Global Cooperation

How can we address violent extremism?

Anja Kaspersen
Former Head of Geopolitics and International Security, World Economic Forum
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Policy-makers and scholars alike have undertaken significant efforts to identify the drivers of violent extremism, and the motivations that lead individuals to act violently based on their beliefs.

Many hypotheses link violent extremism to real or perceived grievances – for instance, the lack of social and economic opportunities, weak and untrustworthy governance and institutions, and intolerance of and discrimination against marginalized groups. The result is a breed of fighters who are willing to engage in acts of extremism in their communities and abroad.

There are also psychological factors, such as the desire to join a cause, the pursuit of adventure or the search for meaning in an ambiguous world seem to motivate individuals to join extremist groups, internalize their worldview and adopt their goals to violent ends. In other instances, individuals may be motivated by material or criminal incentives. It goes without saying that the drivers and rationale compelling an individual to act violently in the name of a cause, ideology or injustice remain multifaceted and complex.

Despite this complexity, there is an urgent need to understand these drivers, mindsets and motivating factors in order to preemptively address violent extremism. The Global Terrorism Index notes that the number of terrorist attacks around the world increased by 61% from 2013 to 2014. The number of these attacks is unlikely to decrease in 2015 without concerted and innovative efforts by a diverse set of stakeholders. These attacks affect individuals, families, communities, countries and entire regions, and yet global leaders have not yet figured out a way to deter them. We believe the key is to invest in prevention efforts related to community-building and socio-economic cohesion.

While intelligence, law enforcement or military-driven responses may be effective in containing the threat of violent extremism in the short term, they are unable to holistically address the enabling factors which fuel this challenge. In fact, many of the enabling factors leading to violent extremism appear to stem from inadequate socio-economic, community and family support, which non-military and often non-government entities are best positioned to provide.

The private sector and civil society have to play a critical role in addressing the highly targeted and shrewd recruiting tactics of violent extremists, as well as the susceptibility of citizens to radicalization. Indeed, a cursory analysis of the ways in which a multistakeholder view of security and action around violent extremism could pay off, highlights the role of civil-society organizations. They have been a major channel for mass rejection of extremism through anti-extremist campaigns, protests and demonstrations. The role of community leaders in promoting counter-narratives to those promoted by radicalized and extremist groups is of great importance. Similarly, private-sector companies and businesses have played a significant role in cutting off the sources of financial and material support for violent-extremist activities, and also in creating supportive community structures that lessen the risk for extremist worldviews to proliferate.

A particular challenge flows from the fact that violent-extremist groups are harnessing communication platforms and social media in ways that outpace traditional policy and community responses. The digital space for recruitment and radicalization is difficult, if not impossible, to control. The generation of digital “natives” is engaging with live conflicts and extremist worldviews in a way that was not possible before, all through a few clicks.

However, technology is also a powerful tool for countering the spread of digital extremism. Effective responses should thus entail clear and tech-savvy counter-operations, including counter-narratives and social media campaigns, while taking care to avoid driving violent extremist groups into the dark web. Crafting the digital response by necessity must involve the private sector, and should include the unique skills of other digital natives, especially youth.

Effective responses to preventing both radicalization and violent extremism must therefore focus on the broader spectrum of responsibilities, as well as on the actors influencing the drivers of this phenomenon. Similarly, there is a need to address how to rehabilitate individuals who have expressed willingness to, or who have already committed, violent acts.

The World Economic Forum has never shied away from significant global challenges. We, like most global institutions, recognize that violent extremism presents a serious threat to international security, global markets and societal cohesion and stability. As the International Institution for Public-Private Cooperation, we stand ready to help our public, private and civil-society partners to collaboratively find solutions to tackle this complex and dangerous threat. The role of private-sector resources, combined with active civil-society and especially youth engagement, in deepening our understanding of the motivations behind violent extremism and crafting effective responses in partnership with governments, merit more and dedicated focus.

The World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa 2015 takes place at the Dead Sea, Jordan, from 21-23 May. 

Authors: Nicholas Davis, Head of Society Pillar; Miroslav Dusek, Head of the Middle East Team; and Anja Kaspersen, Head of Geopolitics and International Security, World Economic Forum. 

Image: People flee the violence in the city of Ramadi, May 15, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

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Global CooperationResilience, Peace and Security
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