Editor’s Note: Anastasia Norton, Alysha Bedig, and Harriera Siddiq of the strategic consulting firm Monitor 360 take issue with government programs designed to counter terrorist ideology and instead call for an emphasis on behavior-based programs to combat violent extremism. (This piece originally appeared on
Over the past year, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has established a firm hold on international audiences’ attention by seizing territory, killing and torturing thousands, and employing a savagery many assumed would lead to its rapid demise. However, far from diminishing in size, scope, or influence, a recent study from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) estimates the group has attracted over 20,000 foreign recruits—surpassing the total number from the Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s. For those unable to reach the front lines of Tikrit and Mosul, ISIL’s success has emboldened sympathizers, inspiring attacks and threats across multiple continents. The United States and its allies are struggling to understand what is motivating individuals to support this group and what can be done to counter it.
In February, White House officials convened an international summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), demonstrating a recognition that defeating groups like ISIL will require more than kinetic efforts and conventional combat. Yet nearly 15 years into using CVE tools to diminish terrorists’ ability to recruit, mobilize, and inspire violence, U.S. government effectiveness continues to fall short. One reason for a lack of progress in CVE is that the U.S. government has been focused on the wrong objective—countering ideology, which assumes that religious belief alone drives behavior. Instead, the primary objective should be framed as countering behavior, which requires investigating the varied motivations behind why people join, support, fund, remain in, or reject terrorist groups and causes. If we start with the countering behavior approach, we can tailor programs towards these different motivations, opening up a variety of new intervention opportunities to influence behavior and disrupt the cycle of political violence.
Counter the Behavior, Not the Beliefs
Countering violent extremism is fundamentally about influencing the behaviors that underpin political violence. CVE practitioners typically approach this broad mandate with efforts directed at preventing recruitment and travel to conflict zones, encouraging defections, dissuading funders, and disrupting terrorist plotting. All these efforts seek to influence behavior, whether through prevention, redirection, or deterrence. Yet too frequently, discussions of CVE among policymakers and commentators default to a causation fallacy that places religious belief and ideology at the root of terrorism. This argument posits that if we can just find the right “credible voice” to expose terrorists’ perversions of religious ideology, we can convince extremists to abandon violent tactics and prevent unsuspecting recruits from falling prey to radical ideas.
Not only does the national security community’s current focus on changing beliefs or countering ideology place the U.S. government—which is unlikely ever to be perceived as a credible authority on the nuances of Islamic law—at a fundamental disadvantage, it also impedes efforts to measure the success or failure of CVE programs, as changes in belief are nearly impossible to measure accurately. This lack of clear metrics also results in endless, unproductive political debates over how best to change terrorist ideology—and more importantly, no way to prioritize CVE funding and allocation.
By focusing on identifying ways to influence behavior instead of trying to persuade someone that their beliefs are flawed, the voice and credibility of CVE practitioners matter differently. We can begin to imagine a variety of levers and insertion points where the CVE community might instead focus on trying to confuse, discredit, dissuade, or distract different actors within a terrorist system.
Motivations Do Matter
The relationship between belief and behavior is complex and there is little empirical evidence proving that what one believes always determines how one behaves. Social science research reveals that the motivations for engaging in terrorism rarely exist as a linear path starting with religious belief and ending in violent behavior. Instead, social, psychological, and ideological factors are best understood as mutually reinforcing categories that intersect in a variety of ways to influence behavior. Indeed, extremists’ narratives about their beliefs or ideologies are most often ex post facto justifications or rationalizations for behavior, and without also understanding the social and psychological factors, practitioners are left with limited options for influence and intervention.
For instance, a recent study on British-born ISIL recruits found that peer and family networks were critical in luring young fighters to Syria and that ISIL affiliates exploited recruits’ desire for adventure and belonging to influence their behavior. Starting with those specific motivations and exposing the true experiences of foreign fighters in Syria (i.e., not exciting or meaningful), or amplifying the stories of disillusioned returnees (i.e., not a romantic “band of brothers”) may be much more effective in dissuading travel than debating the religious justifications for jihad.
Similarly, in several of the recent “inspired” attacks across Europe, initial reports highlighted the ideological or religious drivers of the attack; however, further investigation into the background and behaviors of the attackers uncovered enduring patterns of violence and criminality long before religious ideology seemingly inspired their behavior. Exposing the criminal nature of these actions rather than rebroadcasting the religious justification may diminish the political power of such acts and dissuade attacks by copycats seeking to gain significance by becoming part of a larger cause.
A Focus on Narratives Provides Insight into Motivations
The type of behavioral approach described above requires tailored countermeasures that draw on rigorous analysis of the motivations of radicalized or vulnerable communities. These motivations can be investigated through the narratives that reflect an individual’s or community’s identity, motivations, and experiences, or explain its hopes, aspirations and concerns.
Paying close attention to the narrative space also exposes the overlap, the friction points, and the divergence between terrorist propaganda and indigenous narratives. For instance, during Anastasia’s time at the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), she drew on narrative analysis conducted by Monitor 360, which identified a strong narrative of entrepreneurialism among Somalis, which was not compatible with al-Shabaab’s extreme vision of a Sharia state that would severely limit business growth. By examining the distinct narratives of both populations, CSCC was able to highlight the incongruences between the two audiences’ aspirations in official U.S. communications, helping to alienate al-Shabaab from the Somali population they were attempting to influence.
As conventional ground operations against ISIL get underway in Iraq, the need for a new approach to CVE has never been greater. CVE practitioners can design more tailored, effective interventions if they understand the behavioral motivations articulated in the narratives of radicalized and vulnerable communities, as well as the overlap or mismatch between narratives. For example, for potential recruits motivated by a desire to liberate the Syrian people, amplifying the stories of disillusioned returnees horrified by infighting and ISIL’s treatment of local populations can provide evidence of ISIL’s false claims and dissuade potential supporters. ISIL draws on diverse narratives and motivations in their recruitment strategy by offering a variety of tailored messages towards different population groups. The United States and its allies need to achieve the same level of sophistication if they will have any hope of disrupting this most recent cycle of violent extremism—now or in the future.