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

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

The Role of Aid and Development in the Fight Against Extremism

The Role of Aid and Development in the Fight Against Extremism

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

By: Leanne Erdberg Steadman

Extremist groups thrive in fragile states where basic needs go unmet. Development efforts can address the conditions that make people vulnerable to extremism. If you look at a map of where terrorist groups operate and where terrorist attacks occur, you will find that many coincide with locations of intractable conflict and deep development deficits. Low human development indicators, stark disparities in opportunity and access to resources, poor or scattered governance, and a history of conflict and social marginalization feature prominently among afflicted communities.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Violent Extremism; Fragility & Resilience

Afghan Women’s Views on Violent Extremism and Aspirations to a Peacemaking Role

Afghan Women’s Views on Violent Extremism and Aspirations to a Peacemaking Role

Monday, February 3, 2020

By: Haseeb Humayoon; Mustafa Basij-Rasikh

Recent efforts at settling the decades-long conflict in Afghanistan have featured an increasingly vibrant and visible display of women’s activism. Even with the support of the government and its international partners, Afghan women still face tremendous challenges to realizing their aspirations for a role in peacemaking. Based on extensive interviews throughout Afghanistan, this report attempts to better understand the changing public role of Afghan women today and their contributions to peacebuilding and ending violence.

Type: Peaceworks

Violent Extremism

Understanding Pakistan’s Deradicalization Programming

Understanding Pakistan’s Deradicalization Programming

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

By: Arsla Jawaid

Pakistan has struggled with Islamic militancy since the rise of the mujahideen in the 1980s. In the late 2000s, the Pakistan Army began establishing rehabilitation centers in the Swat Valley in an effort to deradicalize former Taliban fighters and other militants and reintegrate them into their communities. This report contrasts Pakistan’s deradicalization approach with the community-based program used in Denmark and the widely different prison-based program used in Saudi Arabia, and identifies areas in which the army’s approach could benefit from more extensive partnering with civilian-based organizations.

Type: Special Report

Violent Extremism

View All Publications