The key to stopping the Islamic State’s bloody march through Iraq and Syria? Jobs.
That’s what US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Monday night when asked on MSNBC’s talk show “Hardball” what America and its allies are doing to end the militant group’s reign of terror in the region.
“We’re killing a lot of them, and we’re going to keep killing more of them,” Ms. Harf told host Chris Matthews. “But … we cannot kill our way out of this war. We need, in the longer term … to go after the root causes that [lead] people to join these groups.”
Those causes, she added, are tied to weak governance and a lack of opportunity for young people, which groups like the Islamic State or ISIS tend to exploit.
Mr. Matthews responded by saying that poverty isn’t something that anyone can hope to tackle in one lifetime, or even “in 50 lifetimes.”
“There’s always going to be poor people,” he pointed out. Meanwhile, he cited the recently released video that shows the mass beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya as the latest sign that ISIS has no intention of slowing its rampage of violence.
The debate between Matthews and Harf reflects a broader debate about the underlying causes of violent extremism and how to counter it. In a 2009 article in The SAIS Review for International Affairs, Middle East expert Omer Taspinar outlined two major views on the issue: The first proposes that educational and economic empowerment are the best cure against radicalization and terrorist recruitment.
“Since poverty and ignorance often provide a breeding ground for radicalism, socioeconomic development appears compelling as an effective antidote,” wrote Mr. Taspinar, a professor at the National War College and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
There may be some truth to this position. A 2013 study by The Soufan Group, a New York-based security and research group, also found that when sending messages to potential recruits, extremist groups prey on feelings of anger, humiliation, resentment, and lack of purpose.
In September, The New York Times reported that more than 1,000 volunteers had joined ISIS from Turkey – a nation where the unemployment rate has hovered around 10 percent for the last year and nearly 17 percent of the population lived below the poverty line in 2010.
Interviews with recruits revealed that the militants’ ideology coupled with the promise of steady pay appealed to Turkey’s disaffected youths.
“When you fight, they offer $150 a day. Then everything else is free,” one former militant told the Times.
The other major perspective on violent extremism, Taspinar wrote, rejects the correlation between poverty and terrorism. Those who hold this view note that most terrorists “are neither poor nor uneducated,” and so see terrorism purely as a security threat that requires forceful action.
As economist Alan Krueger put it in a 2003 article for the Journal of Economic Perspectives, “There is little reason for optimism that a reduction in poverty or increase in educational attainment will lead to a meaningful reduction in the amount of international terrorism.”
While both views have valid points, Taspinar argues that neither strategy alone will be successful. There’s no “one size fits all” solution, he wrote, because there’s no single cause or motivation for terrorism that can be pinpointed and eradicated.
His suggestion: Bridge the gap between the two perspectives by promoting policies and strengthening institutions that help crush radicalism.
That was in 2009. Many a pundit has since said the same, and during her “Hardball” interview, Harf acknowledged that there's no easy long-term solution to preventing and combating violent extremism.
“But,” she added, “if we can help countries work at the root causes of this – what makes a 17-year-old in these countries pick up an AK-47 instead of trying to start a business – maybe we can try to chip away at this problem.”