Are failed states breeding grounds for terrorist activities?

map failed states

Since 9/11, terrorism has been identified as the single most potent threat to global peace and national security. Between 2006 and 2014, an estimated 161, 834 causalities were recorded worldwide, as a result of terrorist-related attacks; with 2014 recording the highest number of fatalities—32, 727. The recent Paris attack has again renewed the threat of terrorism as a global problem, and brought to the forefront, the urgent need to counteract the activities of global terrorist networks. It is now vital that world leaders and policy makers address an important element in the conundrum that fosters terrorism, which is—failed states.

A failed state can be understood as an entity whose political or economic system has become so weak that the government is no longer in control. This does not mean that the government no longer exists, but denotes that the state is so weak and as such, unable to provide basic functions such as; security, healthcare and education etc. The vacuum created by the government is often replaced by unsavoury elements, such as; paramilitary forces, drug or war lords or even terrorist organisations like, Al Qaeda, ISIS and Al-Shabaab, who rule with impunity and become the quasi-de facto government.

States or countries fail for various reasons, but the most evident reasons for state failure includes: war or insurgency, the existence of ethnic or religious conflict, weak institutions and collapsed infrastructure, lack of democracy and military oppression etc. These factors independently or collectively, severely hinder the capacity of a government to function and provide basic functions to the people, thereby causing the state to fail. However, it is important to note that not all countries that experience these problems will become failed states. And further to this, state failure is reversible; which means that a state can recover and regain legitimacy even after prolonged years of state failure.

State failure is not an all or nothing affair. This is because it is measured on a continuum that is based on three factors. These factors are; social, economic, and political (which also includes military) factors. The factors are further divided into 12 indicators that help determine the degree or extent of state failure in a country. To determine the extent of state failure in a country, the following 12 indicators need to be considered. These are: social factors, which measure; demographic pressures; refugees and IDP (internally displaced persons); group grievance; and human flight and brain drain.

social indicators.png

The economic indicators: uneven economic development; poverty and economic decline.

economic indicators

And lastly, the political (military) factors which include: state legitimacy; public services; human rights and rule of law; the security apparatus; factionalised elites and external intervention.


Many countries particularly in the developing world are considered weak, failing or failed states. A 2015, failed state index lists the top ten failed states as; South Sudan, Somalia, Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan, Congo (D.R), Chad, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, and Guinea. These countries have at one time or another, been host to civil war, insurgency or violent ethnic and religious conflict. These problems are often worsened by weak institutions that are unable to buffer competing political and societal demands, and are further exacerbated by a weak democratic structure that lacks the capacity to restrain a strong military opposition, thereby causing state failure.

State failure in itself does not foster terrorism, but it does provide a fertile ground to host terrorist activities. Because failed states create a power vacuum that is quickly filled or manipulated by unsavoury elements such as terrorist groupings, this affords them a hospitable environment or home base to; 1) radicalise and train new recruits, 2) plan and organise terrorist attacks, and 3) obtain income to fund terrorist activities.

radicalised youth
Terrorist networks rely on the radicalisation of youth members of the population, in order to establish a support base for their cause. Because this cannot be done easily within the confines of a functioning state (with the relevant functioning agencies, particularly law enforcement), they look to failed states to provide a hospitable environment for their cause. In this regard, failed states provide two functions. Firstly, it provides the environment (in geographic terms) for the training of new recruits. Countries like Afghanistan with its wild spaces, offer Al Qaeda a theater of operations and Syria whose lawlessness allows for terrorist groupings to conduct overt field training sessions. Secondly, failed states provide a fertile ground for the recruitment of disenfranchised youth, who feel aggrieved by the lack of economic opportunities offered to them by the state. Often this youth population are more susceptible to radicalisation and recruitment by terrorist organisations that provide them with far more than the state has to offer.

training ground

Failed states also provide terrorist organisations with a home base to plan and organise attacks. The lack of functioning security and law enforcement structures, allows these networks to plan meticulously, and organise detailed attacks, without the risk of being exposed by intelligence services or apprehended by security forces. Countries like Somalia and Afghanistan have provided strongholds for terrorist groupings like Al-Shabaab and Al Qaeda, who have staged successful terrorist attacks in Kenya, Uganda and the United States. Failed states even help protect terrorist leaders from capture by international law enforcement agencies. Pakistan (although considered a weak state) provided not just a home base, but a protective shelter for Al Qaeda’s leader—Bin Laden before he was killed in 2011, in Abbottabad, Pakistan. More recently, some of the perpetrators responsible for November 13th Paris attacks have allegedly fled to Syria for “safe haven”.

somali pirates

And lastly, the lack of an internal governing and administrative structure within the apparatus of a failed state enables the mushrooming of an array of illegal activities that fund terrorist activities. For decades, the unsolicited growth and production of opium (which is used in the production of Heroin) in Afghanistan has helped fund the terrorist activities of Al Qaeda. Also, income obtained through kidnapping for ransom by pirates in Somalia has equally helped support the nefarious activities of Al Shabaab in the Horn of Africa.


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