UNITED NATIONS — A U.N. report on young Africans who voluntarily joined extremist groups said Thursday that the majority were poor, marginalized and tipped into joining because of perceived government violence or abuse of power.
The two-year study by the U.N. Development Program found that recruitment to groups in Africa such as Boko Haram and al-Shabab occurred mainly at the local level on a person-to-person basis — not online as in other regions. It said 80 percent of the 495 recruits interviewed joined within a year of being introduced to an extremist group and nearly half joined within just one month.
The report paints a picture of frustrated individuals, marginalized and neglected since childhood, with few economic prospects or outlets for civil participation and little trust in government to provide services or respect human rights.
“This study sounds the alarm that as a region, Africa’s vulnerability to violent extremism is deepening,” said Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, Africa director for the U.N. Development Program.
He said border regions and other peripheral areas in African nations are isolated and underserved by governments and there is an urgent need to focus on development in addressing security challenges.
UNDP estimates about 33,300 people in Africa lost their lives to extremist attacks between 2011 and early 2016. At least 17,000 people died as a result of Boko Haram’s operations, which also displaced 2.8 million in the Lake Chad region that overlaps Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon.
The study, “Journey to Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping Point for Recruitment,” said most recruits interviewed came from areas that suffered generations of marginalization and reported growing up with less parental involvement.
Most voluntary recruits said employment was their most acute need at the time they joined an extremist group, the study says. It adds that 83 percent believe government looks out only for the interests of a few and that more than 75 percent have no trust in politicians or state security systems.
In what UNDP called “one of the study’s most striking findings,” 71 percent of recruits interviewed said some form of government action was the “tipping point” that triggered their decision to join an extremist group. It says the actions most often cited included the killing or arrest of a family member or friend.
Although more than half of the young Africans interviewed cited religion as a reason for joining an extremist group, the study says 57 percent acknowledged that they understood little or nothing about their religion’s texts and interpretations.
UNDP said a total of 718 people were interviewed, with the largest number in Somalia and smaller numbers in Cameroon, Kenya, Niger, Nigeria and Sudan. It said 495 of those used to be, or in a handful of cases still were, members of extremist groups that they voluntarily joined — and they were the focus of the study. It said 78 people reported being forced to join an extremist group, while 145 said they had never been members.
The U.N. agency said the study suggests that understanding religion can strengthen resistance to the pull of extremism, noting that at least six years of religious schooling reduced the likelihood of joining an extremist group by as much as 32 percent.
The study recommended community-led initiatives and amplifying the voices of religious leaders who advocate tolerance and cohesiveness as a key way to counter extremist recruitment of young Africans.
“What we know for sure is that in the African context, the counter-extremism messenger is as important as the counter-extremist message,” UNDP’s Dieye said. “That trusts local voice is also essential to reducing the sense of marginalization that can increase vulnerability to recruitment.”