Shortly after ISIS was driven out of its stronghold in Mosul, it became clear that the war was not yet won. As ISIS continues to lose territory, fighters and credibility in the conventional war, it will resort to more unconventional tactics. And it is able to do so for one simple reason: the conditions that allowed ISIS ideology to flourish in the first place still remain.
One of the movement’s most effective strategies has been to exploit ethnic and sectarian tensions, turning Sunni against Shia, sowing division and distrust. And those who have suffered the most from this violence are children and young people, who are the most vulnerable in conflict zones and open to extremist recruitment.
That ISIS’s ideology will continue to prey on the susceptible — particularly youth — is apparent from the age group of the perpetrators of recent attacks in Spain and Finland.
Though military action may help defeat ISIS’s goal of its own state or ‘caliphate’, ultimately there can be no military solution. Extremists thrive in an environment of human distress, misery, dehumanisation and helplessness. And it is these that must change.
Take Boko Haram, which has been staggeringly successful in recruiting, due largely to the lack of opportunities, disenfranchisement and absence of social support for the young in Nigeria. A recent study by Mercy Corps into how Boko Haram recruit youth found they were often lured by the promise of business support and better status. The study had even more interesting findings about those young people who successfully resisted radicalisation: they all had strong social, family and community influences, that countered Boko Haram’s recruitment efforts.
In thinking how to defeat the spread of extremism, we need an approach that builds resilient communities, enfranchises youth and also advances economic opportunities. The focus on youth is paramount because they represent the future of these regions.
This is an imperative that stretches far beyond Iraq. Ultimately, the West and its allies in the Muslim world must work together to eradicate the long-term drivers of radicalisation. One way of doing this is by bringing hope for a brighter future to people across the Islamic world.
This is a particular challenge for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) with its 57 member states (and a collective population of 1.6 billion as of 2008). On paper at least, these member states have signed up to some ambitious targets, such as decreasing by two-thirds the prevalence of extreme poverty across OIC countries; promoting opportunities for young and female entrepreneurs; and ensuring affordable access for both men and women to all levels of education.
But it would be premature to celebrate before such targets are matched with appropriate national policies by each of the OIC members. The failure to implement these targets will only lead to greater chaos.
This is the challenge of our times. Only when young people finally believe they have a real future ahead of them will divisive extremism begin to lose its appeal.
Author: Amb. Hameed Opeloyeru