Compounding Violent Extremism? When Efforts to Prevent Violence Backfire


As America’s global campaign against terrorism continues to evolve, the U.S. government has increasingly adopted non-military tools to complement its military efforts. As part of a joint strategy with the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is funding development programs designed to undermine the rise and expansion of violent extremist activity in key countries across the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Known as “countering violent extremism” or “preventing violent extremism,” these civilian-led programs are designed to counter extremists’ efforts to recruit, radicalize, and mobilize followers to violence through youth empowerment, social and economic inclusion, and improved local government responses. Programs have ranged from youth leadership training to partnerships with moderate religious leaders who enhance their communities’ understanding of the risks of extremism.

Despite their good intentions, these programs are riddled with problems. In some cases, they do not do enough to ensure that participants are actually at risk of radicalization, while other programs foster wasteful spending on activities with no proven link to the problem. The result is that USAID programs may be exacerbating the very problem they are trying to solve by increasing support for violence in places where extremist groups are operating.

The failures of development-led efforts to mitigate violent extremism aren’t only a concern for policymakers worried about wasting American taxpayer dollars. The mixed results also raise questions about the degree to which humanitarian actors are contributing to conflict. Perhaps most importantly, they suggest it is time to take a more nuanced view of non-military efforts to counter violent extremism.

Preventing Violent Extremism Through Development

Global enthusiasm for civilian-led programs as a complement to counterterrorism rose in 2015, when President Barack Obama convened the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. The summit sought to kick off efforts to better identify and intervene in local communities before radicalization led to violence. It built on lessons learned in America’s experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, which demonstrated the importance of a civilian role in countering violent extremist ideology. Still, the policy community remains divided over the extent to which this approach should be integrated into a broader counterterrorism strategy.

The causes of violent extremism are widely accepted within the policy and academic communities as consisting of structural and individual-level factors, or push and pull factors, respectively. Push factors alienate individuals, driving them from their communities. They range from discrimination or marginalization by the state (including repression and human rights abuses) to governments’ failure to provide basic public services. Pull factors attract individuals to violent extremist groups. These include the group’s ideological appeal, the potential for economic gain, and personal connections, including family and friendship networks.

U.S.-funded development programs seek to mitigate both push and pull factors by aiding the development of more effective government institutions, providing job training, and restoring arts and sports in formerly extremist-held territories, among other efforts. Through its “Transition Initiatives” in places like Tunisia, Mali, and Nigeria and “Peace Through Development” programs in Burkina Faso, Chad, and Niger, USAID has been at the forefront of efforts to prevent violent extremism.

When Programs Go Awry

Recent research and a thorough review of USAID program evaluations suggest that some development programs are shifting local attitudes toward increased support for terrorism. For instance, researchers from Princeton and Yale recently evaluated INVEST, a 36-month skills-development program that provided Afghan youths with vocational training. The program was funded by the U.S. Institute of Peace (a U.S. government-funded think tank) and designed and implemented by Mercy Corps. An additional component — a cash transfer — was funded and implemented by Yale University’s Political Violence FieldLab for the purposes of the study. In the study, 2,600 youths in Kandahar province were randomly assigned to one of INVEST’s three interventions: three to six months of INVEST’s job or skills training, a $75 cash transfer via cell phone, or both. A fourth set of youths served as a control group and received nothing.

While the researchers found that the combination of training and cash appeared to reduce participants’ willingness to back the Taliban, including through financial or logistical support, INVEST’s job training on its own had no observable effect on support for either the Taliban or the Afghan government. However, individuals who received only cash transfers were more willing to provide support to the Taliban roughly seven to nine months after they had received the money. Cash transfers — a heralded development assistance tool — turned out to increase individuals’ willingness to materially support a terrorist group. This may be because fast solutions, like infusions of cash, aren’t really solutions at all; rather, they serve to highlight the inability of governments to deliver on promises of change.

The same increased support for violence has also manifested after more extensive development efforts. The Somali Youth Learners Initiative, a $39 million USAID-funded program, was designed to expand access to quality secondary and non-formal education for over 100,000 young people. Its activities were typical of many development programs: It built and refurbished schools and held civic engagement activities, like sports tournaments. A Mercy Corps study found that youths in Somaliland who received secondary education as part of this program were less likely to use violence in personal disputes. However, 11 percent of the participants became more likely to approve of the use of violence for a political cause — the very definition of terrorism. To explain this finding, the researchers concluded that greater education increased young people’s awareness of their government’s shortcomings and their own limited prospects. This new awareness, they hypothesized, translated into to more support for political violence.

A similar study of the same education program in other regions of Somalia found that increased access to education had no observable impact on students’ feelings of social isolation — a key driver of violent extremism. Instead, it reduced students’ confidence in their ability to change their community. Combined, these findings demonstrate that broad efforts, like improved access to education, can have mixed or even contradictory effects on violent extremism.

Further examples corroborate this. After five years of exposure to U.S. radio programming in northern Mali, which included some programming from moderate religious figures, residents were more likely to be civically engaged. However, they did not change their beliefs as to whether terrorist groups’ violent acts were justified under Islamic principles or whether the United States was engaged in a war with Islam.

The mixed effects of U.S. government-funded programs demonstrate that the United States is not using its limited foreign assistance resources particularly effectively or efficiently in this area. Worse, they suggest that civilian complements to counterterrorism are not the low-cost solution that many hoped for.

Ready, Aim, Misfire

How can we explain this increased support for violent extremism? Social psychology has some answers. For decades, research has shown that attacks on strongly held beliefs tend to make these beliefs more resistant to counterarguments. Efforts to undermine support for terrorism may actually reinforce existing beliefs.

Programs to counter violent extremism may also be targeting the wrong individuals. Programs are often aimed at “youths at risk of violent extremism” because young people are seen as more vulnerable to manipulation and ideological appeals and as a readily available labor force for militant groups. But not all youth are equally at risk. An outside evaluation found that USAID’s Tunisia Transition Initiative failed to actually target those youth at risk of becoming violent extremists. Instead, the program worked predominantly with youth at risk of either drug use or criminal activity, neither of which have been decisively linked to violent extremism. The evaluators expressed concern that the Tunisia program missed its target entirely.

These issues are compounded by programs that struggle to demonstrate their relevance to the problem set. Youth engagement activities—which, in Chad, included planting trees in community centers, cleaning markets, and painting classrooms—often seem like little more than busy work. In Burkina Faso, one instance of youth leadership training involved teaching 10 youth how to create personal Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Far too many efforts to counter violent extremism are activities like these, whose likelihood of impact is questionable. Over the course of three months, film screenings and youth theater performances amounted to $100,000 of USAID’s spending in Niger. Roughly half a million dollars more was spent on violent extremism-themed radio and television productions. A year and a half after these programs ended, there is no way to assess whether any of this had a meaningful or lasting impact on attitudes towards violent extremism in the country.

Saving Efforts to Counter Violent Extremism

There are some simple steps that can be taken to ensure that programs intended to mitigate violent extremism do not contribute to the problem. Improving targeting of both resources and programs would be a good place to start. Given the clear potential for negative consequences, programs should be as narrow in scope as possible. Broad, general interventions are likely to have a mixed impact on violent extremism, if they have any impact at all. Focused programming that is responsive to a particular community’s needs and/or risk factors would result in more effective and efficient programs. This approach requires some legwork at the beginning — establishing a better understanding of local social networks and other contextual factors — but the U.S. government already has the tools to do this.

Pre-testing programs before heavily investing in them is an important way to assess whether they have the potential for changing attitudes or behaviors. Pilot programs can help refine program design while also providing vital contextual information. Finally, continuous evaluations are essential. If and when local attitudes begin moving in the wrong direction, program implementers should immediately seek correctives or suspend their activities.

These steps are not just recommendations for better oversight. They also address the ethical questions raised by using development programs as a counterterrorism tool when there is evidence that those programs have the potential to make violent extremism worse. Non-military approaches to counterterrorism are not an unmitigated good. For instance,  evidence of foreign aid’s success as a counterterrorism tool does not apply to countries experiencing civil war, which make up a significant portion of countries affected by violent extremism.

When development programs to counter violent extremism draw attention to the failures of local governments, highlight the limited opportunities young people face, or offer weak challenges to strong beliefs, they can, and do, have negative repercussions. The United States must do its best to do no harm, both to others and to its own efforts to counter violent extremism abroad.


Jessica Trisko Darden is a Jeane Kirkpatrick Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and Assistant Professor of International Affairs at American University’s School of International Service.

Image: AU/UN IST photo/David Mutua