Violent Extremism at the crossroads: Envisioning a new strategy to a more stable world

Violent extremism, at its core, is a consequence of the absence of effective governance seen in many places around the world. The growing global governance deficit has fueled this extremism.

When states collapse, and other sovereign actors fail to step in, people seek out governance from whoever can deliver it.

In the world stage, we are moving from traditional “multilateral” governance to “polylateral” governance. Instead of one main superpower dominating, multiple countries now compete for power, and they are unlikely to agree on how to address pressing global concerns. Amidst decreasing international cooperation and threats to multilateralism, polylateral governance seems to be the gaining momentum.

The Paris Peace Forum is centered around finding solutions to global governance to promote lasting peace. Central message is not to have history repeat itself, looking back at World War I. With this as its core message, what can we learn from counter terrorism measures employed so far and what other strategies should be employed to address terrorism?

The “eradication” strategy imposed by sovereign powers such as the U.S. has relied on hard security tactics and stern language. Bush employed this approach when he declared a “War on Terror” and sent troops into Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama sought to wind down Bush’s wars, but he failed. U.S. spending on the post-9/11 wars has cost taxpayers more than $5.6 trillion. But has it worked?

Global deaths from terrorist attacks have increased since 2001, and violent extremism has spread to more countries (1). Rather than addressing the governance problem, military approaches have, in many cases, exacerbated chaos and instability, particularly in places like Syria and Iraq.

In addition, by using hard language, efforts to eradicate extremism have generated anger and resentment and may have contributed to increasing violent extremism worldwide, working in favor of the violent extremists’ groups.

Within countries, this language has also mobilized reactionary forces spouting ideologies of ultra-nationalism, tribalism, racism, or xenophobia. The failure to eradicate extremism, may have discouraged other actors from getting involved. Should we then focus not on eradicating, but rather on marginalizing adherents of extremism?

Little progress can be expected from traditional sovereigns: their concern for national interests will likely continue to prevail over their attention to human security. Yet the rise of polylateral governance presents an opportunity to harness the experience and knowledge of new actors. Through stronger, multi-dimensional alliances, we can adopt a new approach to countering extremism, one that addresses the governance issues at the heart of the problem. Addressing violent extremism at its core requires an attitude shift: rather than seeking to eradicate it altogether, these coalitions must pay attention to the needs of vulnerable and marginalized people, and work to marginalize the ideology of extremism itself.

A marginalization strategy online serves as an example. The traditional “eradication” strategy calls for taking down terrorist-linked online content. However, this content can be quickly replaced, and its removal runs the risk of both increasing hatred and undermining freedom of speech. A marginalization strategy focuses on multidimensional approach in bringing in more actors to support efforts towards marginalizing extremism online other than the one-dimensional response using only social media companies to remove content. Marginalization “drowns” out and gives alternatives using many actors both state and non-state, overtime depreciating the radical perspectives.

Polylateral governance is uniquely suited to targeting the underlying causes of extremism and employing the marginalization approach. Polylateral governance makes use of existing partnerships between NGOs, trade unions, corporations, cities, and academic institutions. States can also be involved, but through a process that is more “bottom-up” than in multilateral accords. That is, through collaboration with local organizations and groups, states can strengthen local resilience against extremist groups. It is often difficult for foreign actors to improve governance in places that they do not quite understand. Polylateral coalitions can focus on ways to bring in vulnerable populations who have been subjected to injustice and shut out from opportunities by weak or corrupt governments. This approach can help to reduce community exposure to violent extremism and to minimize the enabling factors that lead people to join terrorist groups.

Marginalization helps to make the message clearer, the “enemy” is in the fringe and not in the middle and terrorism is a tactic employed by marginal actors who can be further marginalized over time. It acknowledges terrorism exists and will exist for some time but seeks to build resilience to prevent further polarization of the majority by a few.

Through marginalization, costs for military offensives and actions that fuel further anger can be reduced. Minimizing the supply side of terrorism-after all 70% of those who joined violent extremism in Africa were pushed to do so by government action as per UNDP report “Journey to Extremism in Africa”.

As world leaders convene in Paris for the coming days, its important to review what works and what does not when in comes to the fight in eradicating terrorism and envision a new strategy. Considering both the “renewed” efforts towards multilaterism and the appeal towards polylateral governance in order to better address terrorism in the world.


Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.

Fauziya Abdi Ali is a devoted advocate for the engagement of women in peace and security issues. She works with government and non-governmental actors to develop regional and national strategies to address violent extremism in Africa. She is the founder and President of Women in International Security-Horn of Africa (WIIS-HoA), a Kenyan-based organization that works towards gender, peace and security initiatives. Fauziya has over 10 years’ experience working on security and governance reform. Fauziya also chairs Sisters without Borders, a network of Kenyan organizations devoted to the prevention of violent extremism. She holds a Bachelor of Science, MBA and is a World Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. Fauziya is also a steering committee member of the Paris Peace Forum.

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