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Can Policy Catch Up to the Golden Age of Terrorism Research?

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Can Policy Catch Up to the Golden Age of Terrorism Research?

To better address the scourge of terrorism, policymakers should look to a new wave of research for insight.

Leanne Erdberg and Fouad Pervez – United States Institute of Peace

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.

This article is cross-posted here with the permission (on agreement) from the United States Institute of Peace. For more on the RESOLVE 2019 Global Forum, to include videos, follow this link.

About the Author(s)

Leanne Erdberg is the director of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) at the U.S. Institute of Peace where she directs USIP’s CVE program that includes work focused on CVE Research (focused on the RESOLVE Network where Leanne also serves as the interim executive director of RESOLVE); CVE Practice (including pilot projects on various CVE topics that convene workshops, and build capacity of civil society actors and institutions); and CVE Policy (provides recommendations and coordination on policy responses and CVE strategies and frameworks).

Prior to joining the Institute, from 2009-2017, Leanne held several positions in the U.S. government including senior advisor to the deputy assistant to the president and deputy homeland security advisor on the National Security Council staff at the White House, counterterrorism advisor for the undersecretary of state for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, director of African Affairs for the National Security Council staff, regional counterterrorism advisor in the State Department's Bureau of Counterterrorism where she covered issues related to Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq, and as a special assistant at the Department of Homeland Security Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Fouad Pervez, Ph.D. is a senior program officer and managing director of the RESOLVE Network, where he helps combine research, practice, and policy on violent extremism.

He joined the U.S. Institute of Peace after several years as a consultant for international development firms. In that work, he designed monitoring and evaluation procedures for projects focusing on political violence, governance, economics, and trade in multiple countries, including Jordan, Pakistan, South Sudan, and Mozambique. He conducted data analysis, wrote policy briefs that highlighted findings, and regularly presented the results to key stakeholders. Prior to this work, Pervez was a health policy analyst, focusing on data analysis and policy writing for several research organizations. His research interests are political violence, the impact of domestic politics on international relations, trade politics, and the role of international organizations in conflict and peace.