Filipino and American officials were finalizing the program while also preparing to release results of a study showing that poverty was not a major driver of radicalization in four southern Philippine provinces where extremist groups operate, U.S. Assistant State Secretary Denise Natali said in an interview on Thursday.
“The program is being finalized and should be launched in the next couple of weeks,” said Natali, chief of the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.
The study, conducted by Washington from December 2017 to May 2018, involved 1,213 Muslim respondents in the four southern Philippine provinces of Maguindanao, Sulu, Basilan and Lanao del Sur, Natali said.
In a bid to carve out their own “Wilayah,” or province, local militants led the 2017 siege in Marawi, capital of Lanao del Sur and a former Muslim trading hub. Fighter jets pounded the militants with near-daily bombing runs to end a five-month battle that killed more than 1,200 people, most of them local extremists backed by an undetermined number of foreign fighters.
Contrary to common belief, sympathy to Filipino militant groups in those provinces may be related to local grievances rather than to IS or al-Qaida, Natali said.
“If there is a key finding, it was that this is very local,” she said.
The survey also found that respondents who had expressed sympathy for violent extremism tended to be better off economically than their resilient peers, Natali said.
“There is no statistical difference between wealth and poverty,” she said. “There is no direct causal relationship between poverty and violent extremism in this case.”
Despite the findings, according to Natali, there’s not a one-size-fits-all program for dealing with extremist groups.
“So what we do in one country has to be then tailored to another,” she said. “What we find in one province can differ in another province, and even within different localities in a province.”
Natali, a widely recognized expert on Kurdish issues, was appointed by President Donald Trump to lead the bureau in May last year. She was the director for Strategic Research at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based National Defense University, where she also specialized on the Middle East, Iraq and post-conflict stabilization.
Natali visited the Philippines earlier this month and met National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon and other officials.
The study about the southern Philippines was “focused on better understanding specific conditions and dynamics at the local, sub-national levels so we can be more targeted and more disciplined in the way we conduct programs to counter violent extremism,” she said.
Natali underscored the significance of making sure that such programs are based on facts, even though they may counter traditional wisdom.
She said several issues could also lead to extremism, including exposure to violence and “certain types of madrassa education,” referring to faith-based institutions of learning.
Security officials in countries such as Pakistan have kept a close eye on madrassas that have been accused of radicalizing youths and feeding recruits to militant groups.