In this blog series leading up to the World Humanitarian Summit, UNDP experts and practitioners share their experiences and views on responding to conflict and disasters.
Last April, Mohamed, a carpenter in a fishing town along Kenya’s coast, saw a photograph of Suleiman, the second of his five sons, on the evening news. The 24-year-old was among six young men declared dangerous members of al-Shabab, with a bounty on their heads.
Less than a year later, Suleiman was among four al-Shabab suspects killed in a reported shootout with the police.
Suleiman’s father says that growing up, his son was respectful, dynamic, and refused to accept that the circumstances of his birth should condemn him to a life of poverty. The entire family saw Suleiman as their way to a better life.
To meet their high expectations, Suleiman concluded he had to leave not only his town, but also Kenya. He planned to become a driver in Saudi Arabia. But to get there, he needed money to pay agents to organize his trip.
So at 17, Suleiman quit school to work as a labourer, changing tires and loading cargo. A year later, despite having the fee, the agent told him he had to be 22 for the Saudi Arabia job. Deflated but undeterred, Suleiman returned to school and graduated, joining an assembly line of educated but unemployed youth.
At the same time, Suleiman came under the additional societal pressure of marriage, which marks the transition from childhood to adulthood in his Swahili culture. Weddings last several days and involve elaborate preparations – a costly affair beyond the reach of the unemployed Suleiman.
So at 22, Suleiman was already a veteran in personal setbacks, but still believed his condition was not permanent. He moved south to Mombasa to find opportunities. This is where, his father says, Suleiman’s shortcomings were given political and religious meaning.
At the time, Mombasa was becoming a center of radical preaching, weaving global events into a compelling narrative of a global conspiracy against Muslims. This storyline gripped the imagination of many young Muslims eager to explain their deprivation and seeking a sense of purpose. Radical Muslim scholars were constructing a new morality where neighbors become enemies and killing the innocent is a virtue.
Why would Suleiman join a violent extremist group, take up arms against his own country, and be ready to kill civilians?
Without minimizing individual agency and susceptibility to manipulation, it is fair to say that socioeconomic factors play a combustive role in the growth of violent extremism.
Exclusion, injustice, poor governance, and unemployment create fertile ground for violent extremism. It is not mere coincidence that the most deprived regions produce a disproportionate number of recruits.
Violent extremism poses the single biggest threat to Africa’s steady journey to prosperity. According to UNDP, it has resulted in more than 33,000 Africans killed in the past five years and more than 1.2 million displaced.
In such contexts, sustainable development becomes near impossible, and past gains made over many years risk being swiftly wiped out.
The poor bear the brunt of the violence. Extremists target public spaces such as markets and bus stations, forcing people to make a difficult choice between risking death by going to work and risking the economic survival of their families.
The international community’s response has largely been a security-based approach, with little impact on reducing the growth of violent extremism and, in some cases, exacerbating the very problem it seeks to address.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s recently launched Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism calls for concerted international action ranging from addressing underlying causes of extremism to improving security measures, institutions, and respect for human rights.
Ultimately, the lessons of more than a decade of responding to violent extremism tell us that it is time for a new way of thinking if we are to halt and reverse the march of extremism not only in Africa, but globally.
Suleiman’s story gives us clues about what pushes young people to extremism. Perhaps, had Suleiman been able to realize his goals for a better life for himself and his family, he may not have sought meaning in fanaticism.