How can we apply the principles of Community Resilience to British counter-extremism and counter-terrorism policy?

By Charlotte Lacy, Research Volunteer, Quilliam International


The Community Resilience framework represents a much-needed paradigm shift of policy approach from ‘top-down’ to ‘bottom-up’. It has been widely embraced as a means of disaster preparedness, as in the meticulous information and resource provision available on, including emergency preparation guides, toolkits and emergency plan templates. The government details the value of informing, engaging and empowering communities in all parts of the emergency cycle: Preparedness, Response, Recovery and Mitigation/Protection. (Cabinet Office, 2016) In recent years, there has been a shift in the international study of Community Resilience, beyond disaster response, to include its role in the response to violence. Research in the UK is limited, but studies in the Horn of Africa and the United States shed light on the potential value of its application in the context of effectively countering violent extremism.


The UK government has repeatedly made vague reference to the resilience of individuals to the influence of Al Qa’ida (Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, 2011), or to the resilience of infrastructure in the CONTEST strategy (Secretary of State for the Home Department, 2011), but has yet to make formal reference to community resilience in response to violent extremism. The general idea is not new: examples such as the de-Nazification programmes of the 1940s and the Muslim Contact Unit in 2002 demonstrate the historical acknowledgment that community has an important role to play in preventing and responding to extremism, but this initiative has yet to be sufficiently researched or implemented to realize its potential in the UK. With terrorist and insurgent groups politicizing, radicalizing and mobilizing their territorial communities, future stability and peace lie in our abilities to influence the human terrain using community engagement strategies. It is crucial that more research is carried out in the UK using the specific Community Resilience framework in order for well-informed policy to be implemented, as it has been with disaster preparedness, that tackles extremism and terrorism effectively and avoids the criticisms that have been mounted against the government’s Prevent strategy in recent years.


Community Resilience is defined as the ability of a community, state, people or region to adopt new processes, norms and strategies for conducting their lives and new societal relationships in response to a violent shock or uptick in aggression and brutality in order to prevent, mitigate or recover from violence (Van Metre, 2016). Ami Carpenter, in her study of Community Resilience to violence in Baghdad distinguishes between the different characteristics that determine the capacity for a society to remain resilient against violence, and the community competencies that allow them to best harness these capacities in their response (Carpenter, 2014). Van Metre narrows down the community capacities to include social capital, leadership, information, economic resources and place attachment, and competencies to include collective efficacy, community activism, peace or religious engagement and security. Based on her analysis, the most resilient communities are those with high levels of trust and engagement between ethnic, religious and generational groups across society; an adaptive and non-hierarchical leadership style; active and trustworthy information networks; abundant economic resources; high levels of community activism; and non-discriminatory, inwardly focused security measures. (Van Metre, 2016, pp. 14-17)


A seminal study in neighbourhoods and crime identified that the collective efficacy – social cohesion and the willingness to act on behalf of the broader community – is a central protective factor in relation to violence (Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997). This conclusion has provided the basis for much American policy, and further theorists have continued to similarly argue that social capital is at the heart of resilient communities. Pfefferbaum et al. (2015) suggested that social connections, social groups and social networks are fundamental to community resilience in relation to disaster preparedness, and that building social capital is fundamental to increasing community resilience. Ellis and Abdi contend that three types of social connections are critical to a resilient community in relation to violent extremism: Bonds, Bridging and Linking (Ellis & Abdi, 2017). Government policy should be aimed at improving all three types of social connection to improve collective efficacy, social capital and ultimately Community Resilience.


Bonds are the sense of belonging and connection felt towards those who are similar, and helps to combat weak social identity (Ellis & Abdi, 2017). The search for meaningful identity is frequently theorized to be the fundamental reason that some youth radicalize to violence. When a Muslim immigrant perceives that his or her cultural or religious identity is in conflict with the mainstream culture of the country in which he or she lives, this ‘double’ sense of non-belonging triggers a search for identity. Strong social identity within oppressed groups can serve as a protective resource, mitigating the negative effects of oppression. (Sonn & Fisher, 1998)


Bridging describes the connection between those who are dissimilar in important ways, which can combat social marginalization or detachment to nation. An investigation into community resilience capacities in Kenya has illuminated the empirical value of social capital in the resilient response to violence. By comparing two communities with equivalent risks of violence, the report could pinpoint which differences in community capacities and competencies were most important in an effective response. The intriguing difference in two chosen communities in Nairobi: Pumwani and Eastleigh, was the comparatively high level of Christian-Muslim association, through Pumwani’s higher tolerance for interethnic and interreligious marriages, helping to prevent retaliation and the elevation of conflict, as occurred in Eastleigh. Eastleigh’s ability to address the threats of radicalization and recruitment are undermined by a lack of social cohesion or working trust between its Christian and Muslim communities. (Van Metre, 2016) It can be argued, therefore, that per the framework put forward by Ellis and Abdi, Eastleigh had relatively weaker bridging connections across ethnic and religious groups, which has led to the devastating escalation of violence in the area, damage to the business environment and a negative feedback loop of worsening social capital and community resilience. Similarly, in the US, an examination of violent extremists found that weak bonds to society were common and among Somali Immigrants, stronger connection to community was associated with less openness to violence in support of a political cause (Ellis B. H., 2016).


Linking connections are those across vertical power differentials, especially between the government and communities. The Kenya case-studies further provide evidence for the importance of these relationships. Only 1% of interviewed al-Shabaab respondents reported that they ‘trust politicians’ and 65% of respondents identified the government’s counter-terrorism strategy as the single most important factor that drove them to join al-Shabaab. The government is suffering a legitimacy crisis amongst individuals at risk of radicalization, and this mutual antagonism is further driving the violent extremism problem (Botha, 2014). These theories of social connection have yet to be formally examined or implemented in a UK context, but vertical linking connections have especially been identified as a weakness in the UK government’s policy thus far. A lack of transparency and communication between government and their communities weakens these links by undermining the essential atmosphere of a genuine partnership that works to achieve mutually shared goals. Even the very recent decision of the government to withhold a report on the funding of extreme groups is further evidence that the unwillingness of the UK government to establish transparent and accessible information is deepening the mutual antagonism between communities and governments, and shifting towards a more ‘top-down’ approach to counter-extremism. The lessons from Kenya are enlightening but not so easily transferable, and similar in-depth empirical studies need to be carried out in the UK to confidently determine which of the community capacities is truly lacking, and to help formulate well-informed policy to rectify these deficiencies of social capital.


It is true that the terrorist threat comes from a tiny and marginal minority, but these individuals are integrated within their communities and not, on the whole, loners working on their own. This is why communities need to play a central role in many different areas of the counterterrorism strategy, a principle that is now implicit within government policy. They can work to prevent young people from being radicalized towards violence, be an early warning system for at-risk individuals and tackle the real and perceived grievances that allow terrorists’ messages to resonate. In an examination of lone-actor terrorists, 64% of the time friends or family were aware of an individual’s intentions to carry out a violent act (Gill, Horgan, & Deckert, 2014). Williams, Horgan and Evans (2015) found that key reasons for not disclosing information about a potential violent extremism threat were concerns that the disclosure would get a friend/family members in trouble and potential ramifications from within the community itself. This implies a lack of trust between community members and government institutions.


For the essential power of the community to be harnessed, authorities must overcome concerns that the initiative is being done ‘to’ them rather than ‘with’ them: power differences between government and community contribute to fears that the program activities will be used against rather than for the minority community. If communities are to realize their full potential role they need to do so as trusted, equal and respected partners of local authorities, the police and other agencies. They need to be brought within the confidence of these bodies, and this in turn means providing them with transparent access information to help them perform their role (Briggs, 2010). Critically, programs or policies that create ‘suspect communities’ may undermine this pathway toward resilience. In a study comparing programs aimed at reducing extremism in three European cities, Vermuelen (2014) found that by aiming programs at entire communities, unintended consequences of increased stigma and discrimination led to conditions of even greater risk for violent extremism. Even carefully crafted government policy and rhetoric about the breadth of the threat of violent extremism can quickly be undermined by lopsided media coverage that overemphasizes the threat of the violent ideology of a section of society– thus weakening social bonding and social bridging through undermining a positive sense of social identity and alienating minorities (Ellis & Abdi, 2017). Post 9/11, media portrayals of Muslims and Islam worldwide were mostly negative, framing them within the context of religious extremism and a clash of civilizations and cultures (el-Aswad, 2013), thus it is not unpredictable that so many radicalized Muslims reported experiencing alienation and an identity crisis prior to their participation in extremist activity. (Wiktorowicz, 2004). Khosrokhavar (2004) repeatedly talks about the general sense of humiliation felt by Muslim youth in the West because they are treated and/or perceived as ‘different’ and ‘inferior’. Even those who are not excluded economically and are relatively well-integrated may still experience ‘a more or less covert racism and find it profoundly humiliating’. Terrorists use these grievances to convince large numbers of people that their aims are just, even if their means are not. It is in this context that the government must work especially hard to gain the confidence of Muslim communities and maintain the moral high ground and show it is committed to tackling the injustices faced by Muslims both here and abroad. By emphasizing policy that supports the bonding, bridging and linking connections across society, the government can develop a strong community-based resilience against extremism and terrorism.


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