Assuming the Worst: 1. Narratives and their Impacts on Violent Extremism in South-East Asia (Ben Schonveld and Robert Templer, UNDP, 2020)

Responses to violent extremism are arguably underpinned by assumptions and narratives about the scale and nature of the threat to societies, and by an ever-evolving calculus of risk and opportunity. In South-East Asia, governments, the media and expert commentary have focused on the risks posed by the Islamic State (IS) and, to a lesser degree, Al-Qaida (AQ), with an emphasis on the risks presented by fighters returning from the Middle East.

The assumptions that frame and justify counter-terrorism (CT), countering violent extremism (CVE) and preventing violent extremism (PVE) policies often go unexamined, and include the following:

  • South-East Asia faces an ever-worsening threat from extremism.
  • IS and local extremist networks represent the greatest violent threats to the region.
  • Foreign terrorist fighters (FTF) returning from the Middle East amplify the threat.
  • Violent extremism is an import, the result of outside influences and ideologies.
  • Counter-narrative programming is an effective challenge to the spread of violent extremism.

Empirical evidence shows that, outside of Mindanao in the southern Philippines, violent extremists are not a major threat to states or populations in South-East Asia. South-East Asia is in fact relatively safe from extremist violence. The region’s long history of ethnonationalist movements, as well as the evolution in the positions of its so-called jihadist groups regarding violence make it difficult for IS to tap into existing networks of groups that use violence. In addition, social approval for IS and its actions is low in most areas. Returning foreign terrorist fighters, too, will find it difficult to gain a foothold given these factors.

People are driven to violent extremism through a complex and dynamic process that includes structural factors as well as psychological ones; however, it would be a mistake to minimize the influence of IS. Its actual and potential impact are poorly understood. Rather than taking the form of financial support, training and covert networks, the influence of IS could hinge on indirect impacts: providing people with a narrative framework for their desires; inspiring local individuals or groups to violence; or changing the nature and aims of violent action. The social, economic and religious possibilities offered by the Caliphate are one aspect of the appeal of IS. But the group also offers a new kind of inspiration for violent extremist acts through the example of its success, and its adoption of extreme performative violence. These factors cannot be understood strictly through an analysis of how and why groups in the region have typically mobilized for violent extremist acts.

Changes in domestic political contexts in much of South-East Asia also influence the spread of violent extremism. Majoritarian politics and exclusionary aims are increasingly mainstream. This development potentially creates a greater tolerance for extremist views and actions, and marks a major change in the sociopolitical contexts of some of the states in question which necessitates close attention.

It can be challenging to change existing P/CVE policies. These policies are often in response to domestic and geopolitical calculations; the goal of preventing violent extremism may be only one of many factors that influence states to adopt them. Civic debate on appropriate policies may be limited by a fear of criticism, and governments are wary of being accused of dropping the ball on security. Violent extremism is viewed as a matter of national security, which can affect critical assessments. Without impartial assessments, central governments might be out of touch with developments on the ground. In responding to extremists, states can choose to shift powers towards executive and security forces and away from legislative and legal checks and balances.

State violence and disrespect for human rights, in turn, can create conditions that increase the appeal of violent extremism. States and donors need to assess clearly the impact of P/CVE policies so far and, based on lessons learned, build a more holistic and up-to-date framework for research to guide policy revision. More immediately, states should strongly consider supporting the return of foreign terrorist fighters in a manner that allows most of them to go back to communities that do not support violent extremism, and where they can be reintegrated. These communities must be supported socially and financially. Counternarrative programming should be limited but not abandoned; and must be clearly supplemented by offline programming that addresses some of the social drivers for violent extremism, such as perceptions of inequality.

You can find the original publication here

TopicForeign Terrorist Fighters, Local communities, Narratives and counter-narratives, Programmes, Plans of Action, Preventing violent extremism, Rehabilitation and Re-integration, Resilience
CountryIndonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Philippines
RegionAsia and the Pacific


Themes: Foreign Terrorist Fighters, Local communities, Narratives and counter-narratives, Programmes, Plans of Action, Preventing violent extremism, Rehabilitation and Re-integration, Resilience
Countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Philippines
Regions: Asia and the Pacific