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.

Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, on March 13, 2020, where more than two decades of fighting have created widespread trauma. (Jim Huylebroek/New York Times)
Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, on March 13, 2020, where more than two decades of fighting have created widespread trauma. (Jim Huylebroek/New York Times)

Summary

  • Peacebuilding tools and approaches can help transform the societal structures, group relationships, and individual attitudes needed to effectively disengage and reconcile those who engaged in violent extremism, even in conflict-affected contexts.
  • In conflicts characterized by the involvement of terror organizations, enabling people to disengage from violent extremism and fostering community reconciliation will be a necessary component of stabilization.
  • Policymakers should consider investments that serve multiple purposes and consider how, in challenging conflict and postconflict settings, disengaged persons might participate in stabilization activities.
  • Because violent extremism is deeply social, efforts that promote meaningful disengagement and reconciliation would benefit from being communal in nature, accruing benefits to both formerly violent individuals and to society at large.
  • In conflict settings where victims, bystanders, and adherents have experienced destruction and trauma, the keys to enabling a future not solely defined by their past requires focusing on their capacity for change and their well-being.
  • Counterterrorism policies should therefore begin to embrace the possibility that looking for resiliencies might be more important than addressing all potential risk factors.

About the Report

This report explores how people disengage from violent extremism and reconcile with communities in conflict settings. A companion to Peaceworks no. 163, “Violent Extremist Disengagement and Reconciliation,” it further builds the conceptual framework for how peacebuilding tools and approaches can enable disengagement from violent extremism and foster reconciliation with communities with a focus on the dynamics and complexities in conflict-affected environments.

About the Author

Leanne Erdberg Steadman is director of Countering Violent Extremism at the United States Institute of Peace and interim director of the RESOLVE Network. Previously, she served for nearly a decade in the U.S. government at the National Security Council, the Department of State, and the Department of Homeland Security.

Related Publications

Guns, Camps and Deradicalization: Violent Extremists in Conflict Zones

Guns, Camps and Deradicalization: Violent Extremists in Conflict Zones

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

By: Andrew Glazzard

Violent extremists make civil conflicts more complex and less manageable. Whether in the Middle East, Africa or South Asia, one of the many problems presented by conflicts involving violent extremists is how to deal with these combatants and associates when they surrender or are captured. There have been many attempts to disengage, deradicalize, rehabilitate and reintegrate violent extremists around the world, but most research focuses on stable settings such as Western Europe and North America. What, then, do we know about how to do this in the middle of conflict?

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Violent Extremism

2020 Trends in Terrorism: From ISIS Fragmentation to Lone-Actor Attacks

2020 Trends in Terrorism: From ISIS Fragmentation to Lone-Actor Attacks

Friday, January 8, 2021

By: Alastair Reed; Kateira Aryaeinejad

In the past five years, terrorist attacks have declined notably around the globe. While this is certainly good news—particularly in the 20th year of the so-called global war on terror—terrorism remains a pervasive threat. Despite declines in its prevalence, the scale of the challenge posed by terrorism and the violent ideologies that underpin it is still immense and the mechanisms by which to address it remain complex and in need of further coordination on a global scale. What trends did we see in 2020? And how can those trends inform policy to counter violent extremism?

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Violent Extremism

Nigeria's Security Failures: The Link Between EndSARS and Boko Haram

Nigeria's Security Failures: The Link Between EndSARS and Boko Haram

Thursday, December 17, 2020

By: Aly Verjee; Chris Kwaja

At first glance, the October state-led killings of protesters in Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, seem to have little in common with the November Boko Haram massacre of at least 43 farmers in Nigeria’s northeast, or the December 11 abduction of hundreds of school students in Katsina State. With vastly different circumstances, motivations, and perpetrators—and separated by hundreds of miles—all three episodes could easily be recorded as just further tragic installments in Nigeria’s long history of violence. However, these incidents underscore the wider failure of the state to provide security for its citizens, only deepening the trust deficit felt by Nigerians.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Violent Extremism; Fragility & Resilience

View All Publications