What can democracies do to prevent extremist violence?

Håvard Haugstvedt and Tore Bjørgo


  • Universal (primary) prevention efforts that aim at building general democratic attitudes and pro-social values should target broad categories, such as all school children.
  • Selective (secondary) prevention measures should specifically focus on individuals (or small groups) at risk of getting involved in extremist activities.
  • Indicated (tertiary) prevention measures target those that are already involved in extremist activities, aiming at reducing their harmful behavior, or at facilitating their disengagement from such activities and their reintegration into mainstream society.
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In the aftermath of acts of violent extremism and terrorism, societies want to know how future events can be prevented. Trying to prevent something from happening demands extensive and deep knowledge into complex factors and mechanisms that influence and lead individuals and groups into carrying out acts of violence. Unfortunately, these mechanisms and factors, as well as the interplay between them, has not yet been fully uncovered and understood. Prevention work is a continuum, directed at several different target groups, which we describe as universal, selective, and indicated prevention strategies.[1]

Universal (primary) prevention strategies

Universal (primary) prevention strategies target everyone within a broad category, e.g., all schoolchildren. Two of the broad and well-established strategies that especially the Nordic countries apply in this effort is through education and public health approaches. The school system is the main institution tasked with promoting democratic values and equality, helping to foster resilient democratic citizens, with the capacity to tolerate and include those with diverging worldviews.[2] Schools are therefore given a key position within universal prevention work. Among the objectives are to develop pupils that have critical thinking skills[3] and are resilient against totalitarian ideologies, conspiracy theories, and extremist mindsets.[4] This may build pro-social, democratic values, and moral barriers against violence, extremism, racism, and group-based hatred.[5] One example of this is the Tolerance Project, developed and utilized in Swedish municipalities during the last two decades.[6] In addition to school efforts, the public health approach aims generally at ensuring that children and youth are raised to become healthy and productive citizens.[7] Universal prevention perspectives also include societal measures to alleviate conditions that may give rise to grievances and radicalization, such as discrimination of minorities, group conflicts, or corruption – so-called root causes of terrorism.[8]

Selective (secondary) prevention strategies

Selective (secondary) prevention strategies target those deemed at risk of negative development or, where possible, early signs have been identified, such as a developing extremist ideology or criminal mindset and behavior.[9] Interventions are usually directed towards individuals, but (small) groups at risk could also be targeted. The goal is to interrupt and redirect negative developments before the individuals in question cross the line into serious crime or become caught up in extremist groups, with all the negative consequences this may entail. Such proactive preventive interventions will often include combinations of “soft” helping measures in combination with a portion of warnings and control, but avoiding or minimizing the use of more severe criminal justice sanctions at this stage. It should be kept in mind that very few of those with extreme ideology actually become involved in violent activism or terrorism.[10]

At this level, interventions might include support services to help deal with issues of housing, education, employment, and economic support, aiming at reducing vulnerability. Social workers, counsellors, and psychologists play main roles here.[11] Training courses for such prevention workers, aimed at making them more prepared to handle this task, have been established in many European countries.[12] It has been found that strong adult bonds, with marriage as the classic example, have the potential to restrain extremists from using political violence.[13] Therefore, and as an indirect strategy, efforts to bolster partners or other family members may be a path to follow in selective prevention work. From the police’s perspective, interventions can focus on informing about possible consequences if someone continues to take part in violent organizations.[14] In combination, these efforts to both support and provide an element of control is one way that democracies can utilize agencies in selective prevention efforts.

Indicated (tertiary) prevention strategies

Indicated (tertiary) prevention strategies are aimed at those already involved in extremist groups or formerly involved in extremist violence. At this stage, prevention may take the form of disrupting violent plots before they cause harm, and incapacitate through detention or other repressive means.[15] Police, security services, and the criminal justice system – and the prison and probation services in particular - are the main actors here. However, indicated prevention strategies do also involve efforts to facilitate deradicalization, disengagement from extremist groups and activities, and rehabilitation and reintegration into mainstream society.[16]

The rehabilitating efforts aim at facilitating either—or in combination—disengagement or deradicalization. The clearest example of disengagement efforts are so-called EXIT programs, first developed in Norway during the late 1990s, and later adapted and developed further in Sweden, Germany, and a number of other countries.[17] To create dialogue with and influence individuals with extremist ideology, the use of mentors and peers with a similar background can be one strategy to follow as well at this level.[18] There is also evidence that the cognitive processes of deradicalization may take a long time, even after individuals’ exit from violent groups.[19] This knowledge should encourage prevention workers to develop resilience to little or slow progress.

At the far end of the prevention spectrum is criminal prosecution of either individuals or groups, based on their ideology or actions. For example, Finland banned the Finnish chapter of the Nordic Resistance Movement,[20] and Germany had a constitutionally condoned banning of parties and groups to preserve free democratic order.[21] While this may raise the concern for un-democratic government strategies and overreach, it may be overcome by grounding the work in criminal code, with demand of evidence, or considerations of imminent danger of direct harm in order to take action.[22] However, banning a group does not necessarily mean dismantling or removing it. Findings from a UK case study shows that some members of National Action (NA), a violent national-socialist group, was deterred from participating, while others continued to operate clandestinely until the police disrupted their activities.[23] This highlights the dilemma authorities are facing when considering such actions; individuals and groups may go underground to avoid the public’s and authorities’ spotlight.


[1] Gordon Jr, R.S. (1983). An operational classification of disease prevention. Public health reports, 98(2), 107-109; Bjørgo, T., & Gjelsvik, I.M. (2015). Forskning på forebygging av radikalisering og voldelig ekstremisme: En kunnskapsstatus [Norwegian research on the prevention of radicalization and violent extremism: A status of knowledge]. Oslo, Norway: PHS Forskning/Politihøyskolen; Bjørgo, T. (2016). Preventing crime: A holistic approach. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

[2] Helgøy, I., & Homme, A. (2016). Educational reforms and marketization in Norway – A challenge to the tradition of the social democratic, inclusive school?. Research in Comparative and International Education, 11(1), 52–68. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745499916631063.

[3] Bråten, I., Brante, E.W., & Strømsø, H.I. (2019). Teaching sourcing in upper secondary school: A comprehensive sourcing intervention with follow-up data. Reading Research Quarterly, 54(4), 481-505.

[4] Davies, L. (2014). Interrupting extremism by creating educative turbulence. Curriculum Inquiry, 44(4), 450-468; Feddes, A.R., Huijzer, A., van Ooijen, I., & Doosje, B. (2019). Fortress of democracy: Engaging youngsters in democracy results in more support for the political system. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 25(2), 158-164.

[5] Bjørgo, (2016).

[6] Skiple, A. (2020). The Importance of Significant Others in Preventing Extremism: The Philosophy and Practice of the Swedish Tolerance Project. Young, 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1177/1103308820914828

[7] Frieden, T.R. (2014). Six components necessary for effective public health program implementation. American Journal of Public Health, 104(1), 17-22.

[8] Bjørgo, T. (2005). Root causes of terrorism: Myths, reality and ways forward. London, UK: Routledge; Bjørgo, T., & Silke, A. (2018). Root causes of terrorism. In A. Silke (Ed.) Routledge Handbook of Terrorism and Counterterrorism (pp. 57-65). London, UK: Routledge.

[9] Weine, S., Eisenman, D.P., Kinsler, J., Glik, D.C., & Polutnik, C. (2017). Addressing violent extremism as public health policy and practice. Behavioral sciences of terrorism and political aggression, 9(3), 208-221.

[10] Mulcahy, E., Merrington, S., & Bell, P.J. (2013). The radicalisation of prison inmates: A review of the literature on recruitment, religion and prisoner vulnerability. Journal of Human Security, 9(1), 4-14; United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) (2016). Handbook on the Management of Violent Extremist Prisoners and the Prevention of Radicalization to Violence in Prisons. Criminal Justice Handbook Series. https://www.unodc.org/pdf/criminal_justice/Handbook_on_VEPs.pdf.

[11] Haugstvedt, H. (2019). Trusting the mistrusted: Norwegian social workers’ strategies in preventing radicalization and violent extremism. Journal for Deradicalization, 19, 149–184; Ponsot, A.S., Autixier, C., & Madriaza, P. (2017). Factors facilitating the successful implementation of a prevention of violent radicalization intervention as identified by front-line practitioners. Journal for Deradicalization, 16, 1-33.

[12] Jurczyszyn, Ł., Liedel, K., & Piasecka, P. (2019). Report on the comparative analysis of European counter-radicalisation, counter-terrorist and de-radicalisation policies. European Union: Dialogue About Radicalisation and Equality. http://www.dare-h2020.org/uploads/1/2/1/7/12176018/_reportcounterradicalisationpolicies_d3.2.pdf.

[13] Becker, M.H. (2019). When extremists become violent: Examining the association between social control, social learning, and engagement in violent extremism. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2019.1626093; Sampson, R.J., & Laub, J.H. (1995). Crime in the making: Pathways and turning points through life. Cambridge, USA: Harvard University Press.

[14] Bjørgo & Gjelsvik (2015).

[15] Innes, M., Roberts, C., & Lowe, T. (2017). A disruptive influence? “Prevent-ing” problems and countering violent extremism policy in practice. Law & Society Review, 51(2), 252-281.

[16] Bjørgo, (2016); Bertelsen, P. (2018). Mentoring in anti-radicalisation. LGT: A systematic assessment, intervention and supervision tool in mentoring. In G. Overland, A.J. Andersen, K.E. Førde, K. Grødum, & J. Salomonsen (Eds.) Violent extremism in the 21st century (pp. 312-352). Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

[17] Hardy, K. (2019). Countering right-wing extremism: Lessons from Germany and Norway. Journal of policing, intelligence and counter terrorism, 14(3), 262-279; Bjørgo, T., van Donselaar, J., & Grunenberg, S. (2009). Exit from right-wing extremist groups: Lessons from disengagement programmes in Norway, Sweden and Germany. In T. Bjørgo & J. Horgan (Eds.) Leaving terrorism behind: Individual and collective disengagement (pp. 135-151). London, UK: Routledge.

[18] Christensen, T.W. (2015). How extremist experiences become valuable knowledge in EXIT programmes. Journal for Deradicalization, 3, 92-134. Good examples of this strategy are Exit Sweden (https://www.fryshuset.se/verksamhet/exit/) and Life After Hate in the US (https://www.lifeafterhate.org/team).

[19] Horgan, J., Altier, M.B., Shortland, N., & Taylor, M. (2017). Walking away: The disengagement and de-radicalization of a violent right-wing extremist. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 9(2), 63-77.

[20] Forsell, T. (2017, November 30). Finnish court bans neo-Nazi group. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-finland-farright-court/finnish-court-bans-neo-nazi-group-idUSKBN1DU22K.

[21] Malkopoulou, A., & Norman, L. (2018). Three models of democratic self-defence: Militant democracy and its alternatives. Political Studies, 66(2), 442-458.

[22] Issacharoff, S. (2007). Fragile democracies. Harvard Law Review, 120, 1405; Malkopoulou & Norman, (2018).

[23] Macklin, G. (2018). ‘Only Bullets will Stop Us!’ – The Banning of National Action in Britain. Perspectives on Terrorism, 12(6), 104-122.

By Håvard Haugstvedt and Tore Bjørgo
Published Sep. 7, 2020 1:45 PM - Last modified Mar. 8, 2021 1:26 PM