Men in Mogadishu, Somalia, are rounded up by the Somali Police Force to be screened during an operation aimed at improving security in the city . AU UN IST PHOTO/ TOBIN JONES.

Democratic societies are perceived as vulnerable to terrorist acts because their more open and permissive nature offers lower cost opportunities for extremists to carry out terrorist operations. The empirical evidence, however, demonstrates just the opposite: democracies that are responsive to public demands and respect civil liberties, minority rights and the rule of law are far less likely to experience both domestic and transnational terrorism than other types of regimes.

Studies have found, for example, that states that avoid illegal use of torture or other cruel treatment against citizens experience less terrorist violence, as do systems with effective and impartial judiciaries that are viewed as legitimate. Societies suffering from severe social, political, ethnic, and/or economic fragmentation and inequality, on the other hand, are more at risk of terrorist attacks. These tend to be non-democratic countries, particularly those in civil conflict.

More recently, we are witnessing an important exception to these general findings: a number of well-established democracies are experiencing an increase in transnational terrorist attacks. Perceived grievances toward armed interventions are helping extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS radicalise and recruit more adherents to their cause. This takes the form of foreign fighters from both democratic and non-democratic countries travelling to places such as Syria to take up arms for sectarian purposes.

We have also seen an increase in the number of “lone wolf” attacks in democratic Europe and North America by fanatics who, inspired by apocalyptic visions, are prepared to use any violent means at their disposal to kill and maim innocent civilians and stoke fear among the general population. Nonetheless, among those countries experiencing the highest rates of deadly terrorism, democracies are disproportionately under-represented. And of the 65 major violent extremist organisations that have emerged since 1992, 51 are present in less democratic countries.

Drivers of terrorist violence are multiple and complex and vary from locality to locality. Much more research is needed to better understand the motivations and mindsets of both the elites that organise such movements and their adherents. Nonetheless, as far as governance factors are concerned, explanations for these findings revolve around the inability of authoritarian, failing, and weak states to find political solutions for the underlying grievances that radicalise people to take such extreme measures.

Chronic political problems such as under-representation or exclusion from government power, or economic discrimination based on religion or ethnicity, are better addressed in pluralist democratic systems with open, competitive elections and fair administration of the rule of law. States that take multidimensional approaches to deal with root causes – political, social, psychological, community, educational, and economic strategies combined with fair criminal justice procedures – stand a better chance of minimising extremism.

That said, some terrorists with apocalyptic objectives will probably never be persuaded that entering politics will take them to their destination. The leaders of ISIS, for example, see history as a twilight struggle between cultures in which the individual is a disposable pawn. They fill innocent young minds with poison, spew lies while claiming sole ownership of the truth, pervert the teaching of one of the world’s great religions, and seek to achieve their goals by trying to bludgeon us into panic and retreat.

Liberal democracies are by design more committed to fundamental principles of political participation of all sectors of society and full respect for human rights and the rule of law. They also suffer fewer deadly terrorist attacks. Any comprehensive strategy to counter and prevent violent extremism, therefore, must include measures to strengthen and uphold these common features of liberal democracy. The first responsibility of any nation is to defend its territory, its people, and its way of life.

Three young men are led by a member of the Somali Police Force to a holding area. AU UN IST PHOTO/ TOBIN JONES.

The countries that have been attacked by Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other extremist organisations have the right to respond with military force to take terrorist leaders off the battlefield and recapture territory. But to ultimately succeed in the fight against violent extremism, we must understand that although weakness encourages terrorism, overreaction spreads it. Young people are a specific group of interest in discussions about violent extremism, and violence more generally.

This phase of life is marked by continued socialisation and identity formation, a stage in which youth are assumed to be more vulnerable to external influences such as extremist and criminal groups. This generalisation, however, denies the significant agency that young people display, and the multiple roles as well as gender differences associated with their decisions. While the youthfulness of populations in many developing countries is associated with increased security risks, it is also the source of potential demographic dividends if young people are recognised also as contributors to society, including as political actors, employees, parents, and citizens.

A wide range of studies on young people’s associations with violent extremism point to different sets of factors that operate together to influence or protect against young people’s involvement in violent extremism. Political factors, such as the absence or weakness of the state and official corruption, experienced by youth as neglect, disinterest or even victimisation, can motivate young people to seek alternative means for achieving their needs (including socio-economic needs and protection from abuse) in extremist groups and associations; this has been observed in Mali and Nigeria. Evidence also suggests that repressive government actions, including human rights abuses, exacerbate discontent and anger directed at the government.

Allegations of extra-judicial executions in Kenya, Egypt and Nigeria appear to be a motivating factor for the youth who join Al-Shabaab, ISIS and Boko Haram, respectively. The targeting of ethnic and/or religious communities has shown similar responses from young people, for example, actions taken by Kenyan security agencies against Kenyan Somalis during Operation Usalama Watch in 2014. Government-sponsored abuses have been shown to foment political and social divisiveness, creating greater vulnerabilities to extremist groups. While poverty and related socio-economic factors are often assumed to be a driver of young people joining extremist groups, the evidence indicates more complexity in these associations.

A study from Mali, for example, confirmed a link between youth unemployment and their involvement with armed jihadist groups. However, it was also shown that young people ended up in these groups despite having sources of income that they considered satisfactory prior to their involvement, and that additional factors were at play, including the protection of their livelihoods or illicit activities such as drug trafficking. The significant number of ISIS recruits that come from middle-class backgrounds, with some holding stable, well-paid jobs in developed countries, argues for far more nuanced explanations that are not centered only on economic factors.

Psychological and social issues such as disillusionment and frustration due to perceptions of limited pathways to achieve progress relating to personal or political goals might lead young people to seek other avenues to achieve these goals, including joining extremist groups such as Al-Shabaab.

The issue may also be one of exclusion from the economy or certain sectors of it, rather than unemployment itself. Using Belgium as an example – the country with the largest employment gap between foreign nationals and nationals in Europe – a 2015 article by Chris Blattmann argues that economic exclusion is compounded by social or racial differences and draws the conclusion that “the shame and injustice of exclusion, not poverty, is what leads so many to rebel”.

Factors associated with family, parenting, and social systems have emerged in other studies. In Mauritania, many young people involved in Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were found to be from divorced families. While this in itself likely can be managed with strong family support, the lack of parental supervision and care for orphaned or abandoned children has been increasingly linked to radicalisation in communities in northern Nigeria.

A further parallel among recruits is what researchers have referred to as “absent father syndrome”. There appears to be a link between abandonment or abuse by fathers during childhood and entry into violence in later years. Moreover, the propensity of youth to be strongly influenced by charismatic (typically) male leaders or recruiters appears to be greater in cases where the father was absent from a child’s life. In Somalia, the absence of father figures among men and boys that have joined Al-Shabaab is also significant. A 2013 study by James Ferguson found that the years of war in Somalia have destroyed multi-generational family connections that serve to nurture and guide young people. These issues relating to identity and belonging reverberate in other empirical studies, especially where the attractiveness of ISIS is considered.

A 2015 study by Ömer Taşpinar describes ISIS as a “pseudo-state in search of citizens”, and those that join as searching for belonging and acceptance. This finding is echoed in a study of ISIS defectors carried out by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. Issues around identity must be understood in a global context of young people who, for different reasons, are struggling to find a place of belonging and acceptance. Many recommendations for addressing young people’s attraction to or direct involvement in extremist groups echo the obligations already embedded in international policy frameworks, and those in other research produced in the Democracy and Security Dialogue:

• Local drivers demand local responses. Policy responses should be tailored to the complex local conditions faced by young people, and recognise that no single factor – economics, religion or ideology, for example – sufficiently explains why young people become involved in extremist groups.

• Tailor strategies to the varied roles of young men and women. Young people play multiple roles in their communities – as caregivers as well as students and workers. Differences in how young men and women’s roles in society are determined, as well as their choices in relation to associations with extremist groups, are also important to understand. Policies should rely on the best available interdisciplinary research and practices to understand these dynamics.

• Include youth in politics. Creating avenues and reducing barriers for young people’s political and economic participation and leadership are central to addressing the factors associated with violent extremism.

• Stop abuses and seek accountability for youth victims. Eliminating state-sponsored violence against young people and promoting the means to seek redress where victimisation is perceived or experienced should also be central objectives in addressing violent extremism.

This piece is summarised from a report of the Democracy and Security Dialogue of the Community of Democracies, titled Liberal Democracy and the Path to Peace and Security. The full report, and the publications that contributed to it, may be accessed at: