• Opinion by Noura Hamladji, Samuel Rizk (United Nations)
  • Interpress service

But at what cost?

In sub-Saharan Africa, we are witnessing the toll. Over the past decade, violence has been linked to the influence of global violent extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and Daesh has spread rapidly across the region. In 2022, new global epicenters of terrorism were found in sub-Saharan Africa.

With thousands killed and millions displaced, this violence threatens the stability of the entire region and impedes development gains on the continent.

To better understand how violent extremist groups spread, and how they affect development and social cohesion, UNDP has commissioned unique research to find out what gives violent extremists a foothold in particular contexts.

We looked at the Sahel, Lake Chad, DR Congo, Somalia and northern Mozambique. What we found is that while each country – and district – has its own history, there are clear common denominators that help shape relevant, coherent responses.

This new study, Dynamics of Violent Extremism in Africa: Conflict Ecosystems, Political Ecology, and the Spread of the Protostate complements the research we have done on how and why individuals join violent extremist groups in the Journey to Extremism series.

Fills the void

As they expand in size and resources, supported by a connection to a global ideological focus, some violent extremist groups are organizing in ways that resemble local governance structures. They begin to compete with the state not only by monopolizing the threat/use of violence – in this case, instilling terror – but also by promising some of the most essential local services that people aspire to, such as a relative sense of security, sources of income and speedy resolution of disputes.

They can make it cruel and oppressive, but even that can be initially attractive to societies tired of years of lawlessness, corruption and chaos. In fact, the more deeply structured local violent extremist groups have evolved from marauding bands and now display many of the characteristics of a “proto-state”, characterized by Daesh in Syria.

As the study results suggest, modus operandi of these local violent extremist groups is not primarily centered around persuading people to embrace their ideology. Instead – and often from the locality itself – they are complaint entrepreneurexploit local development deficits and create alliances of convenience with other violent groups and criminal networks, such as smugglers or local militias.

Even so, this does not make them one-dimensional opportunists. Their connection to global networks helps give them direction, binds them together and adds to their appeal. They are both global and local, both ideological and economic alternatives that may appeal to people living in perceived or the actually state vacuum.

A common finding in this study is that violent extremist groups rarely occur in places well served by stable, predictable governments and governance systems. Instead, they operate where poverty and instability already exist, away from capital cities, in marginalized places where public services are thin or non-existent – ​​all of which are often the result of the interests of local powerbrokers.

The lack of trust between communities in these remote and crisis-stricken areas and their government is also a common factor highlighted in the research. Too often, communities suffer from acute insecurity, feeling betrayed, targeted and abused by the very state that should be protecting them. Violent extremist groups then tap into fear or anger among communities and local leaders.

The first step in addressing this growing trend is to understand the political economy of violent extremist groups and their sources of power, in order to halt and reverse their stranglehold on society.

The next step requires the cooperation of the international community, supporting national partners, not only to address the visible manifestations of the problem, but also to reverse years or decades of state fragility, exclusion and insecurity that have emboldened these groups over time.

To this end, UNDP’s work on sub-national and local governance and institutions is critical – resilient, responsive, accountable, transparent, linked to national-level reforms that will have the greatest impact on the “business models” of violent extremist groups.

UNDP also works to empower local communities and local leaders towards positive and inclusive governance and improve access to basic services in underserved areas. This is the way to avoid recreating the same conditions that allowed the governance void to exist in the first place.

To gain a foothold

It is clear that many of the conflicts that give these groups a foothold are over land and water. Desertification, climate change and poor land management have disrupted traditional ways of life in many places where land has degraded and pastures no longer support herds, nor farms support crops.

But this need not be irreversible. With careful attention to local power politics, social relations and trust-building, we can help communities regenerate land and revive livelihoods – and capture carbon in the soil in the process, offer local solutions to global problems and empower communities to shape their present and future.

We call it “political ecology,” and with this approach we can simultaneously improve lives and undermine the appeal of violent extremist groups.

Crucial to this approach is also understanding how illicit funds flow around an economy, both within a country and across borders; how power brokers depend on and manipulate instability and corruption for greater influence; and which actors have a real interest in reforms. This knowledge can help identify and interdict sources of income for violent extremist groups while sustainably rebuilding local economies.

A human-centered approach

While there is a common thread of misogyny in the narrative and behavior of violent extremist groups, women’s roles are not homogenous or predetermined to victimhood. On one hand, Boko Haram have used women as suicide bombers and al Shabaab as sources of intelligence, but on the other hand, women form the backbone of many peacebuilding and victim support efforts, and are the engine of cross-border trafficking in many areas.

This very diversity makes it more important to ensure that both women and men are fully involved in our work, from analysis to implementation to evaluation. Ultimately, where does the study address our collective approach to human security, to people-centred development, justice and peace?

These conflicts, and all the atrocities committed by these groups, leave deep scars, and the trauma is long-lasting. Even in contexts unaffected by war, political conflict or pervasive violent extremism, we are beginning to understand the costs of recent lockdowns and isolation during the covid-19 pandemic, in mental health and alienation.

In conflict areas, the depth of trauma needs much more research, but we know it is serious. And people deal with it in ways that can lead to further violence, at personal, family and community levels. Unfortunately, it often helps maintain cycles of conflict.

So if we are to address these historic, multigenerational grievances that violent extremists can prey on, while working to heal their ongoing grief, we must expand our capacity to provide the mental health and psychosocial support that individuals and communities need.

And if we can do that, we can demonstrate in action the positive alternatives to hatred and violence that these groups peddle.

Development first

A new approach is needed – one that first invests in understanding and complex ways in which these violent extremist groups win the hearts and minds of diverse communities, and act as alternatives to state authority.

With this knowledge, we can work together with national and local authorities to ensure a developmental, preventive, inclusive approach where people have access to the rights, goods and services they need to lead prosperous lives, thereby removing the power that these groups have. Instead of helping people cope; moving forward, with hope and dignity, should be the goal.

Through this approach, we can improve the lives of citizens and communities across the region and reverse the tide of violence and despair. The challenge remains complex and urgent, and our collective responses must be overcome by being more informed, adaptive, innovative and inclusive to promote and sustain development and peace.

Noura Hamladji is Deputy Regional Director, Regional Office for Africa;
Samuel Rizk is head of conflict prevention, peacebuilding and responsive institutions, UNDP

To learn more, visit UNDP: Preventing Violent Extremism website.

Note: The research study was prepared in a process led by the UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa (RBA) and the Crisis Bureau (CB) Team Conflict Prevention, Peacebuilding and Responsive Institutions (CPPRI)/Prevention of Violent Extremism (PVE). The study paper was developed by lead researcher Peter Rundell and co-researchers Olivia Lazard and Emad Badi, under the editorial direction of Noura Hamladji and Samuel Rizk, and coordination by Nika Saeedi and Nirina Kiplagat.

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