Approaches to Addressing Extremism

By Andrea Bartoli & Peter T. Coleman

Morton Deutsch talks about when and how you negotiate with people you see as "the Devil."

There are a variety of approaches used by leadersdiplomats, military experts, third parties, and others to address extremism, which fall on a continuum from total elimination of extremists to total engagement. The choice of such strategies is usually determined by the perspective taken on the primary sources of extremism (from individual pathologies to social, political and economic conditions) as well as the level of representation of the larger population's legitimate interests that the extremists are able to secure. It is a mistake to imagine extremists as isolated actors. Frequently, extremists are fringes that represent what the larger community is unable (or unwilling) to represent. The dichotomy is particularly relevant when violence is used. Violent extremists may be a fringe not supported by the population because of the use of violence, but are in tune with the larger group's desire to obtain the same political goals.

Some of the strategies aimed at addressing extremism include:

  • Elimination. Simply the use of information, the law, and force to identify, locate, and apprehend (or destroy) extremists or key leaders of extremist groups. Sometimes this entails using legal maneuvers to tie up economic resources, thereby crippling the ability of such groups to organize and function. These tactics have been used by the Southern Poverty Law Center to undermine the operations of white supremacist groups in the United States.

Downside: Although elimination may work to remove key individuals and groups, it fails to address the underlying causes of extremism. These strategies are also often viewed as unjust by some, and can generate increased incidents of resistance and extremism from sympathizers. Also, there is a tendency to want to sacrifice certain civil liberties and human rights when working to directly eliminate extremism.

  • Divide and conquer. When one group is able to infiltrate the opposing side's extremist groups, or establish relationships with ambivalent members of those groups, they can begin to create a wedge between members. Such schisms can fester and be the undoing of groups, particularly when conformity and cohesion is prized and betrayal is punished by extreme measures

Downside: Such strategies can backfire and lead to increased group unity, and can be "flipped"; used by the extremist groups to gain information and resources from their opponents. As above, this is a somewhat superficial or temporary approach to addressing extremism.

  • Isolation. This strategy is often used by more moderate members of a community who disagree with the tactics of their more extreme members or who resent the "high-jacking" of their conflict processes by such members. It entails everything from a public distancing of the main group from extreme members and a condemnation of their actions to a more private withdrawal of support and backing from moderates.

Downside: Such strategies can intensify the intragroup conflict (between moderates and extremists) and destabilize the group. Such a state of vulnerability might also be seen as an opportunity to be seized by hardliners in the intergroup conflict, thus further weakening the moderate's situation.

  • Intergroup cooperation against extremism. This is a variation on the above strategy, but entails cooperation between the parties involved in the intergroup conflict. Essentially, both groups agree to frame extremism and terrorism as a mutual problem to be solved jointly by the parties. This can be particularly effective on the heels of a peace agreement between the parties, where they attempt to anticipate and publicly label extremist responses to the agreement, thereby heading off the "spoiler" effects of destructive reactions.

Downside: Such strategies are built on the trust and assurances made of each of the opposing parties to isolate their own extremist groups, trust which tends to be fragile at such an early stage of peace processes. If it fails, it can jeopardize the entire peace agreement.

  • Expanding the middle. In situations of protracted conflict, you often find moderates (pro-negotiation camp), hardliners (anti-negotiation camp), and extremists (anti-other camp) on each side. This strategy is an active attempt to establish the conditions which grow the more moderate (and even hard-line) segments, thus attracting the more moderate members of extremist groups toward a position of tolerance and away from a commitment to the destruction of the other.

Downside: The creation of "fake" interlocutors, almost puppet representatives with no political legitimacy beyond their cozy relationship with the external interveners. In certain conditions this strategy can also provoke the formation of "moderate" as a profession. Supported by ideologically close donors, these actors may lack the political capital to actually influence the process, raising expectations (especially among less well-read, well-connected actors). Another downside is to provoke an over-reaction by the extremists within the organization group, thus complicating the establishment of effective channels of communication and negotiation.

  • Covert negotiation chains. Often, it is politically damaging for the leaders of one group to have any formal contact with members of extremist groups on either side. Such contact can alienate the opposing leadership as well as one's own constituents. Therefore, unofficial chains of communication are sometimes established where the leadership of one group has contact with extreme members of her/his own group, who in turn contact sympathizers in the opposing group, etc., until a communication chain is formed with key members of extreme groups. Thus, some progress may be made in covert negotiations, while leaders maintain some degree of political cover and deniability.

Downside: A politically risky strategy, which is dependent on the trustworthiness of several individuals from different segments of the conflict. Chains are also subject to unintended (and frequently well-intentioned) mistakes. Due to the highly sensitive nature of the issues at stake, members of chains may intentionally or unintentionally hide, modify, or censor relevant information. Chains are also not easy to maintain and sustain over time.

  • Contradictory strategies. These are combined strategies which use many of the other approaches either simultaneously or at different times or phases of a peace process in an attempt to eliminate more serious threats to security while expanding the middle and addressing the conditions which perpetuate extremism.

Downside: Often, the use of elimination strategies, even when accompanied by more conciliatory strategies, poisons the relationship and increasessuspicion and escalation.

  • Intragroup work within polarized groups in intergroup conflicts. Rarely utilized, this approach would encourage and facilitate intragroupdialogue and problem-solving in an attempt to actively address the concerns of more extreme members and reduce the incidence of splinter-groups. An "organic" example of this strategy could be found in any highly organized structure such as the Italian Communist Party fighting the Fascist regime. Distinctions between "hawks" and "doves" are a permanent feature even in extremist groups.

Downside: It is extremely difficult to establish the internal relations of open communication and trust that make this strategy viable. It should be supported -- if worthwhile -- from the outside. Also, participation of such a degree of "intimacy" would transform the intervener to an active political actor. Many professionals resist that orientation mightily.

  • Direct, overt engagement. The active and direct attempt to include key members of extremist groups in formal peace processes, especially through intelligence contacts. Extremist groups are in fact -- in many areas of the world -- heavily infiltrated and at time direct, confidential contacts can be established.

Downside: Significant security concerns. Also, you run the likely risk of spoiler (from all sides) acts, which can shut down the entire process.

     At the micro-social level it requires:

    • a reduction of stereotypes and enemy images;
    • the promotion of empathy, caring, and intercultural understanding;
    • and the provision of economic and social support for young people.[1]

Downside: An ambitious, but daunting agenda, frequently rejected by the extremists as too long-term, too optimistic, and unrealistic. The slow pace of peacebuilding processes may also alienate sectors of communities that, while not extremist per se, advocate a more adversarial pro-active approach.

By Andrea Bartoli

By Peter T. Coleman

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[] Derived from Wessells, Michael (2002). "Terrorism, apocalyptic ideology, and young martyrs: Why peacebuilding matters." Paper presented at the American Psychological Association Conference in Chicago, August 2002.

Peter T. Coleman, author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts, is associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and on the faculty of Teachers College and The Earth Institute at Columbia. In 2003, he received the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association, Division 48: Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He lives in New York.