Preventing violent extremism: global investments for national security

As nation states retreat from multilateralism, Dr Khalid Koser and Lilla Schumicky-Logan make the case for global investment in the prevention of violent extremism.

Over the past year, a number of states that have traditionally supported global efforts to prevent violent extremism have reduced their political and financial commitments, emphasising instead the domestic counterterrorism agenda.

There are in fact powerful reasons to increase investment in prevention: to preserve the gains that have been made in reducing the global impact of terrorism and violent extremism; and for example to guard against future risks; to transmit knowledge; or to realise the significant potential of global initiatives that have already been established.

But such arguments are unlikely for the moment to turn the tide on a trend that reflects a much deeper contemporary retreat from globalism and multilateralism. Instead, in this article we argue that at least sustaining global investments in preventing violent extremism are critical even if only in order to achieve national security goals.

“We argue that at least sustaining global investments in preventing violent extremism are critical even if only in order to achieve national security goals.”


One reason why global investments can advance national security is that the source of violent extremist threats is transnational, even when it manifests itself locally. An example is the spread of violent ideological propaganda. Preventing violent extremism (PVE) initiatives that seek to engage religious leaders, or promote non-violent ideologies, are attempting to respond to this challenge at its source and are therefore relevant beyond their specific context. In Bangladesh, for example, the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF) is supporting training in digital literacy among madrassa religious school students, helping promote critical thinking and limit the traction and dissemination of online fake news and messages.

At the same time, the argument of a globalised threat to national interests needs to be deployed with care, as it can be – and has been – mobilised for example to justify restrictions on migration and asylum. These arguments persist despite overwhelming evidence that most violent extremists and terrorists are in fact nationals or citizens. This is not of course a reason not to manage migration and it may be a reason to direct PVE interventions to countries or sub-regions that are significant sources of migration, asylum, and in particular irregular migration or have become transit countries.

Second, just as violent extremist and terrorist threats to national security may be transnational, so domestic interests are increasingly defined beyond national boundaries. Trade, aid, investment, tourism, international security, and development all put significant numbers of citizens, resources, and reputation at risk. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office only recently lifted its advisory against tourism to Tunisia, for example, three years after a terrorist attack in Sousse killed 30 British citizens and eight others. A recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) makes the case that ‘…with rising risks to Australian nationals, businesses and foreign investment through the mining industry, violent extremism in Africa is a direct threat to Australian national interests.’ In both examples, global PVE interventions can protect national interests, while also benefiting the host economy.

There is also a significant opportunity cost where states and corporations cannot sustainably invest or operate in particular countries or sub-regions because of the threat of violent extremism and associated insecurity. These costs probably outweigh the already significant direct economic costs of terrorism estimated in this report. By engaging communities, and in particular building greater confidence between communities and local authorities through activities that are directly preventing violent extremism, it has proved possible to stabilise communities and build the “social contract” required to facilitate a local presence. In Mali, for example, through inter-communal dialogues, community members have requested local authorities and community leaders to engage in local mediation to prevent violent extremist groups exploit existing conflicts and mobilise young people for recruitment into violent extremist groups. Thirdly, in even the most economically advanced countries, domestic approaches to counterterrorism and countering and preventing violent extremism need constant improvement. Australia’s countering violent extremism strategy, for example, has been criticised for being focused too much on policing and prisons and too little on longer-term community solutions, precisely the focus for many international PVE interventions. Similarly, while it has been welcomed that the new US counterterrorism strategy seeks to engage international partners, the strategy has also been criticised for not learning lessons from elsewhere in the world, for example the risk of backlash in response to heavy-handed and security-focused interventions that do not explicitly respect human rights.

“One reason why global investments can advance national security is that the source of violent extremist threats is transnational, even when it manifests itself locally.”

In addition to promoting better domestic policies by understanding what does not work elsewhere, there is also more scope to learn positive lessons. While they should be subject to significant scrutiny and criticism, international PVE interventions have succeeded in focusing on local actors, engaging civil society and promoting bottom-up responses from within local communities, all aspects on which domestic strategies in advanced economies are often criticised as failing. An important component of global PVE investments in recent years, for example through the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), has been to share good practice and develop regional and global guidelines and it is important that sharing good practice is not considered a one-way street. Kenya’s national counterterrorism strategy, for example, has been acknowledged as groundbreaking in advancing youth, faith leaders and their congregations, and civil society engagement.


The nub of the argument briefly developed here is that even if global investment in PVE may not at the moment be viewed as an end in itself, it is still a means to achieve a narrower ambition to boost national interests. The transnational character of the threat, the ‘deterritorialisation’ of national interests and the potential to increase the effectiveness of domestic policies by learning global lessons are all reasons to maintain (and increase) commitments to the global effort to prevent violent extremism.

Indeed, there is good reason to suppose that each of these arguments will become more relevant in the coming years. The globalised threat is likely to be increased through growing cybersecurity risks, global and increasingly more sophisticated networks of terrorists and their tactics, the financing and recruitment of these networks, and digital and information warfare.6 Globalisation is accelerating. The global collation and dissemination of good practice and lessons learned in preventing violent extremism is still in its infancy.

Ultimately, to make the case of greater global investment in PVE, even if only to pursue national interests for the time being, PVE efforts and effectiveness need to improve. Greater coordination between existing initiatives is required, the field should be more clearly defined, linkages to other global matters such as migration and climate change needs to be better articulated. More convincing empirical evidence is needed and should be widely communicated and a sustainable source of funding has to be identified and nurtured that is in the interest of both international and domestic PVE efforts.