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PSC Interview: Not all young people in jihadist groups are 'radicalised youth'
12 July 2017

The crisis in the Sahel has become one of the focus areas of the African Union (AU) and regional organisations. The recent launch of the G5 Sahel Joint Force has created some optimism that the fight against jihadist armed groups in the region may finally be won. The Institute for Security Studies’ (ISS) Dakar office director Lori-Anne Théroux-Bénoni told the PSC Report that violent extremism has complex root causes that policymakers should take into account.

You have done extensive research on violent extremism and radicalisation among the youth in Mali. What are the main causes of this radicalisation?

One of the most important conclusions of this work is that radicalisation might be a misnomer. The team of 17 researchers that collected testimony from 76 young people who have been involved with Malian ‘jihadist’ groups – AQIM [al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], Katiba Macina, MUJWA [Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa], etc. – rarely met radicalised youth, in the sense that their participation in such groups was the result of a religious indoctrination process. This led the team conducting this ISS project to conclude that it was more appropriate to seek to understand the youth’s association with violent extremist groups instead of assuming an alleged ‘radicalisation’.

Contrary to popular conception, many don’t join primarily for religious reasons or money. We have identified more than 16 categories of factors leading to youth involvement. Some of the factors are linked to a need for protection (of oneself, one’s family or community) or to economic reasons, including the need to protect an income-generating activity (cattle herding, drug trafficking, etc.). There are also individual, psychological, historical and political reasons. Others are linked to coercion or the environment. The report that summarises these findings is titled ‘Mali’s young jihadists: fuelled by faith or circumstance?’. The results of this project challenge preconceived ideas about the reasons why young people join extremist groups.

Is there sufficient recognition of these root causes?

There needs to be more understanding of the factors that lead to youth radicalisation
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Not only are there multiple factors and dynamics but they usually also overlap and vary from one person, group, locality and time to another. Moreover, the reasons why an individual joins a group are not necessarily the same as those that make him decide to remain in or leave the group. There needs to be a more complex understanding of the multiplicity of factors that underlie youth involvement, instead of labelling all of them as unemployed and fanatical. Not just a theoretical understanding, but an understanding that informs policymaking, impacts strategy development and feeds into programme design.

Are the strategies and initiatives adopted by organisations such as the AU Mission in Mali and the Sahel (MISAHEL) on the right track?

Policy responses to ‘violent extremism’ tend to look for a global or regional strategy in the short to medium term. Meanwhile, depending on the opportunities available, the leadership of jihadist groups rely on immediate local realities to recruit while rooting their ultimate goals in a long-term logic. They also wield a global rhetoric that places their actions at an international level. Such differences in approach and scale are a challenge to the national, regional and international strategies and initiatives of all actors, including AU MISAHEL.

It appears, however, that there is a growing understanding of the importance of local and even micro-local contexts in preventing and countering recruitment by violent extremist groups, in addition to the need for action – and not only military action – that targets the leadership of these groups. One example is the series of colloquiums that MISAHEL organises, in collaboration with the G5 Sahel, across Sahelian countries and which aims at developing a reference framework to guide countries that are developing their PCVE [preventing and countering violent extremism] national strategies or action plans. Identifying lessons learned from different countries is an important step in defining best practices.

How do you think the new G5 Sahel Joint Force will be received on the ground in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger?

The situation in these three countries, and lately especially at their common borders, remains a matter of concern. It is characterised by a climate of insecurity exacerbated by armed groups linked (in some cases) to AQIM. As a result, many schools are closed and development actions are suspended in several areas. There is no doubt that the population is looking forward to an improvement in the security situation.

There are legitimate apprehensions about the deployment of the G5 Sahel force
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But there are also legitimate apprehensions about the deployment of the G5 Sahel force, such as the risk of being wrongly accused of being a terrorist, and the reality is that many communities also benefit from the illicit activities that this force is trying to curb. We have documented cases in which perceived abuses by state actors, including their defence and security forces, are the very reason for certain individuals’ engagement with violent extremist groups.

This is an important challenge to the force. Hence the need to place respect for human rights at the heart of military involvement. Not just on paper in the concept of operations, but also in the daily operations to be conducted by this force.

You have also embarked on research about women in jihadist movements in the Sahel. Are there any preliminary findings?

We are still in the mobilisation phase for this new follow-up project to the research referred to previously, which was funded by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada and the government of the Netherlands. It’s important to obtain the necessary authorisation and put in place proper ethics protocols and psychological support for both the researchers and the interlocutors of the research team.

Women and girls are mainly perceived as victims of the armed jihadist groups. Nevertheless, discussions with previously involved male youths in last year’s research about their presence, role and factors of engagement in armed jihadist groups confirm that, while women can be victims, they also act as informants, cooks or laundresses. The discussions also pointed to a variety of potential roles for women (as mother, sisters, spouses) in both supporting engagement and creating the conditions for disengagement.

Such preliminary data stresses the importance of taking gender into account in psycho-socio-economic reintegration programmes, so that the specific needs of these women and girls are considered. It also points to the necessity of understanding women’s and girls’ roles better, especially when designing preventive measures against violent extremism. These are some of the issues that we will explore in this new 3-year project that will also be supported by IDRC.

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