INSIGHTS | POLICY FORUM
Reports from the The Soufan Group, International Center for the Study of Radi-calisation (King’s College London), and
the Combating Terrorism Center (U.S.
Military Academy) indicate that approximately three-fourths of those who join the
Islamic State or al-Qaeda do so in groups.
These groups often involve preexisting social networks and typically cluster in particular towns and neighborhoods (16). This
suggests that much recruitment does not
need direct personal appeals by organization agents or individual exposure to social
media (which would entail a more dispersed
recruitment pattern). Fieldwork is needed to
identify the specific conditions under which
these processes play out. Natural growth
models of terrorist networks then might be
based on an epidemiology of radical ideas
in host social networks rather than built in
the abstract then fitted to data and would
allow for a public health, rather than strictly
criminal, approach to violent extremism.
Such considerations have implications for
countering terrorist recruitment. The present USG focus is on “counternarratives,” intended as alternative to the “ideologies” held
to motivate terrorists. This strategy treats
ideas as disembodied from the human conditions in which they are embedded and
given life as animators of social groups. In
their stead, research and policy might better
focus on personalized “counterengagement,”
addressing and harnessing the fellowship,
passion, and purpose of people within specific social contexts, as ISIS and al-Qaeda
often do. This focus stands in sharp contrast
to reliance on negative mass messaging and
sting operations to dissuade young people in
doubt through entrapment and punishment
(the most common practice used in U.S. law
enforcement) (17) rather than through positive persuasion and channeling into productive life paths. At the very least, we need field
research in communities that is capable of
capturing evidence to reveal which strategies
are working, failing, or backfiring.
In 2015, the White House inaugurated a
federal program for Countering Violent Ex-
tremism (CVE) after consulting many experts
from government, academia, and the private
sector. Although the initiative was not driven
by scientific evidence, federal agencies began
training staff, mediators, local communities,
and private-sector firms to recognize and
prevent violent extremism. The hope is that
by continuing “to convene a wide range of
disciplines,” a “community-based” approach
to prevention led by the federal government
will get it right (18). But accessing, inter-
preting, and leveraging community-based
knowledge requires disciplined, theoretically
informed field research in and with commu-
nities at risk. CVE currently lacks the mecha-
nisms and funding (19).
A necessary focus of that research effort
must be youth, who form the bulk of today’s
terrorist recruits and tomorrow’s most vul-
nerable populations (20). At present, young
people, especially young men (but increas-
ingly young women), are viewed as a prob-
lem rather than the promise of a solution. To
prevent terrorism, we need prevention re-
search, fostering positive youth development
through concrete possibilities for realizing
young people’s hopes and dreams.
One such success story is the Aware Girls
program founded by teenagers Gulalai and
Saba Ismail a decade ago in Northwest Paki-
stan. It provides young women with a plat-
form for learning and advocacy, and their
interventions have helped hundreds of young
men move away from political and religious
violence (21). A key feature of such programs
is that they are local, which allows personal
engagement by individuals attuned to culture
Moving from local successes to global
achievement requires institutions and programs that can help weave together general principles and practices that underlie
local successes, while also encouraging local initiative, tailoring, and autonomy. The
United Network of Young Peacebuilders is
one youth-led organization that follows this
strategy and uses baseline studies and ex
post evaluations, with very limited means
(22). It was instrumental in promoting UN
Security Council Resolution 2250 that urges
Member States to give youth a greater voice
in decision-making at the local, regional,
and international levels in order to better
confront the threat to stability and development posed by violent extremism. The
resolution’s implementation requires independent scientific research not merely on
youth, but in the field with youth, to inform
policies of member nations and, perhaps
more important, to create transnational social and intellectual channels to allow youth
to formulate and choose best practices.
Providing the scientific foundations for
that youth work, as well as interdiction
and other programs for stopping violent
extremism, requires fieldwork deeply inte-
grated with basic science. It also requires
integration with government to address
decision-makers’ perceived needs, while in-
forming them about the content, strengths,
and limits to the science. To fulfill these
roles, scientists must retain strong indepen-
dence to avoid co-option by bureaucratic or
political interests, while maintaining their
colleagues’ respect. Unless the sciences are
integrated and independent, government
may get oversimplified views from scien-
tists unaware of their subdiscipline’s limits,
or pandering ones from scientists eager for
attention and influence. Unless government
maintains proper distance, it will deter sci-
entists ready to build knowledge to contain
terrorism but who fear wasting time or
compromising their integrity. j
REFERENCES AND NOTES
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9. For Minerva, $10 million was added to $18 million already
budgeted for FY 2016 (8) but again reduced to $18 million
for FY 2017.
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(U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and
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Comprehensive Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism
(Center for Strategic and International Studies,
Washington, DC, 2016); http://bit.ly/PDF_2iG5e.
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Organisations (United Network of Young Peacebuilders,
Den Haag, Netherlands, 2015); http://bit.ly/PDF_2huDh.
“...youth…form the bulk of
today’s terrorist recruits and
tomorrow’s most vulnerable