What is Violent Extremism?

Working on projects that deal with violent extremism (VE) can be very challenging and high risk. First, there is no universally accepted definition for the term violent extremism. This can lead to misunderstandings around how to identify who is a “violent extremist” in your context and what it is you are trying to prevent, thereby affecting how you design your project. Additionally, because VE is such a politically sensitive topic and often occurs within conflict-affected environments, working on efforts to prevent it can put you at extreme risk. This is especially true if you are seen as challenging the power and legitimacy of extremely violent groups or actors that benefit from conflict. It is therefore very important to define what you mean by VE in your context, and to always consider incorporating principles of conflict sensitivity at every stage of the project cycle. More information about these concepts can be found below.

Though definitions vary, USAID defines violent extremism in its 2011 CVE policy document in this way: “Violent extremism refers to advocating, engaging in, preparing, or otherwise supporting ideologically motivated or justified violence to further social, economic, and political objectives.”

In practice, this definition stills causes some confusion, so the United Nations (UN) created a useful typology that describes the key characteristics individuals practicing violent extremism share. Identifying the “who” will also shape how to analyze the drivers of VE (see the Assess module).

Key Characteristics of Individuals and Groups Practicing VE

Despite important differences in ideology, composition, and targets, groups and individuals practicing violent extremism share a number of characteristics:

  • A deliberate targeting—with the objective of inflicting harm—of civilians (both individuals and communities) based on their identities
  • A lack of tolerance for multiple narratives that challenge their fundamentalist belief system
  • A related and violent disregard for civic discourse, culture, scientific or rational thought, human rights, due process, and for the traditional and modern embodiments of law and authority
  • A reference to symbols, whether religious (Sharia law, the Bible) or other (e.g., the Swastika)
  • In some cases, a rejection of the nation–state or at least of the existing boundaries
  • In other cases, a glorification of the nation–state linked to a rhetoric of supremacy of one people/ class over others (this was the case of the Nazis, the Pol Pot regime, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan [KKK])
  • The statement of individual or group objectives in nihilistic, millenarian, or apocalyptic terms, rather than as realizable political objectives (albeit with the caveat that for many leaders of violent extremist groups, these lofty statements often disguise more practical aspirations for power or territorial control)
  • The systematic discrimination and abuse of women and their subordination through rape, enslavement, abduction, denial of education, forced marriage, and/or sexual trafficking (part of the ideology or practice of several violent extremist groups)
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