The rise of ISIS and its success in mobilizing scores of foreign fighters and supporters have once again put the issue of combating extremists’ ideology front and center. In the wake of a devastating attack, like the recent ones in Paris and Bamako, military, intelligence, and law enforcement approaches dominate the initial response. But, inevitably, the focus turns to questions of prevention: who were the attackers? How did they become radicalized? What could have been done to inhibit or interrupt the radicalization process?

These questions have prompted the evolution of the burgeoning field of countering violent extremism (CVE). While the definition and boundaries of CVE remain contested, the underlying logic is sound. To prevent deadly terrorist attacks, we cannot solely rely on counterterrorism strategies. We must start further upstream—challenging extremists’ narratives and ideologies and addressing the conditions that create a favorable environment for radicalization and recruitment. President Obama underscored this point in his speech at the Pentagon on July 6, 2015, acknowledging that “ ultimately, in order for us to defeat terrorist groups like ISIL and al Qaeda it’s going to also require us to discredit their ideology—the twisted thinking that draws vulnerable people into their ranks.

Yet, conceptual confusion about how to define CVE and differentiate it from more mature areas of practice—such as peace building and conflict mitigation, security sector reform, rule of law, and economic growth and empowerment—have detracted from developing an effective, coherent, preventative approach. The result has been a continued emphasis on kinetic and securitized approaches and the labeling of a wide assortment of programs—from vocational education to investments in English language instruction—as countering violent extremism. It has also allowed popular notions about poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy causing violent extremism to persist, despite numerous studies that have undermined these claims. To be sure, these are problems that require a vigorous response, just not with the expectation that addressing them, alone, will reduce the appeal of violent extremism.

Much like the democracy and governance sector at the beginning of the post-Soviet era, the field of CVE is at a critical moment. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has led the charge to understand the drivers of violent extremism and create an evidence-based framework to respond. In 2009, USAID published a programmatic guide enumerating the push and pull factors that seem to be correlated with support for violent extremism. Among the push factors, often thought of as “root causes,” are high levels of social marginalization and fragmentation; poorly governed or ungoverned spaces; severe and widespread government repression and human rights violations; endemic corruption and elite impunity; and perceptions of an existential threat to one’s culture or religion. The factors thought to pull or draw potential recruits into a violent extremist movement include personal rewards or benefits, such as access to material resources, social status, and respect; a sense of belonging, adventure, and self-esteem; the prospect of achieving glory and fame; and the existence of friends, family members, or neighbors that are already part of an extremist group.

With such a variety of social, political, economic, psychological, and cultural factors in play, there are multiple, unique pathways to radicalization. Consequently, developing a template for development programs that could apply across different contexts is not only impossible, but also undesirable. This creates a dilemma for development professionals, who like to implement tried and true programs based on best practices and lessons learned from other environments. There is also the enduring challenge of proving a negative—or ascertaining whether development interventions prevented an individual’s radicalization.

Despite all of these difficulties, evidence is emerging that development programs can make a significant contribution to countering violent extremism when they are designed intentionally, with deep knowledge about the local drivers and specific interventions targeting those risk factors. In Morocco, programs bringing young men and women from different faiths together has encouraged a healthy dialogue around violent extremism. For example, after working with Search for Common Ground, a young imam, El Mortada, found himself both more firmly rooted in his Islamic identity and an outspoken advocate for tolerance and respect for others. There is also emerging consensus that development programs can make a difference when focused on systemic issues that create individual grievances, such as injustice, inequality, and government corruption and abuse.

In order to strengthen the impact and relevance of developmental approaches, aid agencies will have to devote significant time and resources to innovative monitoring and evaluation techniques—including focus groups and surveys, social network mapping, and impact evaluations. These methods can help determine whether development programs are changing attitudes and behaviors toward the use of violence for political ends. Development practitioners will also have to conduct ongoing, rigorous analyses to identify the particular drivers that are contributing to violent extremism, how they are interacting with each other, and which factors are the most salient. In other words, to be effective as a CVE tool, development programs have to be narrowly targeted, flexible, and underpinned by sound data, analysis, and understanding.

However, development actors are not the only salient force in the CVE space, and development tools are not going to be best placed to intervene further downstream when an individual is already radicalized and is contemplating violence. Greater interagency cooperation is needed to reduce conflicting outcomes or have the immediate response to terrorist threats exacerbate the conditions that contributed to extremism in the first place.

Even when designed and implemented with all of these principles in mind, development agencies will not be able to prevent the radicalization of every determined and vulnerable person. That is not a realistic goal. Rather, the focus on prevention should be elevated in order to reduce the volume of radicalized individuals and allow law enforcement officials to focus on extremists that pose an imminent danger.

Shannon N. Green is a senior fellow and director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Daniel F. Runde holds the CSIS Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis and directs the CSIS Project on Prosperity and Development.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development

Shannon N. Green