Chapter 3: Motivations and Drivers of Violent Extremism: Context Matters

Submitted by Fernando Aguiar on Thu, 07/27/2017 - 14:20

There is no single definition to Violent Extremism (VE) and its root causes, as there is no single pathway for radicalization. According to specialists, socially and psychologically motivated violence prospers in a wide variety of socioeconomic contexts, be it from poor societies, where local population has little or no economic prospects, or advanced industrialized countries, with high standards of living. In a nutshell, VE is often understood as ‘encouraging, condoning, justifying, or supporting the commission of a violent act to achieve political, ideological, religious, social, or economic goals’


Classifying the Drivers of Violent Extremism

When attempting to explore the root causes of VE as well as its contributing factors, it is essential to analyze the drivers of such acts by adopting a robust framework of classification. It is worth noting, however, that the drivers of VE vary constantly in context and time. In addition to that, assumptions should be constantly scrutinized, as some factors do not necessarily correlate with acts of VE. Therefore, there is a substantial need to analyze key drivers based on the specific location in which they occur. According to the USAID classification2, there are two distinct and interrelated factors that address the drivers of radicalization: Push and Pull factors.


While the former are structural factors that contribute to the ‘rise or spread of violent extremism’, including social marginalization and fragmentation, the latter relates to the ‘personal rewards’, such as material incentive, empowerment and sense of belonging[2]. Other variables on the pull factors connected to one’s identity, spirituality and faith matter considerably, as well as the search for dignity, respect and recognition. Another set of drivers may as well arise from historical legacies and grievances, such as foreign domination, subjugation of population and oppression[3]. It goes without saying that foreign domination and colonization have left a profound impact not only on the way in which societies were structured politically and economically, but also on the way local populations perceive the ‘west’[4]. In this context, as highlighted by USAID ‘perceptions enable actors in local struggles to believe that they are sustained in their efforts by a global momentum, and that they take part in a much broader struggle, an epic, that unfolds at the level of the entire planet’. This narrative can create a great empowering incentive in increasing commitment to violent acts.


Combined, both USAID categories demonstrate to which extent conditions favor acts of violent extremism. For instance, when women have been marginalized from political processes, lacking in viable employment options, resource allocation within marriage patterns, as well as restricted in access to education, and power in political decision-making, they may become more open to extreme changes, using both non-violent and violent means to achieve it[5].


The high levels of poverty have in some cases resulted in women and men joining violent extremist groups in order to improve their socio-economic and political status[6]. Several empirical research conducted by World Bank specialists demonstrate the connection between poverty and violent extremism. For instance, Hans and Blomberg observe that poorer the country, the more vulnerable it is to experience acts of violent extremism[7]. In addition to this, Alan Krueger and David Laitin state that ‘terrorists are more likely to come from low-income countries with low GDP growth’[8]. Despite these evidences, it is important to avoid deterministic explanations to acts of violent extremism. Economic depravations and frustrations can be important drivers that contribute to VE, but not deterministic ones.


When analyzing the profile of suicide bombers, for instance, Nasra Hassan emphasized that none of the perpetrators were uneducated, deprived from economic means and narrow-minded. Rather, according to her, many were middle-class, had a job and some few very wealthy[9]. Similarly, Claude Berrebi provides more detailed information on this trend, observing that only 14% of suicide bombers from his analysis came from families below the poverty line, and almost 60 % had graduated from high-school[10].


The USAID system of classification is comprehensive in itself, as it categorizes and codifies aspects as well as conditions to violent extremism and radicalization. A study promoted by the Royal United Services Institute On Security and Defense - RUSI - developed a complementary approach to avoid confusion on identifying « at risk » people in the interpretation of these drivers, as they tend to vary from context to context[11].


According to Khalil and Zeuthen, ‘while the simplicity of [the USAID] binary classification system has substantial appeal, in practice the idea of pull factors in particular tends to cause confusion’. The proposed framework comprises three interrelated categories:


  • STRUCTURAL MOTIVATORS: similar to the push factors elucidated by USAID, tend to explain the ‘attitudes that are supportive of the purported aims of VE’, such as repression, corruption, inequality, external domination, etc.


  • INDIVIDUAL INCENTIVES: similar to many pull factors described by the USAID, such as sense of belonging, status, fear of persecutions, etc.


  • and ENABLING FACTORS: key drivers that enable violence to occurs, rather than motivates it, such as presence in contexts in which violent acts are appraised, the presence of radical leaders, easier access to radical online communities, and so on.


While many elements from both frameworks of classification converge and others complement each other, one common denominator found within these corresponds to the attention to context. There can be no general and commonly accepted theory that explains the root causes of violent extremism, as the answer to this question vary from context to context.


The Gender Dimension


There is a significant gender dimension to violent extremism, because both men and women are more or less susceptible to different drivers, partly due to the gender roles attributed to them. As highlighted by the OSCE, factors such as gender inequality, discrimination and gender-based violence may act as potential drivers in the process of women’s radicalization [12], whereas social gender roles and expectations contribute to men’s engagement. As the US Institute of Peace observes,


‘Men’s senses of accomplishment in living up to social mandates—or frustrations at not fulfilling them—in interaction with contextual and individual factors, can help explain why men become combatants—as well as which men fight and which do not’[13].


Some practitioners and experts have pointed out to empirical evidences suggesting that extremism is strongly connected to gender-roles rigidity. Harald Weilnböck, for instance, states that a great majority of violent extremists also hold sexist values. However, this rigidity has been shifting, as women have been playing a greater role in leadership positions, as seen in the first chapter of this series.


Regardless, one thing is certain: because gender roles are strongly determined by the social and cultural context, it is essential to analyze closely the relations between gender and violent extremism as well as the different dynamics and variables that drive and motivate these acts. Since violent extremism normally develops in a compound of different factors and dynamics, involving a diverse set of individuals from distinct backgrounds, no singular explanation can be drawn to explain its root causes. Instead, a detailed and holistic understanding of the context is a first step toward effective policy responses to Violent Extremism.


Further on, we will analyze what types of initiatives at the policy level have been developed by the EU and to which extent this institution is integrating a gender perspective in its initiatives on violent extremism.