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

After the Taliban’s Takeover: Pakistan’s TTP problem

After the Taliban’s Takeover: Pakistan’s TTP problem

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

By: Asfandyar Mir, Ph.D.

In 2021, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) insurgency escalated its challenge against Pakistan. Operating from bases in Afghanistan, and with a growing presence inside Pakistan, the group mounted an increasing number of attacks against Pakistani security forces — as well as against some critical Chinese interests in Pakistan. The insurgency also showed renewed political strength by bringing in splintered factions and improving internal cohesion. Additionally, al-Qaeda signaled its continued alliance with the TTP. On Tuesday, after an attack by the TTP on the police in Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad, Pakistan’s Interior Minister warned that more attacks by the group are likely.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & PreventionViolent Extremism

The Long Road to Peace in the Southern Philippines

The Long Road to Peace in the Southern Philippines

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

By: Brian Harding;  Haroro J. Ingram

For four centuries, the Muslim-majority areas in the southern reaches of the Philippines have resisted domination by the capital Manila, whether its leaders were Spanish, American or Filipino. This dynamic has spawned insurgencies, glimmers of hope for peaceful coexistence and repeated disappointment — all amid endemic violence and poverty.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace ProcessesViolent Extremism

Motives, Benefits, and Sacred Values: Examining the Psychology of Nonviolent Action and Violent Extremism

Motives, Benefits, and Sacred Values: Examining the Psychology of Nonviolent Action and Violent Extremism

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

By: Jonathan Pinckney, Ph.D.;  Michael Niconchuk;  Sarah Ryan

What motivates one person to engage in acts of violent extremism, while others choose to pursue change through nonviolent action? This report is based on pilot research into the psychological and social dynamics of a nonviolent resistance group—Algeria’s Hirak movement—that employs some of the same measures used to study participation in violent extremist organizations. A deeper understanding of these dynamics, it is hoped, will help practitioners, policymakers, and researchers to identify and support paths away from violent extremism and to strengthen and sustain engagement in nonviolent action.

Type: Peaceworks

Nonviolent ActionViolent Extremism

What Does IS-K’s Resurgence Mean for Afghanistan and Beyond?

What Does IS-K’s Resurgence Mean for Afghanistan and Beyond?

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

By: Asfandyar Mir, Ph.D.

Last month’s bombing outside the Kabul airport was a devastating sign of the Islamic State of Khorasan Province’s (IS-K) recent resurgence. The group had already launched 77 attacks in the first four months of 2021 — an increase from 21 in the same period last year. This renewed capacity for mass-casualty attacks could further destabilize Afghanistan’s already precarious security situation, leaving both the new Taliban government and the United States with a vested interest in mounting an effective campaign to undercut IS-K’s presence in the region. 

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Violent Extremism

View All Publications