North Africa, West Asia

Why many young Arabs join violent radical groups

The key to combating extremism is prevention. But what are the conditions that lead youth to become radicalised?

Cristina Casabón
14 March 2016

Michele Amoruso/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images. All rights reserved.The rise of Daesh (IS) and its success in mobilising young people across the MENA region has put the issue of combating radicalisation in the spotlight. Military, intelligence, and law enforcement approaches continue to dominate the initial response of governments, but the key to combating extremism is prevention. The question is how do young people become radicalised?

To prevent extremism, we cannot solely rely on counterterrorism strategies. We must start by addressing the life conditions that have created a favourable environment for radicalisation and recruitment to flourish. By taking a 'social determinism' approach we find that an interconnection of political, economic and cultural factors supercede those of the individual. Looking at the interconnection between these factors then, it becomes apparent why some young Arabs might join radical groups in the MENA region.

Many young people turned to radical organisations after they were active within a peaceful framework in 2011. In order to know the extent of this transformation, analysts only have to look at the huge number of youth who are increasingly active in criminal armed organisations. According to a recent report published by The Soufan Group, in 2014 and 2015 the great majority of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria came from Arab countries, with both the Middle East and the Maghreb supplying large numbers.

Since 2011, the permeability of borders has encouraged thousands of young people to flee abroad. Tunisians, Saudis, Turks and Jordanians continue to outnumber other national contingents traveling to join jihadi organisations. According to the same report, other nationals who are part of this radicalisation process are concentrated in “terrorist hubs” in Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Turkey. 

Transformation from civil peaceful activities arguing for and demanding basic human rights in 2011 to violent and armed organisations has become a regional phenomenon. Life conditions draw disproportionate numbers of young individuals to violent extremism.

Vacuums of power

The rise of extremist groups in the anarchy of the Syrian civil war and post-invasion chaos of Iraq remains a regional phenomenon with global implications. In Iraq, jihadi groups benefited from the struggle of Iraqi resistance against the US government. From 2003 to 2006, Al Qaeda lead the struggle against the occupier, and local jihadi groups emerged which became known as the Islamic State of Iraq.

In Syria it is difficult to distinguish between moderate Islamists and jihadists, since the regime’s aggressive response transformed the largely peaceful uprising into an open civil war, and now multiple groups are engaged in the conflict. The civil war was a starting point for the jihadist insurgency. Since then, Syria has faced a much greater threat of jihadist infiltration in comparison with other MENA countries.

From Syria, Daesh has spread to other neighbouring countries, and now they are expanding their tentacles to Libya. As such, we can see that vacuums of power combined with authoritarian rule have exacerbated terrorist groups and individuals seeking power, and their territorial gains are attracting other foreign regional fighters. They are now free to spread their influence in the region, either from tacit government approval or from vacuums of power in these semi-failed states.

Poor government structures

Establishing good governance procedures has been an impossible task for liberal groups and political parties that emerged after the Arab Spring. This is due to lack of experience in democratic institutions and ineffective organisation. In 2016, Egyptians are experiencing the failure of the Egyptian revolution, Libyans are on the verge of becoming a failed state, Syrians have been brutally repressed by their government, the outbreaks of Bahrain and Iraq have been repressed and silenced, and other more stable countries have been unable to create inclusive democratic governments and institutions – perhaps with the exception of Tunisia, which is debatable.

Generally speaking, after the Arab uprisings, most of these governments focused on the specific new challenges of young groups and the rise of mass politics. Now regimes are more corrupt and more repressive. They made little progress in the reform of institutions and repress or exclude opposition parties. In addition, economic and policy reforms initiated since are ineffective, as there is no trickle down effect and no inclusiveness in the political arena.

Discontent with corruption and rising inequality has been ignored by those in power, and failure of the Arab revolts to bring change in the region has added to people's frustrations. Most young Arabs have not reached stable financial positions in their personal lives. This situation is creating a regional environment where individuals feel they have no future however hard they work. There is a lack of patriotism, a growing sense of “us against them” that is impregnating society, especially the youth – a phenomenon that is also creating intergenerational ruptures.

The political and social exclusion of the youth

Participation of the new generations – either directly or through legitimate intermediate institutions – is very important, as more than 50 percent of the population is under the age 25 (more in some countries), according to UN population data. This is the age cohort identified as being “Jihad candidates”, with most being in their 20s and some even younger.

Terrorist organisations often fill the gap of youth participation and inclusion in political and social spheres. According to what was discussed at the Youth and Violent Groups conference, organised by the Arab Forum of Alternatives in Lebanon, most of these youth have left primary education and are living on the streets. Some of them are from rural areas and have difficulties integrating in urban development areas.

Terrorist organisations often grow their ranks by recruiting the youth who are visibly not integrated, as they are more vulnerable due to the need or want of connectedness and affiliation. Governments have to allow for a strong civil society in which the majority of the population – the youth –  can find better opportunities. For the moment, those who have broken ties with society don't get a second chance.

Lack of freedom and fundamental rights

The Arab uprising revealed deep discontent with the general state of fundamental rights and freedoms, but most of these countries are still under oppressive and non elected governments. The region has experienced the threat of terrorism; in 2015 the respect for human rights and justice appear to be secondary to security challenges.

The logic of this collective process is simple: when injustice is perceived, terrorist groups are not looked upon as perpetrators of violence but rather as fighters struggling against a tyrannical enemy. Against this backdrop, it is not difficult to comprehend why these radical ideologies are perceived to be attractive, and the youth that join such groups heroic.

A recent survey carried out in the southern Tunis neighbourhoods of Douar Hicher and Hay Ettadhamen, in which 800 young people were interviewed by the NGO International Alert, found “an acute awareness of injustice and relegation”. At the same time, Tunisia is also the number-one supplier of recruits for Daesh.

The perception of violence as being a means to change is an outcome of and not a reason for this. The dismantling of radicalism in “terrorist hubs” and across the region requires an analysis of hidden factors: the state of desperation about the legal system and the state, and the conviction that change is not possible.


The Arab uprising uncovered a number of vulnerabilities, especially poverty. After five years, analysts perceive a deeper deterioration in living standards with traditional middle class lifestyles evaporating, especially for younger generations.

The role that “life conditions”, where human challenges are presented in terms of basic needs, play in MENA countries is very important. What happens when Egypt cannot provide for its citizens? Can the dissatisfaction of the youth with the provision of public services, poor living standards and lack of job opportunities lead to this phenomenon of radicalisation? The lack of a social policy to reduce disparities only encourages the youth to radicalise. The UNDP says an estimated 20-25 percent of young Arabs are leaving their region to look for a "better future". Before region-wide unrest, the UNDP had warned that officials needed to create 51 million jobs by 2020 to cater to the ballooning youth demographic. Currently, tens of thousands of young refugees, asylum seekers and migrants from North Africa are traveling to different countries.

In MENA countries with low- and middle- income populations the job market has worsened since 2011, and youth have few opportunities to break out of the cycle of poverty. In this scenario, there is a greater tolerance for violence and new survival mechanisms are developed, so economic redress from the informal sector attracts unemployed youth groups. Jihadist militancy is a good source of income; foreign fighters who join Daesh are relatively well paid.


To dismantle the phenomenon of radicalisation, analysts should start dismantling all topics: terrorism, radicalism, foreign fighters, jihadism, etc... and start studying this complex phenomenon in its social context. Daesh recruitment is so new that efforts to counter it are still in the preliminary phase, and jihadist groups are taking advantage of the lack of effective counterterrorism policies.

These groups have taken the opportunity to exploit the environment in Iraq, Syria and the poorest regions. This is linked to the failure of governments and their policies. The youth that demanded dignity in 2011 were unable to change their societies for the better, now this sense of humiliation has become a powerful and palpable mobilising factor. It reflects not only young peoples’ lack of participation and representation in the legal system but also frustration with widespread corruption, the state’s lack of accountability, inadequate public services, mounting dissatisfaction with the lack of respect for human rights and deteriorating living conditions...

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