Research

Niconchuk, M. (2019). A Dangerous Displacement Crisis: The Psychological Ecology of Extremism After the Fall of ISIS. In Jayakumar, S (Ed.). Terrorism, Radicalisation & Countering Violent Extremism (pp. 81-99). Palgrave Pivot, Singapore.

Abstract: The Islamic State has lost much of its territory, leaving foreign fighters with few options. Specifically, they can choose to stay in a losing battle, move to a new theater of conflict, or return home. Those who choose to return home return to communities and structures that remain relatively unchanged since they left and return to watch regional conflicts—Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Palestine—simmer largely unresolved. In other words, the context and motivations that pushed thousands of fighters to take up arms and ideology with the Islamic State and other groups have not changed, and continue to be a source of frustration and potential radicalisation for thousands of new youth across the region. Grievances remain unaddressed, opportunities remain scarce, political change is slow or nonexistent, and millions of youth continue to feel excluded, hopeless, and marginalized even within their families and communities. Simply, neither the structural nor the psychological situation has improved in any meaningful way, maintaining the risk of extremism and violence across the region.

If structural “push” factors are going to remain unchanged for the foreseeable future, we need a new lens to understand the risk of violent extremism in the MENA region. In this chapter, we discuss some basic concepts from brain and behavioral science that can afford practitioners and researchers new frameworks for understanding the problem of extremism. By turning our focus to some of the biological and neural underpinnings of concepts like social belonging, peer influence, response to imagined threats, and social power and agency, we can think of new intervention points and new frameworks from which to design effective prevention programs. While brain and behavioral science cannot replace security interventions and measures, they can provide clear tools to create positive change in individual youth and peer groups, “hacking” how we are wired to think to redirect unrest for positive social development.

Available here (paywall).

Niconchuk, M. (2018). [REPORT] Two Sides of the Same Coin? An Examination of the Cognitive and Psychosocial Pathways Leading to Empowerment and Radicalization, and a Model for Reorienting Violent Radicalization. Washington: Equal Access International. 

Rarely are the notions of “empowerment” and “radicalization” uttered in the same sentence. “Empowerment” is to be desired and supported, whereas “radicalization” is to be prevented and feared. While less than obvious, radicalization and empowerment can be studied through similar lenses and can in fact be reduced to certain shared constructs. The purpose of a YouthPower Learning grant awarded to Equal Access was in large part to unpack key theories of empowerment and radicalization, and to elucidate some of the shared elements between the two notions, ultimately for the purpose of leveraging and transforming often-destructive processes and behavior associated with radicalization for positive outcomes.

This first report argues that, to be more effective, CVE programming needs to recognize, enhance, and channel potential assets of radicalized youth – such as agency, commitment, leadership, and self-efficacy – and examines the possibility of reorienting their impulses, attitudes, and behaviors from violent radicalization towards non-violent civic empowerment. The report explores various theoretical models, paying particular attention to the individual-environment interactions requisite in each empowerment and radicalization phase, and suggests an innovative and controversial paradigm that capitalizes on what we know about radicalization: that it can be redirected for constructive, inclusive, and pro-social outcomes.

Available here.

Niconchuk, M. (2017). “Towards a Meaningful Integration of Brain Science Research in Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) Programing.” in Zeiger, S. (Ed.) Expanding Research on Countering Violent Extremism. Abu Dhabi: Hedayah Center.

Abstract: Across regions working on preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE), governments, law enforcement, and civil society actors are looking for new paradigms to understand and address the allure of violent extremist groups and young people’s participation in these groups. While many current P/CVE approaches appreciate the importance of psychological push and pull factors, few have found a way to operationalize current research from brain science, or to design programs informed by this research. This article tackles the challenge of translating social psychology and neuroscience research on violent extremism into practice, first by reviewing key lines of current research including social identity and identity threats, sacred values, intergroup dynamics, and dehumanization, and then providing concrete recommendations for more efficient and accessible translation of research into program design and evaluation.

Available here.

MacPhail, J., Niconchuk, M., & El-wer, N. (2017) “Conflict, the Brain, and Community: A Neurobiology-Informed Approach to Resilience and Community Development” in R. Phillips, S. Kenny, & B. McGrath (Eds.) Handbook of Community Development. Routledge Press.

Abstract: Whether due to violent conflict, displacement, or poverty, many communities across the world are living under profound stress. In this chapter, the authors explore the impacts of profound stress from the neural to the behavioral level, from the individual to the community, investigating how stress impacts community development and can often lead to antisocial behaviors such as violence and inter-group conflict that severely reduce the space for collective, pro-social action. Drawing on years of experience in conflict and post-conflict communities in the Middle East, the authors integrate critical questions of tribalism, displacement, and culture, ultimately arguing that community development efforts are made stronger by an understanding of profound stress in communities and individuals, and that community development efforts should take account of the science of stress, trauma, and resilience.

Available here.