A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Discussion Point: Prevention Research for Countering Violent Extremism

The following is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.

In 2011 the Obama White House released two key documents introducing the United States' first attempt to build community resilience to violent extremism by engaging community partners. This policy remains a cornerstone of national security efforts and has resulted in new partnerships, information sharing, and training events and curricula across the U.S. As these policies continue into President Obama's second term, it is the right time to ask, "What types of research could help to advance this innovative policy?"

Stevan Weine The gap between these policies and the state of research on countering violent extremism (CVE) should be of concern. The reality is the field of countering violent extremism has yet to scientifically demonstrate which intervention programs are effective, especially those focused on prevention, or which dissemination and implementation tools are effective for bringing prevention programs to scale in applicable communities across the U.S.

The majority of CVE research conducted focuses on understanding risk, rather than protection. Understanding risk is still paramount, but no understanding of risk is going to answer which types of prevention work, with what people, under what circumstances, to what end, and why.

We are all aware that the current prolonged fiscal crisis makes it difficult to expand research. However, if building community resilience to violent extremism through prevention remains a core commitment of the U.S. government, then intervention research should be highly prioritized.

Intervention research can be broadly characterized as either effectiveness research or implementation research.

Effectiveness research evaluates existing or new interventions under real-world conditions. This could involve designing, implementing and evaluating a new intervention program in a community setting compared with a control condition. For example, community elders could be trained to talk with parents and youth in their networks about how to protect against violent radicalization. The impact on attitudes and behaviors of those youth and parents could be compared with those who did not receive the intervention.

On the other hand, implementation research examines the process of putting to use or integrating interventions within a community setting. This type of research does not focus on the intervention itself, but on how it is introduced and becomes routine. For example, it would seek to answer the question: how can a community-policing strategy to countering violent extremism be introduced to new police departments and communities?

An implementation approach could look at existing significant change processes that are already under way. The current policy environment -- with new partnerships, information sharing and training -- provides valuable opportunities for this type of research. Investigators can scale this type of study up or down in scope depending on the intervention strategy.

Small-scale studies could examine the feasibility, acceptability, and immediate outcomes of select interventions, such as a training program for local law enforcement. A larger study could adapt an intervention that has an adequate basis in evidence from another context, scaling it up for a community under the threat of violent extremism.

As we look more closely at prevention research approaches to countering violent extremism, it becomes clear that these approaches have implications as we envision formative research on even the most basic processes related to protective resources.

One example of this type of study is our study on "Building Resilience to Violent Extremism among Somali-Americans in Minneapolis-St. Paul," which was funded through START by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The study derived an empirical model, Diminishing Opportunities for Violent Extremism (DOVE), which explains how building community resilience to violent extremism should involve enhancing protective resources through the cooperative and collaborative efforts of youth and family, community and government.

Other studies are called for that study the processes of community engagement and partnership - both of which are core to the White House policy - and focus on how protective processes work to mitigate risks.

In the current fiscal environment, funders and policymakers frequently ask if the knowledge produced in countering violent extremism prevention research would extend to other areas to offer an even broader social benefit. I believe it could. For example, it speaks to the major social and public mental health challenge of how to engage the large number of youth who are at risk to engage in a range of harmful and criminal behaviors, from involvement in criminal gangs to sex trafficking to drug abuse.

Nobody could imagine trying to stop cancer, drug abuse or domestic violence without scientific research to support their theories. So why should countering violent extremism be any different?

As the Obama White House continues to lead the implementation of landmark new policies in its second term, now is the time for CVE researchers to commit to building a prevention research agenda that speaks directly to the needs of the policymakers, law enforcement, communities, parents, and youth who live amidst threat.

Stevan Weine is Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he is Director of the International Center on Responses to Catastrophes and Director of Global Health Training at the Center for Global Health.