Saferworld researches the impact of counter-terror approaches, and promotes long-term responses to crises and threats, with a focus on addressing the causes of conflict and prioritising peace, rights and development.

Why this matters

The circumstances that lead to atrocities by non-state groups – usually described as terrorism – are complex. Effective responses, whatever they may be, are unlikely to be simple.

The growth of ISIS, for example, has to be understood in terms of its ideological origins in Wahhabist religiosity, the socio-economic marginalisation of many people across the region, and the effect of Western wars in feeding a narrative that the West is intent on destroying Islam. (Rogers, 2015)

According to Martha Crenshaw’s historical survey of terrorist movements, they are usually an elite project led by a small number of ideologues from relatively privileged backgrounds (Crenshaw, 1981). But she also showed that groups bent on atrocities magnify their potency by mobilising popular support among an oppressed public, who harbour ‘concrete grievances’ against people of power (p. 383).

Similarly, Ömer Taşpınar has pointed out that the attraction of ideologically extreme movements grows with the relative deprivation of the public whose support they need, particularly when political and economic expectations are repeatedly frustrated (Taşpınar, 2015).

Accordingly, the socio-economic marginalisation of millions of people throughout the Middle East, whether as a result of Western strategy, World Bank policy, the actions of major corporations, or the policies of despotic governments in the region, provides fertile ground for extremist ideologies and movements.

If the West wants to dissuade young, disaffected people from joining or supporting a violent jihad against it, then it has to prove, and not merely declare, that it cares about their relative poverty and political exclusion.

The plight of the region’s people cries out for international solidarity, but external powers – the US and Russia in particular – have put the big money into military intervention. As of 2016, UNHCR was reporting a 38% funding gap, equivalent to $1.65 billion, as it attempted to coordinate accommodation for nearly five million refugees (UNHCR, 2016). By that point the US alone had spent four times that sum – $6.2 billion – on bombing ISIS.

Much to the UK’s credit, it provided more than its allocated share of funding to UNHCR’s Syria appeal (HC IDC, 2015), but by characterising the refugees at its own front door as a ‘bunch of migrants’ (Cameron, 2016), it has also signalled indifference to disaffected people in the Middle East.

The West willingly – even eagerly – sells arms to Saudi Arabia and other oppressive states even as they violently suppress democratic dissent, and to Israel, even as it commits severe human rights abuses in Palestine. These realities are not lost on the young men in particular that extreme Islamist movements seek to enlist.


For more about why rethinking security means changing the approach to ‘counter-terror’, see Rethinking Security: A discussion paper (section 6.3)

For more about proposals for a more effective response to the threat of atrocities by non-state groups, visit Saferworld.

References and further reading

CAAT, 2014a. ‘Bahrain’.

CAAT, 2014b. ‘Saudi Arabia’.

CAAT, 2015. ‘UK licensed £4 million of arms sale to Israel in four months following the bombing of Gaza’.

Cameron, D., 2016. as cited in A Sparrow, ‘Corbyn v Cameron at PMQs: Was “bunch of migrants” jibe intentional?’. Guardian, 27 January.

Crenshaw, M., 1981. ‘The causes of terrorism’. Comparative Politics, 13(4), pp. 379-399.

HC IDC (House of Commons International Development Committee). 2015. ‘Syrian refugee crisis (First report of session 2015-16)’.

Human Rights Watch, 2014. ‘Israel: In-Depth Look at Gaza School Attacks’.

Rogers, P., 2015. ‘Islamic State: why so resilient’.

Taşpınar, Ö., 2015. ‘You can’t understand why people join ISIS without understanding relative deprivation’.

UNHCR, 2016. ‘Syria regional refugee response’.