Nancy Lindborg, USIP president, submitted testimony for the record, to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and related programs.



Chairman Graham, Ranking Member Leahy, and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony on the causes and consequences of violent extremism and the role of foreign assistance. Your attention on this issue is urgently needed and very much appreciated.

I testify before you today as the president of the United States Institute of Peace, although the views expressed here are my own. USIP was established by Congress over 30 years ago as an independent, national institute dedicated to the proposition that peace is possible, practical and essential to our national and global security. It engages directly in conflict zones and provide tools, analysis, training, education and resources to those working for peace. In our world today, one of the most pressing challenges to peace is the expanding reach and destabilizing impact of violent extremism.

Violent extremism in today’s globalized and technology-driven world is not confined by borders. While the dynamics around groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Shabab and the Taliban are interrelated and certainly influenced by geo-politics, the reasons these groups emerged and the reasons individuals join their campaigns are complex, distinct, and locally unique. Recently, the tragedies in Brussels, Paris and Turkey demonstrate the global reach of violent extremists. Yet, the majority (over 80 percent) of those who die from terrorist attacks are in only three regions of the world: Iraq/Syria, Afghanistan/Pakistan, and Nigeria.

These are places where violent extremist groups have harnessed their global agendas to local conflict dynamics and structural challenges, enabling them to exploit the grievances of individuals and communities. These are also countries where USIP has focused on work to build the capacity of governments and civil society to help create safe, peaceful and resilient communities that are able to resist the lure of violent extremist ideologies.

USIP’s approach to the problem of violent extremism is to investigate and advance a nuanced understanding of what drives violent extremism, locally and globally. USIP then develops and implements solutions that address root causes of this violence. Already it’s known, through empirical research,1 that violent extremism is caused in large part by grievances tied to social marginalization, political exclusion, lack of access to justice or resources, and repression or abuse by state and security services in these counties. A well-documented example is the condition of the 2 million-plus ethnic Somalis living in Kenya, and the growth among them of al-Shabab.

The United States needs urgently to provide assistance to these countries to strengthen the rule of law, human rights, and inclusive political processes, as well as build the capacity of local communities to identify and develop non-violent and practical solutions to address these problems. This approach must be measured and rigorous. To this end, I offer three priorities for foreign assistance:

1. Understand and communicate that local context is the key to effective solutions.

Violent extremism is a global and interrelated trend but the reasons why a female suicide bomber in Nigeria supports Boko Haram, ethnic Moroccans in Brussels join ISIS, or Kenya Somalis join Al Shabab are all different. Understanding these differences and unique contexts are key to developing sustainable responses and approaches to prevent radicalization. USIP is leading efforts, notably with State Department cooperation, to advance research on the local causes and effective solutions to violent extremism through the launch and support of the RESOLVE network, an initiative launched by the White House in 2015. This global knowledge platform is designed to catalyze and disseminate local-level research to help inform policy makers and practitioners in designing interventions that are impactful and grounded in an understanding of local realities. USIP has begun the launch of the website and is now assembling the research network for this initiative.

2. Responsible and just law enforcement and security responses are crucial.

Violent extremist groups often seek to provoke overreaction by states with the expectation that repressive responses will add to the justification for their violence and galvanize recruitment. Those countries faced with significant threats of violent extremism need the capacity to deliver a measured and proportionate law enforcement and security response to attacks and any ongoing threats by violent extremists. Heavy-handed tactics, extra-legal and “special” measures, especially those that abrogate civil rights and liberties, may temporarily reassure a scared public but often serve to fuel the grievances that motivate the violence and advance the agenda of extremists. Countries where terror attacks are concentrated are highly correlated with those where the state commits gross human rights abuses, such as extra-judicial killings, according to research underpinning the annual Global Terrorism Index.2 In countries facing violent extremism, USIP dedicates significant resources to promoting the rule of law and training security services to address the challenges of terrorism and other significant security threats in just and sustainable ways. USIP has trained hundreds of police officers, judges, corrections and border officials from conflict-prone countries around the world in democratic policing and the rule of law, and helped support their ability to work with communities in viable and productive ways. From this training, police and judicial officials from countries such as Tunisia and Lebanon have launched their own projects to improve their local security services.

3. Efforts to prevent violent extremism must move beyond a security response to focus on empowering and enabling civil society/communities.

Early prevention of violent extremism and radicalization is not achievable by the state and security services alone. Families and community leaders are best positioned to identify early those at risk of radicalization and helping them move in a different direction by promoting values of peace and respect for diversity and non-violence. The grievances that fuel radicalization often are exacerbated by an absence of social, peer and family support, as well as a lack of skills or ability to identify and develop non-violent, practical solutions to these problems. USIP helps provide community leaders with the knowledge, skills and resources needed to do this, and works specifically with youth, women and religious leaders to build their ability to steer their communities to more positive alternatives. A series of USIP-led training and dialogues in Nigeria helped galvanize the first women-led community town hall series in Jos, Plateau state, bringing together hundreds of community members—including civil society leaders and police—to jointly address the increasing threat of Boko Haram in their community. USIP facilitated dialogues and projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan have brought together more than 250 secular (university and high school) and madrassa students to help reduce prejudice towards those outside their own traditions and foster mutual respect and trust– and in this way, build resilience to the influence of extremism.


There is urgency to develop a clear evidence-based strategy to prevent the spread and growth of violent extremism; a strategy that addresses the root causes of violent extremism in each unique context. In order to move beyond a disparate set of approaches to the problem, I recommend the following:

Invest in local research and testing what works. The more we understand about the local causes and dynamics of violent extremism and evaluating what works to mitigate it, the more effective we will be in addressing this challenge.

Match military and law enforcement support with a commitment to reform. Those countries the U.S. is equipping to fight terrorism also run the risk of creating more terrorists and exacerbating the problem if this support is not coupled with a parallel commitment to developing their capacity to pursue democratic and rights-based approaches.

Prioritize support to build inclusive, tolerant and resilient communities. Promoting, supporting and protecting the role of communities to address the challenges of violent extremism is critical. Empowering the role of women, engaging youth and faith leaders, and creating safe spaces for communities to develop authentic and local solutions to the problem of violent extremism is essential.

The views expressed in this testimony are those of the author and not the U.S. Institute of Peace.


  1. USAID, Guide to the Drivers of Extremism (2009).
  2. Institute for Economics and Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2014 (2014).

Related Publications

Where Public Health and Peacebuilding Converge

Where Public Health and Peacebuilding Converge

Thursday, January 16, 2020

By: Fouad Pervez; Chris Bosley

In many ways, peacebuilding and public health are kindred disciplines in that they both require whole-of-society approaches to succeed. But while both disciplines share similar traits, the relationship between peacebuilding and public health is often overlooked. In any country, public health services such as healthcare facilities, water sanitation, and accessible medicine are critical for citizens’ welfare. But in fragile or conflict-affected states, these services become even more important—serving as a foundation for healing and stability throughout a peace process. To examine this important dynamic, USIP’s Fouad Pervez and Chris Bosley look at three situations where the goals of peacebuilding and public health are intertwined.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Human Rights; Violent Extremism

The Global Fragility Act: A New U.S. Approach

The Global Fragility Act: A New U.S. Approach

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

By: USIP Staff

After several years of efforts by a bipartisan group of members of Congress and outside groups, Congress last month took legislative aim at a threat behind many of the world’s most pressing problems: fragile states. On December 20, as part of an appropriations package, President Donald Trump signed into law the Global Fragility Act, marking a new—if largely unnoticed— U.S. approach to conflict-prone states that can be vectors of violent extremism, uncontrolled migration, and extreme poverty.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Fragility & Resilience; Violent Extremism

Displacement and the Vulnerability to Mobilize for Violence: Evidence from Afghanistan

Displacement and the Vulnerability to Mobilize for Violence: Evidence from Afghanistan

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

By: Sadaf Lakhani; Rahmatullah Amiri

Forced displacement affects over 70 million people worldwide and is among the most pressing humanitarian and development challenges today. This report attempts to ascertain whether a relationship exists between displacement in Afghanistan and vulnerability to recruitment to violence by militant organizations. The report leverages an understanding of this relationship to provide recommendations to government, international donors, and others working with Afghanistan’s displaced populations to formulate more effective policies and programs.

Type: Peaceworks

Violent Extremism

Escape from ISIS: One Family’s Story

Escape from ISIS: One Family’s Story

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

By: Fred Strasser

The horrific story of ISIS’s bid to wipe out Iraq’s Yazidi minority is fairly well known in the United States. At least in broad terms, Americans who pay attention to such things understand that the terrorist group’s fanatical gunmen rolled in on a defenseless people, butchered men and boys by the thousands and hauled away young women into sexual slavery in a genocidal plan.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Human Rights; Violent Extremism

View All Publications