The Nexus Between Environmental Stimuli and Violent Extremism


In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, academics and policymakers have struggled to pinpoint a distinct factor that drives individuals towards violent extremism. In light of this, many have tested the hypothesis of whether poverty and poor economic conditions lead to an increase in violent extremism. Whilst other external stimuli can contribute to individuals perusing violent narratives, environmental factors can be understood to significantly shape approaches towards violence and peace.

Violent extremism thrives in environments with unsafe and harsh living conditions with limited resources. In societies with poor and fragile states, corruption tends to be vulnerable to terrorism. So long as there are conflicts and social injustices, these issues will not disappear.

The Role of Environment in Violent Extremism

The environment plays a key role in shaping a person’s physical and mental wellbeing, which can be both positively and negatively influenced. If a child is born and raised in a peaceful community, they will unlikely have the same outlook compared to a child who is raised in a community rife with conflict. The one that fights forgets the beauty of nature and what life has to offer, as the environment they have been exposed to has shaped that person to resort to violence as their first instinct.

Individuals born into war-torn countries with little opportunity are more likely to find themselves joining gangs in a bid to find a sense of belonging. The crime-nexus between criminal gangs and formal terrorist groups remains strong. Subsequently, analysis of data has indicated that individuals who already see violence as a justifiable course of action are more vulnerable to involvement in violent extremism, which is exacerbated by environmental strains.

Countries that are engaged in conflict, including Yemen, Iraq, Ethiopia, and Cameroon, are nations suffering from toxic environments. This includes war, pollution, social injustices, unemployment, and a lack of healthcare resources. Boko Haram significantly exploited environmental stresses in North-eastern Nigeria to expand its influence and gain control of territories. Similarly, when having a physical presence, ISIS paid $600 dollars in a bid to recruit fighters in Syria and Iraq. Due to a lack of monetary opportunities, individuals began to join on the basis that some form of income is better than non.

The manifestation of ‘welfare terrorism’ has significantly increased in light of fragile economic conditions. Hezbollah established multiple schools and medical facilities whilst al-Qaeda began funding money to improve youth education in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This not only fuels recruitment but encourages alienation and resentment towards the governments that are unable to fill this void.


In the last decade, multiple religious and political groups have exploited the vulnerable youth in Afghanistan to advance their ideological agendas. However, little to no effort has been made to address this. Since the Taliban established their new interim government in early September, a toxic environment has flourished. Due to a lack of governance and stability, the de-factor military role the Taliban has assumed has bred more violence. A significant reduction of international grand support and a loss of offshore assets has led to an increase in poverty and economic instability. This, in turn, has the potential to breed more extremist groups in Afghanistan with the potential to radicalize many more.

Extremist narratives are carefully crafted to appeal to those most vulnerable. The Taliban have previously used traditional and modern media platforms to encourage the youth to participate in violence, which often projects a constructive role that they can play in society. Whilst Afghanistan is on the brink of universal poverty, the Taliban are able to exploit vulnerable citizens who are desperate for aid.


Physical nature, governance, food, and healthcare are important when it comes to a person’s ability to fight extremist ideologies. Poverty feeds into terrorism by stripping away one’s basic human need to belong. The United Nations recognises the importance of creating social and economic opportunities for both rural and urban locations. This involves investing residents with the relevant skills and education to promote development. Many studies have concluded that high levels of civil liberties along with strong governance have correlated with a low number of terrorist attacks. Thus, government responsibility extends to establishing appropriate governance and opportunities for their civilians.

Civil Society must step in to assist in war-torn countries that are rife with conflict. If not, the potential for individuals to become more suspectable to extremist beliefs is a significant possibility. Likewise, the ability for formal terrorist groups to recruit vulnerable individuals could present a significant security threat, both domestically and internationally. In the case of Afghanistan, it remains paramount that the country is supplied with humanitarian aid in a bid to assist residents.

Ahmad Shah Mohibi is the founder of Rise to Peace and a former US counterterrorism Adviser in Afghanistan 

Neglecting Afghanistan: Lessons to be Learnt From the 9/11 Attacks 20-Years Later

Exactly two decades ago, the United States witnessed a deadly attack that transformed the international security landscape overnight. Only six weeks following the attacks, the Patriot Act was passed by Congress in an attempt to catch ‘terrorists among us,’ on both an international and domestic scale. Consequently, then US President George Bush launched the global War on Terror. This resulted in a 20-year war in Afghanistan, led by US coalition forces which cost the US over $6.4 trillion dollars.

It is believed that if US intelligence had been able to puzzle the pieces together sooner the attacks – which claimed the lives of almost 3,000 individuals – could have been prevented. This may have likely been the case, had the US not turned their backs on Afghanistan only 10-years earlier in the 1990s.

Cold War Origins

Following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, US forces began to engage in Afghanistan by proxy. Through Pakistani intelligence services, then President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, initiated a programme to arm the mujahedeen. In 1981, Operation Cyclone became the largest covert operation, which saw the US supply money and weapons to the mujahedeen. In total, it is estimated that the operation cost approximately $3bn US dollars.

Only 8-years later, politically, socially and mentally drained, the Soviet Union gave up on Afghanistan. In the Geneva Accords, signed in 1988, the US agreed to cease funding to the mujahedeen whilst the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw from Afghanistan completely. Only three years later, the Afghanistan government had collapsed. The country was subsequently enveloped in a civil war between the older mujahedeen factions. As a result, the Taliban quickly gained power, whose interpretation of Islamic sharia laws made life repressive and brutal for various women, opponents and ethnic/religious minorities.

The political climate in Afghanistan leading up to the attacks was a result of both the US and Soviet Union abandoning their foreign policy in the Middle East. As the Soviet Union Ambassador recognised, “We meddled in Afghanistan, and then we stopped paying attention.” Only 10-years later, al-Qaeda orchestrated the deadliest terrorist attack in history on American soil. The group’s involvement with Afghanistan was brought to light in the weeks following the attacks. From 1996-2001, then leader of the Taliban, Mohammed Omar, had developed close ties with Bin Laden as he plotted the deadly attacks.

9/11 stands as a stark reminder that for policymakers, walking away from the problem is not the solution. Instead, it can exacerbate existing issues and create significant security risks. In light of this, it is imperative that policymakers do not repeat the same mistakes 20-years later.

Two Decades Later

The Taliban have a poor track record of sticking to their promises, often stating one thing then doing another. In turn, they promise actions but do not follow through. Currently, the US has placed a great deal of faith in the Taliban.  Whilst the group has advocated that they will not harbour terrorists, they still maintain a close relationship with al-Qaeda. Consequently, many of the new leaders announced in Afghanistan’s interim government have former ties to the group.

If the Taliban are not monitored closely, US national security may face severe security threats in the near future. It is a prominent possibility that under Taliban control, radical Islamist terrorism could resurge, with attacks aimed at democratic societies. The 9/11 attacks should act as a forceful reminder, that US citizens safety is not guaranteed if the Taliban are allowed to operate on their own terms.


Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban is an indicator that US intelligence needs revising. The Biden administration hugely underestimating the magnitude and speed of the Taliban’s ability to conquer cities and towns across Afghanistan. As Richard Fonataine from the Centre for a New American Security recognised, “the key miscalculation was the assumption that the US would have the luxury of time.”

This is not the first time that American intelligence has failed to predict and prevent such security failures. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, the US Department of Defence failed to recognise the magnitude of the threat from al-Qaeda. In 1997, the US intelligence community regarded Bin-Laden as a financier of terrorism, but not as a leader himself. Domestically, the FBI had little to no knowledge of the broader national security risks. Those working on counterterrorism strategies did so in spite of limited intelligence, which was worsened by legal barriers between both the CIA and FBI in intelligence sharing. If both organisations were able to do so, a comprehensive picture of al-Qaeda’s strategic framework may have been uncovered and disrupted.

The US must engage and have a prominent diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, with intelligence that focuses strongly on the region. If not, an attack comparable to the magnitude of the ones witnessed on 9/11 may be a dominant possibility.

The Future of Afghanistan

The Taliban’s ideology has not fundamentally changed. However, their strategy has. Instead, the Taliban are engaging in a much more persuasive game of psychological warfare. The lessons learnt from the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, demonstrate that neglecting Afghanistan can have grave consequences for international security. The US must ensure they have a strong diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, with adequate intelligence closely monitoring the political landscape in the upcoming months.


#TalibanOurGuardians: Taliban Support Trends via Twitter During Afghanistan Repression

It is not a new agenda for Twitter to be the ‘go to’ space for encouraging violent extremist activities, though, since America made the decision to withdraw their military troops from Afghanistan, it has been pervaded with tweets related to Afghanistan’s latest events.

The Content

Twitter has been filled with widespread opinions on the actions taken against Afghan people by the Taliban since early June. For instance, some question how they make the shocking choice to become abductors in the first place, and consider these ‘symbolic acts of bravery’: “What does it say about the fundamentals they follow?” One user queries. It seems that it is not traditional Islam they aspire to and believe in, but instead their own remodelled version of its culture that forces militarization upon vulnerable people and is then rattled by their lack of appeal.

On the other hand, the majority of users were easily identified as supporters of the Taliban through tweets and pictures that expressed their appreciation towards the group and their violent acts. One supporter quotes, “All Muslims around the world support #Taliban” which touches upon a controversial topic, but suggests that Taliban supporters online are essentially brainwashed by the Taliban-led approach to Islam. Other supporters share simple but meaningful tweets and pictures that highlight gratitude towards the Taliban and their activities to date, as evidenced below. However, all tweets are collectively managed through one specific hashtag: #TalibanOurGuardians. There were approx. 70% of content that referenced the hashtag demonstrated support towards the Taliban, whilst the remaining 30% appeared non-supportive and against the Taliban government to reform policy and livelihoods in Central Asia.

Picture 1 300x154 - #TalibanOurGuardians: Taliban Support Trends via Twitter During Afghanistan Repression

(Photograph highlights recent tweets from Taliban supporters across Twitter since June 2021 – for research purposes).

How are the Taliban described?

Since early June, the vocabulary used by Taliban supporters on Twitter was for the most part positive or in favour of the group, their governing intentions, and pleaded that their actions whilst taking over Afghanistan were feasible. Some describe the Taliban using terms that compliment them, such as heroes, intelligent, brave, our protectors and honourable economy, and ‘not terrorists’. The online support for the Taliban suggests that there is a worrying increase of group interest since their uproar against the Afghan people and justification for using violence as a way to eliminate non-believers and gain control quicker. Nevertheless, these audiences trust that the Taliban are devoted soldiers that are simply taking back their country and offer protection from democracy that is destroying their legacy; despite the evidence that draws upon links with terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda that assisted attacks to be carried out.

In contrast, some users directly challenge this perspective and perceive the Taliban negatively with regards to their decisions to brutally murder innocent people to gain power. One non-supporter argues how Afghan people are a ‘threat’ to the Taliban, such as Afghan comedian Khasha who was beaten and killed by Taliban members which was video streamed online. Examples of terms used by non-supporters to describe the Taliban are the enemy, animals, diabolical and fanatic idiots, and terrorists. It seems that non-supporters of the Taliban question their legitimacy as followers of Islam and regard their captures of new areas more recently as downfalls, not victories, due to the negative impact and unfortunate consequences they have caused.

Who are the Taliban supporters on Twitter?

Amongst the small number of tweets that remain public, the majority of Taliban supporters were men in comparison to women and often spoke highly of having children or displayed pictures with/ of children that appear to be culturized into the group as young soldiers. For instance, one supporter argues that “Afghans are happy under Taliban control” occupied by pictures of children engaging with Taliban fighters. Does this highlight the truth in Afghanistan? Or a militant’s perspective of bringing up children (young boys) under the Taliban’s command? Similar to how research confirms that ISIL supporters online reflect behaviours of fighters offline in regards to bravery, pro-Taliban users speak of a stable environment for women and children in Afghanistan to soften its destroyed neighbourhoods, and appeal to vulnerable users. However, the reality is contradictory, which a hashtag-user outlines on Twitter:

Picture 1 1 286x300 - #TalibanOurGuardians: Taliban Support Trends via Twitter During Afghanistan Repression

Additionally, some content outlines the Taliban’s hatred towards journalists, judges, peace activists and women in power, which reporters describe as their targets in their new strategy. For instance, Saba Sahar documents through a Twitter video that “The Taliban can never accept that I am a policewoman” which resulted in her experiencing an assassination attempt by the Taliban. Non-believers took to Twitter to respond to her video with praise regarding bravery and the disgrace of the Taliban’s attitude towards women, despite their claims of gender equality and safety for women.

Going Forward

Looking to social media is undeniably credible for understanding the risk to Afghan people and the active beliefs of pro-Taliban users online. By using the internet as a data source to gather information on the impact and opinions of governmental decisions, we can source out areas for future development in Counter-Terrorism. This includes better disruption techniques of video content that particularly displays brutal and disturbing scenes, and of key terms or hashtags as red flags for advertising false information online that manipulates and assists radicalisation. Alongside this, we can distinguish the problems faced by Afghan communities from different areas around the globe and the perspectives on the positions of power and its consequences for governmental disputes in the future.

Islam vs Islamism? The Realpolitik of Islamic Jihadism in Africa

Decades of internecine conflicts, and bloody civil wars have left inedible scars across Africa, and the consequent weakening (or failure) of multiple nations across the continent. Islamist terrorist groups such as Ansar Dine (Mali), Boko Haram (Nigeria) and Al-Shabab (Somalia) have found fertile ground by exploiting the specific deteriorating political and economic conditions of individual African states. Jihadist groups have positioned themselves as a superior alternative to the corruption of central governments across Africa, and in doing so allowed them to win the support of some of the most desperate communities on the continent.

Why is Islamism able to spread?

In the past twenty years alone almost a hundred political conflicts have occurred in West African states alone. In north Africa Chad and Sudan are still witnessing a fratricidal war that has been going on and off for more than forty years. While in central Africa Angola has experienced thirty years of civil war. This instability and violence mean that the threat to regional peace and security posed by Islamist terrorist groups often goes overlooked. During the same period, more than 40,000 people have lost their lives in more than 9,000 terrorist attacks by religious extremist groups in sub-Saharan Africa.

Regional conflicts, prolonged internal violence, and civil wars nearly invariable leads to collapses of governance.  Throughout history, in any country whose central government fails to guarantee the security and welfare of its citizens, its people are driven to alternative organizations to fulfill such basic needs as food, shelter, and security. Often in such crises smaller entities (ethnic groups, tribes, clans, armed insurgencies, criminal gangs, and religious sects) find it necessary to step in, to cover many essential statal functions. And across all African regions Jihadist groups have done so too. Organizations such as Al-Shabab, Boko Haram and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Mali, have all established some forms of para-state structures within their territory.

One of the primary motivations behind such moves is it endears support for the Jihadist groups among regional populations. The support generated by such “hearts and minds” operations will be crucial for further Jihadist insurgent operations within this territory. And crucially jihadist organizations are heavily reliant on discontented young recruits drawn from local populations to sustain their forces. Jihadist terror groups often provide a form of hope and agency to those mired in endemic poverty and desperate social inequality. 

Regional Disparities

In the countries of the Sahel region, where the population mainly resides in marginal rural areas, the people are heavily reliant on the complex network of organized crime that was already embedded in the region before Islamist ideology. None the less jihadist groups, such as Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), have also exploited the regional power vacuum to engage in both people and drug trafficking already rife in the region. This vacuum has also allowed Jihadist groups in the Sahel to recruit, train, and arm the local population, undisturbed by government interference.

If potential recruits in the Sahel are drawn to Islamist groups primarily by social and economic reasons, in East Africa and Somalia, decades of petty tribal conflicts and endemic corruption have stripped the traditional regional clans of legitimacy. Into this void Al-Shabaab have stepped in, recruiting among the disillusioned and those already vulnerable to Islamist ideology.

In cases like central Mali and western Niger, jihadists offer protection against bandits, justice against abuses by central governments, training, and armaments to address territorial disputes between local ethnic groups. In the north of Burkina Faso, on the other hand, the jihadist occupation of rural areas through intimidation and violence has had the effect of provoking clashes between locals and jihadists, rather than basic cooperation.

Islamist groups have been able to exploit not just political instability but specific regional rivalries between clans, ethnicities, and religious groups to their advantage. Clashes, such as the ethnic conflicts between Sufis and Islamists in Nigeria and Senegal, often dating back to the times of European colonialism continue to ensure Sufi’s political dominance and has been the source of much ethnic tension and violence

European nation’s influence on the African continent continues to this day such as the French intervention of 2013. While regional national governments have coordinated anti-terrorist operations such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger combined intervention, also changed the impact of Islam in the sub-Saharan region. The immediate result was a weakening of their jihadist groups and their removal from the city centers. The jihadist groups have retreated to their base of support among the population of rural areas, where Islamist ideology is prevalent among the most marginal ethnic groups.

The impact of ideology

In addition to the lack of social mobility, religious education must also be considered, since spreading basic Islamist education can predispose (or prime) the population to jihadist doctrine. In Somalia after the collapse of its state education system in, private Islamic schools proliferated. Often funded by Saudi Arabia, many of these schools are heavily focused on religious studies, were Wahhabism ideology dominants.

However, the presence of a strong tradition of the Islamic faith in a country is by no means a prerequisite for Islamist terrorism.  Senegal, where about 90% of the population is Muslim, has experienced relatively minor religious conflicts. In comparison, Nigeria, where Muslims make up 50%  of the population, Islamist extremism ideation has featured in many disturbing episodes of regional violence.


The impact of Islamist ideology in Africa is highly context-dependent on the specific geopolitical realpolitik of their base of operations. Individual Jihadist groups have adapted their strategies and tactics to exploit the unique characteristics of regions, and the specific needs of its ethnic groups. Such significant disparities mean it is both useless and unhelpful to apply a unified and singular explanation for the rise (and impact) of Islamist ideology in Africa.

When developing anti-terrorist and anti-extremist policies rather than focus on forced military interventions, the international community should focus on measures that enable regional governments to peacefully manage local conflict. And to limit the ability of Jihadist recruit by supporting efforts to improve the provision of services, and governance to marginal communities in rural areas throughout the sub-Saharan Region

What’s Next for Afghanistan Under the Taliban Regime?

In just 10 days, the Taliban was able to take control of most of the major cities and towns across Afghanistan. On Tuesday, an all-male interim government was established by the Taliban, in which it declared Afghanistan an ‘Islamic Emirate.’ Many of the senior figureheads were veteran Taliban officials who were active in the resistance against US-led coalition forces over the last two decades. Notable leaders include Acting Defense Minister, Mullah Yaqoob, the son of Taliban founder, Mullah Omar, and Acting Minister Sirajuddin Hawwani, the head of the affiliate Hawwani network which is recognised as a US-designated foreign terrorist organization.

Despite its quick succession, the Taliban will face multiple issues in the coming weeks. Afghanistan remains highly fragile, exacerbated by a humanitarian crisis that will require immediate action from the international community.

An Inclusive Afghanistan

The international community has not yet recognized the Taliban as the ruling government in Afghanistan. This is unlikely to change until the Taliban demonstrates that it is not fundamentally against the world. Instead, it must prove that it is for the rebuilding of Afghanistan. This begins first and foremost with the Taliban demonstrating its intentions of establishing an inclusive Afghanistan. Various groups including women, ethnic minorities, and political opponents, will need protection for their civil liberties.

Over the last 30-years, Afghanistan has seen a wealth of different leaders, all of whom have been largely negative in one way or another. As a result, Afghanistan has been turned into a ‘hub for money-making with systematic government policies.’ Consequently, many leaders of the old government have fled in the wake of the Taliban takeover, taking millions worth of assets with them. One of the key challenges that the Taliban will face will thus be unifying the Afghan population under a trustworthy government.

High officials of the Taliban command have promised to respect women’s rights, with the group proclaiming that ‘everyone will be forgiven’ in regards to their political opponents. However, this has not yet been evident. Despite the previous speculation of inclusive representation, the government contains no female representatives. The US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, has asserted that the newly established Taliban government ‘does not meet the test of inclusivity,’ and instead comprises of ‘people with very challenging track records.’ Consequently, Interim Prime Minister, Mullah Hasan Akhund, has advocated for the denial of civil rights for ethnic and religious minorities and the imposing of restrictions on women. For example, recent developments have banned women from competing in sports. It is not enough to have false promises. Instead, the new interim government must act upon its promises.

The international community will not accept the Taliban if it imposes oppressive measures that infringe on human rights. For the Taliban to succeed, it must work towards unifying the Afghan population to become accepted within the political landscape. Once (and if) some level of unity is achieved, then international leaders can begin to work with the Taliban and recognize its new position.

Request for International Aid

Afghanistan is currently plagued by humanitarian despair. While the Taliban has made a promise to improve the economic landscape in Afghanistan, it are fundamentally unable to do this without international aid. Likewise, the Taliban’s succession should not mean the end of international aid. It is the duty of the international community to act and save the lives of those who are still vulnerable and need assistance in Afghanistan.

In the past, Afghanistan has received millions from foreign actors. Until August, the US, UK and EU had donated tens of billions of dollars to Afghanistan in a bid to develop the country. According to the World Bank, in 2020 aid flows accounted for 42.9% of Afghanistan’s $19.8 billion GDP. However, since the Taliban has assumed power this aid has been cut off, with the US freezing approximately $9.5 billion in Afghan assets held in American banks.

Basic services including food and water supplies are rapidly diminishing. The United Nations Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), has appealed for $600 million to meet humanitarian needs for those still in Afghanistan, in anticipation of weather warnings of upcoming droughts. Consequently, UN Assistant Secretary General, Kanni Wignaraka has proclaimed ‘we are facing a full-on development collapse on top of humanitarian and economic crises,’ warning of the need to prevent an impending ‘national implosion at all costs.’

However, this should not be mutually exclusive with a professional relationship with the Taliban. The international community still bares responsibility for assisting with humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, the lack of which would prove detrimental in upcoming weeks for millions of Afghan citizens.

The Role of Pakistan

Neighboring countries, like Pakistan, should be recognised as having played an important role in the Taliban’s accession. The international community, particularly the United States, will have to work tirelessly and efficiently to ensure that Pakistan is not presented as a haven for future militant groups. This includes the likes of ISIS and al-Qaeda, who have the potential to resurge now that the Taliban has regained power.

This is perhaps one of the key issues facing Afghanistan. The 9/11 attacks are a forceful reminder that neglecting Pakistan has grave consequences for international security. It is no secret that in the past, Pakistan has sheltered and to some extent inadvertently supported terrorism. Pakistan has previously harboured thousands of militant groups and has been influential in inspiring the conservative movement of Wahhabism, which was the driving ideology that inspired Osama Bin Laden. While Pakistan had minimal involvement with the Taliban until after 9/11, then head of al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, was harboured in Pakistan leading up to the lethal attacks.

However, the international community and its intelligence networks – namely the United States – failed to recognise the gravity of this relationship. Back in the 1990s, the US State Department, months before the al-Qaeda embassy bombings, failed to recognise the magnitude of the nexus between Pakistan-Afghanistan and subsequently Bin Laden. Instead, officials focused on the rising tensions between India and Pakistan, which ultimately resulted in a failure to pinpoint the forming terrorist network. Over the last decade, United States policymakers have underestimated the role Pakistan could play to facilitate peace, but equally so, violence and war.

The need for Pakistani cooperation is just as salient twenty years later. Responsibility falls on the international community to ensure that Pakistan no longer harbors terrorists or encourages terrorist activity to flourish.

Looking Forward

The upcoming weeks will be pivotal for the Taliban. It must prove that it is willing to unify the Afghan population. However, words are not enough. Instead, the Taliban must actively demonstrate that it is willing to include women and ethnic/religious minorities in its new agenda. Only then can the international community begin to work with the Taliban. Despite this, international aid is essential. Consequently, the international community have an obligation to support the Afghan population in the turbulent weeks ahead.

Rise to Peace