Do counter-narratives actually reduce violent extremism?

Particularly since the rise of the so-called Islamic State in 2013, one of the most widely held theories in international political and policymaker circles has been that a “twisted” or “radical” violent ideology, informed by a perverse interpretation of Islam, lies at the root of the rise in recruitment and radicalization to extremist groups. The logic that follows is: If you eradicate or defeat this ideology, there will be a corresponding drop in the violent extremist threat.

Regional counter-messaging centers have even been established around the world to build the capacity of locally-rooted civil society actors to produce and propagate tailored narratives that can push back against the violent ones being peddled by violent extremist groups, and to tackle online radicalization.

As research undertaken by the Brookings Institution has shown, many of these efforts have been driven by political considerations (including a preference for short-term measures and an aversion to risk), the desire to be seen to be doing something (particularly something that does not implicate the behavior of the state), or untested and, in some cases, erroneous assumptions. Despite their popularity, there is little proof that counter-narratives in isolation are effective in reducing the threat of violent extremism.

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