It will no doubt seem odd to many Westerners that ISIS-affiliated extremists could be considered as legitimate community leaders in the regions they previously terrorized. Such is the case, or will be the case, however, throughout vast swathes of Africa where radicalization has become commonplace, and where a lack of state legitimacy has led to a growing acceptance of radical beliefs.
Indeed, the presence and legacy of Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Kenya and Nigeria, and ISIS affiliated groups in Mozambique, will be felt in local politics for decades to come.
New firsthand accounts from young women who escaped forced marriages to extremist fighters tell of the immense indoctrinating processes that both women and men in the various groups go through. It consists primarily of radical interpretations of the Quran and a general glorification of tribal violence, but also includes some more formal combat training and jobs related skills that you might expect to find in any working-class neighborhood.
The women who most recently escaped are relatively few in number compared to the thousands that have been abducted in the last decade and forced into marriages with Islamist fighters. Many never get the opportunity to escape, but still more choose to remain, making a community of their captors. Similar accounts have come to light from the insurgent groups at work in the Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique, which tell of a technologically and socially sophisticated society made up of equal parts angry youth and disenfranchised members of the middle class.
A crisis of legitimacy in African nations brought about by endemic violence, poverty, and scarce resources, has granted legitimacy to those groups strong enough to take resources and defend their communities with brutal violence.
Add to this the fact that there is something of a revolving door between the leadership of regional terror cells and state security forces in many Sub-Saharan nations, and the problem of future African governance comes into clearer view.
Put simply, huge swathes of the population have been radicalized and attained some semblance of regional autonomy and legitimacy. This means that the ideologies associated with these groups, and the political communities they have created, will be near impossible to destroy without serious efforts being made to reintegrate and educate their masses with more socially and ethically stable groups
To begin that process, much more research is needed to understand how the driving factors of radicalization operate on individuals and small groups. The African Crime and Conflict Journal, for instance, highlights that social, economic, and political factors all play a role in the radicalization process, but says very little of how specifically, these large domains shape specific outcomes.
A recent report by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence does somewhat better. It found that most extremists first experience a life-altering moment in some way related to personal feelings of pessimism, inequality, or dislocation felt in response to local or global phenomena such as a corrupt government. It also found that the deeper these feeling were held the greater the long-term threat to global stability by radicalization will become, as individuals will increasingly abandon distrusted institutions for solidified identity groups based on simple political, religious, or racial affiliation.
Those African nations currently under siege by well-coordinated and established extremist groups will likely then enter an uptick in successful “conversions” as their legitimacy continues to be augmented by the failing nature of the governments they are rebelling against. And it is quite possible that the near future will see today’s insurgents become tomorrow’s state security forces.
With this in mind, the sheer extent of African radicalization in temporal, geographic, and populational terms necessitates a cross-cultural examination of how radicalization occurs and what means are most effective in deradicalizing and integrating former extremists.
To this end, a recent report by the RAND Corporation may offer some first steps forward for African nations suffering under the weight of extremist violence.
Titled, “Violent Extremism in America: Interviews with Former Extremists and Their Families on Radicalization and Deradicalization,” the report used multiple interviews with recovered extremists to assess how financial instability, victimization, stigmatization, and marginalization contributed to the radicalization process, and how individuals came back from the brink of terror.
The report highlighted a general trend in which individuals went through a traumatic “reorienting event,” much like aforementioned conversion moment, in which their previously held world views were drastically altered in such a way as to lead to their adopting of a new group-based identity.
Once this initial process was complete, the report found, members of identity-based extremist groups would convince one another to carry out increasingly violent acts while simultaneously limiting the information available to the now-indoctrinated.
“The enduring appeal of extremist groups seems to lie in attending to fundamental human needs,” the report said. “Social bonds, love and acceptance, and having a life purpose sometimes go unmet for some people, leaving them prone to become involved with extremist views and groups.”
In other words, when placed in a situation without an apparent legitimate hierarchy or community, individuals seek such out in extremists factions who promise, and frequently deliver, group-building activities in the form of violence.
“Radical ideology and involvement in extremist activities have addictive properties for many,” the report continues. “Physical violence and trading insults online have addictive properties that appear linked to the experience of joint risk and struggle.”
More simply, as has already been clearly seen in Africa, extremist groups are increasingly appealing to biological human needs for tribe, belonging, and role-based community relations. It is this fact that makes radicalization so terrifying in the long-term.
For this reason, groups such as the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats have initiated a number of deradicalization programs to better address the ideological, social, and personal issues that lead people to become radicalized and to better support individuals in moving away from violent extremist groups. It is a new effort, but one worth the investment for the thousands displaced or absorbed by radicalization throughout southern Africa.
The path towards deradicalization will be contentious because it will require state forces to not become extremely embittered themselves against their enemy. It will also be long, as counter-radicalization is a very new policy area, with many avenues of research waiting to be explored. It will take years, even decades, to successfully reintegrate the fractured societies of Mozambique, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and elsewhere.
They are necessary decades, however, because the only other option is a war of annihilation between factions equally incapable of securing the moral high ground.
Written by Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke is a journalist covering issues pertaining to international defense and security. He is the executive editor of The Rearguard and a columnist at DecipherGrey.
Photograph: Tobin Jones|Zuma Press|Newscom