Despite claims by Nigerian authorities, Boko Haram appears far from defeated. It has killed nearly 400 people in a spate of suicide bombings, often using women and children, since April, double the figure of the previous five months.
In Kenya, counter-terrorist agencies have struggled to overcome al-Shabaab networks. In recent weeks, more than 20 people have been killed in the country’s restive north-eastern coastal province of Lamu.
“This study sounds the alarm that as a region, Africa’s vulnerability to violent extremism is deepening,” said the UN Development Programme’s Africa director, Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, at the launch on Thursday.
About 80% of recruits interviewed for the UN’s research joined within a year of introduction to the violent extremist group – and nearly half of these joined within just one month.
The most common emotion when joining was “hope/excitement”, followed closely by “anger”, “vengeance” and “fear”.
Those who join extremist groups tend to have lower levels of religious or formal education and less understanding of the meaning of religious texts, Yahya said.
Although more than half of the respondents cited religion as a reason for joining an extremist group, 57% also admitted understanding little to nothing of the religious texts or interpretations, or not reading religious texts at all.
“Our work suggests that actually understanding one’s religion can strengthen resilience to the pull of extremism,” Yahya said.
Many analysts and policymakers have blamed religious education for the spread of violent extremism. Yahya and his team found, however, that receiving at least six years of religious schooling reduced the likelihood of joining an extremist group by as much as 32%.
The idea that their “religion is under threat” was found to be a common perspective among many respondents.
“The success of the ideology is that it gives the individual a chance to fight back against their conditions, which are portrayed as due to the government or some global conspiracy,” Yahya said.
Around a third of those who joined extremist groups voluntarily said they had never visited cities as a child, and reported less mixing at school than their reference group counterparts.
This suggests that “in some instances, a higher level of mobility and exposure to others may generate a greater confidence in others, and resilience to future radicalisation”, the researchers concluded.