Dialogue with violent extremist groups is a controversial practice, even when used to prevent widespread violence or atrocities. Humanitarian dialogue may serve as a crisis-mitigation instrument, offering short-term relief and civilian protection. When the risk of atrocities is remote, political dialogue can be used for structural or upstream prevention aimed at conflict resolution or addressing community grievances. Though dialogue as a peacebuilding tool has potential in any stage of a conflict, it is ideally undertaken before widespread violence occurs. However, the conditions for successful atrocity prevention through dialogue with violent extremist groups are rarely in place.

Summary

  • Various forms of dialogue have traditionally been a central mechanism in the toolbox for atrocity prevention. The utility of this noncoercive peacebuilding practice merits reconsideration as violent extremist organizations (VEOs) increasingly embrace mass violence as a means to advance their objectives.
  • If atrocities are imminent or ongoing, dialogue may serve as a crisis-mitigation instrument, with the potential of offering short-term humanitarian relief and civilian protection. When the risk of atrocities is remote, political dialogue can be used for structural or upstream prevention aimed at conflict resolution or addressing community grievances.
  • Despite the broadening recognition of the need to engage extremist groups through dialogue when possible, controversy continues to surround this practice.
  • The conditions for successful atrocity prevention through dialogue with VEOs are rarely in place. Those pursuing dialogue need to gradually build trust, conduct a thorough actor mapping, and reflect on their own role and preparedness to engage. Engaging extremists presents significant risks as well, including extremists’ manipulation of the dialogue to buy time for planning atrocity campaigns.
  • Efforts to engage VEOs directly through dialogue have been inconsistent and are handled with the utmost discretion. Restrictive legislative frameworks may limit the ability to exploit opportunities for atrocity prevention through dialogue with these groups.

About the Report

This report reflects input gathered from United States Institute of Peace (USIP) desk research, interviews with practitioners, and round table sessions jointly convened in 2016 by USIP and the Brussels-based European Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. (February 5), Brussels (February 23) and Nairobi (May 18); the session in Kenya was held in partnership with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. The round tables gathered policymakers, practitioners, and academics with expertise in the area of dialogue with nonstate armed groups, the prevention of mass atrocities, and violent extremism.

About the Authors

Sofía Sebastián was a postdoctoral TAPIR fellow at USIP, where her research focused on UN peacekeeping and civilian protection. She is the author of Post-War Statebuilding and Constitutional Reform: Beyond Dayton in Bosnia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Jonas Claes is a senior program officer at the Center for Applied Conflict Transformation at USIP, where he conducts research and analysis on the prevention of electoral violence and mass atrocities.

Related Publications

To End ISIS, We Must Find Futures for Its Survivors

To End ISIS, We Must Find Futures for Its Survivors

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

By: Chris Bosley

At age 15, Shamima Begum ran away from home in England and, with two girlfriends, ventured into Syria’s war to join ISIS. Within days, she was married to an ISIS fighter; she has since had three children, all of whom have died. Begum, one of 70,000 former residents of the ISIS-declared state now confined in a displacement camp in Syria’s desert, is asking a British court to overturn a government order that stripped her of her citizenship. As nations worldwide seek justice, accountability—and their own security from ISIS’ violent extremism—Begum’s story shows how a “peacebuilding” approach is needed.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Violent Extremism; Reconciliation

Preparing the Global Counterterrorism Forum for the Next Decade

Preparing the Global Counterterrorism Forum for the Next Decade

Monday, August 17, 2020

By: Eric Rosand

In the two decades since the 9/11 attacks, terrorist networks have become more global and interconnected even as they remain locally tethered. The transnational and localized nature of the threat underscores the continued importance of international cooperation in all aspects of a response. This report explores the work of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, launched in 2011 to energize such cooperation, and how best to position it for an effective and far-reaching future.

Type: Special Report

Violent Extremism

ISIS Determined to Make a Comeback—How Can it Be Stopped?

ISIS Determined to Make a Comeback—How Can it Be Stopped?

Thursday, August 13, 2020

By: Ashish Kumar Sen

The Islamic State (ISIS), which was driven from its strongholds in Syria and Iraq over a year ago, is determined to regain territory in the region. It will take a combination of military and financial pressure, attention to public grievances, and the repatriation and rehabilitation of people who lived or fought with ISIS—as well as those who were subjugated by them—to foil the militant group’s ambitions, according to senior U.S. officials. This already tall ask has been made even more challenging by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Violent Extremism

Disengagement and Reconciliation in Conflict-Affected Settings

Disengagement and Reconciliation in Conflict-Affected Settings

Friday, August 7, 2020

By: Leanne Erdberg Steadman

Even in brutal and desperate conflict settings, it is possible for people to abandon violence and leave violent groups. Peacebuilders know this well—yet terrorism and counterterrorism policies and practices have often neglected practical ways to address participants in violent extremism and failed to provide them opportunities to reject violence. This report examines how peacebuilding tools can help transform the individual attitudes, group relationships, and social ecosystems and structures needed to facilitate the effective disengagement and reconciliation of former members of violent extremist groups.

Type: Special Report

Violent Extremism

View All Publications