EIP interview with Mahdi Abdile about how to stop people from joining terrorist organisations. Mahdi Abdile is Finn Church Aid’s Regional Representative for East and Southern Africa. He works on diaspora involvement in peacebuilding. He is also the co- author of a paper on 'Radicalisation and al-Shabaab recruitment in Somalia'. We met Mahdi to talk about his research on al-Shabaab but also to learn more about how terrorist groups use social media to recruit foreign fighters - and why people are attracted to join extremist groups in the first place.
Why do people join terrorist organisations?
People join extremists organisations for quite a number of reasons. Some - especially those locally recruited - mostly join for economic benefits. -In fact, the research we conducted in Somalia showed that 27% of respondents joined al Shabab for economic reasons. 15% mentioned religious reasons - and 13% were forced to join. We found that there is no easy answer to why people join terrorist organisations. It's a complex picture, we have to take into account processes linked to political and social exclusion dynamics, poor governance structures as well as religious and ethnic discrimination.
It is one thing to join such a group - but once you realised where you ended up; what are the reasons that makes you stay?
The reasons for staying are as diverse as for joining the organisation. We found that the feeling of 'belonging' (21%) is really important. Some 11% felt a sense of responsibility. However, fear and economic dependence are also factors to reckon with.
In Somalia your study shows a large proportion of recruits join for economic reasons. What more can be done to deliver economic opportunities to disaffected youth?
Job opportunities and skill trainings are key to delivering economic opportunities to vulnerable and disaffected youth groups but that alone would not prevent young people from joining extremists groups. The root causes in Somalia also include foreign involvement, most notably of non-Muslim countries. This again shows that the root causes of terrorism are diverse and very complex. As such there is no single typology to describe it. However, as mentioned earlier, the main causes of radicalisation and terrorism are mostly socio-economic. The absence of social, political and economic opportunities are a huge problem in many of the countries in which terrorist groups are active. The lack of social, political and economic opportunities can lead to alienation, frustrations, humiliation and hopelessness. Additionally, conflicts and failed states create safe havens for extremist groups allowing groups such as ISIS and al Shabab to thrive and maintain their relevance.
What role does religion play in the process of radicalisation?
Religion and Islam in particular is used by recruiters, foreign fighters and extremists to recruit, fight and justify their actions. So yes, religion does plays an important role. A study conducted by Dr Anneli Botha at the Institute for Security studies (ISS) shows that 87% of respondents gave religion as the reason why they joined al Shabab. But I think religion could could also be used as a de-radicalisation tool if we manage to create counter-narratives based on religious traditions.
Let's talk about the European dimension of radicalisation. Why do people - who live a comfortable life in Europe – join terrorist organisations to fight in wars they presumably know little of?
This is very difficult question to answer because there is no simple answer to it. If we look at the biographies of those who left Europe and North America to join extremist groups, we see that humanitarian considerations play a role. Here, pictures of human suffering in places like Syria have an effect but also the tendency to blame the west for not doing enough. The second important point to consider are personal grievances. Most young people that leave Europe to fight for a extremist group are angry, alienated and frustrated young men, mostly under 22 years of age. They are ideologically committed to the cause and have embarked on a new life while totally rejecting their previous one.
What can be done in Europe to prevent individuals from leaving to become foreign fighters?
Prevention has three dimensions: The first one is to prevent foreign fighters from leaving. However, stopping them from leaving will require us to understand the reasons that lead these individuals to become foreign fighters and radicalised. The second thing to is to work with Muslim communities at a local level. Without the involvement and leadership of those communities it will be impossible to develop effective prevention and reintegration strategies. We also need to encourage law enforcement, governments and Muslim communities to work together. At the moment, law enforcement agencies and Muslim communities often do not trust each other and their mutual suspicion is preventing much needed collaboration. Wherever you go in Europe this mutual mistrust is a daily reality. Thirdly, it’s absolutely important to identify recruiters and their financiers. The fact that so many foreign fighters are leaving Europe indicates the presence of a substantial number of rather professional recruiters. Recruiting individuals and sending them to the battle fields of Syria, Somalia or Iraq requires unique knowledge, long term planning and solid organisational skills. We are not dealing with misguided individuals but with sophisticated networks that work across international borders.
How important is social media for recruiters who work for extremist groups?
Without social media al Shabab, ISIS and other extremists would have been forced to use traditional ways for recruitment. And I think it is fair to say that traditional methods would not have resulted in such a high number of new recruits. Recruiters are dependent on social media. They use it to recruit, fundraise and disseminate propaganda. For example, on social media you can talk to recruiters to get personalised clarifications on ideology. They use social media to answer all sorts of questions. This is important to understand as it can give you the needed justifications to abandon everything and start a new life in an extremist group. Recruiters also help with practical things such as buying tickets and preparing the trip. Social media is key for those groups.
When foreign fighters return to Europe should they be treated as criminals or do we need to think more about rehabilitation?
There isn’t one size fit all model in this case. This is because European policies, justice system and governing style differs in most of European countries. There are several approaches across Europe. Some countries use the criminal justice system to severly punish returnees. These countries are on the one hand motivated by their desire to show they are doing something against extremists and foreign fighters who are returning. Harsh punishment is also used as a tool to deter would-be fighters while others see the action of foreign fighters as purely criminal in nature. The rehabilitation model is intended to reform and reintegrate returning fighters but the model is unpopular and it’s difficult to achieve full rehabilitation. Probably we need a clever mix of both models to deal with the problem.