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Violent extremism

What makes a terrorist? The United Nation’s response to violent extremism


An infographic on violent extremismMore than a decade since the September 11 attacks on the United States, transnational terrorist groups such as ISIL and Boko Haram are still making the headlines. As arguably one of the biggest threats to national and international security today, countering violent extremism has become a priority for the international community.

However, despite progress in countering the rise of violent extremism in recent years, neither the United Nations nor the European Union have a clear definition of the term ‘violent extremism’.

While it may take time to come to a clear and universally acknowledged definition of these terms, here are some interpretations :

In many cases, the terms ‘radicalism’, ‘violent extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ are used interchangeably.

Icon - Mainstream interpretationMainstream interpretation
Violent: using or involving the use of physical force to cause harm or damage to someone or something.
Extremism: belief in and support for ideas that are very far from what most people consider correct or reasonable.



Icon - Merriam-Webster’s DictionaryMerriam-Webster’s Dictionary
Violent extremism is the beliefs and actions of people who support or use violence to achieve ideological, religious or political goals. This includes terrorism and other forms of politically motivated and communal violence.



Icon - Australian Government website “Living Safe Together”Australian Government website “Living Safe Together”
Radicalization: a process whereby people adopt an extremist belief system – including the intent to use, encourage or facilitate violence – in order to promote an ideology, a political project or a cause as a means of social transformation.



The United Nation’s response to violent extremism

In a post-September 11 world, the focus of the international community has begun to turn from an emphasis on combating violent extremism to addressing its root causes. What are the factors that compel individuals – in particular young people – to embark upon a path of radicalization and to join groups advocating an ideology of violent extremism?

Missiles may kill terrorists. But good governance kills terrorism. 

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Since 2006, the United Nations, led by Ban Ki-moon, has begun to address the issue of violent extremism through several measures. For the first time, all Member States have agreed to a common strategic and operational approach to fighting terrorism:

  1. Addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism
  2. Preventing and combatting terrorism
  3. Building states’ capacity and strengthening the role of the United Nations
  4. Ensuring human rights and the rule of law


The Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF) ensures the coherence and coordination of UN counter-terrorism efforts through working groups on key priority areas, and capacity building projects. The task force is comprised by 35 UN entities including INTERPOL.

The United Nations Counter Terrorism Centre (UNCCT), established in September 2011, supports Member States in implementing the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy through international support and cooperation.

The Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism presented by Ban Ki-moon to the General Assembly on 12 February 2016 calls for a comprehensive approach to creating essential security-based counter-terrorism measures but also emphasized the need to focus on preventing the underlying conditions that drive individuals to radicalize and join violent extremist groups.



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