New polling data indicate that it's unemployment, not religion, fueling extremist groups like Boko Haram.
- By Zuri LinetskyZuri Linetsky is a Truman Project national security fellow, a nonresident fellow at the Global Policy Center at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, and works in monitoring and evaluation for ORB International.
One of Donald Trump’s core campaign promises was to take the fight to terrorist groups around the world. His predecessor’s focus on “countering violent extremism,” Trump argued, was liberal, PC talk that obscured the true nature of the threat. “Anyone who cannot name our enemy is not fit to lead this country,” he said in a campaign speech last September.
Almost immediately after taking office, his administration hinted that it would “revamp and rename” the existing approach to “countering radical Islamic extremism.” At the same time, the president proposed a dramatic increase in military spending, paid for in part by deep cuts to the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) budgets. America’s enemies are motivated by Islam, the new Trump strategy seems to assume, and the best way to fight them is with military might.
Both assumptions are dangerously wrong-headed. Take Nigeria, where Boko Haram is currently waging the third-deadliest insurgency in the world. The group may have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, but survey data collected in the three Nigerian states most affected by Boko Haram (Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe) show that Islam is not a major factor in motivating recruits. Unemployment, not religiosity, is the best predictor of support for the terrorist group. The presence of visible USAID programs, meanwhile, coincides with lower levels of support for Boko Haram.
Taken together, these findings suggest that diplomatic soft power — rather than the hard power emphasized in the early days of Trump’s presidency — is the key to weakening terrorist groups. In other words, slashing State Department and USAID spending to pay for military efforts to defeat the Islamic State and like-minded groups could have precisely the opposite effect.
In northern Nigeria, where more than 20,000 people have been killed and an estimated 2.6 million have been displaced in eight years of conflict, Islam does not appear to be the problem. In the three states where my colleagues at the polling agency ORB International and I conducted our survey, more than 70 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. But more than 83 percent of Muslims there said they were “somewhat” or “very” unsupportive of extremist groups. Ninety-six percent of Sunnis (and 97 percent of all Muslims) surveyed indicated that they had a “negative” or “very negative” view of violent extremists. (These previously unpublished data are based on a face-to-face survey of 3,910 people between December 2016 and January 2017 in areas of northeastern Nigeria that have been regularly attacked by Boko Haram.)
But if religious identification tells us little about whether an individual is likely to sympathize with extremists, employment status tells us a lot. Sixteen percent of unemployed respondents said they were “supportive” or “very supportive” of extremists, compared with just 7 percent of employed respondents. Unemployed people gravitated toward extremists regardless of their level of education: Forty-three percent with at least a primary school level of education reported being “somewhat” or “very” supportive of extremist groups, while 40 percent with less than a primary school level of education said the same.
The data from Yobe, Adamawa, and Borno indicate that support for Boko Haram is largely driven by a search for income and employment. When asked why people join Boko Haram, 58 percent of respondents cited money or a job as the primary reason. This is unsurprising, given that unemployment rates range between 42 and 74 percent in these three states. Indeed, financial concerns trumped concerns about terrorism in this region, even though Boko Haram has laid much of it to waste. When asked to identify their three most serious problems, survey respondents picked unemployment, rising prices, and corruption. Terrorism was ranked as the fourth-most serious problem.
Unemployment and poverty are not easily fixed by fighting an amorphous concept like “radical Islamic extremism.” But they can be addressed through development projects, job training, educational programing, and dispute resolution programs like those USAID and other development agencies have rolled out in northeastern Nigeria in recent years. While our data do not describe which of these initiatives are most effective (a follow-up comparison study to be conducted by ORB this fall will shed light on program effectiveness), they do indicate that visibility of USAID programming coincides with decreased levels of support for Boko Haram.
Residents of Borno were the most likely to say USAID programming was “somewhat” or “very visible” (36 percent said this) and the least likely to support extremist groups (7 percent expressed “some” or “a lot” of support for extremists). By contrast, USAID-funded programs were reported to be “somewhat” or “very visible” by only 21 percent of people in Adamawa, where 20 percent of residents reported “some” or “a lot” of support for extremist groups.
This is not a coincidence. USAID programs appear to boost people’s confidence in their government, which in turn seems to drive down support for extremist groups. Seventy-eight percent of people who said USAID-funded programs were “visible” or “very visible” reported being “confident” or “very confident” in Nigeria’s government. Of those who said they were confident in the government, 87 percent were unsupportive of extremist groups. The same was true of people who gave the government a “good” or “very good” evaluation: Eighty-six percent were unsupportive of extremist groups. (By comparison, 18 percent of people who gave the government a “very poor” evaluation were “somewhat” or “very” supportive of extremist groups.)
The visibility of USAID-funded programing — including job training, public school renovation, and police station repair — is also directly tied to positive views of the United States. Residents of Borno, where USAID program visibility is the highest, have the most positive views of the United States: More than 92 percent of respondents there viewed it “somewhat” or “very” positively.
All of this is compelling evidence that American soft power is having its intended effect. It is improving people’s lives, increasing government capacity, and contributing to a positive view of America. Most importantly, it is driving down support for violent extremism.
The Trump administration is right to target radical extremist organizations around the globe, because these organizations are responsible for horrifying levels of death and destruction. But how it goes about countering these groups matters a great deal. The United States cannot blindly chase a “radical Islamic” boogeyman, a fact that Trump’s own national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, seems to have acknowledged in private. Bombing campaigns like the one currently underway in Yemen — or the sale of arms to military partners like Nigeria — cannot by themselves defeat extremist groups or their ideologies.
The United States must address the problems that drive people into the arms of these groups in the first place. Doing that requires more — not less — funding for soft power emanating from the State Department, USAID, and nongovernmental organizations working to understand and counter extremist ideas. If you employ a future violent extremist now, chances are you won’t have to kill him later — and that’s true regardless of his religion.
Editor’s Note: This piece reflects the view of the author and not ORB International.
Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images