The growth of violent extremism over the last decade is a dangerous and destabilizing phenomenon. “It is essential,” said Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Sarah Sewall, “that the world mobilizes against such backward-looking intolerance and cruelty, which threatens humanity’s moral, political, and economic progress.”
As we continue to confront violent extremism in its current forms, we must acknowledge that terrorist groups often respond to military setbacks by rebranding, realigning and reforming. To halt their spread over the long-term, we must therefore complement our military, law enforcement and intelligence tools with new approaches to address the underlying conditions and mindsets conducive to the spread of violent extremism in the first place. In other words, there also needs to be a preventive approach to halt their spread.
This requires understanding what motivates individuals to join violent extremist organizations. According to experts, these motives can include physical insecurity or the inability to provide for oneself or one’s family. But even where people’s most basic needs are met, social and political marginalization can undermine people’s higher-level needs such as having a valued role or purpose. Real and imagined political grievances are also key ‘push’ factors that can drive individuals to join violent extremist networks.
Because violent extremists prey on different grievances, from people’s immediate needs for security to their more abstract desires for empowerment and identity, a ‘whole-of-society’ approach is key to preventing their spread. “Therefore as an international community,” said Under Secretary Sewall, “we must continue to expand our approach to counter terrorism to include a greater emphasis on prevention – protecting individuals and communities from violent extremism.”
This can mean encouraging governments to respect human rights by permitting dissent and respecting religious freedom, which can reduce realities or perceptions of marginalization and enable communities to find their voices; training security forces to protect instead of profile their citizens; supporting civil society to create opportunities for youth through educational, service or mentoring programs; partnering with businesses to expand economic opportunities; and amplifying the voice of religious leaders to challenge violent extremist propaganda.
In many countries, foreign assistance can play a critical role in preventing violent extremism, as can international and regional financial institutions and indeed the private sector.
Only through such a global campaign can the international community effectively counter and prevent violent extremism.