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The Fight Against Terror Needs Better Data

The case of Tunisia shows that the anger of disappointed middle-class youths is driving radicalization more than poverty or unemployment.

Tourists and Tunisians take part in a ceremony on July 3, 2015, in memory of those killed the previous week by a jihadist gunman in front of the Riu Imperial Marhaba Hotel, on the outskirts of Sousse south of the capital Tunis. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)
Tourists and Tunisians take part in a ceremony on July 3, 2015, in memory of those killed the previous week by a jihadist gunman in front of the Riu Imperial Marhaba Hotel, on the outskirts of Sousse south of the capital Tunis. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

Terrorist attacks are becoming commonplace across the world. In recent years, attacks have wreaked havoc in iconic tourist destinations such as Paris and Barcelona and have routinely devastated communities in cities such as Kabul and Baghdad.

Clearly, current methods of intervention are failing to prevent young extremists from joining radical groups. As the war in Syria winds down, it is imperative that policymakers shape their counter-radicalization efforts through data-driven and geographically targeted strategies to prevent a future exodus of young people seeking to join the Islamic State or extremist groups in other lawless regions.

Terrorist attacks have risen sharply in the past decade. According to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, while annual terrorism attacks numbered under 3,000 between the 1970s and 2000s, since 2010 they have shot up to more than 10,000 annually on average.

This increase has gone hand in hand with the rise of prominent violent extremist groups, such as the Islamic State, Boko Haram, and al Qaeda, all of which have taken advantage of fragile states and power vacuums.

As governments and international organizations try to stem the increasing surge in terrorism, they are faced with the key question of how to stop people—almost exclusively young men—from joining extremist groups in the first place.

Addressing the scourge of terrorism will undoubtedly require military and police action. However, heavy-handed approaches alone will not solve the problem of violent extremism. In some cases, they may even exacerbate it. International organizations have often focused on development interventions—such as community-building initiatives, citizen engagement projects, or job creation programs—intended to address the root causes of terrorism.

Despite the high-profile nature of this issue, these interventions are often premised on generalizations such as the idea that young men simply need jobs or macro-level evidence that does not allow us to understand local dynamics. New research on Tunisia seeks to change this and thus provide international organizations with the micro-level evidence needed to develop the types of policies and programs that can prevent violent extremism.

Using a leaked database from 2016 on Islamic State recruits, we were able to geographically locate where almost 600 recruits originated from in Tunisia—one of the highest exporters of foreign fighters to Syria. We then used socio-economic data from Tunisian delegations (the equivalent of a district or a county—the smallest geographic unit that could be measured) to try to find what was driving foreign fighters to go to Syria.

Surprisingly, our research suggests that absolute indicators of well-being, which are intuitively linked to terrorism by many policymakers, are not related to a higher probability of joining a violent extremist group.

In other words, a district is statistically not more likely to produce radicalized fighters if it has higher rates of youth unemployment, higher levels of poverty, or higher numbers of poorly educated men.

What we did find, however, is that higher rates of radicalization seem to be linked to relative deprivation—the perception of being disadvantaged or not achieving the expectations one feels entitled to. This builds on previous research including Ted Robert Gurr’s seminal book, Why Men Rebel, and supports the conclusions of recent work such as Kartika Bhatia and Hafez Ghanem’s study on the linkage between economic development and violent extremism across the Middle East.

To this end, our research found that districts with high levels of unemployment among university-educated men produced higher numbers of men joining violent extremist groups. In addition, we found that districts with high inflows of domestic migrants in search of better living conditions exported more foreign fighters, perhaps suggesting that men who uproot their lives to pursue more prosperous opportunities are often disappointed when their efforts do not yield the desired results.

All too often, counterterrorism interventions are based on data lacking the granular detail needed to pinpoint the precise populations to focus on or are based on assumptions unsupported by the evidence. If governments and international organizations want to strengthen their support to countries like Tunisia and prevent more young men from joining terrorist groups, they will need a new approach.

First, they should draw on such empirical evidence. Solutions such as wide-ranging employment programs that are based on oversimplifications—that, for instance, suggest that poor and marginalized regions produce the most terrorists—are likely to be costly and ineffective. Programs should instead focus on what the data is telling us: that the problem is not one of poverty or unemployment per se but rather the unmet expectations of highly educated youth who feel the country’s social contract has failed them. For instance, the perpetrators of the deadly beach attacks in Sousse in 2015 and at the Bardo Museum in Tunis that same year came from generally middle-class backgrounds.

Second, development interventions must be geographically targeted in their approach at the most granular level possible with available data. It is critical to focus resources in areas that have produced the highest number of foreign fighters and to focus interventions on what is likely driving radicalization in that particular locality. This is essential, for even policies that advance the right agenda items—such as increasing employment for well-educated youths—may not make any impact in addressing radicalization if they are too broadly based or target districts with low numbers of foreign fighters.

Tunisia is just one example of the type of data-driven and geographically targeted analysis that is needed to tackle such a complex problem. Such an approach could be applicable to countries that produce large numbers of radicalized youth and could prove useful across the Middle East and North Africa—or even in European countries that have faced challenges addressing homegrown radicalization. Ultimately, by learning from the data, drawing on local knowledge, and investing resources judiciously, policymakers can apply these lessons globally in order to better design development programs and effectively address the root causes of terrorism.

Daniel Brennan is the co-author of Unmet Expectations: Examining the Drivers of Radicalization in Post-Revolution Tunisia, along with Claudia Ng and Miguel de Corral.

Miguel de Corral is the co-author of Unmet Expectations: Examining the Drivers of Radicalization in Post-Revolution Tunisia, along with Claudia Ng and Daniel Brennan.

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