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Despite best efforts to counter terrorism, it does not seem to either diminish or be contained. While mainly hard-security measures have generally been used to fight terrorist groups, there is a growing global consensus on the need to understand what attracts young people to join violent extremist groups so as to prevent their radicalisation and better counter the threat of terrorism.

Recruitment is a complex process that tends to exploit both objective grievances present in a community and highly personal vulnerabilities of its members. In order to counter the appeal of groups that use violence as their strategy for communication and advocacy, a long-term peace-building approach is needed, one that seeks to create a tightly-knit community. A strong ‘social tissue’ can make a community more resilient to harmful influences. Countering this violent appeal also requires that aggrieved members of the community be given attention, for instance teaching them non-violent means of expression or positive alternative methods to channel expectations. Aggressive and malicious stresses on a resilient community may thus weaken its social tissue, but not irreparably damage it, allowing the community to bounce back.

Within this context, considerable efforts are being made by the international community and local actors in affected communities to better define the threat of violent extremism and formulate conceptual frameworks for implementing, monitoring and evaluating interventions to more adequately address it.


UNICRI commenced its work in this domain in 2015, when it launched a project on Countering radicalisation and violent extremism in the regions of Sahel and Maghreb (CVE SMR project) with the support of the European Union. The intention of this project is to supplement the existing body of research with tested and evidence-based observations on what works and what does not work in terms of making the communities more resilient to violent extremism. To do so, UNICRI chose to pilot interventions of diverse nature, engaging different actors at risk of radicalisation, implemented by a varied range of grass-root organisations in both urban and rural communities. By its end, the project involved 83 civil society associations and non-profit organisations in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger and Tunisia.

The project included the following steps:

  • Initial mapping of ongoing projects to counter terrorism in these countries;
  • Selection of local partners with a capacity to supplement ongoing efforts while providing novel, perhaps previously not considered solutions to the identified problem of violent extremism;
  • Provision of support to successfully implement and conclude grass-root projects, while gathering data, observing variables, and formulating conclusions as to the effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability;
  • Final evaluation based on collected evidence and input from grass-root partners.


UNICRI’s approach heavily relied on local knowledge to identify local grievances, and local ability and intuition to devise made-to-measure solutions. It was informed by UNICRI’s experience that participatory local solutions last longer than those coming from the outside of a community. Locally arrived-at solutions are owned by those involved in their making, who bear a vested interest in making them succeed.

As a result, local interventions implemented as part of the project were extremely varied. They have involved human rights education and non-violent conflict mitigation and management. They have promoted inclusion; social cohesion; tolerance; active citizen participation and political representation; religious tolerance; women’s rights; and respect for diversity, be it religious, ethnic or of opinion. Some focused on environmental protection, others on economic independence of the young members of the community through complementary education, vocational training and crafts. Others further sought to embed critical thinking through training, media standards or artistic expression. A few addressed security concerns, migration and cross-border movement.

The nature of the project was open-minded. It did not set out with a clearly outlined theory to prove, rather it created a free space for grass-root interventions to occupy, unfolding organically in local communities, with respect of indigenous culture, traditions and customs. It also allowed for the development of a relationship of trust and respect between UNICRI and local communities, enabling a reciprocal transfer of know-how and values. Consequently, the grass-root organizations had the freedom to not only choose the most pressing issue, but also the type of intervention, the relevant actors and the way to engage with them. As the focus areas were those at risk of, or had recently been a target of, terrorism, this led to postponing, cancelling, or changing the location of some activities.

Limited restrictions were imposed by UNICRI and sought only to guarantee that (a) all interventions would seek to remove or ameliorate the grievances that push those feeling excluded, marginalised or disenfranchised to opt for violent extremism; and (b) all implementing partners would display a set minimum of managerial, administrative and logistical capabilities.

UNICRI awarded direct funds to 31 organisations, amounting to over 3.3 million US dollars. The selected partners included local, regional and international organisations, each with diverse missions and visions of the required change. In the spirit of piloting, some of them were allowed to support micro-projects. This allowed UNICRI to develop a portfolio of 83 projects, different in nature, scope or size. Some of these were operated locally, others at a national level, and several were regional in nature.


In its final phase, UNICRI is wrapping up the remaining projects, analysing data and insights, and writing the final analysis of lessons learned. This work will build upon the “Preliminary Findings” published in a report that UNICRI issued in September 2019, which provides a non-exhaustive list of grievances identified by project implementers and validated, or expanded upon, during the course of the implementation.

The preliminary findings underscore the crucial importance the religion has in the lives of people living in marginalised communities of the nine countries. This is manifested through the imams' role of community leaders, as educators and news communicators; the education received through Koranic schools; mosque being a gathering point; or the religious teachings and philosophy informing the behaviour of community members. As such, the religion cannot be considered through a binary division of good or bad. It permeates the daily lives of community members and must be incorporated into the design of assistance programmes.

Several other factors also demonstrated particular importance, namely:

  • The concept of borders: Borders have different meanings to citizens of different countries. Some are used to the idea of long-established borders demarcating an arbitrary area. Others instead may operate in ecological habitats, the borders of which are more dependent upon climatic conditions than man-made movement restrictions. The closing of such borders for security reasons may directly clash with traditional nomadic lifestyles of these areas, jeopardising sustenance.
  • To have or not to have a long-term vision: Organizations that are organic to the communities they support with their projects displayed an additional level of commitment. They have been personally vested in fulfilling their vision for the health of the community, having put their professional track record and personal reputation at risk should the project fail. Their long-term vision ensured that this one project was not a one-off intervention but rather a step in the direction they were already taking.
  • Tailoring is a work of precision: Initially, UNICRI gave preference to projects that were regional or inter-regional. However, such projects demonstrated difficulties in contextualising their interventions in a way that would equally well address grievances of many communities. Each community is a universe of its own with its own web of relationships, sources of authority, vested interests, traditions and idioms. Furthermore, a difference has been observed in the approach of local and international actors. Both involved the same social groups and employed very similar if not identical techniques. However, the local actors organically incorporated religion in their approach as a prevailing cultural element, allowing the approach to better resonate with the communities.
  • Women and their role: It is a sine qua non that gender equality and empowerment of women be promoted. UNICRI sought, not only to promote, but also to strongly advocate for women to be given a meaningful role within the projects: as decision-makers within the implementing agencies, as well as participants and beneficiaries. After five years and many repeated questions later, UNICRI has come to terms with the fact that this is an arduous process which has to be championed by those concerned. Among the many segments of its adjusted approach, UNICRI has stopped insisting that parity be achieved in terms of event participants and that more women be included in leading positions of the local associations during the projects' lifetime. Instead, UNICRI has been giving greater visibility to women-led and -designed interventions, demonstrating the field of possibility for other women to step forward.


After five years, nine countries, 83 projects, and over 500 activities, involving over 23,000 participants, UNICRI is bringing to close the project on Countering radicalisation and violent extremism in the regions of Sahel and Maghreb. Its refined observations, conclusions and critical lessons learned will be available in a report at the end of June 2020 in both English and French.

UNICRI looks forward to sharing the lessons it has learned during this highly rewarding process as widely as possible with all interested parties, as well as putting into practice as many of them. UNICRI will engage with the international community to advocate for continued support to the communities in the nine countries through known or new grass-root associations selected on the basis of the standards established by UNICRI during this phase. The approach could be extended widely across the regions of Sahel and Maghreb, and beyond, to other areas of the world grappling with the challenges of radicalisation and violent extremism.

Based on its findings, the role of UNICRI would be that of a guide, transferring the technical know-how needed for the grass-root organizations to pursue their vision, as they remain the most efficient and effective vehicle of change within their communities. Finally, UNICRI would keep the analytical role, thus helping to enrich the body of knowledge on what works and what less so in countering these threats.

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