-If you want to know more about how Western intervention in the Middle East and the political dynamics within the region have affected the surge of ISIS, check out the first and second parts of the series!-
The only fact about the Islamic State’s recruits’ profile most researchers agree on is that there isn’t one universal profile. Predominantly males younger than 30, recruits come from the most diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Consequently, since the possible combinations of mindset and personal circumstances are countless, the motivations to join the group are too. As David Sterman writes for TIME Ideas, this heterogeneity calls for a more case-specific analysis, as some arguments may explain some of the recruits’ stories but not all of them at once.
Any consideration of socio-economic factors to explain violent actions (especially such barbaric ones) requires a distinction between explanation and justification, between an examination of potential causes and what former British PM David Cameron calls “the grievance justification”. Citing personal conditions as reasons that draw people to terrorism doesn’t automatically retire the blame from the perpetrators, but it does give us a hint to understand what the most successful recruitment lures are and learn to counteract them. Obtaining the sharpest picture of the roots and context of the problem is crucial to devise a comprehensive strategy.
The role of poverty and inequality as a driver for radicalization has inspired a controversial discussion. French economist Thomas Piketty may be the loudest voice defending that the concentration of wealth in a small elite, which makes the Middle East “the most unequal region on the planet”, has turned the area into a “powder keg for terrorists”, but he’s certainly not the only one. Just February this year, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to prevent violent extremism based on the premise that the frustration that derives from extreme poverty furthers the appeal of terrorist organizations.
Syria and Iraq presented high rates of poverty before the current crisis. The Syrian Arab Republic scored 35.2% in 2007 in the Poverty headcount ratio at national poverty lines, according to the World Bank, and Iraq scored 22.4%. The UN-backed report “Syria: Alienation and Violence”determined that by 2014 extreme poverty in the country had escalated to 64.7%. In Iraq, in 2012 the World Bank situated the ratio at 18.9%. In terms of inequality, however, the statistics may debunk Piketty’s theory. While his study explores inequalities between Middle Eastern countries, Syria’s and Iraq’s results in the Gini Index (that measures inequality in living standards amongst their population), are relatively low, amounting to 35.78 and 29.54 respectively (Syria’s is from 2004, Iraq’s from 2012). Most OECD countries have similar measures, and some are significantly less egalitarian (US, Mexico).
Although his Administration has been criticized for establishing links between lack of economic opportunities and terrorism, President Obama admitted in a speech in February 2015 that “Poverty alone does not cause a person to become a terrorist, any more than poverty alone causes somebody to become a criminal. There are millions of people — billions of people — in the world who live in abject poverty and are focused on what they can do to build up their own lives, and never embrace violent ideologies. ” Economist Alan Krueger (Former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under Obama’s leadership) studied data of several terror organizations and reached a tacit conclusion: “Once civil liberties are taken into account, a country’s income level is unrelated to the number of terrorists who originate from that country”. Professor James A. Piazza’s 2006 study corroborates his argument. This perspective, that seemingly contradicts Piketty’s, coincides with his in that it pre-assumes that terrorists are a uniform group of like-minded people. If we accept that ISIS is rather a melting pot with members of all characteristics, could we say that both views are on to something?
In an article for The Nation, Lydia Wilson, research fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, recounts her interview with an imprisoned ISIS militant in Kirkuk (Northern Iraq). His account, constantly repeated throughout her research interviews, describes how losing his job made him resort to working for ISIS to provide for his huge family. The 2016 Arab Youth Survey found that the region’s youth sees lack of employment opportunities as the main reason why people join the Islamic State. This perception doesn’t come as a surprise, given the exorbitant youth unemployment in their countries. In the period from 1991 to 2014, Iraq’s lowest youth unemployment rate was 32.3%. Syria’s was always 10-20 points lower (still excessive), until it skyrocketed to 33.7% in 2011, remaining in the 30s ever since. Studies that take into account unemployment in the younger segments of the population (such as Caruso and Schneider’s or this Master’s thesis) generally show a higher correlation with terrorist activity than those who use total unemployment figures.
Looking at the countries that export more foreign fighters per capita to the Islamic State, we observe the same tendency. Belgium and Tunisia top the list of outside source countries. As we can see in the graphic above, Belgium is one of the European countries with tougher barriers to the labour market for non-EU nationals. According to the Gatestone Institute, in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek (the center of Belgian jihadism) the unemployment rate hovers around 40 per cent. Tunisia, frequently lauded as “the Arab Spring success story”, has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the Maghreb (32.7% in 2014), just behind war-torn Libya.
Contrary to widespread belief, the region’s educational level may have little to do with the emergence of ISIS. First, as we can see in the maps below, while Iraq and Syria’s adult literacy rate is nothing to shout about, their youth literacy rates are not very alarming. Second, the 2015 Global Terrorism Index finds no correlation between school enrollment rates and participation in acts of terror in OECD and non-OECD countries alike. Finally, a leak of ISIS’ fighters database revealed that most of them had completed secondary education, and many had attended university. The same documents showcased that a majority of the jihadists (70%, according to The Independent) declared their level of religious knowledge was “basic”, which may suggest that better religious education may undermine the organization’s combatant pipeline. Nevertheless, Andrew Lebovich contextualizes this information in a report for The Brookings Institution, clarifying that mastery of Shariah is almost exclusive to Islam’s religious scholars, just as expertise in our national legislations is only expected of jurists (which doesn’t mean the rest of the population is completely oblivious of the law). AP’s analysis makes a different interpretation, comparing the information on the documents with ex fighters’ testimonies, and taking the fact that some of the foreign recruits ordered the books “Koran for Dummies” or “Islam for Dummies” to prepare for the trip to mean that their religious believes had no relation with their decision to join.
The agricultural crisis is just the tip of the iceberg that is state collapse in Iraq and Syria. Water scarcity, desertification and the drastic diminution of state subsidies, together with war and the presence of the Islamic State, have displaced many farmer’s families, created a food security problem, and wrecked a sector that employs large portions of their populations. The volatility of oil prices, and pressures from rentiers and external actors propelled in the early 2000s both countries’ rapid conversion to a market economy. In Syria, the reform followed Bashar al-Assad’s investiture; in Iraq, the 2003 war. The abrupt shift from socialist-inspired, populist measures to economic liberalization and fiscal austerity provoked a debacle, as the governments’ mismanagement neglected the provision of public services. As Iraq’s former minister of agriculture, Dr. Abdul Amir Al-Aboud, points out in his memoir, it wasn’t necessarily the system that was wrong, it was the haste to implement it.
Iraqi Sunni politician Adnan Pachachi describes for The International New York Times’ blog “At War” the illusion and posterior resentment that most Iraqis felt in the aftermath of the Second Gulf War, as they hoped that American guidance would enable a prosperous reconstruction of their state. Similarly, the excitement and dismay generated by the transition to a free market model help push forward the Islamic State’s narrative of Western treason. This bitterness should not be overlooked.
The concept of relative deprivation builds a more nuanced logic to better fathom the diversity and allure of the Islamic state. As Dr. Ömer Taşpınar puts it in an article for the Huffington Post “ideology becomes more important when socioeconomic aspirations are on the rise but remain somehow unfulfilled”. He argues that this is the case not only of these countries and their nationals, but also of Islam as a whole, a civilization once at the forefront of cultural and political development that now feels humiliated and oppressed by the West, but does not let go of its pride.
That is both the appeal and the curse of the Islamic State. It offers its supporters what they wish for: the dream of a nation-state where they can be whomever they want, and a quest that gives their life significance. All through history people have justified some brutal means for the promise of a worthy tomorrow when they would no longer need to use them.
A. Al-Aboud. Iraq: A Minister’s Memoir: https://books.google.es/books?id=_27GBwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&hl=es&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
Arab Youth Survey: http://www.arabyouthsurvey.com/en/home
Carnegie Mellon University Research Showcase: http://repository.cmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1268&context=hsshonors
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/60467
European Journal of Political Economy: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.721.5940&rep=rep1&type=pdf
The Economic Research Forum: https://3drepw14r81maeu421dqauozkd-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/AlvaredoPiketty2014ERF.pdf
Gatestone Institute: https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/7677/belgium-jihadists
Georgetown University Master of Public Policy: https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/bitstream/handle/10822/709858/Flowers_georgetown_0076M_12527.pdf?sequence=1
International Business Times: http://www.ibtimes.com/why-do-people-join-isis-psychology-terrorist-1680444
The International New York Times: http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/04/the-road-to-failure-in-iraq/
Journal of Economic Perspectives: https://3drepw14r81maeu421dqauozkd-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/kruger_mal.pdf
Middle east policy Council: http://www.mepc.org/journal/middle-east-policy-archives/political-economy-syria
Our World in Data: https://ourworldindata.org/literacy/
Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty: http://www.rferl.org/contentinfographics/foreign-fighters-syria-iraq-is-isis-isil-infographic/26584940.html
Syrian Centre for Policy Research : https://3drepw14r81maeu421dqauozkd-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/alienation_and_violence_impact_of_the_syria_crisis_in_2014_eng.pdf
Terrorism and Political Violence: https://3drepw14r81maeu421dqauozkd-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/piazza_2006_poverty_terrorism_and_eco_dev-1.pdf
UK Government: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/extremism-pm-speech
United Nations Meetings Coverage & Press Releases: http://www.un.org/press/en/2015/ga11761.doc.htm
World DataBank Poverty and Equity Database: http://databank.worldbank.org/data/reports.aspx?source=poverty-and-equity-database