Does a faltering economy promote radicalism?

Since the infamous 9/11 terror attacks that shook America, and indeed, much of the developed world, many academics have all been looking for exactly what is the root cause of the radicalism that pervades and is so cancerous to modern society. However, the main core of the problem may not be political, or even psychological: it might be economic. Religion, which has been touted to no end as the reason why radicals commit the heinous acts that they commit, may merely be a form of escapism, hiding the real problem: prolonged economic woe. From the decades-long war still ravaging Afghanistan to the ongoing Syrian crisis, it is clear that the economy has been to blame for the sorry state in which these countries find themselves in. Although it could be argued that social and geopolitical factors led to economic stagnation in the first place, it can be easily seen that the financial woes which the country’s inhabitants found themselves in after the preceding geopolitical instability pushed them over the edge into radicalism.

Let’s look firstly at Afghanistan. The country had seen a period of substantial, prolonged economic growth in the 1970s, but all that stopped with the Soviet occupation of the country in the latter period of that decade. The Wezārat-e pelan plan intended to make Afghanistan’s economy self-sufficient was unfortunately halted with the communist overthrow, and the eruption of war in the country led to a mass exodus of 200,000 refugees from the country, along with the internal displacement of 1.5 to 2 million people. Intuitively, this led to a great decrease in productivity levels of the country, which, in turn led to a decrease in gross output. This stalled the GDP and economic growth of Afghanistan heavily. 16 years on from this, a generation of Afghans disillusioned by the continued economic stagnation formed a terror group that came to be known as the Taliban. This Islamic fundamentalist group went on to control the country for 5 years, from 1996 to 2001, and till date, still control large swathes of the country. Of course, stalled economic growth is contemporaneous with high levels of unemployment, and it would not be far-fetched to proclaim that the Taliban came about mainly as a rebellion against the extreme lack of opportunities for Afghan youth at the time.

A more recent example to look at, as an example of the importance of the economy when it comes to radicalism is Nigeria. There perhaps is no country in which the informal sector takes up such a large proportion of the economy as Nigeria. Some sources indicate that this sector takes up 75% of the entire country’s economy. The problem with the informal sector is that incomes for informal sector workers are highly unstable; a family can take home enough to feed them one day and nothing the next. Some informal sector employment is also highly seasonal (especially that to do with tourism of the physical landscape) and therefore does not provide a reliable source of income for families. Therefore, during periods of sustained financial hardship, a family might grow embittered with the economic state of the country at the time, which is precisely what has happened in Nigeria. Even within the terrorist group itself, members have experienced discontent at their cumbersome financial situation, which led to their ex-leader being summarily executed in July 2009. When people cannot provide even the basic necessities for their families, an increasing likelihood arises of them being swayed by unfounded promises of a better life working for radical terrorist groups, such as, indeed, Boko Haram.

In Syria, major economic sanctions placed on the country restricting it from partaking in trade with the Arab League and the European Union have pushed the country into a state of economic decline. As of late 2013, the total economic damages from the Syrian Civil War have been estimated at around $143 billion, a massive amount for a country of Syria’s size. In addition, the severe drought that plagued the country caused its agricultural sector to plunge into a state of deep decline, and as 25% of Syria’s total labour force were employed in this sector, this meant that their incomes were drastically reduced as well. With the advent of the Green Revolution in farming having marginalised non-technological Syrian farming further, a large proportion of Syrians became dissatisfied with their quality of life, and desired something more. The utopian vision of ISIL, therefore, appealed to them as a way out of this negative spiral; a sole light in the dark, as it were. Due to the dissatisfaction of both the agricultural sector and the people working in other non-lucrative jobs, ISIL gained traction through an increased membership and, till date, has achieved widespread global notoriety. Although there might be different facets of the economy to blame in each unique case, one thing is indubitably clear: economic stagnation does, indeed, promote radicalism.

By Shrey Srivastava

A finance and economics enthusiast, and someone who wants to share his views with the world.


  1. ” As of late 2013, the total economic damages from the Syrian Civil War have been estimated at around $143 billion, a massive amount for a country of Syria’s size. ”

    Why do you refer to it as a “civil war”. The existing Syrian government is obviously under attack by the USA and others. ISIS is obviously a contrivance of the CIA/Mossad. The USA just pretends to be fighting ISIS (we have evidence of the USA supplying ISIS). ISIS is the USA boots on the ground in Syria.


  2. For someone of your age, you have an excellent grasp of geo-political issues. You think well, argue well and write well – kudos!

    If Afghans, pre-70s, kept the country fairly stable and economically viable, why shouldn’t the Taliban/ISIS guys do the same along with their brethren when they emerged as indigenous force? After all it is their people and their country. They were good enough to be armed to the hilt by the Americans to drive out the Russians. But later when they wanted the Americans to get lost from their land as well, the Americans made them mortal enemies not only to them and the West but also to the rest of the world. ISIS targets were principally Westerners, particularly the Americans. Thousands of their own people getting killed in the process is collateral damage unfortunately.

    Who is a worse devil (to the rest of the world) I wonder – the Americans or the ISIS?


    1. Well, I’ve heard that in some countries in the Middle East, they call the USA “Big Satan” and the UK “Little Satan”. In my opinion, ISIS will have to edge it as the worse of the two evils, however, that isn’t to say that the USA is popular at all in the rest of the world.


  3. Excellent article, Shrey! As an urban dynamicist, the data I analyze provides numeric value to what people experience in their everyday lives in inner cities. I see the data and trends, systems’ behaviors, of foreclosure rates, condemned and vacant building rates, crime, unemployment, low education levels, and lack of access to jobs. After viewing this data, it is easy to see how some areas in cities in the United States are economically depressed.

    However, places like Syria and Afghanistan are a completely different animal. They are obviously magnitudes worse because not only have their respective economic systems collapsed, but so have their political and social systems. And as you correctly pointed out, ISIS provides the only stable market in town.

    If you’re interested in depressed market places, you may find the documentary Crips and Bloods: Made in America of interest. It’s not Syria or Afghanistan, but as you’ll see, these inner city gangs from traditionally disenfranchised groups have been at war since the early 70’s.


  4. Reblogged this on Urban Dynamics and commented:
    We know from previous articles here on Urban Dynamics that crime is usually concentrated in areas of urban blight and decay. However, what happens if the system completely collapses? And why? In this guest blog, Shrey Srivastava explores the economic aftermath. – The Systems Scientist


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