Behind the Front Lines: Fighting the Trickle-Down Effects of Violent Extremism

Originally published on The Hill

A recent study conducted in Jordan by UN Women highlighted that radicalization affects women as much as or even more than men. The female participants reported that as extremist groups became more prevalent in their communities, they faced increased incidents of domestic violence, restrictions of their freedoms, and pressure to pass on extreme views to others.

Inherently, this information comes as no surprise. Although the study focused on extremism in Jordan, it could readily apply to any unstable country. But what's behind these results? Areas under control by extremists are subject to strict rule of law, and leaders impose an archaic construct for women to abide by. Accordingly, violence rises and basic rights to move freely, work, and pursue education evaporate.

Today, radicalization is most often defined by the impact it has on young men and the deterioration of worldwide security. But we can't forget that women, too, face changes that alter their lives. And the trickle-down effects of the spread of violent extremism don't stop there — vulnerable youths are also swept up in it.

Drawing recruits to extremism

Impressionable youths whose families have been destroyed and whose lives have been turned upside down are naturally drawn to sources of stability and order. That makes them particularly vulnerable to the influence of those willing to step in and address their immediate needs.

Violent extremist groups often offer a semblance of order and rule of law when youths lose access to structure, support, education, and jobs. And when some youths engage with an extremist group and appear to benefit from the resources available to them, other youths are drawn in and the group gains increased support.

The more support they gain, the more power and leverage these extremist groups have to legitimize their cause. As I travel, I meet young boys who share their experiences, from one who had a bomb strapped to his chest to another who runs ammunition to the front lines. Youths in radicalized areas desperately need alternative paths to stable lives so extremism isn't “the only game in town.”

Extremist groups continue to exploit the internet and social media to radicalize and recruit individuals to commit violence and glorify the possibility and impact of lone-wolf attacks. When the horrors of these acts are circulated and praised, youth and society as a whole become increasingly numb to the evil. We can’t consider them unsophisticated enemies — we've lost too many battles that way.

Fighting extremism in a global society

Lone-wolf attacks within our borders are becoming more common, and they've had lasting effects on our society. They're designed to instill fear in us and create uncertainty in the financial markets. So far, we've shown our resilient nature, but each time we fly, we take our shoes off because of one man.

Think about that. One man, shoe bomber Richard Reid, changed the way we travel anywhere in the world. In that case, the individual was a homegrown terrorist from the United Kingdom.

Social groups must see the “normal” again — the natural empathy for fellow human beings and the visceral disgust for misguided violence. If we find creative ways to approach this problem, we have the opportunity to make terrorist attacks more difficult to carry out and make successful attacks less rewarding for the perpetrators.

Preventive measures and high-level buy-in from leading nations are critical in the fight against violent extremism. Here are three strategies federal governments and other international bodies can use to convince the public that we all must fight these groups:

  1. Make your message specific. Too often, we provide a generic message that resonates with the majority: "Extremism is bad, and we should combat it," for example. But we must target our messages to the audience we want to reach. We must make the issues relevant to people's lives without using fear. Some will connect with the financial impact of terrorism, while others connect with the humanitarian imperative. If we research our audiences and focus on how the spread of violent extremism affects their lives, we can have a stronger impact.
  2. Strive to educate your audience. We must work to inform the public about the massive scale of the extremist problem, its root causes, and how we can combat it through phases of investment — in development and humanitarian aid, education, and civic engagement — in underdeveloped areas worldwide. These issues are complicated and often overwhelming, and it sometimes feels easier to just do nothing at all. But knowledge is empowering and will help all of us play our roles in the fight against extreme violence and hate.
  3. Encourage a global mindset. We must offer the public more in-depth exposure to international relations, public affairs, and national security issues, which will help put a stop to the idea that we should isolate ourselves from global problems. The "us vs. them" narrative adds further traction to polarization, so we must exchange our nationalist tone for a global one and stop using rhetoric that sends "the other" to the fringes — that's exactly what terror groups want.

In our increasingly interconnected world, the effects of violent extremism won't be contained to the front lines of the fighting. Extremist groups have the ability to spread their ideologies beyond borders and inspire extremists in our own backyards. But if we recognize that we each have a role as citizens of our global community, we can prevent the spread of violent extremist groups' influence.

Mina Chang is CEO of Linking the World, a humanitarian organization working in areas of instability and conflict. She currently serves as an international security program fellow with New America, focusing on National Security and Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE). Mina also served as a fellow with the United States Military Academy at West Point Center for the Study of Civil-Military Operations, where she developed community-focused programs in humanitarian and disaster response.


Mina Chang