Conflict and Countering Violent Extremism: Summary Paper


This paper summaries the findings of ‘Conflict and Countering Violent Extremism’, a research project conducted by RUSI for the Department for International Development in 2015. The project examined the similarities and differences between Islamic Violent Extremist groups and other conflict actors, and what this means for development, state building and peace building responses. This summary follows the structure of the project’s main outputs: a theoretical paper examining what is distinctive about violent Islamists in conflict situations, based on a broad review of the literature on Islamism, violent extremism and conflict; a set of case histories (covering Kenya, Nigeria, and Syria/Iraq) examining whether Islamist groups behave differently from other types of conflict actors; and a paper addressing what approaches are effective in dealing with conflicts involving violent Islamists and the implications for state building and peace building .

Violent Islamists show many similarities with other conflict actors, and are as much a symptom of governance failure as other violent groups. However, ideology influences how Islamist groups frame their scope, aims, tactics and recruitment strategies.

Violent Islamists are particularly associated with certain strategies and tactics, such as the recruitment of foreign fighters and suicide bombing. These strategies and tactics are not unprecedented, and not all Islamist groups employ them. But groups aligned to Al Qaida and ISIL – “Salafi-jihadists” – have significantly increased their scale and scope, and use them expressively as well as instrumentally.

Although violent Islamist groups are strong where governance is weak or repressive, state building efforts by themselves are unlikely to resolve the conflicts they are involved in. Such efforts can, however, constrain their operations and limit their capacity to gain public support.

All conflicts are local. Even those framed by Salafi-jihadists as part of a global war are deeply rooted in their countries and regions. Responses require deep contextual knowledge which identifies actions that can help prevent or ameliorate conflicts involving violent Islamists.

Salafi-jihadist ideology is absolute and utopian, and promotes war as a route to a better world. This would appear to make negotiation impossible or futile. However, ideology is also contested between and within groups, which are as a result prone to splintering, potentially opening opportunities for dialogue with more tractable elements. Also, while groups such as Al Qaida in Iraq/Daesh have become even more extreme under the pressure of war, other groups have moderated their programmes. Although difficult and risky, such responses have the potential to transform conflicts for the better.


Glazzard, A.; Jesperson, S.; Maguire, T.; Winterbotham, E. Conflict and Countering Violent Extremism: Summary Paper. RUSI, London, UK (2016) 11 pp.

Conflict and Countering Violent Extremism: Summary Paper

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