Breaking the Cycle of Violence

How development assistance is preventing violent extremism in Eastern Europe

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In the final weeks of 2017, the Government of Iraq declared it had defeated ISIS. For years, the world had watched in horror as the terrorist group expanded its reach around the globe, and occupied regions of Iraq and Syria. Within a short time of Iraq’s declared victory, development and relief organizations, including USAID, stepped up to help the Iraqis begin to recover and rebuild.

But the threat of violent extremism did not end with that victory, nor is it contained to those countries that bore the greatest burden of ISIS terrorists.

These terrorist recruits came from countries across the globe — reports indicate that over 9,000 foreign fighters left from the former Soviet Republics (including Central Asia and Russia) and Balkans to fight in Syria and Iraq alone — and communities in Europe and Eurasia continue to grapple with vulnerabilities associated with violent extremism.

The roots of extremism are planted across the Europe and Eurasia region — from the formation of the secret society Black Hand to the West-German leftist Red Army Faction. And today, informal radical extremist organizations continue to evolve.

Whether it is militant ethno-nationalist Serbians fighting with Russian-supported rebels in eastern Ukraine, supporters of ISIS in Bosnia, or the threat of violent extremism in the Caucasus, the issues are complex and often tied to deeply rooted historical, cultural and ethnic tensions.

The phenomenon of ISIS has added yet a new layer of complexity to this region. Communities now face yet another potentially dangerous challenge as many of the surviving foreign fighters make their way home.

Returnees could resume attempts to prey on local vulnerabilities, or even act on calls for lone-wolf and other localized attacks.

USAID and other aid organizations play a crucial role in breaking the cycle of violence by helping to prevent radicalization from taking root in the future.

How does this work?

The answer is this: we have to go local. While no single driver causes individuals to be radicalized or recruited by extremist organizations, we know certain conditions in society — social marginalization and fragmentation, endemic corruption, government repression and human rights violations — are conducive to push vulnerable individuals toward extremist or terrorist organizations. Offers of material resources, social status and respect from peers, or the promise of belonging and a meaningful role in society can pull vulnerable individuals toward extremism.

Youth activist discussion on critical thinking skills in Kosovo. / Ron Idrizaj, Sbunker

Because these drivers are so nuanced, countering violent extremism requires cooperation from the U.S. and our allies to ensure synchronized efforts in development, diplomacy and defense.

USAID programs build resiliency by empowering youth in civic initiatives, increasing government transparency and generating employment opportunities.

An after school support program for high school students in Kosovo. / USAID

Community engagement and resiliency programs in the Western Balkans, for example, support addressing sensitive topics through local debates, convening influencers to advance community-defined priorities, and providing critical thinking skills and entrepreneurship training, all of which stems grievances associated with exclusion, governance, livelihoods and other pressures.

One program in Bosnia and Herzegovina provides workshops to help community members vulnerable to radicalization learn how to constructively engage with differing points of view. By learning to recognize shared values while remaining true to one’s own worldview, group members build confidence and self-esteem, improve their critical thinking skills, and become more resilient to radicalizing influences.

Innovative activities aim to motivate young people to stay in school, support critical thinking and provide career guidance. / USAID

One workshop graduate is Edvin*, a young man divorced three times and incarcerated for a short while. He is the typical recruit that violent extremists prey upon. During the first sessions of the workshop, Edvin was cold and hostile, displaying a narrow, black-and-white perception of others.

But Edvin’s experience with the workshop turned out to be powerful. As the course unfolded, he started listening more carefully to his peers, opening his mind to other points of view. When the program ended, he stunned the facilitator.

He said that he had made mistakes, and that now his eyes had opened and his worldview was more nuanced. He felt committed to a new way of thinking.

Since the workshop, Edvin has stayed in close contact with one of the facilitators. Recently he shared that he is now looking for opportunities and life paths he had never considered “being for him.”

Sustained Support and Engagement

Development assistance has a leading role to play in preventing terrorism and violent extremism. That comes from the U.S. National Security Strategy and, more informally, from the more than 120 retired U.S. generals and admirals who wrote to Congress to say, “many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone — from confronting violent extremist groups like ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria]” in the Middle East and North Africa to preventing pandemics….”

As we’ve heartbreakingly witnessed in Syria and Iraq, the threat of violent extremist organizations anywhere is a threat everywhere. The significance of the impact on regional and global stabilization, including U.S. national security, cannot be overlooked or underestimated.

About the Authors

Matthew Carpenter is a program analyst in USAID’s Bureau for Europe and Eurasia working on preventing violent extremism and strategic planning. Leisha McParland is the communications and outreach adviser in the same bureau. Follow their work @USAIDEurope.