The Ecology of Violent Extremism: Perspectives on Peacebuilding and Human Security

The Ecology of Violent Extremism: Perspectives on Peacebuilding and Human Security

by Lisa Schirch (Editor)


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The Ecology of Violent Extremismbrings together leading theorists and practitioners to describe an ecological or systems approach to violent extremism. Nothing can be fixed until it is understood. News media keep us alarmed to the close—‐up devastation of acts of terrorism.

This book climbs a ladder to get a better view of the problem. What is beneath and beyond violent extremism? How do we respond to the problem of violent extremism in ways that do not fertilize the root causes that fueled it in the first place? While many books offer one or two hypotheses for preventing terrorism, this book gives readers the tools to look at the problem from many different angles. The book offers a “map of violent extremism” drawing connections between twenty—‐five factors that correlate with violent extremism (VE).

On a spectrum, counterterrorism seeks to disrupt, detain, and destroy terrorist plans and networks. P/CVE seeks to prevent and counter the belief systems that support violent extremism. Peacebuilding addresses the longer—‐term factors and root causes driving VE. An ecological approach to VE recognizes that interventions also interact with each other. For example, some approaches to counterterrorism also motivate further recruitment to VE groups and undermine peacebuilding interventions.

Readers finish the book recognizing the debates within the very definition of violent extremism, and understanding a broader paradigm for how we understand and respond to violent extremist beliefs and acts of terror.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786608468
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 08/27/2018
Series: Peace and Security in the 21st Century Series
Pages: 454
Product dimensions: 6.23(w) x 9.14(h) x 1.21(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Lisa Schirch is North American Research Director for the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research, Senior Policy Advisor with the Alliance for Peacebuilding, and Research Professor at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University.

Read an Excerpt


The Landscape of Terror

Lisa Schirch

Terrorism is the use of violence against civilians to achieve an ideological goal. Violent extremism (VE) refers to the beliefs that encourage, condone, justify, or support terrorism (FBI 2016) . News media keeps us alarmed with the close-up images of terrorism's devastation. How do we attempt to prevent and respond to violent extremism and terrorism in ways that do not inadvertently fuel it?

Violent extremism and terrorism do not grow like a virus in a sterile research lab. Like the ecology of our planet, which is an interacting system of plants, animals, weather, and geological components, VE and terrorism are ecological phenomena. They emerge out of a complex environment of vulnerable individuals, community grievances, national ideological campaigns, and global factors. The word "ecology" refers to the study of something within an ecosystem. An "ecosystem" is a connected set of interrelated parts. An ecological or systems-based analysis of violent extremism looks at interrelationships among humans, the institutions they create, social patterns of relationships, and their environment.

Principles from the field of "systems theory" and environmental sciences are relevant to understanding violent extremism. Systems theory is an interdisciplinary study of how parts of a system interact with each other. When one part of a system malfunctions, it affects the entire system. Making an intervention in one part of the system can affect other areas. Systems theorists believe that a part of a system can be understood only by examining its relationship to other parts. A system is a complex environment where there is no simple "cause" and "effect" reaction chain where an action leads to predictable results. VE takes place in complex environments, where there are political conflicts, economic pressures, business interests, drug profits, climate change–induced droughts, easy access to weapons, and multiple divisions within society between religious and ethnic groups.

This book looks at the ecology of VE to understand the problem from a systemic point of view. While many books offer one or two hypotheses for preventing terrorism, this book gives readers the tools to look at VE and terrorism from many different angles. Readers will finish this book recognizing the debates within the definitions of terrorism and VE, identifying over twenty-five factors that correlate to VE, and understanding the ecology of interventions to address VE and terrorism, including counterterrorism, preventing/countering VE (P/CVE), and peacebuilding. This chapter begins by identifying the importance of studying terror, terrorism, and VE in terms of the array of costs on society, including civilian deaths, economic costs, and costs on civil liberties from both terrorism and counterterrorism. It then identifies the debates on and definitions of the terms "violent extremism" and "terrorism."


The word "terror" comes from the Latin word terreo, meaning to fill with panic, alarm, and great fear. Human beings die in many ways, but only some of those ways invoke terror. What gives terrorism its name? What about terrorism makes us panic and fills us with fear?

Terrorism is not scary because of the number of people it kills. Other threats kill far more people, as illustrated in Table 1.1. The Global Terrorism Index reports that over 25,000 people died from terrorism in 2016 (GTI 2017, 42). Most deaths from terrorism happen in just a few countries that are also experiencing civil war, such as Nigeria, Iraq, and Syria. In comparison, in 2016, 157,000 people died from violent conflicts, and there were 50 million displaced people and refugees (Institute for Security Studies 2017).

Deaths from terrorism and war combined are still far less than those resulted from other threats. Heart disease and stroke killed 15 million people, and injuries from road accidents killed 1.3 million, globally in 2015 (World Health Organization 2017). In 2016, over 42,000 people died from opioid overdose in the United States alone (CDC 2018).

Yet people globally continue to rate terrorism as one of the most important public issues in opinion surveys. Funding levels for preventing and responding to terrorism far outweigh prevention of other causes of death that affect far more people. Taxpayers around the world are spending billions on counterterrorism. Understanding violent extremism and terrorism is important for the sheer amount of funding and the tradeoffs of this priority for public spending as opposed to other public health concerns.

Terrorism often takes its aim not at military personnel or government staff but at unarmed civilians. Terrorism does not pose a great threat to states. Terrorism is an attack on society and human security. It is the intentional spreading of fear. Just as some people would rather die from a bee sting than a shark or lion attack, it seems that the methods of death from terrorism aim to repulse and disgust.

Media images of beheadings, body parts from car bombs, and children wrapped in white sheets terrify people. Terrorism sets off powerful psychological processes that animate human flight-or-fight behavior (Nacos 2016).

Terrorism is scary for a number of reasons:

• Deaths from terrorism are often gruesome.

• Terrorism targets civilians who lack protection, making people feel unsafe in public.

• Terrorism is relatively random, and the public is unable to take precautions.

• News media heightens fear by sharing photos and gory details.

• Political leaders and arms dealers benefit from inflated threat perception.

People who want to postpone death can alter their lives in many ways. They exercise, resist addictive junk food and drugs, and sleep and relax to postpone death from heart disease (Leahy 2008). Terrorism is far less predictable. It happens in shopping centers in Nairobi, bookstores in Baghdad, a Christmas market in Berlin, coffee shops in Paris, and on public streets around the world. Terrorism terrifies people because it is so random. People cannot make predictions that enable them to postpone death from terrorism. Terrorism causes symptoms of anxiety and depression (Marshall et al. 2007). Incidences of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) increase after an incidence of terror (Silver et al. 2002).

The attacks on September 11 created the possibility that individuals or groups could use a civilian plane to attack key parts of a society. If the fourth plane on 9/11 had hit the White House or the Capitol, the ability for the United States to respond might have been far more difficult. The threat of terrorism has a lot to do with "what ifs" rather than the threats seen year after year since 2001. The risk that state or nonstate groups could commit an act of terrorism with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons is potentially catastrophic.


Terrorism destroys lives, property, and a sense of security. An ecological view of terrorism also requires looking at other costs, including the human, financial, and civil freedoms lost that correlate with counterterrorism approaches.

Increased Terrorism Correlates with Increased Counterterrorism

What is the relationship between the increase in both terrorism and counter-terrorism? Is there an increase in counterterrorism programs because there is an increase in terrorism caused by other factors? Or do counterterrorism programs increase terrorism? If there is a correlation between terrorism and counterterrorism programs, what are the hypotheses to explain the correlation (Cordesman 2017)?

In the past fifteen years, most regions of the world have seen an increase in terrorism with deaths increasing by 247 percent in the past ten years (GTI 2017, 42, 30). At the same time, there has been a significant increase in funding and programs in counterterrorism. The US military is conducting counterterror activities in seventy-six countries (Costs of War 2018). Washington Post investigators documenting the security increase after 9/11 in their "Top Secret America" project concluded, "The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work" (Priest and Arkin 2010).

The link between counterterrorism efforts and terrorism can be seen in a variety of research reports, particularly from security experts who insist that drone warfare creates more terrorists than it kills by serving as a recruiting tool (Abbas 2013). For example, a 2009 study of the drivers of radicalization in Afghanistan found that support for the Taliban and Hizb-i Islami terrorist groups grew primarily because of government corruption and violent or offensive behavior of foreign forces in counterterrorism operations (Ladbury 2009). In Kenya, 65 percent of al-Shabaab members stated they joined this terrorist group due to the Kenyan government's repressive counterterror strategy and 97 percent said they believed that Islam was under attack (ISS 2014).

The Death Toll from Terrorism Is Equal to, or Possibly a Third Less Than, the Death Toll from Counterterrorism

Deaths from terrorism have dramatically increased since 2000. At the same time, civilian deaths from counterterrorism are also increasing. Many of the 157,000 civilian deaths and millions of displaced people in violent conflicts in 2016 were a result of the war on terror and counterterrorism. Counterterrorism operations each year kill as many, or up to three times as many, civilians as those who have died from terrorism. US general Stanley A. McCrystal asserted, "I believe the perception caused by civilian casualties is one of the most dangerous enemies we face" in his inaugural speech as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in June 2009 (Ackerman 2010). Table 1.2 identifies the human costs of terrorism and counterterrorism operations, including the war on terror.

In 2000, fewer than 5,000 people died from terrorism each year. Since 2013, between 25,000 and 33,000 people die from terrorism each year, mostly in a handful of countries experiencing civil war (GTI 2017, 15). From 2001 to 2016, researchers estimate somewhere between 370,000 people (Crawford 2017) and 1 million people (PSR 2015, 15) died in the counterterrorism wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Based on the lower number of 370,000 deaths, that is approximately 24,666 per year. More than 10 million Afghan, Iraqi, and Pakistani people have become refugees or internally displaced persons, many living in grossly inadequate conditions, since the beginning of the war on terror (Costs of War 2018). This human suffering is also part of the calculation on the costs of terrorism.

The Economic Impact of Terrorism Is Less Than the Economic Impact of Counterterrorism

Estimates of the economic costs of terrorism and counterterrorism are complex to calculate. There is no single counterterrorism budget, and all budget numbers are imperfect estimates. But even given variations in methods of calculation, the global economic cost of counterterrorism is far more than the economic cost of terrorism. Yet few researchers compare and contrast costs from terrorism and counterterrorism. While hundreds of researchers look at the correlates of terrorism, there is a surprising lack of attention on what seems like a fairly obvious research question: Why is terrorism increasing at the same time that investments in counterterrorism programs are increasing?

Committing acts of terror is relatively inexpensive compared to the cost of war. Three-quarters of terror attacks in Europe cost less than $10,000 (Oftedal 2015, 3). The global economic impact of terrorism in 2000 was $9 billion. Since 2013, the economic impact varies between $71 billion and $104 billion. The total economic impact of terrorism between 2001 and 2016 was $724 billion (GTI 2017, 80).

In contrast, the United States has spent approximately somewhere between $1.7 trillion (GAO 2018) and $5.6 trillion on counterterrorism since 2001 (Costs of War 2018). In 2001, the United States spent approximately $30 billion a year on the war on terrorism, which consisted mostly of counterterrorism operations, to a high of $235 billion in 2008 at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2018, the projected war on terror budget is estimated at $126.8 billion (DoD 2017).

It is not possible to precisely calculate total European Union (EU) and member state spending on counterterrorism, but the approximate EU spending per year on counterterrorism is estimated to have increased from &8364;5.7 million in 2002 to &8364;93.5 million in 2009 (Sgueo 2016). In 2013, the US government reportedly budgeted over $16 billion for counterterrorism intelligence gathering alone (Pew 2013).

According to the calculations illustrated in Table 1.3, the economic cost of counterterrorism is far greater than the economic cost of terrorism. The cost of counterterrorism may even be up to 5 trillion dollars more costly. Furthermore, every dollar spent on counterterrorism is a dollar not spent on peacebuilding, education, health care, or other priorities. In the ecology of VE, there are trade-offs in costs related to preventing terrorism. In 2016, the total expenditure for all peacekeeping operations and peacebuilding efforts amounted to approximately $21.8 billion (Luengo-Cabrera and Butler 2017). According to the Global Peace Index, the international community would have saved $552.1 billion if they had allocated peacebuilding funding to the ten most at-risk countries to develop inclusive political processes, support governance, and protect human security and if these investments had prevented conflict (GPI 2017, 76).

The Increase in Terrorism and Counterterrorism Correlates with a Decrease in Political Rights and Civic Freedoms

The Global Terrorism Index consistently finds a strong correlation between state political repression and terrorism. Where there is more state repression and political violence, there is more terrorism. The correlation between counterterrorism and political repression is also strong. In their annual quantitative evaluation of global political rights and civil liberties, Freedom House concludes there is a vicious cycle between government abuse and radicalization. "When more countries are autocratic and repressive, treaties and alliances crumble, nations and entire regions become unstable, and violent extremists have greater room to operate" (Freedom House 2018, 2).

Political and civil liberties have steadily decreased since 2005. In 2017, more countries declined in their levels of political rights and civil freedom than those that increased (Freedom House 2018, 1). From 2000 to 2017, 99 percent of all deaths due to terrorism took place in countries in conflict or with high levels of political terror, in which the state uses repressive violence against civilians. A wide variety of institutions and researchers conclude from these correlations that counterterrorism is increasing, not decreasing, terrorism. But this correlation is not easy to prove (Hafner-Burton and Shapiro 2010).

Most government-funded researchers do not count state terrorism that takes place under the umbrella of counterterrorism. In the United States, for example, one senior US researcher notes, "[E]xcessive repression in the name of counterterrorism, and state repression that amounts to de facto state terrorism, are not reported as terrorism even when they have such impacts. The grave limits in the counterterrorism activity of various states — many US partners and allies — are only officially reported on only in the State Department annual human rights report and by human rights NGOs" (Cordesman 2016).

Many civil society groups view counterterrorism "lawfare" as a convenient cover for authoritarian governments to wage war on democracy and civil society. For example, Kenya is using counterterrorism financing laws to freeze the assets of Kenyan human rights organizations that work primarily to support democracy and human rights in the country rife with government corruption.

While the impact of terrorism is relatively small, the combined impact of terrorism and counterterrorism is having a significant impact on the globe. A relatively small group of individuals and groups using terrorism have managed to change the policy priorities, redirect funding to counterterrorism priorities, begin wars with a significant toll on civilian lives, and provide cover for authoritarian governments to limit civil liberties.


Terrorism is distinct from other forms of violence in a number of ways, even though there is no agreed-upon definition. For this book, terrorism is (1) the intention to spread fear by dramatic violent acts, (2) against unarmed civilians and civilian property, and (3) to achieve an ideological goal.


Excerpted from "The Ecology of Violent Extremism"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Lisa Schirch.
Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Forward - Kevin Clements, Toda Peace Institute

Preface – Lisa Schirch

How to Use this Book



Section 1: The Ecology of Violent Extremism

1.The Landscape of Terror - Lisa Schirch

2.Mapping Correlations and Theories of Change in the Ecology of Violent Extremism - Lisa Schirch

3.Unintended Impacts and Ecological Metaphors of Violent Extremism - Lisa Schirch

Section 2: Ecological Analysis of Violent Extremism

4.Alt-Right and Jihad – Scott Atran

5.Radical Islamist and Radical Christianist Nuclear Terrorism - Frances Flannery

6.The Private Sector and Violent Extremism - Stone Conroy

7.The Neurobiology of Violent Extremism - Mari Fitzduff

8.Youth and the Security Sector – Mark Hamilton

9.Advancing a Gender Perspective and Women’s Participation in Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism – Rafia Bhulai

10.Climate Change and Violent Extremism – Lisa Schirch

Section 3: The Ecology of Counterterrorism

11.Principles of Effective Counterterrorism – Alistair Millar

12.Overcoming Violent Extremism in the Middle East: Lessons from the Arab Spring - Sverre Lodgaard

13.Civil Society Engagement to Prevent Violent Extremism - David Cortright

14.Six Principles for Enabling State Responses - Lena Slachmuijlder

15.Legal Restrictions and Counterterrorism – Kay Guinane

16.Proscribing Peace: The Impact of Terrorist Listing on Peacebuilding Organizations – Teresa Dumasy and Sophie Haspeslagh

Section 4: The Ecology of Preventing/Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE)

17.The Evolution of CVE Policy - Elizabeth Hume and Laura Strawmyer

18.Countering Violent Extremism Framework – Humera Khan and Adnan Ansari

19.CVE in the United States: Unscientific and Stigmatizing National Security Theater - Arjun S. Sethi

20.Islamisation, Securitization and Peacebuilding Responses to P/CVE - Mohammed Abu-Nimer

21.CVE, DDR, Social Capital, and the Women, Peace & Security Agenda– Dean Piedmont and Gabrielle Belli

Section 5: The Ecology of Peacebuilding

22.Addressing Terrorism: A Theory of Change Approach – John Paul Lederach

23.Negotiation and Violent Extremism: Why Engage, and Why Not? – William Zartman and Guy Olivier Faure

24.Peacebuilding Principles for Transforming Violent Extremism – Lena Slachmuijlder

25.Peacebuilding Approaches to Working with Young People – by Saji Prelis, Michael Shipler, Rachel Walsh, and Lena Slachmuijlder

26.Peacebuilding Narratives and CVE - Lena Slachmuijlder

27.A Peacebuilding Approach to Media and Conflict Sensitive Journalism – Myriam Aziz and Lisa Schirch

28.To Defeat Terrorism, Use 'People Power' - Maria J. Stephan and Leanne Erdberg

29.Preventing Violence through a Trauma Healing Approach - Veronica Lavet

Section 6: Case Studies

30.The Ecology of Violent Extremism in Kenya - Millicent Otieno

31.P/CVE through Empowering Women Economically and Socially in Pakistan - Mossarat Qadeem

32.The Radical Muslim and the Radical Mennonite: An Interfaith Encounter for Peace in Indonesia – Agnes Chen, Paulus Hartono, and Agus Suyanto

33.What Works to Prevent Violent Extremism: Lessons from Employment and Education Programs – Rebecca Wolfe and Keith Proctor

34.A Child-Focused Perspective on the P/CVE Paradigm - Matthew J.O. Scott

35.Putting Human Dignity at the Center: An Alternative Perspective on “Countering Violent Extremism” - Nell Bolton and Aaron Chassy

36.Toward a Synergy of Approaches to Human Security – Policy Recommendations

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