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.
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.