When you ask a terrorist why they joined an extremist organization, or study the dozens of reasons why they leave them, it is striking how complex the many paths are toward violent extremism. Indeed, terrorist movements can even “evolve in and out of extremism over time.” Contrast this complexity with government policies with simple assumptions that focus too heavily on security and threats, resulting in trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost to counter terrorism and extremism, with no strategic success.

Suspected members of the Islamic State in a prison run by Kurdish-led forces in Syria, Oct. 22, 2019. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
Suspected members of the Islamic State in a prison run by Kurdish-led forces in Syria, Oct. 22, 2019. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

Meanwhile, researchers are increasingly understanding the dynamics that drive people to join terrorist groups—unpacking the numerous, complex reasons, and shining light on the local sociopolitical dynamics, something the media is covering more regularly. This new wave of research has a multiplicity of focus areas and employs rigorous methods to offer workable insights on violent extremism. It’s time for policy to catch up to the research.

Among research that could help policymakers, scholars have studied brain patterns of backers of violent extremist organizations, and uncovered the importance of social networks in shaping their support for violent extremism. These findings help explain why messages are of little use to change someone’s mind about violent extremism—and instead, efforts must appeal to their emotions and their perceptions of how they are seen by others.

Other researchers have focused heavily on the role of local grievances, like corruption and exclusion, on violent extremism. People often join violent extremist organizations for transactional purposes, like obtaining security or public goods that the state cannot provide, and terror organizations actively push local issues in their propaganda. In some places, including Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen, the state and violent extremist organizations are regularly fighting one another for who is the better provider of services, security, and justice.

Scholars have also focused heavily on the role of trauma on people joining and leaving violent extremist organizations, and their long-term reintegration into society. Researchers have looked at how terrorists have been rehabilitated through community engagement and peacebuilding tools. This is particularly crucial, given the return of foreign fighters from places like Syria and Ukraine, and the tensions over whether countries should allow their citizens to return. Finally, many scholars are examining the dynamics of ethnonationalist movements, finding similarities with jihadist groups in some tactics they employ, particularly when it comes to at-risk youth.

The RESOLVE Network—a consortium of violent extremism researchers, policymakers, and practitioners aiming to bridge the policy-research divide—recently showcased much of this research during its annual forum at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The forum provided a moment of reflection and an opportunity for resetting priorities. Much of the early violent extremism research guiding policymakers was weak, employing disproven assumptions and poor methods, resulting in suboptimal government policies for preventing or countering violent extremism. The research community, in correcting these issues, has produced nuanced, rigorous work that enables a much deeper understanding of violent extremism.

This research can help us mitigate violent extremism, but policymakers need to address current shortcomings in order to make such strategic changes. They can begin by simply knowing more of this work to gain a better understanding of the complicated dynamics of violent extremism. They can engage with researchers and apply their findings in on-the-ground programs as well as eliminate programs that rely on poor evidentiary findings. And they can fund researchers to continually develop this essential area for future changes, dynamics, and areas of study.

There is a great hunger to better understand violent extremism and diminish its impact, especially given its global spread. Policies should stand on the shoulders of research to yield better outcomes for countless people around the globe whose lives are devastated by violent extremism.

For more from the RESOLVE 2019 Global Forum, see below:

Related Publications

Why the U.S. Military Presence in Africa is Vital Beyond Counterterrorism

Why the U.S. Military Presence in Africa is Vital Beyond Counterterrorism

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

By: Judd Devermont; Leanne Erdberg Steadman

Since Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced a potential drawdown of U.S. troops in Africa, U.S. congressional leaders, military officers and various commentators have defended the importance of the military in Africa. But they’ve focused almost exclusively on the fight against terrorism. This is not surprising, since the public has for decades really only heard about the U.S. military in Africa when drone strikes hit terrorists in Somalia, when Navy SEALS raid pirate ships in the Gulf of Aden, and when Army Rangers hunt down genocidaires in the jungle.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Violent Extremism; Global Policy

COVID-19 and Conflict: Violent Extremism

COVID-19 and Conflict: Violent Extremism

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

By: Kateira Aryaeinejad; Bethany L. McGann

The COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the globe is reshaping dynamics in fragile states and conflict zones. In this video, part of our #COVIDandConflict series, Kateira Aryaeinejad and Bethany McGann examine the pandemic's impacts on violent extremism: how extremist groups are exploiting the crisis, whether it is impacting recruitment, and how it complicates efforts to counter violent extremism.

Type: Blog

Violent Extremism; Global Health

How Kenya’s Women Are Preventing Extremism and Violence

How Kenya’s Women Are Preventing Extremism and Violence

Thursday, March 5, 2020

By: Nicoletta Barbera

A group of women gathered recently in Kiambu, an overcrowded Kenyan town, to build their local response to a national problem: recruitment, especially of young men, by extremist groups such as al-Shabab. Kiambu’s women form one of several groups nationwide that are launching local dialogues—typically among community members and authorities—to build well-rooted efforts to counter extremist influence. These groups are part of a network called Sisters Without Borders, which has risen from Kenya’s grassroots over the past five years. On the upcoming International Women’s Day, the story of Kenya’s sisters is worth noting as a success for women building peace and confronting terrorism in their homelands.

Type: Blog

Gender; Violent Extremism

A Sustainable Approach for Disengaging Violent Extremists

A Sustainable Approach for Disengaging Violent Extremists

Thursday, February 20, 2020

By: Chris Bosley

Governments and communities worldwide are facing the increasingly daunting challenge of what to do when citizens who participated in violent extremist conflicts return home. With ISIS’s territorial caliphate extinguished, more than 100 countries could face the task of not only having to reintegrate their citizens, but also preparing their communities for a future with them living next door. This is a society-wide challenge that will engage a cross-cutting spectrum of stakeholders deploying a range of peacebuilding and other tools to build communities and individuals who are more resilient to violent extremism.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Reconciliation; Violent Extremism

View All Publications