Skip to main content

Countering violent extremism

Topic guide

There is no consensus on what violent extremism is and how best to prevent or counter it. The term ‘violent extremism’ has become a catch-all for a number of phenomena, and there is considerable variation in how terminology is used. Radicalism, terrorism, and violent extremism are often used interchangeably, even though they describe different processes.

The term violent extremism conflates belief and use of force. Critics also see the use of ‘extremist’ as always politically motivated: it can be used to denounce those that threaten the political status quo. Its use to describe primarily Islamist groups has obscured the fact that extremist beliefs and support for violence are found across different cultures, religions, and political situations. More attention is now being paid to, for example, right-wing or left-wing violent extremism.

The breadth of definitions and debate may offer an opportunity for more creative policy and programme engagement. However, it can also encourage ad hoc policymaking.

Rigorous empirical research that would allow conclusive statements on violent extremism is rare, so extremist violence tends to be explained through untested theories. Political interests may also inform an explanation or definition.

Causes of violent extremism are often divided into ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. This overlooks links between them, however, and can lead to overgeneralisation. ‘Individual’ and ‘community’ factors are more useful categories—though still interconnected.

Factors at the individual level include:

  • Personal relationships: These are important in spreading or reinforcing extremist ideas, and a radicalising peer group can provide a sense of belonging.
  • Beliefs, values and convictions: Extremist beliefs can be religious, spiritual, moral, or political and tend to express the conviction that a group, a way of life, or a political system needs to be challenged or destroyed. The perception of being denied recognition at a collective and personal level is considered critical.
  • Manipulation: Manipulation by extremist groups happens in a complex interplay of identity formation and other enabling factors. Whether there is a causal relationship between access to information (including to social media) and extremism is under-researched. This also challenges counter-approaches that use media strategies.
  • Trauma and humiliation: How emotions of humiliation and betrayal result in the reproduction of violence is a topic in urgent need of research.

Factors at the community level include:

  • History and narratives: Legacies of oppression, subjugation, and interference by dominant powers matter. Sharing an oppression narrative with a community can create a sense of belonging in a marginalised situation.
  • Rejection of an external system: Externally imposed or international systems that are associated with injustice and humiliation can create resistance that can turn violent.
  • Governance: Poor/unjust governance can promote acceptance of an extremist group. Failure of a government to deliver services may enable violent extremists to establish safe havens.
  • Business and crime: Commercial interests can drive violent behaviour. Some extremist groups act as credit institutions where no others are available.
  • Marginalisation and lack of choices: Violence can be seen as a way of gaining more choices, an audible political voice, or a stronger economic position.

Those who join violent extremist groups come from diverse backgrounds and arrive via different paths. Violent extremism is not the consequence of a long-term political or religious ‘maturation’.

There is no straightforward link between violent extremism and religious faith or specific practices. Many of those radicalising have only a faint grasp of the holy texts of the religion they are purportedly defending. This highlights that a belief—which can be a strong driver of violence—is not to be equated with a religious faith based on the interpretation of scriptures. A large-scale public opinion survey in Pakistan found neither religious practice nor support for political Islam was related to support for violent extremist groups.

A direct link between education and specific attitudes has not been established: lack of education does not cause extremist views.

Neither radicalisation nor state collapse necessarily leads to violent extremism. Some scholars argue that in a situation of collapse it is in fact more difficult for extremist ideologies to gain traction.

Violent extremism involves local, regional and international dimensions, so strategies to tackle it are needed at different levels.