Viewpoint: Four Elements of a Root-Cause-Based Counterterrorism Strategy

paris memorial

In a previous post, I examined three trends in global terrorism statistics that should give pause to policymakers proposing the typical policy package in response to terrorist incidents, including more bombing of terrorist groups, restricted immigration, and increased government surveillance. Specifically, these statistics demonstrated that (1) terrorist incidents in Western countries have actually declined since the 1990s, (2) incidents worldwide peaked briefly in the early 1990s, and have increased significantly since the mid-2000s, and (3) recent surges in terrorism activity have spread to regions beyond the Middle East and North Africa.

In this post, I’d like to examine the drivers behind the latter two trends in particular: What causes surges in terrorism activities around the world? If the ultimate goal of Western governments is to degrade the capabilities of terrorist organizations, then we must get a better idea of root causes that allow extremist groups to grow, and how to counter them.

Below, I offer four potential root causes that might help explain historical spikes in terrorist activity, and offer one potential policy recommendation to help counter each cause and ultimately bend back the curve on global terrorism. Clearly, the forces that contribute to terrorist activity are far more complex than what can be enumerated in a single post, and the policy recommendations below are just a few of many that should be considered and debated. My intent here is simply to spark conversation on what a successful counter-terrorism strategy could look like, beyond the relatively narrow set of options that have been presented by Western leaders in the few weeks since the Paris attacks.

Root Cause 1: Collapse of Authority in Central Asia and the Middle East

Perhaps the clearest correlation between recent spikes in terrorist activity and potential explanatory factors is the large-scale collapse of government regimes in Central Asia and the Middle East. The terrorism spike in the early 1990s was preceded by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the spike in the late 2000s followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and the most recent spike followed the Arab Spring revolutions and the Syrian Civil War. In each case, a relatively controlled society – often under a repressive regime – was suddenly replaced by a chaotic new world, in which multiple societal groups battled for supremacy and centralized government had little to no authority to control its borders.

Map of major ethnic groups in the Middle East. Source: Columbia School of International and Public Affairs

Map of major ethnic groups in the Middle East. Source: Columbia School of International and Public Affairs

These sudden breakdowns often share similar consequences: Societal groups that faced discrimination and repression under the old regimes seek to exact revenge, neighbouring countries seek an opportunity for greater influence in the region, and weapons that were previously controlled by the state army suddenly disappear into the black market, or are repossessed by newly-empowered sub-national militias. The result is often a protracted conflict along ethnic or religious lines, fuelled by enormous amounts of weapons and state resources; in turn, this often attracts foreign fighters who forge some sort of shared identity with a perceived victimized group. In other words, these situations turn into vibrant breeding grounds for terrorist groups. This was the case in the former Yugoslavia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the disintegration of Iraq into a Shiite-Sunni-Kurd conflict, the collapse of Libya into a number of militias, and now the Syrian civil war.

Policy Proposal: In countries with a deteriorating central government, negotiate federated states that allow ethnic/religious groups a high degree of autonomy.

While no two situations are ever the same, one potential approach to consider in these cases is for world and regional powers to help broker a new, federated state model of government. In this scenario, the major ethnic or religious groups in a country would each get a high degree of self-governance in their own region or “state”, and obtain a share of the state’s resources, while still needing to cooperate with other ethnic groups for a limited set of decisions to be made at the national level. In theory, this approach could help defuse conflicts where groups are fighting each other for control over the state’s resources, hopefully to the point where a truce can be declared and international peacekeepers can enter the country. After three years of interethnic war, this essentially became the solution in Bosnia with the signing of the Dayton Accords; the country was effectively split into a Bosniak Muslim-controlled portion and the Serb-controlled Republic Srpska. This is not likely to solve issues of mistrust, and administration of shared cities and resources between ethnic groups would likely prove tricky. But at the very least, it can help stop the fighting in the interim and buy time for negotiations and trust-building measures to take shape. The blog Geopolitics Made Super examines this idea in more detail as part of its own interesting analysis of counterterrorism strategy.

Root Cause 2: Hyper-Financialization of the Global Economy

It may seem strange to cite the global financial system in an article about root causes of terrorism, but because societies around the world are so deeply enmeshed in it, changes to this system will necessarily impact other global systems. One profound change over the last 30 years is the increased financialization of the world economy, defined here as the reliance on debt mechanisms – including loans, stock markets, etc. – to fuel economic activity. Statistics from the World Bank demonstrate just how much this has grown in recent years. By one indicator, short-term external debt, we can see that this facet of the economic system began rising in the late 1980s, and especially took off in the early 2000s:

Data source: World Bank (my graph).

Data source: World Bank (my graph).

The increasing influence of financial tools makes the global economy fundamentally more unstable. As a simplifying generalization, when greater and greater amounts of money flow more easily into and out of countries, economic “highs” become higher, and “lows” become lower. It is also more difficult for national governments to predict and control changes to their economic activity. Not coincidentally, the financial crisis of 2008-2009 was widely seen as the worst global recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Importantly, in many countries the impact of financial volatility is most heavily felt by young people; in 2010, the global youth unemployment rate (for job seekers aged 15-24) sat at 12.6 percent, while the adult unemployment rate was 4.8 percent. More strikingly, youth unemployment in the European Union in 2011 was 22 percent, with countries such as Spain, Greece, and Ireland reaching over 40 percent youth unemployment. Moreover, young ethnic minorities in Western countries have an even more difficult time finding jobs, as countries e.g. the United Kingdom are currently seeing. This is precisely the demographic that global terrorist groups like ISIS attempt to recruit to their cause. While an extremely small percentage of this group become involved in any terrorist activity, counterterrorism experts generally believe that young men and women who are in a transitory phase of their life, and who feel excluded from “mainstream” society, comprise the bulk of ISIS recruits.

Policy Proposal: Implement a global financial transactions tax, and use a small portion of the proceeds to fund national youth employment programs.

With the steep rise in financial transactions and the impact that has on the global economy, momentum has grown for a global financial transactions tax. Most proposals call for a tax of a fraction of a percent to be applied to key international financial transactions, both as a way to help stabilize financial markets, and as a source of revenue for global development. Estimates of the potential revenue from this tax range from $50 billion to $250 billion per year, and that is just for a tax that covers the G20 countries (i.e. 20 of the world’s largest economies). What is less often discussed is how this money could be used. Given the disproportionate impact that financial volatility has on the world’s youth, it would make sense to dedicate some proportion of this revenue specifically to funding youth employment – perhaps even for roles in national governments. (One example of such a program is Canada’s International Youth Internship Program, in which the government funds year-long placements for youth under 30 to serve government or civil society initiatives overseas.) This would have the twin benefits of giving young people a secure, valuable work experience while strengthening a sense of national identity, two powerful antidotes to the typical propaganda of terrorist organizations.

Root Cause 3: Inability to Manage Global Migration Flows

International immigration has received much attention since the November attacks on Paris. Many politicians in Europe and North America voiced their concerns that at least some terrorist sympathizers could slip across borders by posing as refugees, if the proper security screenings weren’t put into place. While it’s true that terrorist organizations could try to take advantage of the confusion surrounding the current refugee crisis, this approach would have a fairly low chance of success. Refugees with even the cleanest records typically have little to no control over where they end up, and almost no certainty about how they will be handled by each of the governments with whom they interact on their journey. As one example, Canada’s pledge to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees represents an order-of-magnitude increase in how many refugees are currently in the country (around 2,500) – but still represents less than one percent of the close to 4 million refugees in the countries where its government is currently screening candidates (Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan). Terrorist groups would quite literally be playing the lottery by trying to take advantage of these policies. On the other hand, keeping millions of refugees stuck in limbo over several years without a place to go may indeed be a growing source of recruitment for terrorist organizations – especially young refugees who are spending a significant part of their childhood outside of any formal education system.

Refugee Camp in Lebanon. Source: Bulent Kilic/Getty

Refugee Camp in Lebanon. Source: Bulent Kilic/Getty

Over the long term, the international community’s inability to control the global demand for migration may also indirectly contribute to the spread of global terrorism. For a sense of scale, consider that in 1960, 92 million people around the world were immigrants; by 2000, the number had increased to 165 million. Just as significant is the steady rise in migration from the countryside to urban centres, both within and between countries. In 1960, 14 percent of the world’s population lived in cities with a population greater than 1 million people; that proportion is now above 22 percent. That scale of movement of people can lead to increased exchanges of ideas and productivity gains, but also strains municipal, regional, and national governments’ abilities to keep track of and provide essential services to newcomers and their descendants.

In an excellent article following the Paris attacks, Globe and Mail reporter Doug Saunders provided an in-depth comparison of two neighbourhoods in Brussels that are largely comprised of first- and second-generation immigrants: Cureghem and Molenbeek. Saunders illustrates how Cureghem has enjoyed relative success in integrating immigrants, through measures such as relaxing zoning restrictions on small businesses and restaurants, and placing magnet schools in the heart of the neighbourhood. Meanwhile, the same reforms are only now starting to be applied to Molenbeek, where multiple participants in the Paris attacks grew up, and which still feels like a ghetto. With global “push” factors such as economic inequality between the countryside and the city and, increasingly, climate change continuing to drive migration over the coming decades, the ability of cities around the world to track and integrate newcomers will continue to be a key variable in the fight against terrorism.

Policy Proposal: Create a formal, international council of cities to coordinate migration policies and, eventually, produce a global accord on managing population flows.

Much like climate change, global migration is an issue that no single city or country can successfully manage on their own. Jurisdictions with more open immigration policies – e.g. Germany and Sweden – risk attracting an ever-increasing flow of migrants, which ultimately may risk social backlash. Conversely, cities and countries with poor track records of integrating immigrants can ultimately contribute to global unrest through sub-populations that are more susceptible to global terrorism and criminal activity. Therefore, like climate change, this is an issue that is ripe for an international forum, in which governments from around the world can coordinate policies and exchange best practices on managing global migration. And because cities are increasingly the most relevant level of government for integrating new arrivals, they should be leading this forum. In fact, 40 of the world’s major cities are already collaborating on climate change; perhaps this should be expanded in both scope and number of participants to focus on the increasingly linked issue of migration. Ultimately, this forum could one day lead to a global accord on migration that includes provisions on how to allocate resources and would-be migrants among the different cities, urban policies that contribute to integration, and a basic migrants’ “bill of rights” to ensure that everyone is ensured a basic level of services, no matter where they end up.

Root Cause 4: Rise of Self-Reinforcing Social Media Channels

This may be the most nebulous of the four root causes cited here, but it’s also no secret that for the new crop of terrorist groups, like ISIS and Somalia’s al-Shabbab, social media has played an important role in recruitment. Platforms such as Twitter and online message boards allow groups to reach a worldwide audience with images of extreme violence, but also slickly-produced videos that market allegiance to a terrorist group as an almost adventure travel-like experience (as explored in my recent book review). While counterterrorism agencies have worked with some social media platforms to aggressively shut down accounts that post terrorist propaganda, well-organized groups are increasingly adept at using multiple accounts and channels to continue spreading their messages.

It is doubtful that any person becomes a follower of any cause after viewing just one message or video; rather, it is generally repeated and increasingly intense exposure to this kind of content that leads one to become a “true believer”. Unfortunately, most of our major social media platforms are structured to produce exactly that kind of experience, either through algorithms that suggest following other accounts similar to what has already been viewed, and/or indirectly by allowing followers of one account to see who else is engaging with the messages it puts out. This structure can lead to a feed-forward cycle in which a user’s social media world quickly becomes dominated by followers of one particular ideology, making it easier to forget that there are other versions of the “truth” that is being presented by terrorist sympathizers.

Policy Proposal: Implement “diversity walls” that require social media users to follow a certain number of diverse, credible sources in order to expand their activity on any one platform. 

It may prove impossible to prevent a susceptible individual from being exposed to online content that sympathizes with terrorist tactics. But it should be more manageable to prevent that individual from continuing down the self-reinforcing rabbit hole of continued exposure to these messages and their propagators. One option may be to give users of any particular platform – say Twitter – a limited number of “free” times they can follow and interact with other accounts. If the user wishes to expand their activity beyond that limited number, he or she would have to add a certain number of verified diverse, credible accounts to their feed, which would grant them another level of limited “free” follows and interactions, and so on. In some sense, this combines the use of algorithms that social media platforms already use with the “paywall” concept that is increasingly popular with conventional media websites – except in this case, social media users would “pay” by diversifying their news feeds. Admittedly, this proposal is a superficial way of dealing with the self-reinforcing nature of social media, and wouldn’t prevent someone who is already a committed sympathizer from accessing and sharing terrorist content. But for susceptible individuals who are just starting down that path, this method may at least slow down their conversion process and buy time for other interventions. And at the very least, it could help mitigate the increasing general polarization on political and societal issues, beyond terrorist propaganda.


These are just four of several potential root causes that should be part of a more comprehensive discussion on countering terrorism. What else should be discussed? Please share your thoughts on these and other ideas in the comments section below.

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