By Melinda Holmes

The fields of peacebuilding and development are increasingly contending with both the phenomenon of violent extremism and the question of how to engage with the practical and policy implications of efforts to prevent it (preventing violent extremism: PVE). The 2017 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development took on this question with a session devoted to ‘Preventing Violent Extremism through Peacebuilding’ to consider perspectives from the field on what works, and what doesn’t. Among the array of responses to the phenomenon of violent extremism, development and peacebuilding actors have tended to stress interventions that focus on mitigating the root causes, over the traditional focus of countering violent extremism (CVE) measures focused on interrupting the process of radicalisation and recruitment and engaging communities in the facilitation of state-led security efforts. The session, which reflected on evidence and programmes designed to address these ‘push factors’, was structured as a roundtable discussion and jointly led by the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s Oslo Governance Centre with the participation of researchers, grassroots practitioners, and representatives of international non-governmental peacebuilding organisations, multilaterals and governments.[i]

Identifying primary drivers of violent extremism

With the movement of the international community toward prevention of violent extremism, from countering, interest has shifted toward earlier intervention in the cycle of radicalisation to violence. Given there is little conclusive evidence regarding the root causes of violent extremism this has resulted in policies and programs based largely on assumptions about what drives radicalisation. Emerging good practice in research on violent extremism focuses on learning about individuals who have been convicted of terrorism-related offences. While there is a practical need to target those more at risk, the focus on vulnerable communities often results in further marginalisation through stigmatisation or increased social tensions due to the exclusion from beneficial programming of other groups with the same grievances. Our understanding of vulnerability is derived from the few who are successfully radicalised and recruited, rather than focusing on the resilience of the many who reject violence and extremism despite facing the same ‘push factors’.

Although the session did not purport to comprehensively examine or establish a consensus regarding the primary drivers or ‘push factors’ of violent extremism, the insights shared from several country contexts and recent research grounded the subsequent discussion. There was wide agreement among discussants that grievances are overwhelmingly at the root of radicalisation to violence, and that the disproportional attention to ideological factors by PVE policymakers and experts is hindering progress on prevention. One example of this dynamic highlighted by Noufal Abboud from Search for Common Ground, is the focus on ‘good Islam’ as a counter to ‘bad Islam’, which can backfire and result in the discrediting of religious institutions or simply fail as a result of engaging institutions without credibility on religious interpretation among those vulnerable to radicalisation. In fact, by applying ideological labels to extremist groups (e.g. Islamist) we actually strengthen the appeal of these groups to individuals who may identify with those ideologies but otherwise disagree with their violent methods. Hamsatu Allamin has observed this dynamic in Nigeria and it has been expressed elsewhere by peace activists.[ii]

Three categories of underlying drivers of radicalisation take shape upon review of emerging evidence: (1) poor governance (particularly corruption), (2) unresolved historical grievances (particularly those resulting in socioeconomic and cultural exclusion), and (3) human rights abuses (particularly those committed by state security actors). Interestingly, these drivers roughly correspond to the three dreams of purity, dignity, and unity that the leading institutions working on counter-narratives have found are promised by Daesh[iii] recruiters.

These drivers were also found among the key factors driving youth to join extremist groups in Africa, according to Mohamed Yahya who shared insights from a forthcoming UNDP study drawing on more than 500 interviews detailing the journey from childhood through recruitment of former Boko Haram and Al Shabaab members from Cameroon, Kenya, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, and Somalia. Violent extremists are able to portray their movements as pure and just in contrast to the corruption and favoritism, perceived and real, of governments and leaders around the world. Unresolved historical grievances vary greatly between and within countries, for example political marginalisation featured strongly among those from Somalia while the legacy of colonial structural injustices informs perceptions of marginalisation driving recruitment in Northeast Nigeria.

Human rights abuses by security actors, especially in their responses to violent extremism and terrorism, cuts across all contexts as a key driver. Experiencing mistreatment by police officers and soldiers can be traced as a tipping point in the radicalisation process of many individuals. This dynamic is also gendered as men witnessing the abuse of female relatives during security operations is as significant as their own experiences, if not more so. This data is consistent with the global findings of the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP): ‘The research finds that 93 per cent of all terrorist attacks between 1989 and 2014 occurred in countries with high levels of state sponsored terror, involving extra- judicial killing, torture, and imprisonment without trial’.

A gendered analysis of this link between security sector abuses and violent extremism, and specific recommendations to address the institutional and structural failures that underpin them, can be found in the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership’s brief ‘Uncomfortable Truths, Unconventional Wisdoms’ drawing on the expertise of more than 70 women peace practitioners and rights activists from 15 countries.

Our understanding of and efforts to prevent violent extremisms should be locally contextualized and take into consideration conflict dynamics, especially given that 90% of incidences of terrorism occur in states engaged in violent conflict. Peacebuilding approaches are poised to make substantial contributions towards achieving this in practice given the long experience located within the field as compared to the relatively recent area of work defined as P/CVE. Sharing the lessons learning from peacebuilding with PVE practitioners is seen as key to avoiding harm and improving impact.

What works: Locally Led, Inclusive, Comprehensive Approaches

Effective efforts to prevent violent extremism are comprehensive both in approach and in the inclusion of diverse actors and sectors in society (i.e. women, youth, religious and community leaders, government and security actors, educators, and local business people). Understanding localised gender and social dynamics—including the different pressures on, priorities and perspectives of women and men, youth and elders, from different socioeconomic classes and ethnic or linguistic backgrounds—is critical to the design, implementation and impact of PVE interventions.

One case example is from Borno state in northeastern Nigeria, where Hamsatu Allamin has led an initiative bringing together women’s associations, civil society organisations, local government, religious scholars and schools to transform the widely-held belief in the incompatibility of ‘Western’ education and Islam that underlies the narrative espoused by Boko Haram. By initiating community dialogues and inviting Islamic scholars to a call-in radio programme where they challenged Boko Haram’s anti-education ideology in local languages, a 40% increase in school enrolment was documented in the area. Building on this, peace clubs were established in Islamiyya schools to sustain and deepen the understanding of the compatibility between peacebuilding and Islam, and a manual developed that will now be institutionalized as part of the curricula in Islamiyya schools throughout the country. Similarly, in Pakistan Mossarat Qadeem shared the work of her organisation, which has evolved from empowering mothers with the critical thinking and livelihood skills necessary to recognise and interrupt the radicalisation of their children into a comprehensive community peace architecture that includes women, youth, community leaders, and police. Rehabilitated youth returning to the community are given a sense of purpose and value through volunteerism and community service. They become recognised for their good works and the women and youth groups collaborate to detect planned attacks and prevent them through community reconciliation and a trusted relationship with the police who now appreciate the value of community perspectives.

These two examples are inclusive and multi-sectoral, but also locally led. Eric Rosand from The Prevention Project also emphasised that interventions are the most likely to succeed where civil society organisations (CSO) with longstanding ties to the community take the lead from the outset: analysing the context, identifying the drivers of violent extremism, and designing solutions. Community ownership is not only important to avoid obstacles to implementation, but also key for both impact and sustainability. The most successful civil society interventions change norms or create community structures which continue to be independently active after projects and programmes conclude. Several common components of effective interventions across contexts include: capacity-building on conflict resolution and transformation to increase appreciation of differences and understanding between groups, engaging media in the deconstruction of stereotypes and conflict sensitivity, and facilitating safe spaces for dialogue and trust-building between communities and security actors. Reviewing such examples of best practices is important; however many emphasised we need to be careful when it comes to generalisations due to the highly context-specific nature of violent extremism. Furthermore, civil society interventions are not sufficient to address the deeply embedded structural challenges identified as underlying drivers of violent extremism. While governments fail to adequately reform the policies and practices of their own institutions, efforts at prevention will remain a micro-level solution to a macro-level problem.

It is impossible to predict who will turn to violence, according to research shared by Sirkku Hellsten from the Nordic Africa Institute. The overwhelming focus on the few who do has obscured the fact that there are many more, arguably entire societies, that are subject to the same conditions and hold the same grievances yet remain peaceful. The focus on counter-messaging (responding to undermine the discourse and narratives of violent extremists) threatens to diminish the seriousness of these grievances while often failing to effectively deconstruct violent extremist narratives or create legitimate alternatives. What does work is to recognise the power of human relationships to shift attitudes and behaviour. According to Noufal Abboud, extremists use personal connection to deconstruct recruits’ referential systems, their relationships with family, friends, and society, and replace it with their own discourse that elevates reason over human emotion enabling violence. This process is especially effective with individuals who, as a result of violent conflict and migration and the resulting trauma and cultural shock, suffer from a disconnect within families and communities between generations with vastly different life experiences. To address this dynamic, PVE interventions should focus on amplifying emotional connections and community bonds.


Emerging evidence and lessons learned from the field demonstrate the importance of addressing the grievances creating conditions conducive to violent extremism, the underlying drivers of conflict and structural factors. More focus on peacebuilding and development is vital to achieving this; however policy-maker and donor awareness of the drivers and dynamics, and their political will to adopt the sustainable, often politically challenging solutions advocated by these fields, remains a challenge.

Labelling this area of work as PVE often is doing more harm than good in terms of both impact and risk to the local actors and communities on the ground. However, as emphasised by Larry Attree from Saferworld and others, we must be wary of using peacebuilding to obscure the particular risks and challenges posed by PVE, such as stigmatisation, co-optation of and backlash against local stakeholders, and development agendas, among others. Imprecise labelling of groups as violent extremist or terrorist when in fact there often is little clarity on the distinction between various forms of non-state armed groups, compromises options for engagement in peacebuilding and development processes. The peacebuilding field has long experience in addressing the root causes of violence and conflict, which can be drawn on to inform these and other unresolved debates around preventing violent extremism. More and better collaboration among PVE actors, whether situated in the security, peacebuilding or development fields, is vital to benefit from critical lessons learned and improve the effectiveness of interve

[i] The session was led by Melinda Holmes and Endre Stiansen with the participation of Noufal Abboud, Murray Ackman, Hamsatu Allamin, Larry Attree, Charlotte Booth, Marina Caparini, Maria Clara, Madeline de Greer, Sirkku Hellsten, Sofia Bergquist Knutsson, Ottilia Maunganidze, Olivier Nette, Thomas Nyagah, Robert Orell, Fredrika Ornbrant, Mossarat Qadeem, Eric Rosand, Ola Saleh, Mohamed Yahya, and Jiayi Zhou, among others.

[ii] Fatima Al-Bahadly from Iraq highlighted this point during remarks at the United Nations on 20 September 2016.

[iii] ‘Daesh’ is the Arabic acronym and preferred term for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as it has a negative sound and average Arabic speakers do not recognise it as an acronym thereby avoiding conferring legitimacy on the group by referring to it as either Islamic or a state.

This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in the Journal of Peacebuilding & Development on 4 August 2017, available online:

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