of how repressed civic liberties form a set of experiences that breed terrorism. The Islamic State is supported by the Sunnis not for economic profit but because they believe and see the Islamic State as allies who can redress the grievances brought forth by the Maliki government of Iraq, which at best ignored the Sunnis, and at worst persecuted them.

Revulsion at corruption can be an incentive to join a terrorist organization. Citizens exposed to humiliating experiences are vulnerable to recruitment. A 2013 survey of Afghans by Mercy Corps found corruption second only to insecurity as the most frequently cited national challenge. One community leader observed that, “Troubled young men go in one of two directions. They either join the police or the Taliban."

The question before us as a society is – how can we generate a positive set of experiences for individuals at the ground level that propagates a feeling of inclusiveness and a feeling of being an actual part of the society that one is living in – which motivates disgruntled communities and persons to engage the system for their rights rather than challenging the system via violence.

Ravi Subramanian currently runs Siemens’s Low Voltage Converters Business Segment in India. He was selected as a Global Shaper in the Mumbai Hub of the World Economic Forum in 2011.

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