Since 2001, the international community has spent enormous intellectual and political capital debating and negotiating the definition of violent extremism to design effective strategies and programs. Despite an array of efforts to identify and prevent lone wolf actors, counter the influence of extremist narratives, and conduct military operations against armed terrorist groups, violent extremism continues to spread. The reason is that the international community and vulnerable countries are focused on the symptoms and not the key source of the problem, now identified in multiple studies: state predation and marginalization that drives desperate citizens to look for alternatives. For some, the most readily available choice is support for and membership in violent extremist groups.

So, what does state predation look like, and why does it make al-Shabab, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, and ISIS appear as viable alternatives? And how can the international community address these scourges more effectively?

State predation occurs when a class of elite exploit the institutions that are meant to address collective needs and instead extract community wealth and resources. In this scenario, political parties don’t provide a channel for public participation and expression, but rather prey on their constituents. Further, to protect their criminal activities, political parties co-opt or starve official security forces, and create private militias that control the use of force.

In this environment, security actors, rather than protecting communities, actually cause insecurity. In other words, the very features of democracy — political parties, representative-constituent relationships, and institutions of justice and security – become the mechanisms for elite predation, in turn undermining democracy’s legitimacy.

Under these conditions, violent extremist groups don’t look particularly different, except that they offer opportunities for those dispossessed by the now-twisted form of “democracy.” Furthermore, given the sclerotic, exclusionary leadership in many fragile states and lack of opportunities for professional advancement, the appeal of youthful, ambitious violent extremist leaders is a potent promise of mobility and agency.

Kenya could be a case in point. In 2011, the Kenyan security forces launched Operation Linda Nchi (Protect the Nation) in southern Somalia, to respond to a series of al-Shabab cross-border raids, secure the eastern border, and create a buffer zone in southern Somalia. As a cornerstone of U.S. counterterrorism strategy in the region, Kenya ranks 16th among recipients of U.S. security assistance worldwide.

Yet, with all the increased security measures, terrorist attacks and related deaths in Kenya are increasing, according to the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism. U.S. policies on counterterrorism and violent extremism are so deeply focused on one aspect — the security dimension — that they do not address a critical cause of a multi-faceted problem.

One of the authors, Lauren, conducted a study in 2016 to understand the local dynamics behind violent extremism and its rise in Kenya. The study found that illegal and predatory land redistribution by Kenyan politicians to their political party loyalists often destroys communities and families who have lived off these lands for generations. Unmoored, many young people in these communities seek to re-create their economic status and sense of belonging, sometimes by joining extremist groups.

Kenyan politicians also extract rents from community businesses, hiring youth in private militias to secure their expropriation and keep out competitors. Youths who have no employment options in a struggling economy and who aren’t paid by politicians turn instead to vigilante groups or gangs, preying on citizens to pad their earnings. Thus, state predation increases risk of violent extremism by fueling resentment and alienation between citizens and government.

But the study also found that communities that were able to resist violent extremism were the same ones that were able to manage abusive Kenyan security forces in their neighborhoods. That is, communities that prevented or minimized extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests by police were stronger and more unified and could self-organize against extremists.

In addition, Kenyan communities that had not been torn by political violence driven by politicians who targeted opponents of other ethnic groups could come together across religious and ethnic lines to speak out against violent extremism. They could reinforce messages of tolerance and speak out effectively against violent retribution.

Kenya is not a singular case. Multiple recent studies have validated the relationship among corruption, predation, and violent extremism. The United Nations and regional organizations like the African Union recently identified anti-corruption efforts as key to country strategies for preventing violent extremism.

Reframing the Problem to Find Solutions 

So what is the alternative to the current, predominantly security-focused approach to violent extremism?

The first thing to do is reframe the problem. We need to shed the idea of fragile states that are too weak to counter the extremist threat. Fragile states often have weak state institutions. However, at their core is a strong, venal elite who prey on their citizens and undermine the state institutions that could check their power. They thrive on extremist violence to consolidate their predatory hold.

The often-cited distinction between states that are too weak to combat violent extremism and those that are simply unwilling to do so is too simplistic and misleading. Given the behavior of predatory elites, the presence of violent conflict in so-called fragile states seems more like a conscious choice to underfund certain institutions or abandon peripheral regions to gain from corruption or profit from conflict. It is through localized violence and mal-governed spaces that violent extremist groups enter and take hold.  

Once the violent extremist problem is reframed as a state predation problem, what are the options?

The first challenge is the current approach of U.S. foreign policy. In a political climate in which corrupt despots are painted as critical security partners in the war on terror, how do we make the case that holding these governments accountable is not only in the U.S. interest but actually a better solution to dealing with the threat of extremist violence?

One answer might be the new generation of political leaders in the United States and their interest in addressing gross inequality by holding power and money accountable – at home and abroad. This issue affects developed and developing states alike; it’s a moment of global reckoning.

The term fragility distracts us, putting us on the path of shoring up regimes that drive violent extremism through their predatory behavior – because that is often the result of typical efforts to address “fragility.We need to flip the script regarding our sensitivity to these states, because the predatory nature of the elite class has been a powerful driver of violent extremism all along. It’s time for a re-definition — and holding to account — of these so-called “fragile” (mal-governed) states.

The second challenge is to devise a strategy that directly targets state predation, recognizing that it cannot be left up to predatory elites to transform themselves. Such an approach must target the entire system, creating a new political-economy ecosystem; shutting off financial safe havens; and dismantling the mechanisms of predation. The whole incentive structure needs to shift. We already have many of these tools in place, but they are not being used in the context of countering violent extremism.

Creating a New Political-Economy Ecosystem

Many countries in the developing world are embracing financial inclusion, the extension of financial access through initiatives such as technologies that allow banking by mobile phone. This is a powerful mechanism not only for economic growth, but for global development and the achievement of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Robin Lewis, associate fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of its Financial and Digital Inclusion Reports, agrees that the conflict prevention aspects of financial inclusion need to be emphasized and prioritized. Extending banking and financial services to economically and politically isolated regions and marginalized groups can reduce violent extremist toe-holds. “Financial inclusion also increases a country’s tax base through direct payments to the government, and improves service delivery with direct payments to citizens,” Lewis says. Leakages to corrupt officials stop.

Lewis also describes the normative pressures on government officials when they join the international financial inclusion community, such as the Alliance for Financial Inclusion, which promotes gender equality and poverty alleviation. Financial inclusion alone will not transform corrupt, predatory states that drive violent extremism. It can, however, go a long way, if international financial norm-setting institutions also elevate issues of conflict prevention by addressing problems such as marginalization and predation that drive violent extremism and transparency.

Furthermore, when citizens can track their taxes via the new technology, they can more easily demand services — education, rule of law, and security – in return. And, when citizens get the services they need, they feel connected to their government, and the attraction of violent extremism declines precipitously.

Holding Out Carrots and Cutting Off Safe Havens 

Economic growth through integrative and inclusive financial systems also can channel some elites out of corruption and predation. A global governance organization that could provide incentives for good behavior is the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the intergovernmental body established by the Group of 7 economic powers over concerns about money-laundering. Focused on safeguarding the international financial system, FATF is mandated to review its members’ practices and make recommendations that protect against misuse (money laundering, terrorism financing, etc.). Although it only has policy setting and review authority, FATF is an opportunity for governments to engage with the global financial elite, and its attention has increasingly turned to corruption as an underlying enabling condition.

Investing in financial inclusion will require strong cybersecurity. As the need for collective protection in cyberspace becomes critical and states clamor to join such efforts, there is an opportunity for financial and cybersecurity institutions to pay more attention to the relationship among mal-governance, the financial bad habits of predatory elites — offshore accounts, siphoning legitimate economic growth into illicit networks, for example — and the persistence or increased appeal of violent extremist groups. Transparent, accountable, and inclusive financial systems can be prerequisites for participation in financial networks and for benefitting from the cybersecurity that comes with it.

Dismantling the Mechanisms of Predation 

The final prong of this strategy is to dismantle the predatory mechanisms that abuse and brutally exploit citizens and drive them to radicalization and support for extremism. This requires Western donors to reform and rebalance democracy and governance programming, no longer turning a blind eye to how it may be enabling political party patronage systems and their armed youth and militia groups.

In order to avoid regime destabilization, democracy assistance has for years focused on inclusion — youth engagement, citizen participation, empowering women — without similar attention to dismantling the systems of exclusion. A key to tackling exclusion, according to Sef Ashiagbor, senior advisor for political parties at the National Democratic Institute, is “to apply international pressure, in order to give citizens a fighting chance to hold politicians accountable.”  A good example of exerting diplomatic pressure, putting political parties in a “pinch” between international and citizen pressure, is Ukraine, where the IMF is not releasing funding tranches until politicians implement anti-corruption measures identified by Ukraine’s civil society.

It is time for a balanced approach. Improving the skills and raising the expectations of the marginalized only for them to encounter the same barriers or find that the rules of the game have again been changed, can increase radicalization in groups that Western assistance has empowered.

Violent extremist groups continue to grow from the sense of injustice, futility, and betrayal that stems from predatory state behavior. A comprehensive countering strategy needs to focus squarely on the relationship between citizens and their state by creating leverage for citizens to exercise their democratic power and authority.

IMAGE: Delegates attend a regional conference on countering violent extremism on June 25, 2015, in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. The three-day regional conference brought together 300 participants — international and local security experts, policymakers, government officials, religious leaders, Islamic scholars, and civil society. (Photo: TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)