What Factors Cause Youth to Reject Violent Extremism?

Results of an Exploratory Analysis in the West Bank

by Kim Cragin, Melissa A. Bradley, Eric Robinson, Paul S. Steinberg

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Research Questions

  1. Why do individuals reject violent extremism?
  2. Why aren't more people in the West Bank involved in political violence?

Continued terrorist attacks and the involvement of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq have prompted a surge of interest among policymakers, law enforcement, journalists, and academics on both sides of the Atlantic on the topic of terrorist radicalization. Many of the factors that push or pull individuals toward radicalization are in dispute within the expert community. Instead of examining the factors that lead to radicalization and the commission of terrorist acts, this report takes a new approach. What Factors Cause Youth to Reject Violent Extremism? Results of an Exploratory Analysis in the West Bank empirically addresses the topic of why youth reject violent extremism. To do this, the authors focus on the Palestinian West Bank. The report begins with a theoretical model and then tests this model with data gathered through structured interviews and a survey. For this study, ten semistructured interviews were conducted with politicians from Hamas and Fatah in 2012. Along with these interviews, the authors conducted a survey among 600 youth (ages 18–30) who lived in Hebron, Jenin, and Ramallah.

The overarching findings from this effort demonstrate that (1) rejecting violent extremism, for residents of the West Bank, is a process with multiple stages and choices within each stage; (2) family plays a greater role than friends in shaping attitudes toward nonviolence; (3) demographics do not have a significant impact on attitudes toward nonviolence; and (4) opposing violence in theory is distinct from choosing not to engage in violence.

Key Findings

Family Plays a Greater Role Than Friends in Shaping Attitudes Toward Nonviolence

  • Peer groups might have an effect on radicalizing individuals, but family influence appears more likely to dampen a propensity toward violence.

Fear Is Scalable

  • Fear only goes so far in suppressing violent behavior.
  • Fear of arrest or personal safety dissuades some individuals from becoming involved in terrorism, but there is a divergence in attitudes toward detention and arrest.
  • Family obligations can drive individuals toward more-risky behavior.

Opposing Violence in Theory Is Distinct from Choosing Not to Engage in Violence

  • Polls designed to measure the extent of support for political violence, or lack thereof, will not accurately reflect radicalization or a willingness to engage in violence.
  • Policies shaped by studies of social media might lead policymakers in the wrong direction when it comes to counterradicalization programs.

Recommendations

  • Policies aimed at undermining radicalization should emphasize family members — especially parents — more than friends. These policies should work through civil society leaders to teach parents how to discuss the detrimental messages present on social media, whether or not these messages are linked to political violence. It is also important to build on other social programs designed to strengthen families' influence on youth and ties to local communities.
  • Since apathy had a greater positive impact on nonviolence than activism, policymakers should be wary of relying on nonviolent forms of activism as a means of redirecting individuals away from terrorism.
  • Future studies on radicalization — or rejecting extremism — should be careful not to equate measures of support for political violence with a willingness to engage in violence.

This research was supported through philanthropic contributions and conducted within the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy (CMEPP), part of International Programs at the RAND Corporation.

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