Drivers of Violent Extremism

01.18.2017 | Articles | Jessica Jones

Article at a glance:

  • The rise of violent extremism increased global attention on how and why individuals become involved, in order to develop effective programs that counter this phenomenon.
  • “Push” and “pull” factors, along with political drivers and country context, are important elements to consider when analyzing violent extremism.
  • Programming should focus on preventative measures aimed at preempting radicalization by mitigating specific drivers.


Extremist violence presents a serious threat to democratic values and societies around the world. The last decade has witnessed increased attention on how and why individuals become involved in extremist violence, including examining “push” and “pull” factors. Structural “push” factors create conditions that foster the rise or spread in appeal of violent extremism (VE). “Push” factors are socioeconomic, political, and cultural in nature.1 Such factors include: high levels of social marginalization and fragmentation, poorly governed or ungoverned areas, government repression and human rights violations, cultural threat perceptions, and endemic corruption and elite impunity.2 However, “push” factors emphasizing root causes of VE often work indirectly and in conjunction with other variables.

“Pull” factors work on an individual level and have a direct impact on recruitment and radicalization. They include: social status and respect from peers, a sense of belonging, adventure, and self-esteem, and the prospect of achieving glory and fame.3 “Pull” factors also include personal relationships, the appeal of a particular leader, and the draw of social networks. Generally, “pull” factors must exist for “push” factors to have a direct influence. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reports five main individual “pull” drivers: (1) reasonable and specific political, economic, and social grievances; (2) ideological; (3) economic gain; (4) personal factors; and (5) coercion.

Current Programming

Generally, there has been an overemphasis on broad “push” factors, even though VE organizations have arisen in varying regions and countries, and under different social, political, and economic conditions; in tandem, there has been an under-emphasis on “pull” factors and the role of human agency. Development assistance actors fall prey to this tendency to overestimate “push” factors because they hope to reduce VE by mitigating macro-level economic and political root causes.4

Unfortunately, as a result, programmatic responses tend to fall short. Even if development programs make progress in improving underlying conditions for a majority of the population, they may still fail to alter the grievances and motivations of the small subset of individuals inclined towards violence.5 Thus, programs that focus solely on structural factors and require large-scale investment may be ineffective at changing the worldview of the small subset of VE actors.6 Better understanding “push” and “pull” factors may lead to more programmatic success in countering VE.

Socioeconomic Drivers

Current research presents a more nuanced understanding of the link between broad socioeconomic conditions and VE. Empirical evidence does not suggest a direct causal link between specific economic conditions and violence, though poorer countries are more prone to violent extremism.7 Furthermore, individual terrorists tend to be better off than their average countrymen.8 Thus, there is a different relationship between poverty and terrorism at the macro, country-wide level, and micro, individual level. By overemphasizing the underlying direct economic conditions arguably precipitating violence, indirect consequences of poverty may be overlooked.9

Rather than poverty itself, violence seems to be more closely linked with a sense of injustice due to economic and political exclusion.10 Evidence demonstrates that a country’s inability to meet expectations of newly educated and upwardly mobile elites is a great source of discontent. “Unmet socioeconomic needs may be significant not because of actual material deprivation, but because of the related perception of those marginalized populations that the state and society have abandoned them and left a governance gap.”11 “Relative deprivation and frustrated expectations (not only for economic benefits, but also for political power and/or social status) can be important drivers of VE. That may be particularly true with respect to youth whose aspirations have risen significantly.”12 These trends “sugges[t] that at least in the longer term, economic development can reduce vulnerability to VE.”13

Indirect socioeconomic causes are not inconsequential and more analysis is needed to better understand how “contextual features, ideological and cultural variables, and particular types of individual and group dynamics” intersect with these underlying conditions to cause VE.14Examples of how poor conditions are indirectly tied to VE – and which need to be studied more – include: inadequate public service delivery, weak governance, social exclusion, and democratic weakness.

Additionally, literature produced by VE organizations does not emphasize poverty, unemployment, service delivery, and economic opportunity as central to their mission. Rather, VE organizations focus on issues of identity, existential threats, and cultural domination/oppression.15 History can provide VE groups with accessible narratives of victimization and existential threats cast by foreign influences. As a whole, violent extremists can view the international system as against them, and local grievances can be seen as manifestations of greater global dynamics.

Ideological Drivers

Empirical evidence suggests that “pull” factors are just as important as “push” factors when analyzing VE drivers. In particular, social networks and personal relationships pull individuals into VE organizations, keep them there, and radicalize them.16 Many individuals join VE groups as a way to find meaning in their lives. A VE organization can provide that sense of identity and meet other basic needs. Most individuals who become violent do so after a period of socialization, whether in a peer or organized group. Radicalization is social.17 Thus, the difference between those vulnerable to VE who commit violence, and those who do not, often is that recruitment and socialization/radicalization follow existing social networks. In effect, chance becomes a major factor.18

Ideological “pull” factors are also underestimated. Mark Juergensmeyer, professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, notes that invoking concepts or events drawn from ancient religious traditions to convey or legitimize contemporary demands turns religion into a powerful driver of its own.19 Jessica Stern, research professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, similarly finds that interviewed terrorists reported that they were responding to a spiritual calling and many felt a kind of spiritual high or addiction related to its fulfillment.20 VE actors are often moved by a belief in the superiority of certain values. Individuals can also view the world as an oppressive system and make a commitment to destroy this system. Related to the role of ideology, historical legacies of foreign domination and oppression can more easily allow a victimization narrative to develop.

These broad ideological appeals are associated with two distinct groups of VE organizations. The first type of organizations have “clearly circumscribed grievances” and this group often uses violence as a “strategic or tactical weapon,” to achieve its objectives.21 These organizations also often have a political and military wing, enjoy some sort of legitimacy, and “tend to be embedded in society.”22 These groups present a larger challenge than those that operate on the fringe of society. The second type of organization is a transnational VE organization driven by broad ideological goals, such as restoring the Caliphate or fighting modernity, which are grandiose in nature. These groups’ missions are not in line with local grievances and they do not take part in the political process. Transnational VE groups use violence frequently and see violence as intrinsic23 to their mission.

The distinction between primarily grievance-based and ideologically driven extremism is important. While both are difficult to counter, “most forms of grievance-based extremism may be easier to try to address than their ideologically-driven counterparts.”24 The role of ideology should not be overstated because individuals still tend to become affiliated with a group because of other drivers. Ideology often gains more importance once an individual has already been pulled into a VE organization. Thus, “ideology’s primary role may not be to attract individuals to VE organizations in the first place, but, in the wake of intense social interaction, to deepen and solidify individual commitments to those organizations.”25 Because research indicates that radical ideas do not have a direct causal relationship with VE and that some VE actors are not radical in their belief systems, the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) suggests that “countering the narrative” development programs is only one strategy for battling VE.26

Political Drivers

In addition to the push/pull factors, USAID also lays out seven political drivers that are often present in countries producing VE: (1) Denial of basic political rights (political exclusion) and civil liberties; (2) Highly repressive regimes that engage in gross violations of human rights; (3) Endemic corruption and impunity for well-connected elites; (4) The presence of safe havens, poorly-governed or ungoverned areas; (5) Pre-existing, protracted and violent local conflicts that can be exploited by violent extremist organizations seeking to advance their own agendas; (6) State sponsorship of VE groups; and (7) Discredited regimes with weak or non-existent oppositions.27

A country’s lack of political rights can have an indirect link to economic development as wealthier countries tend to respect civil liberties. For many VE actors, exposure to harsh government repression, in particular torture, is a large factor in radicalization. Brutal regimes also increase the likelihood of community support and complicity for VE activities. Widespread corruption in a country does not always feed into VE but can prompt civic disengagement and political apathy. Corruption can also have an indirect economic development link because it acts as a barrier to domestic business growth and a deterrent to foreign investment.

Middle East VE Profile

Since 2003, the socioeconomic and educational profile of Salafi jihadists has dramatically changed.27 There have been three different VE profile waves. The first – the “old guard” – originated in the 1980s and were individuals who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. They knew each other personally and most were from the upper and middle class. From the 1990s until 2001, most VE actors originated in the middle class. Unlike generations of previous jihadis, today’s VE actors are less educated and poorer, though VE profiles do show a new and growing heterogeneity in socioeconomic background. Individuals are more prone to being petty criminals before being radicalized. Social exclusion and marginalization is now one of the largest factors in Middle East VE profiles. In contrast to the past, more members of al-Qaeda are now self-recruited and self-radicalized. While some analysts argue that the now-diverse profile of VE actors makes trying to identify vulnerable populations futile, USAID takes a different approach. USAID believes that analysis can reveal profiles for a particular country at a particular moment, allowing programming efforts to be directed at the most critical communities, populations, or institutions.


More often than not, individuals are not formally recruited but drift to VE organizations through the pull of personal relationships. As noted earlier, there is a growing movement towards self-recruitment. The internet has amplified this trend and allows individuals to easily access other people with similar worldviews. More and more individuals can also carry out attacks on their own without specific instruction. The time frame for radicalization has also become shorter.

Shortcomings in Research

Some countries have more information available on their violent extremism actors than others. Much of what is known about VE is based on the experience of countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). South Asia also represents a significant source of relevant information. By contrast, much less is known about VE in sub-Saharan Africa.28 Since context is an important factor, further research is needed outside the MENA and South Asia regions in order to develop a more nuanced picture of VE and its drivers.

Further, not all individuals who hold VE motivations can find a VE organization through which to act. Thus, the available profile of members does not necessarily reveal information on the profile of populations that are susceptible to VE. Additionally, while poor and less educated individuals may seek to join VE organizations, actual members may not reflect this demographic due to VE organizational screening that aims to enlist the most competent and skilled.29 USAID also notes the role of gender as an area that requires more research. Evidence suggests that women may act both as a “brake” and a driver of VE.30

Programming Lessons

Context is very important to factor in when analyzing VE. Underlying conditions are unique for each VE group and “it is very difficult to generalize, across regions, countries, and time periods, about the ‘underlying conditions’ that give rise to VE organizations, since those organizations have emerged in radically different social, political and economic environments.”31 On a micro-level, individuals within the same organization can have different drivers and there is often interplay between both “push” and “pull” factors. Thus, while it is impossible to predict which individuals will engage in violence, “it is possible to gauge vulnerability to this likelihood.”32

Programming should therefore focus on preventative measures aimed at preempting radicalization by mitigating specific drivers. This includes targeting specific geographic areas or sub-populations. Successful programming tends to be small-scale, while also accompanying a larger development mission.33 USAID provides key programmatic lessons in this regard, illustrated by examples from programs conducted by the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE):

  1. Development assistance that can directly address “push” factors such as marginalization, frustrated expectations, and unmet basic needs, often has specific development impact that addresses concrete underlying grievances. For example, integrated youth programming combines cross cutting approaches that include vocational and technical training, life skills, employment search support, and positive peer group civic engagement. In Syria, CIPE and its in-country partner the Syrian Young Entrepreneurs Association (SYEA) developed a civic entrepreneurial curriculum. CIPE understood that the intellectual and financial capital of Syria’s entrepreneurs, as well as their moderating influence on society, had to be strengthened in order to ensure that Syrians, especially youth, have opportunities for legitimate enterprise and resist the pull of violent extremism.
  2. “Pull” factors, particularly social networks, can also be addressed, particularly when they include facilitating access to economic opportunity and services, as well as enhancing the voice of marginalized populations in their communities or societies. CIPE works to empower women politically, culturally and economically across the globe to help them develop their own power base, advocate reforms and exert leadership. In Bangladesh, CIPE helped the Bangladesh Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI) achieve a number of local and national level policy changes regarding access to credit for women entrepreneurs. Similarly in Pakistan, CIPE and its partners worked to reform the Trade Organizations Ordinance, which improved women’s representation on chamber boards and allowed women to form their own chambers. These initiatives reduce the presence of “pull” factors, as they work to suppress feelings of marginalization and relative deprivation, and instead help people feel included and represented with their country.
  3. Political drivers are also responsive to development assistance. While general democracy and governance approaches may have indirect effects on countering VE, interventions targeting at risk communities can be more effective. For example, police harassment and intimidation can impact at risk communities. This can be mitigated by activities such as community policing, NGO advocacy, and media coverage. Programs focused on democratic governance and anti-corruption can also directly address poorly governed or un governed areas by building confidence between local communities and governments. For example, assisting legitimate government actors to organize town hall meetings and conduct small scale infrastructure projects can increase such interaction and demonstrate government responsiveness.
  4. Media and communications are central to development responses to the drivers of violent extremism and insurgency. For example, USAID provided an initial grant to ToloTV in Afghanistan in 2002. Tolo has since become a highly influential moderate voice in Afghanistan and, with 45 percent market share, is Afghanistan’s most popular television station. 34

Cultural sensitivities “are principles that should be considered to address cultural drivers, for example, by respecting indigenous and/or religious customs.” 35 Development actors should also avoid “stigmatizing specific communities, exposing implementing partners to an excessive risk of being targeted by VE entities, enabling VE entities to rally support through highlighting ‘Western meddling.’”36

Youth should also be provided opportunities for roles in community governance and “at-risk” individuals should be connected with mentorship, vocational training, etc.37 Mercy Corp reiterates that “[s]upply-side vocational training projects, not linked to meaningful employment in the marketplace, risk raising expectations that cannot be satisfied.”39 Successful programs must reduce the social and political exclusion of youth.

Significance for Democratic Challenges and Renewal

When analyzing the drivers of VE, it is important to understand that no one factor contributes to the rise of this democracy-threatening phenomenon. Both “push” and “pull” factors, as well political drivers and socioeconomic context, all come into play to determine the likelihood that a certain region or country is susceptible to the growth of VE. In order to curb the spread of VE within their borders, countries across the globe need to be fully aware of the various VE factors and how they influence one another to create an environment conducive for VE to grow. Countries that fail to adhere to the rule of law (i.e. accountable government, respect and protection for the rights of people, equal economic opportunity for all etc.) exhibit authoritarian tendencies and fail to meet the basic needs of their people are more prone to suffer from structural “push” factors. Ultimately these “push” factors give rise to VE “pull” factors among their populations. Therefore, it is important that countries strive to practice strong democratic governance characterized by transparency, open dialogue, efficient regulation, political and economic opportunity, and effective rule of law.

Donors can play a significant role in strengthening democratic and market-based institutions and processes. Countries with a strong democratic system and functioning market economy are less likely to exhibit the push factors that lead to VE. As a result, donors can focus more attention on developing micro-level programs to address any “pull” factors that may exist among the much smaller segments of the population that are prone to violence.

About the Author:

Jessica Jones is a second year Masters candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, concentrating in International Economics and Strategic Studies. Prior to SAIS, she worked as an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, the United Nations, and the State of Oregon. Recently, she has worked for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the Congressional Research Service, and the U.S. Department of Commerce on international trade, economic, and defense matters. She graduated cum laude from Vanderbilt University and with honors from Emory Law School.

End Notes:

1 “Guide to the Drivers of Violent Extremism,” USAID (Feb. 2009), p. 9; “The Development Response to Violent Extremism and Insurgency,” USAID (Sept. 2011), p. 3.
2 “Drivers,” p. 9.
3 Id., p. 10.
4 Id., p. 6.
5 Id., p. 11.
6 Id., p. 11.
7 See “Drivers; Hafez Ghanem, “Economic inclusion can help prevent violent extremism in the Arab world,” Brookings (Nov. 10, 2015); Eelco Kessels and Christina Nemr, “Countering Violent Extremism and Development Assistance,” Global Center on Cooperative Security (Feb. 2016), p.1.
8 USAID, “Drivers,” p. 19.
9 See “Drivers; Hafez Ghanem, “Economic inclusion can help prevent violent extremism in the Arab world,” Brookings (Nov. 10, 2015); Eelco Kessels and Christina Nemr, “Countering Violent Extremism and Development Assistance,” Global Center on Cooperative Security (Feb. 2016), p.1.
10 Ghanem, “Economic inclusion;” USAID, “The Development Response,” p. 3.
11 USAID, “The Development Response,” p. 3; USAID, “Drivers,” p. 2.
12 USAID, “Drivers,” p. 20.
13 Id., p. v.
14 Id., p. 21.
15 USAID, “Drivers,” p. iii.
16 Id., p. 16.
17 “Drivers of Violent Extremism: Hypotheses and Literature Review,” Royal United Services Institute (Oct. 2015), pp. 19 -20.
18 Id., p. 19.
19 USAID, “Drivers,” p. 16.
20 Id.
21 Id., viii. Specific grievances broadly arise from: (1) domestic political, economic, and social dynamics or (2) “foreign-stimulated” dynamics resulting from the international system’s impact with a country. Id., 65.
22 Id., viii.
23 Id., pp. 65-68.
24 Id., p. 68.
25 Id.
26 Georgia Holmer, “Countering Violent Extremism: A Peacebuilding Perspective,” United States Institute of Peace (2013), pp. 3-4.
27 Id., pp. 27-50.
28 Id., pp. 55-60.
29 USAID, “Drivers,” p. ii.
30 Id., p. 4.
31 USAID, “The Development Response,” p. 4.
32 USAID, “Drivers,” p. ii.
33 Holmner, “Countering Violent Extremism,” p. 3.
34 USAID, “The Development Response,” p. 4.
35 Id., pp. 4-5.
36 Id., p. 5.
37 James Khalil and Martine Zeuthen, “Countering Violent Extremism and Risk Reduction,” Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (June 2016), p. vi.
38 Id., p. vi.
39 “Youth & Consequences: Unemployment, Injustice and Violence,” Mercy Corps (2015), p.2.