On 3-4 February, researchers from all over the world met in Brussels to discuss how the new NUPI-led H2020-funded project PREVEX can improve our understanding of violent extremism. PREVEX is coordinated by NUPI, with 14 international partners. The meeting in Brussels constituted the official launch of the project, which will investigate cases of occurrence and non-occurrence of violent extremism in a comparative perspective by carrying out context-sensitive and in-depth case studies in the Balkans and the broader MENA region, including the Sahel.

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The research consortium is composed of leading institutions from Albania, Belgium, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Iraq, Italy, Kosovo, Morocco, Norway, Senegal and Serbia. The scholars involved come from different disciplinary backgrounds ranging from political science to anthropology and law, but they all have a special competence on and extensive experience from the regions and the topics examined.

PREVEX’ analytical framework has a threefold focus: decisive moments; occurrence/ non-occurrence of violent extremism; and the effect of preventive measures. The project team will apply a grounded research methodology to investigate the many factors that drive conflict and violent extremism in the two regions, collecting empirical data both qualitatively and quantitatively at the individual, community, national and regional levels. The researchers will collaborate closely with policy-makers, religious leaders and civil society in the selected case countries, which are no less than Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, the UAE, Mali and Niger.

Public kick-off event at CEPS

At the sidelines of project meetings and internal workshops, the public kick-off event ‘Preventing Violent Extremism in the Balkans and the MENA’ was held in Brussels – all hosted by the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS). The event was an important step in engaging both policy-makers, academics and the general public from the very beginning of the project, providng the researchers with an unique opportunity to receive input and feedback from these main target groups.

The panel, which was introduced by Steven Blockmans (Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Foreign Policy Unit, CEPS) and chaired by Kari M. Osland (Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Research Group on Peace, Conflict and Development, NUPI), consisted of the following:

  • Morten Bøås (Principal Investigator and Research Professor, NUPI)
  • Edina Becirevic (President and Co-founder, Atlantic Initiative and Professor in Security Studies, University of Sarajevo)
  • Djallil Lounnas (Assistant Professor, Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane)
  • Niagalé Bagayoko (Member of PREVEX’ External Advisory Board and Chair, African Security Sector Network)
  • Stéphane Lacroix (Associate Professor, Centre for International Research, Foundation Nationale des Sciences Politiques ‘Science Po’)
  • Andréas Hatzidiakos (SECDEFPOL 3 Division on Counter-terrorism, European External Action Service - EEAS)

The event is available on CEPS’ YouTube channel:

Why violent extremism does not occur

Kari M. Osland opened the session by asking the audience the following question: how come two boys - who grew up in the same neighbourhood in difficult living conditions, went to the same school, experienced a similar upbringing - ended up with one being radicalised and becoming a foreign fighter, while the other ended up working in the same factory as his father? This question is at the very core of the PREVEX’ project – why people living in enabling environments choose not to get involved in violence.

While the concept of violent extremism lacks a precise definition, PREVEX views it as violence inspired or justified by some sort of political or religious agenda in pursuit of some sort of political objective. Morten Bøås argued that a current weakness of the research on violent extremism is that it is easier to explain why people turn to violence and take up arms than why they do not. PREVEX partially turns this around by investigating why some communities display much greater resilience to violent extremism ideologies than others. What is it that prevents decisive moments from tipping into violence, and what prevents radicalisation in the first place?

An understanding of the state has great analytical value in this regard, Bøås explained, as it can be both part of the solution and a driver of violent extremism. A key challenge for the research team will therefore be to conceptualise the state, which is not a straightforward task due to the many differences that exist both between and within the countries and regions under scrutiny. Yet, most of them share certain similarities such as being unsettled states with weak social contracts, questions concerning what constitutes the polity are rampant leading to strongly competing identities, as well as varying levels of fragility, he pointed out. Striking a balance between similarities and differences will therefore important for a comparative study such as PREVEX.

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A multitude of different preventive strategies

A comparative mapping of the preventive strategies adopted by the EU and other key actors, as well as identifying lessons learned and suggest how to upscale best practice, is one of the project’s main objectives. The presentations that followed therefore had a focus on the situation in the regions with regard to violent extremism and how PREVEX can contribute to increased understanding of these dynamics, and ultimately, to better prevention strategies. Djallil Lounnas explained how North African countries have pursued different preventive strategies - while some have chosen a pathway of repression, others are based on the idea that repression does not work. According to Lounnas, the latter are the ones we can learn lessons from. Lessons can also be drawn from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Edina Becirevic argued, who hasn’t had an incident of violent extremism in recent years despite the return of Syrian foreign fighters. She emphasized the need for looking also at ethno-nationalist driven violent extremism in the case of the Balkans.

In addition to explaining how different preventive strategies of Middle Eastern states, Stéphane Lacroix talked about how the history of Jihadism has gone through cycles – ups and downs, movements of expansion and movements of decline. While Jihadi groups are an integral part of violent discourses and conflict dynamics in both the Balkans and the MENA region, Niagalé Bagayoko highlighted that it will be important for PREVEX to look at how other non-state actors such as self-defense groups, communal militias, and criminal networks contribute to violent extremism.

The EU does not have all the answers

Andréas Hatzidiakos provided interesting insights from the EU’s perspective, giving the attendees a sense of what sort of knowledge policy-makers already have, need and want. He pointed to the fact that the EU is a new actor in the field of counter-terrorism, which traditionally has been in the hands of member states. According to Hatzidiakos, there is currently a strong focus on dialogue and exchange of best practices with partner countries in order to help each other, he explained. This is also to ensure ownership by local authorities – while the EU is facing many of the same problems as its partner countries, this does not mean that the EU have all the answers, he argued.

To sum up, the research team has three challenging but hopefully academically illuminating years ahead. To stay updated on the progress of the project, follow PREVEX on Twitter and Facebook. More information and updates can also be found on the project’s official website.