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Drew Mikhael and Julie Norman , research fellows in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast

March 2019
Local Leaders Key to Preventing Violent Extremism among Youth

The international community has spent significant monetary, intellectual, and political capital trying to counter and prevent violent extremism (PVE) due in large part to the rise of the Islamic State and militant attacks carried out in Europe. These efforts’ focus on addressing marginalization have come at the expense of more emphasis being placed on the role of local leaders in preventing youth from engaging in violent extremism. The role of individuals and organizations delivering PVE programming has been under-researched, in particular, understanding how management and interpersonal skills contribute to the prevention of radicalization, especially youth radicalization. Based on fieldwork with local civil society leaders in Tripoli and Beirut who take part in “on-the-ground” community work, we found that, while not always PVE specific, such work is often more effective than traditional PVE approaches—for instance, instituting initiatives focused on stemming marginalization and providing support for law enforcement—in providing young people with viable alternatives to engaging in violence.
It should first be considered that the search for an all-encompassing explanation for radicalization is largely futile, and the usual pathologies that explain violence are unhelpful. Single-issue explanations such as religion, socio-economic difficulties, or domestic abuse or hardship are not determinative of radicalization. Rather, radicalization is more closely linked to the presence of multiple marginalizations, entailing young people experiencing a range of personal and community-wide insecurities that foster a lack of well-being. Recruiters from violent groups exploit these marginalizations by portraying their organization or cause as a way of “healing” grievances and providing a sense of belonging.
For example, subjects highlighted political drivers as a key reason for potential radicalization, including young people reacting to perceived inequalities which their communities face. In such instances, violent groups take advantage of broader political overtones by portraying themselves as agents of change against wider societal injustices. Socio-economic factors also play a role. In particular, they cited a sense of hopelessness that translates into reduced life expectations and low self-esteem, which violent groups then exploit by providing money and a sense of purpose. Additionally, current detention policies assist the radicalization process, as the prison system does not deter or rehabilitate prisoners, but instead puts already vulnerable young people at risk of further radicalization, solidifying pathways to joining violent groups.
Local leaders engaged in community work emphasized the necessity of understanding multiple marginalizations affecting young people. This insight can inform the conceptualization of programs addressing these issues, such as providing psychosocial support and allowing young people to express themselves in order to increase their sense of self-worth. Furthermore, local leaders emphasize the vital nature of tackling youths’ sense of hopelessness through socio-economic development, empowering young people, improving their professional skills, and encouraging funding at the hyper-local level.
While establishing projects focused on minimizing marginalization remains crucial, just as important is the ethos of the people and organizations that implement such programs. The research found that such organizations have demonstrated an ability to intervene in the “radicalization process”. Local leaders, through their sustained presence on the ground—and predicated on the trust they have from the community—are equipped to build relationships with at-risk individuals. These relationships allow local leaders to monitor problems in the community and, as was the case for many interviewed during this research, to directly engage with young people. Local leaders were also key in working with youth returning from fighting in Syria, specifically in helping them transition away from their affiliation with armed groups. Some NGOs, such as Fighters for Peace (FFP), have also been instrumental in engaging ex-combatants in dialogue and peacebuilding.
These engagements by local leaders—who understand the characteristics of communities to which they belong—can play a key role in preventing youth engagement in violent extremism. Top-down PVE policies often have the unintended consequence of pushing youth to the margins through pre-criminalization policies such as arbitrary detention and interrogation. By contrast, local efforts built on personal relationships, community-building, and trust can be crucial in addressing grievances and disrupting the processes of radicalization which seek to exploit them. Many PVE policies have thus far repeated the same error, namely, treating those who engage in violence as having particular motivations that require exceptional approaches. This supposed exceptionalism leads to PVE policies that ultimately increase marginalization, rather than provide viable alternatives to engaging in violence. 

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