14 September 2017: Are there common elements to different violent extremist groups? Christine Mutisya looks at key factors that lead people to conflict and what steps could be taken to counter violent extremism.

 Former Al-Shabaab fighters after handing themselves in in Somalia Image credit: AMISOM Public Information.

In my analysis of extremist groups, all fight for a certain cause. Two questions then remain: what are they fighting for, and to what extreme would they fight for it?
Psychologists claim that genetics and the environment determines one’s extent in engaging in violent behaviour. Those who have the genetic predisposition and are exposed to the ‘right’ environment have a higher chance of engaging in violent behaviour.

In my analysis of extremist groups, all fight for a certain cause. Each of us has a strong opinion about an issue and are willing to fight for it. Two questions then remain: What are you willing to fight for? And to what extreme would you fight for it?

Similarities among extremist groups

Recruits are frustrated because their governance, social, or political concerns have not been fully addressed by the legally mandated entity.

Leaders of extremist groups are highly opinionated and passionate and most, if not all, have lost faith in governing authorities. This is most often due to human rights violations against their communities which have sprung from either sectarian war, poor governance, an unstable political environment or unfavourable global and foreign policies.

They do not shy away from expressing their opinions, regardless of the cost. Backed with their strong willpower, these leaders form a group with an ideology or aim to stop this suffering. A strong following equals greater power, and the perks of uncontrolled power turn these sects into extremist groups that inflict similar sufferings on others.

For example, in Kenya, the Mombasa Republican Council was formed due to historical injustice and land grievances – their aim was to split the coastal region from the rest of Kenya. While in Somalia, Al Shabaab was formed after the Islamic Courts Union (made of extremists and moderates) which had created civil order during the war was disbanded after the war. The militants formed Al Shabaab with the aim of creating an Islamic state.

Digging deeper, you find that the root cause of such groups is often poor governance – mainly political power. Each of these groups arises because they are fighting to gain control of resources they believe have been mismanaged by the ruling power and they believe they can do a better job. Another cause is human rights injustice carried out by those in power. Such groups then take it upon themselves to restore law and order as well as protect the community from these abuses. Unfortunately, such groups use tactics leading to further human rights abuse.

Similarly, followers of extremist groups have often experienced human rights violations against themselves family or their community. To seek redress, they air their grievances to the authorities. Depending on how they are handled – sometimes imprisoned and punished – they can decide to join a group that understands them and offers a way get ‘justice’.

Extremist groups offer a sense of belonging and purpose

To achieve their goals, violent extremist groups understand human relations and take advantage of social aspects. They portray their group as one, with a sense of belonging and purpose. Due to frustrations with the dominating system, recruits feel a need of belonging and purpose which the group offers. The group identifies with the frustration and injustice faced by the recruits.

Violent extremism is an ideology which engages through a network or organisation

In order to effectively implement violent extremism, a network is needed to put its ideology into action. Violent extremist groups have networks consisting of communications, logistics and recruitment aspects which often makes them successful.

How to counter violent extremism

Locally led peacebuilding is more effective at countering violent extremism since organisations work directly with local communities.

Provide a first and ideal alternative 

All the recruits and founders of extremist groups had alternatives. Prior to joining the groups, they sought other options to deal with the issues they face which did not produce the expected results. Therefore, the public and private sector, as well as civil society, need to provide an alternative such that violent extremism no longer becomes an appealing option. This ideal alternative should also take into consideration social aspects and offer a sense of belonging and purpose in life for those at risk.

Locally led peacebuilding is more effective at countering violent extremism since organisations work directly with local communities. Areas they could specifically focus on include:

  1. Women led support groups. It is mothers who notice a change in the behaviour of their children and therefore sensitising women on what to look for, and where and how they can assist their children who are on the path towards radicalisation. The mothers who have been affected need also psycho social support.
  2. Youth are at particular risk of being recruited into extremist groups so local peacebuilding organisations should focus on this target group during programming. Empowering youth with employability and entrepreneurial skills in order for them to gain a livelihood and connect to markets, empowering youth to find ways to counter violent extremism, and offering a network where youth feel a sense of belonging and a purpose in life are some of the areas local organisations could focus on.

Use education to counter & replace extremist ideology

Extremism is an ideology, and to fight an ideology another ideology is needed to replace the existing one. This is best done through education. As most terrorist groups pledge allegiance to a certain religious institution, religious leaders are in better position to provide religious narratives that overcome the current distorted ideology. In order to achieve this, regulation of religious institutions and places of worship need to be standardised across the world. In schools, children as early as three years need to be taught to accept religious and political differences without prejudice and violence.

Use existing networks

As stated, violent extremism operates within a network that we all use to conduct our daily activities. Leveraging these platforms, such as technology, media and the arts to send a counter narrative or alternative narrative is more effective than blocking them.

Cut the source

It is easy to turn a blind eye to the origin of financial and other resources necessary for violent acts. Although this may be the hardest of all the initiatives, a need to find a way to stop the flow of these resource to the wrong hands to minimise their power remains crucial. Groups funded by states, organisations, individuals who are known should be put under pressure by the international community so they can come to a consensus to stop the growth of such groups.



chris copsey on Sept. 18, 2017, 7:42 a.m.

Surely the first approach in 'Education' would be a secular approach informing children that religion is a personal, private belief that has no place in the governance of any State.

Ignatius Madlunga Ncube on Sept. 26, 2017, 8:24 a.m.

Following the crafting of colonial boundaries that forcefully bunched into a unitary nation-states hitherto alienated and competing ethnic states; the wake of the colonial state has left its successor rulers with characteristic hot beds of tension of essentially fragmenting and volatile nations. Turning a blind eye on the truth and lack of courage to either return to or revive pre-colonial boundaries and states by successor leaders of formerly colonised states has served to prolong the mistakes and pain of 19th century imperialist machinations that were not in the first place intended to serve the best interests of the colonised victim societies. Most of Europe's countries/nation-state are founded on tribes (e.g. Portugal, France, Germany-Austria, Italy, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Netherlands/Holland, Poland, Greece, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Albania, except for Spain and Britain that are still contending with Catalonia/Basque region and Scotland sticking out as sore thumbs bent on struggles for break-away and separate autonomy). European history is replete with experiences of bloody wars that followed the break-up of the Roman Empire inter alia the attacks/invasions and subsequent conquests by Barbarians and Vandals (the Angles, Saxons, Hans, Goths, etc.) Wars of the Roses, Napoleonic Wars, unification wars for Germany and Italy, the First World War and Second World War. My assertion is that if tribal-based nation-states have served Europeans to enjoy a semblance of long periods of peace; other parts of the world (Latin America, Asia and Africa) could take a leaf and get sober to resist and the harvest of thorns and conflict-ridden product of European imperialism and its successor movements of blind nationalism. I contend that so long as nations are made up of the so-called politically-privileged and ruling tribal majorities that derive pleasure in exploiting tribal minorities (whose cultures also suffer repression) there will always be room for "rebel movements and extremism" in the contemporary world. Notions of majority ethnic groups and minority ethnic groups bound within common territorial frontiers are rich breeding grounds for "latent and intermittent struggles for independence by the oppressed" across the world. All religions should be placed on the same level platform of equality, just like races and languages. Failure is inevitable to all those cultures that covertly survive on lording over others. This is my hard but most realistic option for ending violent extremism all around us.

Ignatius Madlunga Ncube on Sept. 26, 2017, 8:37 a.m.

Local communities, who themselves are long-suffering victims of marginalization and a culture of silence, perpetrated and imposed on them by cosmopolitan urbanites and Western-educated elites have always longed with nostalgia for the return to normalcy, natural freedom and sustainable peace all of which were lost to modernization.

Franklin Murianki on Oct. 29, 2017, 6:39 p.m.

Understanding extremism is extremely complex on its own.It is never a case of right or wrong or them versus us. The truth is that the United States has apearheadind more than 100 coup de tats around the world since the1960.The US has overthrown legitimate leaders and have installed puppets who so not care for Human rights and the US has assisted these rogue presidents with weaponry,trained police and militia. The war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq have left millions of innocent human biengs dead and touchered,therefore these elements look for a protector to fight for their rights and these are caller Terrorists. The twin bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima is a clear proof that the US is a terrorist state...Is it always fare in love and war? Great article Christine

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