The UN came to the conclusion after interviewing 495 former members of organisations such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Shabaab in Somalia, and the Islamic State in Sudan.
According to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), 33,300 people were killed in attacks by violent extremists in Africa between 2011 and the start of 2016.
Boko Haram alone was responsible for at least 17,000 deaths and the displacement of more than 2.8 million people, triggering a humanitarian crisis in the Lake Chad region.
According to the two-year study, the most likely recruit for jihadists is “a frustrated individual, marginalised and neglected over the course of his life, starting in childhood”.
With few economic or job prospects and little trust in the government to provide opportunities, particularly in remote, border areas, they are likely to be ripe for conversion.
But the UNDP crucially found that less than half of those interviewed cited religion as a motivating factor.
More than half (57 percent) of the voluntary recruits admitted to understanding “little to nothing of the religious texts or interpretations, or not reading religious texts at all”.
Nearly three-quarters (71 percent) said government action such as the arrest or killing of a family member was often the tipping point for their decision to join.
Boko Haram for example began life as an anti-corruption movement in northeast Nigeria, where the government was blamed for the widespread poverty affecting the region.
UNDP Africa director Abdoulaye Mar Dieye said the study’s findings should be a wake-up call for governments across the continent to improve governance for its citizens.
“Delivering services, strengthening institutions, creating pathways to economic empowerment — these are development issues,” he said at the launch of the report in New York.
“There is an urgent need to bring a stronger development focus to security challenges.”
Whatever the initial reasons for young people joining jihadist groups, the UN study indicated that a large number of those questioned were disappointed by their experience.
One-third said they were never paid, some never found the wife they were promised, while others ended up regretting the violence and destruction that they brought about.
One man called Ali, who spent a large part of his 53 years with the Shabaab, told researchers he was not motivated by money but his faith, despite never having studied the Koran.
But he ended up realising it was a war without end and that they had never scored a “real victory” after so much bloodshed, most of it of his fellow Muslims.
“That’s why I decided to give it up,” he added.