Youth Unemployment in the Middle East Causes Radicalization

As young Middle Eastern people have grown more radicalized, ISIL used the wave of disillusionment to expand their numbers.
04/17/2016 08:22 pm ET Updated Apr 18, 2017
Iraqi soldiers hold a flag that they seized from the Islamic State group (IS) as they hold a position near the frontline on A
Iraqi soldiers hold a flag that they seized from the Islamic State group (IS) as they hold a position near the frontline on April 9, 2016 in the town of Kharbardan, located 10 kilometres (6 miles) south of Qayyarah, during military operations to recapture the northern Nineveh province from IS jihadists. Iraqi army troops and allied paramilitary fighters on March 24 launched a major offensive aimed at retaking the northern Nineveh province, the capital of which, Mosul, is the main hub of IS in Iraq. Qayyarah is about 60 kilometres (35 miles) south of Mosul. / AFP / SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

Following the recent ISIL attacks, which ripped through Brussels with devastating impact, we are left mourning the loss of innocent lives, a situation growing all too familiar. Within in this process of mourning is the media circus that surrounds such tragic acts of senseless aggression.

In the aftermath of last year's attacks on Paris and San Bernardino, the media heavily focused on ISIL's ability to recruit foreign fighters. Although the media's focus is justifiable, foreign fighters pose the most direct threat to the West; we have largely neglected to understand ISIL's recruitment process in the Middle East. Without a comprehensive understanding of ISIL's ability to recruit the Middle Eastern population to their cause, our attempts to end their operation will remain too narrow and continue to be undermined by the economic factors at play in the Middle East.

Experts agree foreign recruits are drawn to ISIL's cause because they are searching for a sense of identity. Mehdi Hasan, a British political journalist and Al Jazeera presenter, states expatriate recruits are able to find a sense of purpose and belonging within the ISIL ideology. Hasan claims ISIL "empowers the individual within the collective." This same logic must be applied to Middle Eastern ISIL recruits. Hasan believes too much emphasis has been placed on recruits' internal motivation. ISIL claims to be a group motivated by a blind faith to Islam, and the West has chosen to believe that narrative. In doing so, we fail to interpret the circumstantial evidence present in Middle Eastern society. We overlook the Middle East's youth unemployment crisis as an alternative explanation for ISIL's swelling ranks.

For some time, the Middle East has hosted the world's worst youth unemployment rate. Due to the economic downturn we saw at the end of last decade, youth unemployment rates across the world were abnormally high; however, the Middle East has been unable to recover. In 2012, the United Nations University lists 25% of the Middle East's youth population as unemployed. In recent years, this rate has continued to expand. The British Council listed Middle Eastern youth unemployment at 29.8% for 2015. While these rates alone are worrying, the Brookings Institute reports 30% of the Middle East's population is between 15-29. A large chunk of their population has no source of income. Malak Zaalouk, previously UNICEF's Regional Senior Advisor to the Middle East, states unemployed youth are easily marginalized and radicalized. Unemployment brings a sense of hopelessness and increases the likelihood that individuals will lash out in retaliation against the system that has failed them. The Arab Spring provides a perfect example of this phenomenon.

A lack of employment opportunities factored into the violence that erupted across the region. The British Council reports that support for the uprising have diminished since 2012. Only 38% of young people feel the Middle East has seen improvements since the uprising; meanwhile, 39% believe that democracy will never become a reality in the region. As young people continue to face heavy unemployment rates, they have grown more desperate to find economic stability.

As young Middle Eastern people have grown more radicalized, ISIL used the wave of disillusionment to expand their numbers. In 2015, CNN reported that the average age of an ISIL recruit was 16-25. These youths were described as poor and unemployed. But how can joining ISIL benefit an unemployed Middle East youth? For starters, ISIL pays their fighters well. The Council on Foreign Relations estimates an ISIL fighter earns an average of $350 a month. They report this monthly salary is as much as five times more than the average citizen earns in ISIL controlled territory. Due to high unemployment, Middle Eastern youth have largely been excluded from economic participation; however, ISIL, unlike current institutions, has been able to provide a means for economic success. With this increase in economic prosperity comes a sense of purpose within the youth population. Mirroring foreign fighters, the Middle Eastern youth find a sense of identity within ISIL collective.

As discussed, unemployment brings feelings of frustration, anger, and despair; however, these feeling are overcome when working towards a collective objective. While supporting ISIL increases economic participation, rejecting their ideology causes economic ostracism. The Atlantic reports that within ISIL-controlled territories, ISIL traders control the flow and price of goods. Traders set prices so high only militants have to means to purchase. Even if they do not want to reap economic benefit, young people face worsening economic conditions if they do not support ISIL's ideology. From an economic standpoint, they are almost forced to support the organization.

The United States' current foreign policy plan against ISIL does not address the crisis of youth unemployment; instead, we are merely attempting to destroy ISIL through military action. In 2014, President Obama announced plans for The Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. Sixty-six coalition partners came together and vowed to destroy ISIL. The coalition's main focus has been to deploy drone strikes to destroy ISIL's sources of income, such as oil refineries, and training camps.

Since the coalition's formation, the Council on Foreign Relations reports, as of May 2015, 80% of the drone strikes have been conducted by the US military. While destroying ISIL's sources of income will remove the economic incentive for fighters to join their ranks, it will not remedy the Middle East's youth unemployment crisis, the foundation of the problem. The US needs to zoom its foreign policy out from a purely militaristic endeavor. We must work to invest money into the Middle East's private and public infrastructure and create more jobs. By creating more jobs, we can reduce sense of insecurity in the Middle East, and in doing so diminish likelihood that young people will be swayed by radical ideology.

Anyone with a green thumb knows weeding a flowerbed does nothing unless the undesirable plants are removed by their roots. Simply removing the leaves gives the appearance of serenity, but over time the weeds creep back into existence.

The United State's military actions seek to eliminate the imminent threat of ISIL. While their elimination is necessary, we also must ultimately attack the root of youth radicalization, unemployment. Destroying ISIL is a temporary solution to a deeper issue. We must seek to remedy out of control unemployment rates so as to prevent the continual birth of radicalized organizations in the Middle East.