The push and pull

A case for development approaches to prevent violent extremism

Odin shifts uncomfortably.

“ISIS said that if they got what they wanted, there would be peace. If they were given power, there would be peace. If they would lead us and control the government, there would be peace. We’ve grown up in a conflict area in Mindanao, and many of the people here are tired of war.” *

Odin is a farmer in Lanao del Sur, a province in the Philippines located in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

In 2017, he was recruited by the ISIS-affiliated Maute Group.

The Most Affected Areas of Marawi

The Most Affected Areas of Marawi

The Most Affected Areas of Marawi

The Most Affected Areas of Marawi

The Most Affected Areas of Marawi

The Most Affected Areas of Marawi

Odin’s home on the island of Mindanao has seen violent conflict for over three decades. In 2014, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed an historic peace agreement with the Philippines national government, providing the Muslim-majority Bangsamoro region with increased autonomy.

Yet others refused to come to the peace table.

The Maute Group along with some others attacked Marawi in 2017. This five-month-long bloody battle with the Philippines security forces decimated the city and displaced thousands who remain uncertain of their future.

Odin had a moment of reckoning. It has now been four years since he surrendered arms.

I was afraid once I left ISIS,” he said.

“We asked for amnesty and initially the government made a lot of promises. We told them what we wanted – help and better economic opportunities – but until now, they haven’t fulfilled those wishes.”

Odin’s account shows that while we may be led to believe that extremism is primarily motivated by ideology or religion, the drivers that push and pull individuals towards and away from violent extremism are in fact far from straightforward.

His situation highlights how in areas of conflict with weakened rule of law and governance, violent extremism is more likely to thrive. Local grievances, human rights abuses, a feeling of disenfranchisement, and lack of socio-economic opportunities are also just some of the contributing factors.

Military forces monitoring the Most Affected Areas of Marawi City

Military forces monitoring the Most Affected Areas of Marawi City

False assumptions about what drives extremism risk shaping policy. A new report by UNDP and the European Union asserts that governing bodies in Southeast Asia must develop responses to extremism that are shaped by data and independent research, and also take stock of what is happening on-the-ground. Developing a deeper understanding on how conflict, violence, identity, economics, human rights, and extremism are all enmeshed offers an entry point for states to better respond to this problem.

Without an agile approach that addresses the various contextual drivers of tension as they arise, states can do more harm than good. Overly securitized policies, for instance, can add more fuel to the fire. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to some reintroduction of measures that are limiting rights like freedom of speech and freedom of association. Short-sighted strategies in areas affected by violent extremism can have similarly devastating impacts on peace, stability, and inclusion.

Builders in Lanao del Sur. Employment can have a huge baring on people's sense of self worth.

Builders in Lanao del Sur. Employment can have a huge baring on people's sense of self worth.

If we accept that those who join extremist groups have non-linear motivations, then tackling violent extremism is a significant but not insurmountable challenge. Entry and Exit Points suggests that governments should consider a community-first approach and focus on changing violent behaviors rather than beliefs. Governments and PVE practitioners must also ensure that they are testing assumptions that drive policies and programmes.

A shop-owner in Lanao del Sur. States can support economic opportunities for conflict-affected areas as part of peacebuilding efforts.

A shop-owner in Lanao del Sur. States can support economic opportunities for conflict-affected areas as part of peacebuilding efforts.

Finally, it is vital that former members of extremist groups such as Odin are provided access to rehabilitation and reintegration programmes, as well as the opportunity to be part of a new community, with the help of mentors and socio-economic support. Doing so will help to ensure that they are given the best chance at peacefully reintegrating into society, reducing the risk of them returning to extremism.

Southeast Asia is home to incredibly diverse and dynamic communities that reflect a plethora of religions, ethnicities, languages, and systems of governance. To secure peace and social cohesion, acknowledging this diversity and responding holistically is a crucial way forward.

For more on using development approaches to respond to and prevent crises, tune into UNDP's Development Dialogues: Rethinking Solutions to Crisis in the Decade of Action throughout March 2021.


Read Entry and Exit Points: Violent Extremism in South-East Asia for expert analysis, policy recommendations, and regional trends on extremism.

Names have been changed to protect identities.

* As per an interview given in 2019

Words: Mailee Osten-Tan and Isabella Caravaggio
Photographs and Footage: Alecs Ongcal and Mailee Osten-Tan
With thanks to UNDP Philippines