For more than 15 years, defeating global terrorism has been among the foremost national security priorities for the United States. As the approach has changed over time and the nature of this threat has adapted, our own ability to recognize some of the drivers of violent extremism has grown more sophisticated.
President Trump’s national security strategy names combating radicalization and recruitment in communities as a key priority for his administration. It contains an important recognition that terrorists “thrive where governments are weak, corruption is rampant, and faith in government institutions is low.”What should the United States and our allies do to tackle this insidious relationship? What should such an intervention look like? The impact of diminished citizen trust in the democratic process remains insufficiently understood as a driver of terrorism.
Research by the International Republican Institute suggests that the connection between corruption and violent extremism operates in a feedback loop: As violent extremism rises, governments with questionable democratic credentials often opt to maintain the status quo rather than undertake necessary democratic and anti-corruption reforms on the grounds of shoring up state-level “stability.”
Public opinion research indicates that corruption fuels the discontent and hopelessness preyed upon by terrorist recruiters around the world. The worldwide spread of violent extremism is often predicated on local dynamics feeding into a globalized phenomenon. While the interaction of multiple factors driving individuals and vulnerable groups to embrace terrorism is complex, dissatisfaction with the existing political order is one of the most common and consistent preconditions for individuals who embrace violent extremism.
When neglected or marginalized groups become convinced that they cannot build better lives within the existing power structure they become susceptible to the appeal of direct action and the promise of a clear and defining purpose offered by violent extremist organizations. Terrorist networks have become adept at exploiting this commonality in societies all over the world, particularly where citizens suffer from deficient governance and are excluded from the decision-making process.
Qualitative research in countries like Tunisia and Kosovo illustrates the direct connections between corruption and vulnerabilities to violent extremism in very different geographical and cultural contexts. Both countries have a relatively high percentage of citizens who have traveled abroad to join violent extremist organizations such as ISIS, and in both countries, corruption emerged as a common grievance among the segments of the population judged to be most vulnerable to violent extremism.
Corruption also enables violent extremism by buttressing the legitimizing narrative that radical groups utilize to recruit supporters. For example, recent research by Transparency International indicates that the Taliban were more successful in attracting support by denouncing corruption than appealing to religion. From a practical perspective, systematic corruption also undermines law enforcement and makes it easier for extremists to operate through the payment of bribes and other measures to evade scrutiny: ISIS relies on corrupt officials to smuggle weapons and people into Iraq and Syria and may even have teamed up with the Italian mafia to traffic oil.
As vulnerable states shore up their defenses against violent extremism, it is essential that transparency and responsive governance are treated as essential elements in delivering stability and security. Given the intertwined nature and highly localized manifestations of violent extremism and corruption, any attempts to address these mutually-reinforcing challenges must start by understanding the local context through a “vulnerabilities lens.” This includes supporting communities where corruption and other drivers of violent extremism are particularly prevalent and implementing a repertoire of open government tools that target at-risk individuals.
Working with international partners, the U.S. government and civil society organizations have a vital role to play in promoting interventions that address the intersection of corruption and violent extremism. While this is by no means the only element that should drive our approach, the evidence suggests that tackling corruption may enable us to better combat terrorism.
Eguiar Lizundia and Luke Waggoner are senior governance specialists at the International Republican Institute in Washington, D.C.Top