What drives people to turn to violent extremism
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A common media narrative asserts that we can do little to avert terrorism because there is no coherent pattern for why people turn to violent extremism. We, at the Alliance for Peacebuilding, disagree.

Recently those in the media have stated that the backgrounds of those who support terrorist groups like ISIL are so diverse they defy a single profile and that what turns people toward violence – and whether they can be steered away from it are questions that governments have faced for years.  In fact, while it may be difficult to predict whether any one specific person will turn to violence, those working in the peacebuilding field know a great deal about what drives violent extremism – and we are working around the world to prevent it.


It is true that the problems that prompt and incubate violent extremism are a complex interconnected set of social and political forces. And the solutions do not lend themselves to a “checklist” of quick fixes but require intensive, long-term programs that address these fundamental interconnected social problems and political drivers in a comprehensive way. Peacebuilding approaches take this complexity head on, and offer a broader understanding of the root causes of violent extremism and how they can be countered.

Extremist groups exist and thrive when a state lacks legitimacy, and actively excludes and discriminates against particular groups. Recent survey research from our partner, Mercy Corps, shows that the most consistent drivers of violent extremism include perceptions of marginalization, discrimination and injustice, exposure to violence, and the absence of formal channels to redress grievances and hold the perpetrators of injustice and abuse accountable.

A peacebuilding approach to preventing or deterring violent extremism addresses these grievances by encouraging the development of local and national governmental and social institutions that respond to perceived state corruption and discrimination. RAND Corporation and independent researchers have found that most terrorist groups are pacified via political processes and policing, not through military force.  Our development and governance projects must correlate to this evolving research and be long-term, consistent, and adequately funded, and must address the perceived needs of local participants.

Budgets for civilian conflict mitigation activities in regions with the highest terrorism rates are already inadequate and are going down.  Our partners have undertaken resourceful efforts to address various aspects of the complex issues involved – from state corruption and discrimination, to identifying and dissuading high-risk individuals from participating in violent extremism. For example, Cure Violence works in cities in the US, Latin America, and the Middle East to stop the spread of violence by detecting and interrupting conflicts, identifying and treating the highest-risk individuals and changing social norms.  Peace Direct supports Aware Girls, a network of young volunteers who send out teams of peace educators to Pakistani villages, towns, and schools to identify and dissuade individuals likely to join extremist groups.

And, there is work to be done here in the US. General Allen, who recently retired from the US armed forces after completing a 19-month tour as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, stated that “Groups like ISIS are symptoms of a larger problem of radicalization.  Solutions are long term and require American diplomacy.” US actions must be consistent with our values and messaging – across the diplomatic, development, trade, and military arenas.

In sum, those of us looking to be more secure need to look beyond the decision of an individual person to become a terrorist, and must look “upstream” at the forces that make terrorism seem like a rational or justifiable choice. And for those that want a more immediate “fix” to the threat of terrorism, consider that the typical “fixes” that are applied to preventing terrorism – security or military-first responses – often exacerbate the underlying forces of exclusion and marginalization that make terrorism attractive in the first place. We can start by rejecting the narrative that says terrorism cannot be prevented. We can learn from what we already know about the actual drivers of violent extremism. We can demand that, as a nation, we pursue an approach that addresses these drivers before they show up as violent conflict and extremism.

Melanie Greenberg is President & CEO of the Alliance for Peacebuilding