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Networks can defuse terrorism

Speed read
  • Information and communication technologies (ICT) open a window to the world.
  • This access is a double-edged sword: Mind-expanding knowledge yet bad influences.
  • The World Bank supports the development of national research and education networks to divert diasaffected youth away from violence.

In the spring of 2014, six months after graduating with a computer science degree from Puntland State University in Northern Somalia, 25-year-old Ahmed Rizak found a job at a local IT firm. Like many of his cohort, Rizak’s skillset did not quite match the firm’s needs. Yet the company’s business-plan to target locally educated Somali hires, new employees like Rizak, ushered him into a three-month reskilling program.

Rizak is the first of five college-educated cousins to find employment in the discipline he was trained for. Of the others, one cousin studied accounting but is now working in retail, an older brother forsook local job prospects and paid smugglers to arrange passage to Italy, while a third brother is still unemployed. Two months earlier a fourth cousin left home unannounced after two years of unrequited job searching — his family believes he has joined the militant group al-Shabaab.

<strong> Power vacuum.</strong> Given the right set of influences, young men and women seek respite with terrorists, seeing violence as the solution to the injustice they see in their lives. The World Bank seeks to fill the vacuum of opportunity by funding research and education networks in Somalia.

Experiences like Rizak and his family’s are by no means unique. Though the number of degree-awarding institutions in Somalia has grown in recent years, many universities lack the technological facilities and expert faculty necessary to help students graduate with skillsets and experience that meet market demand. Conversely, youth educated in the Somali diaspora often find that homegrown firms are unable to take full advantage of their capabilities.

With a 67% youth unemployment rate, in a country where the under-30 population is at 70% and expected to grow, demand for jobs increasingly outweighs their supply. Financial insecurity, cultural associations linking income generation with social standing, and a sense of institutional injustice often associated with structural unemployment, drive many young people to employment’s two most easily accessible alternatives — outward migration and violent extremism.

As governments, especially in the European Union, divert more resources towards stemming the migration crisis at its source rather than at their international borders, mitigating systemic joblessness within countries of origin has taken on new traction in international circles. As one of the most productive sectors of the economy, Somalia’s telecommunications sector is well positioned to boost job creation and counter emigration and violent extremism.

<strong> Tipping the scales. </strong> When education and employment opportunities dry up, violent extremism becomes an appealing option for disaffected youth recruited by terrorists. The World Bank is striving to change that equation.

Yet low human capital development in Somalia remains a major challenge curtailing this opportunity. As job supply continues to fall behind demand, young people’s growing exposure to new international experiences through information and communication technology (ICT) clashes with a perceived lack of opportunity at home. The resulting frustration is fertile ground for radical, extremist rhetoric to take root. As mobile and broadband infrastructure are able to reach settlements that are more and more remote, al-Shabaab and its affiliates are able to build on this frustration and similarly use these same communication tools for radicalization, recruitment, and training.

In the face of these challenges, a strong national research and education network (NREN) can leverage both the ICT and higher education sectors to help curb the appeal of radicalization and emigration. The World Bank is working with the federal government of Somalia to build out a strong NREN, first by covering Somalia’s contribution to a counterpart investment with the EU’s Africa Connect project in the advance purchase of bandwidth.

<strong> Alternate route. </strong> With unemployment nearing 70%, frustration and perceived injustice are the best recruiting tools for terrorist groups. Building out national research and education networks can mitigate the drain of emigration and violent extremism Somalia faces today. Courtesy Tim Kelly; World Bank.

In a Somali-driven process, World Bank funding also supports the build-out of a national backbone and network operating center, and capacity building and training programming for university and network operator staff. As a high performance communications network connecting university campus networks to each other and to other R&E networks globally, a NREN can enable universities to empower students with the skills and exposure necessary to boost a country’s entrepreneurship, science, and technology ecosystems, both in academia and the private sector.

The NREN’s access to bandwidth, authentication protocols, and other middleware would allow for the large data transfers — and cloud and grid computing — which the higher education sector requires to stay competitive. Local universities will then be able to provide the technical training the ICT sector needs for its role as a source of equitable economic growth to outweigh its function a communication vehicle for radicalism groups.

<strong> Fight the good fight.</strong> The smart fight against terrorism begins by understanding root causes. The World Bank has discerned that systemic unemployment and lack of opportunities are part of the reason young men and women find a life of violence appealing. But by funding the ICT sector in Somalia, the lure of terror can be dulled. Courtesy Tim Kelly; World Bank

Violent extremism tends to prey on young people who feel that the political, social, and economic context framing their lives is largely out of their control. Likewise, a student with good access to international sources of news and educational information, employable skill development, and clear, transparent stepping stones to economic sustainability, is less likely to become radicalized than a similar young person without internet access and university safe space.

With World Bank support, the development of a strong NREN in Somalia could make Ahmed Rizak’s employment experience more universal and bolster universities as counters to terrorism and sources of optimism, creativity, and national growth.

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