Existing efforts to disengage people from violent extremism are derived from security imperatives rather than from a peacebuilding ethos. This report—one of a series to be published by USIP’s program on violent extremism—presents a framework through which peacebuilders can foster disengagement from violent extremism and reconciliation between those disengaging and affected communities by examining the individual, social, and structural dynamics involved.

Frydenlund, a middle-class residential area on the outskirts of Aarhus, Denmark, is home to a number of men who fought for the Islamic State group in Syria, on December 8, 2014. (Jan Grarup/New York Times)
Frydenlund, a middle-class residential area on the outskirts of Aarhus, Denmark, is home to a number of men who fought for the Islamic State group in Syria, on December 8, 2014. (Jan Grarup/New York Times)

Summary

Disengagement from violent extremism is inherently social and behavioral. Rather than changing beliefs, ideologies, and worldviews, it involves rejecting violence as a way to resolve conflict, express grievances, or pursue a goal. Peacebuilding tools offer opportunities to contribute to disengagement by fostering reconciliation and addressing complex dynamics across individual, social, and structural dimensions. The framework for disengagement that this report presents is a deliberately noncontextualized ethos to guide the development of locally tailored programs and policies from a constellation of principles.

Although violent extremism is only one of a host of social challenges that result from similar drivers and risk factors, the dominant approaches to it since 2001 have been largely defined by law enforcement and security imperatives that have exceptionalized it. Decades of public and behavioral health practice have developed successful strategies to reduce harm from high-risk behaviors and prevent violence. Decades of psychology, sociology, and criminology research shed light on why and how people voluntarily exit groups, including violent and ideological ones such as gangs and cults. These bodies of knowledge underscore that routinized prosocial interactions between those disengaging and community members and institutions are key to building relationships, generating social bonds, and promoting a sense of belonging.

Disengagement and reconciliation is a two-way street that involves not only lowering barriers to prosocial behavior in the individual but also opening spaces for such engagement in affected communities. Although no clinical or diagnosable pathology definitively identifies a terrorist, healing trauma and addressing other mental and behavioral health challenges in people who are disengaging can encourage help-seeking behavior and a willingness to engage with others. Reconciliation and restorative justice principles can provide a sense of justice and reduce stigma against those disengaging, enabling routine and sincere prosocial engagement and offering a tangible alternative identity. People often disengage from violent extremism in the same environments in which they first engaged. Structural reforms to address legitimate grievances link prevention with disengagement, helping transform the dynamics that contribute to violent extremism and build more resilient communities.

About the Report

This report presents a framework with which peacebuilders can foster disengagement from violent extremism and reconciliation between those disengaging and affected communities by examining the individual, social, and structural dynamics involved. One of a series, the report was supported by the Center for Applied Conflict Transformation at the United States Institute of Peace.

About the Author

Chris Bosley is a senior program officer for the Program on Violent Extremism at USIP, where he leads the Institute’s initiative on Violent Extremist Disengagement and Reconciliation. Previously, he served for a decade as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy and as a senior advisor for counterterrorism and countering violent extremism in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Related Publications

Al-Hol: Displacement Crisis is a Tinderbox that Could Ignite ISIS 2.0

Al-Hol: Displacement Crisis is a Tinderbox that Could Ignite ISIS 2.0

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

By: Mona Yacoubian

More than three years after ISIS’s territorial defeat, the vexing challenge of displacement threatens to provoke the rise of ISIS 2.0 if not adequately addressed. The May 11 Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS ministerial meeting in Marrakech, Morocco highlights these concerns over the evolving threat the so-called Islamic State still poses. The Marrakech meeting coincides with both growing disquiet at deteriorating humanitarian and security conditions in the al-Hol displacement camp in northeast Syria — ground zero for the ISIS-related displacement crisis — and some hope for a path forward.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Human RightsViolent Extremism

Community-Based Armed Groups: A Problem or Solution?

Community-Based Armed Groups: A Problem or Solution?

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

By: Rida Lyammouri;  Jakana Thomas;  Lauren Van Metre

The RESOLVE Network’s multiyear research on Community-Based Armed Groups (CBAGs) has established critical findings for the international community on how to engage, manage and transform violent actors in conflict-affected states. While mitigation efforts tend to target anti-state extremist organizations, understanding the behavior of CBAGs is essential for comprehending complex conflict ecosystems and reassessing approaches toward peace and stability. 

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & PreventionViolent Extremism

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

View All Publications