How to Counter Violent Extremism?

Most efforts to counter violent extremism have centered largely on youth with the aim of sapping potential terrorist organizations of their ability to enroll young people into their cause and to address the underlying conditions in which extremist ideologies can take hold. It finds that while governments have sought to undermine the narratives of terrorist organizations, it is youth-led and organically developed citizens’ media which has a more profound effect, especially within those hotspots where extremist organizations are very active. The report recommends four prominent approaches that have emerged as good practices to prevent youth involvement in extremist violence and other sorts of violent armed groups:

  • Peer-to-peer approaches. Many lessons can be drawn from efforts to reduce youth involvement in organized violence in other contexts; gang-violence reduction efforts in Central America and the United States, for instance, have yielded significant results and have generated a clear evidence base for what works. Among the key factors in the most effective gang-related projects is that former gang members themselves play a significant role in dissuading potential recruits from deciding to join, using their street credibility to transform their peers attitudes and life decisions.  
  • Youth Participation in Communities.  Some of the most effective programs in dissuading youth involvement in organized violence have focused on developing positive, non-violent alternative outlets for the frustrations, grievances and leadership potential that active young people have. In some of the most conflict-affected places in the world, programming focuses on engaging young people in community decision making, enabling them to liaise with power brokers in their own villages and neighborhoods and contribute to determining major decisions, even how budgets are used. 
  • Community Resiliencies and Collaboration to Prevent Violent Extremism. The relationships and collaboration among community stakeholders has emerged as a key factor in whether extremist groups are able to actively root themselves in communities and recruit young people into their cause. While many programs aim to bring civil society, religious leaders and security forces together, some now focus on the relationship between youth and the police. A powerful approach is to create opportunities for facilitated dialogue among youth, religious leaders, and security forces to direct collaboration in violence prevention at the community level.
  • Narratives. An important dimension of programming for young people is to create alternative and constructive narratives through mainstream and new media which both inoculate them against believing propaganda (strengthening their core analytical skills) and create positive role models for them to follow.  This is done effectively in two ways: a) professional media is used to promote messages of tolerance and pluralism through TV drama, reality TV shows, and other traditional tools; b) Youth and citizens produced media – primarily distributed through social media – enables young leaders who are vulnerable to recruitment to express themselves and bring their own values into the public sphere in constructive ways.

Williams, M., Prelis, S. and Taza R.W., Working Together to Address Violent Extremism: A Strategy for Youth-Government Partnerships, Search for Common Ground (2016, Washington DC) (
Octavia, Lanny, and Esti Wahyuni. 2014. Final Evaluation Report for the project: Countering and Preventing Radicalization in Indonesian Pesantren. Search for Common Ground.
Promoting Mediation and Dialogue in KPK & FATA. 2014. Search for Common Ground.
Developing Effective Counter-Narrative Frameworks For Countering Violent Extremism. 2014. International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, The Hague, Netherlands.

Youth and Violent Extremism

There is a need to look beyond stereotypes and general assumptions, to examine the evidence about which young people actively participate in conflict and why – and more importantly why the majority of young people do not actively engage in violence, including those at highest risk. There is a growing body of research on why some young people are more prone to join violent groups or otherwise take violent action, which suggests that a range of interrelated factors influence how and why particular a young person engages in violence in his or her specific context.

  • Their biological, psychological and social transitional stage of development may mean some youth are more vulnerable to recruitment into armed groups.
  • In some circumstances, young people may conclude that to join an armed group offers them better future prospects – in terms of access to income, resources, protection or social status.
  • Many young people suffer significant levels of social, economic and political exclusion. This and the associated lack of opportunities, impedes or prolongs their transition to adulthood. Such grievances and the associated frustrations may lead some young people to engage in violence.
  • In circumstances where young men are not able to fulfil traditional or socially expected male roles (e.g. as a breadwinner) they may engage in violence as an assertion of their masculinity. Equally, some young women may engage in violence to challenge dominant gender norms, gain status, access resources or as a means of protection from other violence.

However, the key message of the relevant research is that many young people suffer high levels of relative deprivation and exclusion, and many young men are unable to obtain the conditions for socially accepted “manhood” and yet most do not engage in violence.

UNFPA, Youth, Peace and Security: The Time to Act is Now, Paper (August 2015)
Humphreys, M. and J. M. Weinstein. 2008. “Who Fights? The Determinants of Participation in Civil War.” American Journal of Political Science 52(2): 436-455.
Barker, G. 2005. “Why the Worry about Young men?” Ch.1 in: Dying to be Men: Youth, Masculinity and Social Exclusion, edited by Barker, G. 2005. London: Routledge.

Drivers for Violent Extremism

Here's how government and youth can work together in addressing violent extremism at the national and local level, recognizing youth as partners in peace and agents of positive change. Reasons why some young people join violent extremist organizations are unique to each person and to each place, and the most effective prevention initiatives create alternative pathways for them to live out those motives in constructive ways. Factors that drive young people towards extremist organizations vary dramatically, however some patterns have emerged and are seen around the world:

  • Desire to belong to something. Youth who are drawn to join radicalized groups often feel marginalized from their society and cut out of opportunities for advancement.  This may come from a lifetime of discrimination based on being from a minority religious or ethnic group, but it may also come from the rejection of family identity and expectations.  Youth who join armed groups often do so out of a desire to belong to something larger than them and to have a brotherhood or sisterhood with their peers.
  • Political and religious beliefs.  Many who are drawn into extremist groups have strong and radicalized beliefs, are convinced by the cause and the organization’s core grievances, and see that membership creates a chance for them to act on their viewpoints and the injustice done. Effective armed groups exploit the idealism of youth by creating outlets for those idealized belief systems.
  • Opportunity for expression and leadership. Many young people are deeply motivated by the desire to express their own views and act upon their potential for leadership. In most cultures and communities, the space for this is limited; politics and community decision making is dominated by elders and the views of youth are hardly considered. Extremist groups offer opportunities for young people to emerge as leaders and use their talents on a global stage, creating for their ranks a sense of importance and contributing to something larger than them.
  • Identity.  Many youth join armed groups as part of a search for identity. Religious extremist groups exploit internal struggles that many young people have. They, and many other armed groups such as gangs, offer youth a sense of how to define themselves and feel proud in a religious, ethnic, or geographic identity.
  • Economic livelihood and status. Many young people join armed groups because they believe that it will create economic opportunities, which strengthens their sense of power and purpose. Sometimes they join because their traditional vocations are disrupted by armed conflict.
  • Celebrity Status and Power. Young people have reported ideas of masculinity and violence linked to increase in power and status as well as cases of suicide terrorists achieve celebrity status for themselves and family in community.

These findings are based on a report, Working Together to Address Violent Extremism: A Strategy for Youth-Government Partnerships, which draws on research in 14 countries across 3 continents, interviewing 122 individuals, to provide some fascinating analysis on young people’s motives to join extremist groups, which emerge from the conditions of their lives and from a broader context where terrorism can take hold. 

Williams, M., Prelis, S. and Taza R.W., Working Together to Address Violent Extremism: A Strategy for Youth-Government Partnerships, Search for Common Ground (2016, Washington DC) (

The UN Response to Violent Extremism

In response to the rising threat of violent extremism, the UN Security Council, in its Resolution 2178 (2014), made explicit the link between violent extremism and terrorism, underscores the importance of measures being in line with international norms and recognizes the need for prevention: “violent extremism, which can be conducive to terrorism”, requires collective efforts, “including preventing radicalization, recruitment and mobilization of individuals into terrorist groups and becoming foreign terrorist fighters”. In that resolution, the Council “calls upon Member States to enhance efforts to counter this kind of violent extremism”.

The following year, the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy was adopted unanimously by the General Assembly by its resolution 60/288, and it included as one of its pillars, a focus on preventing and combating terrorism. Neither of these resolutions defined “terrorism” or “violent extremism,” but left them as the prerogatives of Member States, noting they must be consistent with their obligations under international law, in particular international human rights law.

Around the same time, in December 2015, the UN Security Council adopted a historic resolution on Youth, Peace and Security (SCR 2250), recognizing the important role of young women and men in the maintenance and promotion of international peace and security. It specifically identified five main pillars for action:

  1. Prevention: urging the facilitation of enabling environments, investments in socio-economic development and quality education for young women and young men, and the creation of mechanisms to promote a culture of peace, tolerance, intercultural and interreligious dialogue that involve youth.
  2. Protection: recalling the obligations to protect civilians, including young people, during armed conflict and in post-conflict, and in particular protect them from all forms of sexual and gender-based violence.
  3. Disengagement and Reintegration: for young women and men directly involved in armed conflict.
  4. Participation: calling on Member States to involve young people in conflict prevention and resolution, in violence prevention and in the promotion of social cohesion, and urging them to consider ways to increase representation of youth in decision-making at all levels.
  5. Partnership: highlighting the need to increase political, financial, technical and logistical support for the work with young peacebuilders by relevant UN entities as well as regional and international organizations, and also the importance of partnering with youth, local communities and non-governmental actors in countering violence extremism.

On 15 January 2016 the Secretary-General presented a Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism (A/70/674) to the General Assembly. Later that year, the UN General Assembly adopted by consensus, resolution (A/RES/70/291) on the Fifth Review of Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy reinforcing global consensus in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism, in which it recognized the importance of preventing violent extremism as and when conducive to terrorism and, recommended that Member States consider the implementation of relevant recommendations of the Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, as applicable to the national context.

The Secretary-General’s Plan noted the importance of working to empower youth, in paragraph 52: “We must pay particular attention to youth. The world’s 1.8 billion young women and men constitute an invaluable partner in our striving to prevent violent extremism. We have to identify better tools with which to support young people as they take up the causes of peace, pluralism and mutual respect. The rapid advance of modern communications technology also means that today’s youth form a global community of an unprecedented kind. This interconnectivity is already being exploited by violent extremists; we need to reclaim this space by helping to amplify the voices of young people already promoting the values of mutual respect and peace to their peers.”

The Secretary-General made the following recommendations to Member States:

  1. Support and enhance young women’s and young men’s participation in activities aimed at preventing violent extremism by prioritizing meaningful engagement mechanisms at the national, regional and global levels, as laid out in the 2015 Amman Declaration on Youth, Peace and Security; and provide a physically, socially and emotionally safe and supportive environment for the participation of young women and men in preventing violent extremism;
  2. Integrate young women and men into decision-making processes at local and national levels, including by establishing youth councils and similar mechanisms which give young women and men a platform for participating in mainstream political discourse;
  3. Foster trust between decision makers and young women and men, especially through intergenerational dialogue and youth-adult confidence-building activities and training;
  4. Involve hard-to-reach young women and men, such as those from underrepresented groups, in efforts to prevent violent extremism, as laid out in the Guiding Principles on Young People’s Participation in Peacebuilding;
  5. Establish national mentoring programmes for young women and men, create space for personal growth in their chosen fields, and offer opportunities for community service which can enable them to become leaders and actors for constructive change;
  6. Ensure that a portion of all funds dedicated to addressing violent extremism are committed to projects that address young people’s specific needs or empower them and encourage international financial institutions, foundations and other donors to provide small grant funding mechanisms to women and young social entrepreneurs to enable them to develop their own ideas on strengthening community resilience against violent extremism.

Two additional developments that shape the global policy response and deserve mention are the Sustainable Development Goals, which include a focus on adolescents and youth throughout, and specifically include Goal 16, which promotes the participation of young people in governance and peace, as well as the Global Compact for Young people in Humanitarian Action, launched at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, which identifies young people’s priorities in humanitarian contexts, as well as the potential for their role in responding to crises.

The Canadian Context: Multiculturalism and Violent Extremism

The report, “The Current State of Multiculturalism in Canada and Research Themes on Canadian Multiculturalism 2008-2010” observed “not only growing evidence of Canada’s comparative advantage in the integration of immigrants, but also growing evidence that the multiculturalism policy has played an important role in this comparative success. ... On the other hand, we are witnessing a worldwide retreat from multiculturalism, most observable in Western Europe, and many commentators argue that this is a harbinger of Canada’s future as well.” The author concluded that “the various attempts to find signs of European-style problems in Canada are all, I believe, misleading” and reaffirmed the finding of Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) that there is little evidence of the deep social segregation feared in parts of Europe … Canada is not “sleepwalking into segregation…. There is no justification for a U-turn in multiculturalism policies comparable to that underway in some European countries…”.

Canada has over 35 million population. Over 10.2 million are children and youth. One out of five people in Canada's population is foreign-born. Two-third of Canada’s population growth is attributable to international migration.

In October 2015, the Globe and Mail reported the results of a survey conducted by Environics Institute and the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, which found that attitudes towards immigration and multiculturalism seem to remain stable, with 80% of Canadians still believing immigration is good for the country’s economy. Despite record number of immigrants, including more than 32,000 Syrian refugees in 2015, and over 300,000 immigrants in a year, the largest annual number since modern record-keeping began, most Canadians do not think immigration increases crime rates, and most believe refugee claimants are legitimate.

Yet, attitudes towards immigrants may be hardening. A study by CBC and the Angus Reid Institute in 2016 found that 68 per cent of Canadian respondents said minorities should be doing more to fit in with mainstream society instead of keeping their own customs and languages (compared to 53% of American respondents, who felt the same way).  In a February 2017 survey by the Angus Reid Institute found that a "significant segment" of Canadians say Canada's 2017 refugee target of 40,000 is too high, while one in four Canadians wants the Liberal government to impose its own Trump-style travel ban on refugees. A CBC news survey on discrimination in 2014 found that only about half - 55 per cent - "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that immigrants are "very important to building a stable Canadian economic future," and 30 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed "immigrants take jobs from Canadians."

These shifts have likely encouraged Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch to make vetting would-be immigrants and refugees for "anti-Canadian values" into an election issue. Even Liberal politicians, such as Former B.C. premier and Liberal cabinet minister Ujjal Dosanjh, have raised issues of the need to address concerns about equality, race and culture, and reject “unthinking or mindless multiculturalism”.

The 2016 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada notes that the principal terrorist threat to Canada is an attack by violent extremists who could be inspired by terrorist groups like ISIS/Daesh and al-Qaida. Indeed, in October 2014, there were two “lone-wolf” attacks by radicalized youth in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and a third was said to have been prevented by the RCMP in Strathroy, Ontario. As of the end of 2015, the Government was aware of approximately 180 individuals with a nexus to Canada who were abroad and who were suspected of engaging in terrorism-related activities. The report stated that the Canadian Government was also aware of a further 60 extremist travellers who had returned to Canada, and many others other “individuals of concern”, including those who aspire to travel, those whose travel has been thwarted, those who are abroad but not yet fully identified, and those who do not want to travel but still could pose a threat to Canada's security.

Many Canadians are becoming more fearful and hopeless in the aftermath of US election and a deadly attack on a Quebec City mosque. In a conversation with Janet Trull, a Hamilton writer and educator, she described the delicate work of promoting tolerance: "…Social change and globalization have occurred too fast for some people to grasp. We have to strive to understand what initiates such acts of hatred. Suppressing it only makes it meaner. Confronting it at the wrong time and place gives it momentum. The desperation behind these destructive perspectives has been simmering for a long time. Trump has merely given it validity…” It is conceivable that militants and oppressive regimes in fragile and conflict-affected countries will exploit the new emerging populist nationalism and deny their own people an access to education, employment and human rights and peace.

The issue of violent extremism is addressed by a Counter-terrorism Strategy, “Building Resilience Against Terrorism”, launched in 2012, which seeks to put forward a coordinated national approach guiding more than 20 federal departments and agencies to better align them to “prevent, detect, deny and respond” to terrorist threats. The Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, in consultation with the Minister of Global Affair, is responsible for the Strategy's implementation. The strategy lists “prevention” as its first priority, and under this pillar, implements programmes on countering violent extremism, which include research, community engagement and international engagement. One of the key areas for community engagement is through the Inter-Action (Multiculturalism) program, which supports CIC's mandate and the Canadian Multiculturalism Act by assisting the socio-economic integration of new immigrants, seeking to build community resilience to factors that can lead to social isolation and violent extremism.

In general, Canada seems to address its ethnic and cultural diversity within three distinct approaches, with separate laws, constitutional provisions and government departments dealing with (a) multiculturalism in response to ethnic diversity arising from immigration, (b) federalism and bilingualism in response to the French fact; and (c) Aboriginal rights for First Nations.[7] A policy of “reasonable accommodation” has been put in place, which seeks to end discrimination on prohibited grounds, namely, race, colour, sex, gender identity or expression, pregnancy, sexual orientation, civil status, age (except as provided by law), religion, political convictions, language, ethnic or national origin, social condition, a disability or the use of any means to palliate a disability, in accordance with the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. It puts an obligation on employers and service providers to actively find a solution allowing employees, clients or recipients to fully exercise their rights, by adapting a practice, or a general operating rule or granting an exemption to a person in facing discrimination. This policy has created occasional controversies, including in Quebec, which was the subject of the Bouchard-Taylor Report.

The new liberal government is trying to find a peacebuilder role for Canada on global stage.  Unveiling Canada's plan to seek a UN Security Council seat, Honourable Stéphane Dion former Global Affair Minster said that in "our role as a determined and effective peace-builder … we'll do what is needed to support the international community, based on our experience in building a peaceful and resilient society in Canada; in bravely fighting for justice and security on the global stage; in promoting humanitarian assistance, development, training and capacity building; and in protecting gender equality and all human rights. We seek a seat at the Security Council precisely because the world finds itself at a time when there is a pressing need to prevent violent extremism, to manage conflict and to respond to humanitarian crises. We know Canada can make a difference." See another relevant article here.

Public Safety Canada has allocated $35 million over five years in its 2016 budget to establishan Office of the Community Outreach and Counter-radicalization Coordinator. The Office will provide leadership on Canada's response to radicalization to violence, coordinate federal/provincial/territorial and international initiatives, and support community outreach and research. 

According to Global Affair Canada “Canada is a determined peacebuilder. We have a long history as a contributor to international peace, security and stability. Taking concrete actions to prevent and respond to conflicts abroad and to support UN peace operations in building a more peaceful and prosperous world, the Government of Canada announced on August 26, 2016, the launch of Global Affairs Canada’s new Peace and Stabilization Operations Program (PSOPs). The new PSOPs will have a budget of $450 million over three years. Through PSOPs, Canada works with allies and partners with these goals: end violence; provide security, (and) create space for dialogue and conflict resolution.”

Conflict and Violent Extremism

Conflict disrupts social structures, breaks down the rule of law, and cripples health systems. It has a devastating impact on young people’s development, human rights, and their ability to fulfil their potential. Access to sexual and reproductive health information, services and commodities reduces drastically when countries descend into conflict. Girls and young women in particular (but also boys and young men) are at heightened risk of physical and sexual abuse and exploitation in situations of conflict, and girls are at higher risk of harmful practices such as child marriage. Young people, who are already an outcast majority, are used by military commanders and political leaders as cannon fodder, excluded from peace negotiations and agreements, and have to fend for themselves when they return to what is left of their communities – creating the pre-conditions for the next cycle of violence.

The rise of extremist groups, many of whom are motivated by religion use terrorism as a means of advocating for change, has become a defining characteristic of modern conflict. The proliferation of non-state armed groups, many of which have loose and network-based relationships to one another, is considered one of the most significant security threats of our time. Further, while there has been unprecedented attention to young people in the context of countering or preventing violent extremism, it is important to resist relying on security-sector responses, which can often be counter-productive, but instead to put forward peacebuilding approaches that address underlying issues, recognize young people’s leadership and positive contributions to building peace, and seek to put in place comprehensive approaches that engage young people in building peaceful and just societies.

Youth, Peace and Security

  • Young people suffer disproportionately the effects of conflict – as victims directly and indirectly. In conflict situations, young people often must work extremely hard to survive; to support and protect themselves and their families, and to resist violence. Young people are also the victims of much post-accord violence, being disproportionately affected by displacement, exclusion and structural violence. Beyond the shorter-term negative impacts for recovery, these experiences can shape attitudes and behaviors over the medium term and may extract a high price in terms of prospects for long-term stability.
  • Most young people do not engage in violence, even in conflict settings. The minority of young people who do participate in violence form the majority of violent actors across the world. Much more should be done to reduce engagement of young men and women in violent action and reduce their recruitment to and participation in armed groups. Young people who have engaged in violence (e.g. as child soldiers) have specific and diverse needs for tailored support particularly in the post-conflict period. They also have ambitions and capabilities for constructive engagement that should be recognized and addressed.
  • The specific needs of young women and young men at times of crisis are often underserved, if not outright neglected. These range from a need for safe passage away from conflict sites to protection from gender-based violence to access to essential services including those that address their sexual and reproductive health.
  • Young people often are primary but unseen actors in conflict recovery processes including in grassroots community rebuilding and development, and in peacebuilding work. Their support for their families and communities often remains unacknowledged by those in formal positions of power or authority.
  • Young people have a right to participate in peacebuilding and community decision-making pertaining to prevention and recovery, as is enshrined in international and national commitments. Such participation should build young people’s knowledge, skills and self-esteem and further enhance their positive contribution to building peaceful societies. Youth support for, and participation in post-conflict governance arrangements is vital for success, not only to minimize their impact as “spoilers” of post-accord efforts through political violence or violent crime, but also to better harness their energy for and contribution to reconstruction efforts.

Source: UNFPA, Youth, Peace and Security: The Time to Act is Now, Paper (August 2015)

Why Young People?

The media and mainstream institutions often portrays young people, particularly young racialized men, as violent extremists, but only a minority of young people ever participate in violence, and most young people are peaceful. There is increasing attention to young people in the context of preventing violent extremism, but most responses rely on the police or military, and are often counter-productive. Young people, particularly newcomer immigrants, young refugees, and racialized youth are often unfairly targeted as potential extremists, and girls and young women are disproportionately affected by displacement, exclusion and structural violence.While it is true that an environment of increasing extremism and exposure to violence (including those viewed on social media) is affecting attitudes and behaviors, many young Canadians are demonstrating immense courage and leadership by transforming violent conflict, promoting peace and building inter-cultural understanding in their communities despite overwhelming obstacles. Their leadership and capacities for building peace are not being recognized, and they lack the resources and support they need to be truly effective.