What makes a young man or woman vulnerable to joining a violent extremist group? In the same way that a malnourished, exhausted, neglected, or traumatized body is more susceptible to disease or infection, a person who lacks resources, opportunity, and support is more vulnerable to engaging in violent extremism.

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Image Credit: Luba Lukova

[About this series: The role of women in countering and preventing violent extremism is getting increasing attention worldwide, but a coherent international framework is still needed. To encourage this conversation and process, USIP is launching a guide, “Charting a New Course,” containing essays and exercises to help practitioners discuss the role of gender in countering violent extremism. Copies were distributed at a March 6 discussion, Women Preventing Violent Extremism: Charting a New Course, and the guide will be available online at a later date. The related projects, Women Preventing Extremist Violence (WPEV) and the Sisters Against Violent Extremism Mother Schools (SAVE), have been funded by the U.S. Department of State. Three of the essays in “Charting a New Course” were contributed by USIP experts Alison Milofsky, Georgia Holmer and Nancy Payne and appear here on The Olive Branch this week.]


Community engagement in countering violent extremism (CVE) can be understood as an effort by civil society to inoculate youth from violent extremism, by building their resilience and strengthening their ability to reject or resist the influence and recruitment efforts of terrorist groups.

Radicalization, or the process by which an individual becomes involved in violent extremism, is often best explained through an exploration of the unique set of push and pull factors that influence trajectories to terrorist violence. Pull factors include the messages, relationships, and recruitment campaigns that lure individuals into participation in extremist activities. Push factors are what make an individual vulnerable or open to the “pull,” and might include the absence of a support network of friends and family, or a lack of resources or opportunities to thrive, work, and have a family. Push factors can also include a shortage of self-confidence to face adversity or limited knowledge, skills, and practice in making good judgments. Other factors include unhealed trauma and exposure to cycles or generations of violence. Another key vulnerability is the absence of a perceived connection or belonging to a group – a sense of identity that embeds an individual within a community.

A focus on the push factors

With this push-pull framework in mind, a natural division of practice emerges in CVE strategy. Community or civil society responses, more logically and organically, address the push factors. State and security actors are better positioned, and are trained and equipped to manage the risks associated with, directly challenging, pursuing and apprehending violent extremists and counter their recruitment efforts. Community engagement efforts have the most impact when focused on prevention: equipping those who are vulnerable to recruitment with the skills and knowledge and opportunities needed to be resilient. A community-led CVE program might, for example, work to create a stronger sense of social cohesion and identity, help resolve community-level disagreement and grievances, or promote a deeper understanding and awareness of the dynamics of radicalization.

The creation of non-securitized spaces

Violent extremists justify and enable violence and brutality, and are, by definition, completely intolerant of other ideologies and ways of being. They are also extreme in their unwillingness to compromise. Working to contradict and counter these actors is extremely dangerous. For such efforts to succeed, community-level efforts should be allowed a safe and neutral space in which to help prevent violent extremism apart from the work of security services and protected from direct confrontation and engagement with violent actors. In places with unreformed security services, it may be dangerous or counterproductive to collaborate with police in identifying groups of individuals who are at risk of radicalization or pose a security threat. CVE programs that focus on building capacity of civil society actors can only be truly effective if undertaken in a way that ensures the safety and non-instrumentalization of these individuals.

The importance of women

A community that promotes tolerance and inclusivity, and reflects norms of gender equality, is stronger and less vulnerable to violent extremism. Not only do women’s participation in a community – formally or informally – strengthen its fabric, women themselves are among the most powerful voices of prevention in their homes, schools, and communities. Women as mothers, caretakers, partners, teachers, andfaith leaders – can, uniquely, help build the social cohesion, sense of belonging, and self-esteem that youth might need to resist the appeal of a violent group. Community engagement in CVE requires the participation of women to be successful.

Related Publications

How Civil Society Can Help Prevent Violence and Extremism

How Civil Society Can Help Prevent Violence and Extremism

Thursday, June 6, 2019

By: Leanne Erdberg ; Bridget Moix

Editor’s Note: Congress charged the U.S. Institute of Peace with convening the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States. Following the public launch of the Task Force’s final report, four groups of experts came together to discuss how to implement the report’s recommendations. This four-part series will discuss the findings from these strategy sessions. Part one summarizes expert discussion on how civil society actors are preventing violent extremism and building resilience in their communities and practical ways the U.S. and other international actors can more effectively interact with civil society to bolster its role in prevention.

Fragility & Resilience; Violent Extremism

Leanne Erdberg on the Psychology Behind Terrorism

Leanne Erdberg on the Psychology Behind Terrorism

Thursday, May 9, 2019

By: Leanne Erdberg

Nearly 20 years after 9/11, determining the profile of someone who is going to join a terrorist group remains a deeply challenging effort. For too long we have looked at simple explanations— like poverty or lack of education—for why people join violent movements. Erdberg discusses a new project to investigate the psychology and neuroscience that motivates people to resort to extremism.

Violent Extremism

A Visit to Post-ISIS Syria: Human Crises Pose Risk

A Visit to Post-ISIS Syria: Human Crises Pose Risk

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

By: Robin Wright

After losing its last territory in Syria on March 23, 2019, the Islamic State quickly reclaimed global attention with the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka on April 21 and a video tape of its reclusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on April 29. The jihadi movement is now shifting focus to its ISIS branches, or “provinces,” in Africa, Asia and Europe. Baghdadi signaled ISIS’s expansion by formally embracing two Sunni extremist groups in Mali and Burkina Faso. But the Islamic State’s human core—more than 100,000 fighters and their families, including children—remains clustered in the rubble of its former “caliphate” in both Syria and Iraq. In Syria, they are detained in makeshift prisons, a hospital and refugee-style camps in the desert of northeastern Syria. USIP Senior Fellow Robin Wright made a rare tour of northeastern Syria to interview men and women who were part of the ISIS caliphate and to assess the risks posed by the post-caliphate crisis.

Violent Extremism

Options for Reintegrating Taliban Fighters in an Afghan Peace Process

Options for Reintegrating Taliban Fighters in an Afghan Peace Process

Monday, April 29, 2019

By: Deedee Derksen

A central issue for Afghanistan in achieving stability is making long-lasting peace with the Taliban. The success of any such agreement will depend in large part on whether Taliban commanders and fighters can assume new roles in Afghan politics, the security forces, or civilian life. This report explores that question, drawing on lessons from how similar situations unfolded in Burundi, Tajikistan, and Nepal.

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Peace Processes; Violent Extremism

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