The “Soft Side” Approach to Countering Violent Extremism

This is a guest post by Daniel P. Aldrich, associate professor of public policy at Purdue University. Prof. Aldrich was an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) fellow at USAID during the 2011-2012 academic year, and a Fulbright research fellow at the University of Tokyo during the 2012-2013 academic year.  He can be reached at daniel.aldrich@gmail.com, and followed at @DanielPAldrich on Twitter.

Violent extremism and terrorism - involving suicide bombings, improvised explosive device and small arms attacks, narco-trafficking, and kidnapping - have taken center stage for many decision makers in the United States and abroad.  The Worldwide Incidents Tracking System (WITS) established by the National Counterterrorism Center has illuminated a rising trend in the number of armed attacks by terror groups over the past decade.  Scholars (using synthetic case control analysis from Spain) have estimated the high economic costs of terrorism, with a loss of 10% in per capita GDP for individuals in areas with high numbers of terrorist attacks (Abadie and Gardeazabal 2003). Policy makers around the world have prioritized their attempts to end, manage, or handle threats from violent extremist organizations (VEOs) such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in northwest Africa, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba in South Asia, and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.

Given the broad agreement that violent extremism is a serious issue, what are the best policy responses to violent extremist organizations?  U.S. policymakers have long favored the use of military force, drone strikes, and covert operations as tried-and-true approaches for dealing with extremist groups because they produce clear and immediate results.  These tactics bring with them unintended side effects.  Even the most advanced unmanned drones using the latest in surveillance and tracking technologies have generated civilian casualties and turned host nations partners against the United States.  Such “collateral damage” further drives many local residents to support anti-American groups and bolsters their claims of encirclement and anti-Muslim bias.  National governments and local civilian populations in Pakistan and Yemen provide two unfortunate examples of this phenomenon.
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Decision makers in the United States, Canada, Britain, and elsewhere are beginning to recognize that it may be challenging, as former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen publicly acknowledged, to “kill our way to victory.”  Instead, a different approach, based on the recognition of the multiple pathways to radicalization and the externalities of the use of violence, may have fewer negative side effects but will require a longer time horizon and deeper connections with civilian populations in countries of interest.  The 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) from the U.S. Department of State (http://www.state.gov/s/dmr/qddr/index.htm) underscored that economic development, civil society capacity building, and other non-military approaches should take pride of place among the policy instruments applied to handling VEOs.

The soft side approach to countering violent extremism categorizes drivers of violent extremism as push, pull, and environmental factors driven by political, cultural, and socioeconomic conditions with different impacts on women and men.  Perceptions of social exclusion, real or perceived discrimination, frustrated expectations, and government repression may push individuals into collective violence. Friends, social networks, and services provided by extremist groups, alternatively, may pull individuals into violent extremism. Environmental factors, such as ungoverned spaces,  border areas, and dislocation facilitate movement toward extremism (USAID 2009).

In this short, policy-oriented paper (Aldrich 2012) I investigate 1) pushing U.S. military responses “downstream” and using them sparingly, 2) reducing marginalization of peripheral communities and encouraging re-integration, 3) providing locally based counter-narratives to those of violent extremist organizations, and 4) increasing the legitimacy and capacity of partner governments.

The developmental approach to countering violent extremism will undoubtedly require planners to adopt a far longer time horizon than the military approach requires.  Rather than thinking in terms of individual missions or days in the field, the soft-side approach requires a strong knowledge of local languages and cultures, an ability to connect with population through existing media channels, and a commitment to years, not months, of programming.  Further, it requires holding the line despite potential changes in the US administration and the electoral priorities of concerned politicians.  While there are higher costs in terms of time commitment and connections to the local communities, initial analyses show that these programs bring measurable successes.

Initial results from quasi-experimental and experimental field trials show that certain strategies, such as the use of peace and conflict radio programming, have altered norms and behaviors which decrease the likelihood of recruitment by VEOs.  More specifically, analysis of USAID’s work in towns in northern Mali shows that residents in cities exposed to several years of broad-based, multi-vector programming had higher levels of civic engagement and levels of listening to messages of peace and tolerance than residents in similar, neighboring towns (Aldrich 2012b).  These results confirm the results of other field experiments in Africa that programs such as reconciliation, peace, and tolerance radio can alter both norms (Paluck 2009: 582) and behavior (Paluck and Green 2009: 623).

Radio programming is only one vector for reducing the vulnerability of groups – especially men between the ages of 16 and 28 – to recruitment by VEOs.  Other tactics include educational and vocational training, increasing the capacity of NGOs (such as the Uganda Muslim Youth Development Forum which works to engage local youth in dialogue with imams), and deepening the legitimacy of host nation governments.  The U.S., U.K., and Australian governments have begun to take the development approach as a real complement to existing military ones.  Based on these initial findings, scholarship should begin to investigate the non-military approaches to handling violent extremism.


Abadie, Alberto  and Gardeazabal, Javier. (2003).  The Economic Costs of Conflict: A Case Study of the Basque Country. The American Economic Review 93(1): 113-132

Aldrich, Daniel P. (2012). Mightier than the Sword: Social Science and Development in Countering Violent Extremism,” in  Rajiv Shaw and Steve Radelet, eds., Frontiers in Development.  Washington: United States Agency for International Development, 46-50.  Downloadable at  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2028009

Aldrich, Daniel P. (2012b). First Steps Towards Hearts and Minds? USAID’s Countering Violent Extremism Policies in Africa.  Global Policy Research Institute (GPRI) Working Paper, Purdue University

Paluck, Elizabeth. (2009). Reducing Intergroup Prejudice and Conflict Using the Media:
A Field Experiment in Rwanda.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2009, Vol. 96, No. 3, 574 –587

Paluck, Elizabeth and Green, Donald. (2009). Deference, Dissent, and Dispute Resolution: An Experimental Intervention Using Mass Media to Change Norms and Behavior in Rwanda. American Political Science Review. Vol. 103, No. 4 November 2009 622- 644

United States Agency for International Development (USAID). (2009). Guide to the Drivers of Violent Extremism.  Produced by Guilain Denoeux with Lynn Carter of Management  Systems International. Downloadable at http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PNADT978.pdf

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