As the Summit on the Global Agenda gets underway in Abu Dhabi, it’s important to remind ourselves why we’re here and why it matters. The Summit is an opportunity to brainstorm smart solutions to some of the world’s most protracted problems.

As a member of the Global Agenda Council on Fragility, Violence and Conflict, the most pressing set of issues to me right now is this: there are more refugees in the world today than at any time since World War II, and Europe is struggling mightily to determine how best to manage the massive influx of refugees from the Middle East.

With that great challenge of conflict, extremism and forced migration in mind, I wanted to share some relevant new research from my organization, Mercy Corps.

Let’s start with a quote:

“People keep asking me how much money ISIS is sending me.  I tell them, they’ve sent me nothing.  That’s not why my sons went to fight.”

That’s what a Jordanian mother whose three sons crossed into Syria to fight for ISIS told a Mercy Corps researcher. I share that quote because I think it cuts right to the heart of the matter: fighting violent extremism – which is so central to fragility and conflict – isn’t about jobs or humanitarian assistance, important as those things are. We need to focus on the dynamics that drive people to violent extremist groups: corruption, injustice and weak governance.

Here are some key findings of Mercy Corps’ latest research brief, From Jordan to Jihad: The Lure of Syria’s Violent Extremist Groups.

  • Mercy Corps found no evidence that fighters, or their families, are being compensated by armed groups to fight inside Syria. At least some recruiters, however, are paid.
  • The most common justification fighters offered for joining the war in Syria was to protect Sunni women and children against abuse and rape.
  • Recruitment appears to be a social enterprise: almost no one decided to go to Syria alone. Recruiters, therefore, target charismatic, popular young people.
  • Religion was not an obvious driver. However, fighters often deployed religious language to legitimize and glorify the fight inside Syria.
  • For some fighters, life in Syria turned out to be less glamorous than expected. “It wasn’t like what I’d seen on YouTube,” said one man.
  • Within Syria, intra-Sunni fighting was a key source of foreign fighter disillusionment. The fragmented nature of the Syrian conflict has undermined the willingness of some Jordanians to participate. “I went to Syria to fight Shi’ites,” said one former fighter. “But I saw Sunnis killing one another. That is not jihad.”

Based on our insights, we offer five key recommendations to policymakers in the interest of improving the state of the world:

  1. Broker a political solution to end the crisis inside Syria in order to stop the flow of foreign fighters. The number of foreign fighters inside Syria now tops Afghanistan in the 1980s, making Syria the training ground of choice for today’s violent jihadis. Efforts to counter violent extremism and stem the flow of foreign fighters will prove futile if detached from a comprehensive political approach to end the crisis in Syria.
  1. Focus future prevention programmes on social networks, not demographics. Recruitment is rooted in the cultivation of a tightly-knit, collectivist identity. Prevention efforts should focus on providing community-based alternatives: incorporating young people into peaceful groups, mentorship programmes, and creating opportunities for young people to build individual identities and positive family connections.
  1. Support, educate and partner with peaceful local actors – particularly wives, mothers and young people – to dissuade potential recruits. Trusted community voices are the ones most likely to foster peaceful views and offer positive role models. Educating them about the reality of the war in Syria – of Sunnis killing Sunnis – may resonate even among those who are broadly supportive of the conflict. Local tribal leaders and imams, for instance, are valuable shapers of opinion. And mothers’ groups, in particular, have much to offer in blunting the appeal of extremists.
  1. Where possible, facilitate spaces where former fighters can serve as prevention advocates and mentors within communities and universities.
  1. Increase political and financial support for programmes that address governance gaps that drive extremism.

The Global Agenda Councils are uniquely positioned to make a difference on these issues. I am confident that the Summit on the Global Agenda, leading into the Annual Meeting at Davos in January, can help organize us and drive change on violent extremism and fragility, which represent such a huge threat to peace and progress.

The Summit on the Global Agenda 2015 takes place in Abu Dhabi from 25-27 October

Author: Neal Keny-Guyer is CEO of Mercy Corps, the global humanitarian organization, and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Fragility, Violence and Conflict. You can follow him on Twitter at @nealkg

Image: Militant Islamist fighters on a tank take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer