What drives jihadism? Clue: it's not what you think

A Harvard study comes to a surprising conclusion on the source of clerics' radicalism

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Did you hear the one about the jihadist cleric? According to a new Harvard study, the main reason Islamic imams start to talk up the wholesale murder of Western civilians has nothing to do with top-to-toe ideological hatred. Nu-uh.  It’s not poverty, either. The number one nudge to jihad, so this study claims – with comic timing that will no doubt be appreciated by the ranks of jobless graduates around Europe – is bad networking.

“Of course it is!” says absolutely nobody anywhere. But study author Rich Nielsen of Harvard’s Department of Government has controlled for other factors and stands by his discovery: clerics with the kind of contacts book that led them into a secure state job had a 2 to 3 per cent chance of radicalising; for those without an uncle in a high place, forced to preach to the man on the street instead, the figure was 50 per cent. Jobless clerics “must compete to appeal to an audience”, reasons Nielsen. “Jihadist views are a way of making themselves appear credible.”

At which point, we might as well hand over control of MI6 to JobCentre Plus. A change of tactics is clearly required. Taskforces should be dropped pronto into Yemen to teach young clerics how to hob-nob; pointless state positions must be funded by cover-organisations (the British Centre for Keeping Jihadis Busy?); while local extremists - or those who show signs of radicalisation - can be fast-tracked into employability seminars. James Bond will have to retrain as a careers-adviser.

Studies like Nielsen’s share with jihadi-spoofing films like Four Lions (2010) the ability to withdraw some of the terror from terrorism. They give an impression of extremism as just one more fruit of professional disappointment or block-headedness.

Most of us will have friends whose world-view curdled in the unsuccessful hunt for a job (I know two or three who aren’t far from jihad as we speak). Now when you watch a broadcast of a cleric ranting “Death to X! Death to Y!”, you can think –  well there’s a man whose scanty efforts in network-building have blocked him from the path to comfort and true fulfilment.

Unfortunately, however, we’re not in a position to laugh at jihadist clerics full-throatedly. For however much research shows their creed stemming from internal problems like joblessness, the fact remains our allies are pursuing a method of warfare that is getting jihadists into work en masse. Research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism shows over 400 civilians have been assassinated by US drone strikes in Pakistan, alongside the militants targeted.  These weapons, operating with impunity, both kill and make terrorists. And it’s harder to laugh at that.

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