Unemployment: At the Heart of Violent Extremism?

Credit: Victor Trosset "Visit Racca"
Credit: Victor Trosset "Visit Racca"

From an economic perspective, the overrepresentation of foreign fighters (FF) from MENA countries in Syria and Iraq is seen as a result of an economic situation particularly affecting the youth in the region. Traditional frameworks of analysis linking violence to poverty have been used to explain the FF phenomenon. With the world’s highest youth unemployment rate (from 25% to 60%), a possible – albeit weak – correlation could be made between high levels of unemployment and the substantial number of FFs.

The SAHWA Project’s research shows that employment is a key element for young people in the region since it guarantees access to adult life (economic emancipation, marriage, etc.) (Sanchez Garcia, Feixa Pàmpols & Laine, 2014). SAHWA’s Ethnographic Fieldwork underlines how young people suspect financial and material reasons are the main pull factors for joining VE[1]. In some cases, migration to Syria and Iraq is even considered an alternative form of migration2. A study carried out by the Observatoire du Nord des droits de l’homme (ONERDH) actually confirmed that the improvement of living standards was among the main push factors (Observatoire du Nord des droits de l’homme [ONERDH], 2014). That said, the fact that VE groups offer paid “jobs, houses and wives” to young people coming from the region is not anecdotal.

Figure 4: Youth Unemployment in the MENA Region

Source: ILO, Trends Econometric Models, April 20153.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that all unemployed young people are potential terrorists but rather suggests considering youth unemployment as an additional push factor in VE. Following Ted Robert Gurr’s theory on relative deprivation (Gurr, 1970), violence does not take root in absolute deprivation but rather in relative deprivation. In this regard, specific attention should be paid to the particular patterns of youth unemployment in the MENA region where highly qualified, educated young people suffer more from unemployment than any other group. This widens the gap between individuals’ expectations (job, salary and lifestyle) and reality within broader segments of the population than merely unemployed lower-class people. Added to the mismatch between education skills and the labour market, the lack of economic opportunities for educated people contributes exacerbating the gap between expectations and reality and thereby feeds the feeling of relative deprivation.

In a broader perspective, recent research on Arab youth confirmed Gurr’s theory: the drivers of political violence are rooted in the sense of injustice, discrimination, corruption and abuse by security forces (Mercy Corps, 2015). In this respect, one of the most counterproductive risks of the security approach is to make room for practices that could further push vulnerable individuals into violent extremism. These include:

The structural causes of each of these drivers of political violence should therefore be included in a long-term and comprehensive approach. This would enable VE to be fought as it is, as well as preventing more people from joining VE groups. In line with this comprehensive approach,  initiatives implemented in many FF-affected countries such as Denmark (Early Prevention Programme), Canada, Germany (HAYAT) and the UK try to address push factors as much as possible in order to either prevent people from joining these groups or to reinsert returnees into society: in addition to promoting counter-narratives, they provide assistance in employment, education and housing and address the affective environment in which vulnerable individuals find themselves through psychological counselling.

* This is a fragment of the SAHWA policy paper “Countering Violent Extremism in the MENA Region: Time to Rethink Approaches and Strategies” published on July 2016.


[1] “In Libya, Daesh occupied Syrte, a region rich in oil... in the middle of the country to sell oil. These are considerable amounts of money. They give each recruited young person up to 30 or 40 thousand dinars per month, in addition, to support their families... It is normal that young people are tempted by terrorism,” a 26-year-old Tunisian said (SAHWA Ethnographic Fieldwork, TN_LS_3).

2 “There are young people who get to such a state of despair that they choose one of the two, as for the one who chooses neither one nor the other you ought to know that he has a certain degree of awareness that protects him!”, a young Tunisian said (SAHWA Ethnographic Fieldwork TN_LS_1).

3 The charts depict the evolution of global and regional unemployment rates between 2008 and 2014 as well as unemployment rate projections for 2015 to 2019. Projections are presented in the form of a fan chart, indicating the probability of various outcomes for the unemployment rates. Each shade of the fans corresponds to a third of the confidence interval around the central projection.


Gurr, T. R. (1970). Why Men Rebel. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Mercy Corps (2015). Youth & Consequences. Unemployment, Injustice and Violence. Retrieved February 16, 2016, from https://www.mercycorps.org/sites/default/files/MercyCorps_YouthConsequencesReport_2015.pdf


Observatoire du Nord des droits de l’homme (ONERDH) (2014, November). Les caractéristiques socio-démographiques des jeunes combattants marocains en Syrie et en Irak, originaires du Nord du Maroc.


Sanchez Garcia, J., Feixa Pampols, C. & Laine, S. (2014). Contemporary Youth Research in Arab Mediterranean Countries: Mixing Qualitative and Quantitative Research. SAHWA Concept Paper. Retrieved from http://sahwa.eu/OUTPUTS/Publications/SAHWA-Concept-Paper-Contemporary-Youth-Research-in-Arab-Mediterranean-Countries-Mixing-Qualitative-and-Quantitative-Research

Sika, N. (2016, January). The Disguise of Youth Inclusion in Egypt. POWER2YOUTH Working Paper, No. 4. Retrieved February 12, 2016, from http://www.iai.it/en/pubblicazioni/disguise-youth-inclusion-egypt



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