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Education alone doesn’t prevent terrorism. Here’s what else you need.

- January 5, 2017
Lily Atong, who was abducted as a young girl and forced to become a wife to Lord’s Resistance Army chief Joseph Kony in Uganda, relates her ordeals. (Isaac Kasamani/AFP/Getty Images)

In November, 15 years into the “Global War on Terror,” the Obama administration expanded the scope of the war. The outgoing administration declared al-Shabab, an Islamist militant group in Somalia, to be part of the armed conflict that Congress approved in its Authorization of Military Force resolution after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In doing so, President Obama opened the way for more aggressive military operations against the group.

In recent years, the African Union led military efforts that pushed al-Shabab away from its strongholds. But the group continues to recruit mostly young Somali men into its ranks.

Meanwhile, Somalia’s government has concluded that the way to defeat al-Shabab is to prevent young people from supporting and joining violent extremist groups to begin with. And so in September, Somalia’s legislature passed its first National Strategy and Action Plan for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism. When youth, especially young men, can’t get an education, many experts believe, they’re more likely to join violent groups. So it’s no surprise that one of the Somali plan’s major goals is increasing access to schooling.

But is that the right approach? New research from Mercy Corps, the organization I work for, questions this assumption.

Here’s how we did our research. 

Our research tested the hypothesis that getting an education would reduce participation in and support for political violence. We conducted our research in Somaliland. (Somaliland is considered an autonomous region of Somalia by the international community, but people there declared it an independent republic in 1991.) Al-Shabab is less active in Somaliland, but because it borders Somalia, violent extremism could easily spill over. News outlets have reported that Somaliland youth have been implicated in recent deadly attacks, leading the government to crack down on al-Shabab cells.

We compared 298 out-of-school youth, ages 15 to 21, with comparable 504 young people who attended secondary schools constructed and supported under Mercy Corps’s USAID-funded Somali Youth Learners Initiative program. Given the sensitive topic, we used cutting-edge survey methods to get young people to more truthfully answer questions about whether they were involved in or supported violence.

We were surprised by the results.

Formal education did indeed reduce the likelihood — by 16 percent — that young people would themselves get involved in violence. However, it increased support for political violence by 11 percent. In other words, secondary school youth were more likely than out-of-school youth to think that a political cause justified the use of violence. More education may actually increase support for violent extremism.

Digging deeper, we realized that under certain conditions, education can heighten the frustrations that lead to support for political violence. For example, in Somaliland, young people in formal education were less optimistic about their employment prospects — and they were more likely to believe that the government was not doing enough to provide education.

Violent groups may exploit this dissatisfaction and pessimism to gain young people’s support.

So how can governments (like the new one in Somalia) discourage violent extremism?

Our research offers some clues. In addition to improving access to formal secondary education, Mercy Corps’s program helped young people get involved in civic activities like community service campaigns, including beautifying their schools and organizing events to raise awareness about pressing issues facing youth, such as illegal migration.

That combination — education plus civic engagement opportunities — had a striking effect: Among this group of 242 young people, both participation and support for political violence dropped by 13 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

Why? Our survey revealed that having both education and a chance to get involved gave young people a sense of agency — along with an increased belief that nonviolent actions could achieve change. For example, young people in the education/civic engagement program were 15 percent more likely than young people who were neither in school nor involved in civic engagement activities to believe they could make a positive difference in their communities.

Education is important, but it is just the first step. What matters to young people is not just having a chance to learn but also being able to use what they learn to influence their lives, their communities and their nation. They want to know that they can be active, productive citizens who make a meaningful difference to their world.

Our results may have far-reaching and significant policy implications. Education isn’t enough. Education plus opportunity is what’s needed.

Beza Tesfaye is a research and writer based in Washington currently leading Mercy Corps’s research on youth, conflict and violent extremism. Find her on Twitter @bezates87.