Spotlight: African research tests global assumptions about terrorism


As threats associated with violent extremism and terrorism continue, the pressure to find sustainable solutions has never been higher or more complex. Many responses to terrorism have faltered because governments violate human rights or employ strategies that alienate the communities they are meant to help. In the search for solutions, the focus tends to be on non-state actors and communities, rather than the role that states play in shaping the dynamics of the problem.  

‘Fear and short-term policy making are contributing to the dynamics of violence relating to terrorism globally,’ says Cheryl Frank, head of the Transnational Threats and International Crime programme at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). ‘Our latest research on democracy and violent extremism provides new information that tests global theories and assumptions. This research aims to shape better counter-terrorism policy and pushes for evidenced-based rather than knee-jerk responses.’  

Four new ISS reports covering responses to violent extremism were launched at the Brookings Institution on 13 September in Washington DC as part of the Community of Democracies’ Democracy and Security Dialogue.

ISS research aims to shape better counter-terrorism policy and pushes for evidenced-based responses

‘We looked for a partner organisation that could offer African perspectives and expertise on counter-terrorism and violent extremism,’ says Ted Piccone, senior fellow at Brookings. ‘The ISS came up repeatedly as a good resource.’

The ISS is a primary partner and co-lead in the Democracy and Security Dialogue. The year-long research project gathered empirical evidence on the relationship between democracy and security. The research was complemented by consultations with policymakers, academic experts and civil society in India, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, Poland, Sweden and the US.

ISS is one of the only African organisations with a seat at a range of global institutions focusing on violent extremism and terrorism. ISS experts collaborate with civil society to ensure the economic and social causes of extremism are included in policy debates on the continent and globally.

‘Our reports argue that securitised and militarised responses to terrorism as a first option by states needs to radically shift. But democracy gives us a tool – the criminal justice system – that can provide the right responses,’ says Frank.

‘We believe there's great value in putting suspected terrorists on trial, demonstrating that justice does exist to communities and then providing appropriate punishments for the crimes committed. The demonstration of justice is something that we're all familiar with, but we're just not using it enough.’

ISS senior researcher Allan Ngari agrees. ‘Human rights and the rule of law are central to addressing security threats, but counter-terrorism practices have largely ignored these values and principles. Our research shows that when it comes to counter-terrorism, human rights violations take place in many countries – even in democracies.’

The ISS is recognised as a key contributor to policy debates both globally and in Africa, along with capacity building on counter-terrorism.

For more information contact:

Cheryl Frank, ISS:, +27 83 325 4424

Download the full reports:

How ethnic and religious discrimination drive violent extremism 

Can a gendered approach improve responses to violent extremism?

How human rights and the rule of law can address terrorism

Will limits on free expression prevent terrorism?

About the project

These reports are part of a series of papers on democracy, security, and violent extremism prepared for the Community of Democracies’ Democracy and Security Dialogue. The project seeks to foster greater collaboration among democratic governments, donors, civil society and academics to improve security outcomes and create a more conducive environment for the strengthening of democracy around the world. For more on the project and related materials, including the final report, visit

Picture: Allan Ngari/ISS

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