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Building Upstream Approaches to Terrorism Prevention


To identify effective, ineffective, and promising practices within terrorism prevention programs.


Survey and interview terrorism prevention experts from around the world to discuss concrete, actionable steps to implement recommendations.


By finding consensus on effective practices through surveys and interviews with terrorism prevention experts from across the globe, this study seeks to advance public safety in the near term and set the stage for future impactful research refining terrorism prevention strategies.

Terrorism prevention goes far beyond reactive efforts by law enforcement and security agencies. Although these law enforcement activities are necessary, effective terrorism prevention also requires upstream approaches: measures that can help stop planned attacks before they begin. Taking an upstream approach means deterring individuals from participating in terrorism and increasing community awareness of potential threats to public safety.

These upstream efforts include community engagement programming, deradicalization and disengagement (DD) programs in criminal legal systems, and DD programs in the community. Many terrorism prevention programs are implemented around the world, but their effectiveness is unclear, and there is a lack of empirical evidence on the facilitators and barriers to implementation.

Studying Gaps in Terrorism Prevention

In response to this knowledge gap and to increase understanding of effective, ineffective, and promising practices in terrorism prevention programs, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate contracted with RTI International to survey terrorism prevention experts on the utility of various global terrorism prevention strategies. RTI’s study to evaluate prevention programming and identify best practices used by allies abroad examined areas of consensus on programming practices within the field.

RTI’s experts in extremism and terrorism prevention designed the study to help practitioners understand and implement promising practices and to identify areas of terrorism prevention programming that require wider study before adoption. Terrorism prevention is an important part of public safety, and our study can equip practitioners, funders, and communities with the tools and research base necessary to develop effective prevention programs. By interfering with the pathways to radicalization, we can prevent violence and protect the public.

RTI’s Methodology

RTI researchers identified a diverse set of 46 terrorism prevention experts from 14 countries, including representatives from government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and academia, and conducted three rounds of surveys to identify group-level consensus (i.e., the Delphi method). Within the broad terrorism prevention field, RTI’s study focused on three domains: (1) community engagement programs, (2) DD in the criminal legal system, and (3) DD in the community. Three Delphi surveys were conducted within each domain, with each round of survey questions building on answers and thematic coding analysis from the previous survey round. Following Delphi surveys, researchers conducted semi-structured interviews with 18 experts (6 from each domain) to discuss concrete, actionable steps to implement the consensus recommendations drawn from the Delphi surveys.

Findings and Promising Practices for Terrorism Prevention Programs

Following analysis of Delphi surveys and semi-structured interviews, RTI researchers found several important insights for advancing terrorism prevention program efficacy in the three studied domains:

1. Community Engagement

Our research supports the implementation of educational programs that increase community awareness of terrorism prevention resources, such as referral resources for community members concerned about an individual. When implementing police-led programs, terrorism prevention experts identified the importance of assessing existing community relationships with police before implementation begins and of ensuring direct information-sharing and transparency regarding police roles and objectives. For any community engagement program, experts noted the importance of collaborating closely with a range of community stakeholders, evaluating who or what has credibility in the communities being targeted by programs, identifying “bridging” actors who can help to build trust between communities and program stakeholders, and building relationships and empowering actors already embedded within communities.

2. DD in the Criminal Legal System

Our research findings highlighted the importance of staffing programs with multidisciplinary teams of professionals, deliberately selecting intervention providers based on credibility and relationships with clients, providing robust staff training and education on relevant areas of practice (e.g., extremism, case management, counseling, risk assessment, data collection), and providing staff with access to mental health services. Research results regarding program clients highlighted the importance of making participation in DD programs voluntary, building participation through tailored outreach, giving clients a sense of agency, clearly expressing benefits and consequences of participating or not participating, being transparent about guidelines and processes, and framing programs as rehabilitative.

3. DD in the Community

Terrorism prevention experts identified the importance of collaboration and close coordination with post-release aftercare service providers. DD programs should build a network of community-based service providers matching their geographic location and specific service needs and should provide this network with the training and tools necessary to support extremist populations effectively. If former extremists are being considered as possible staff or intervention providers, programs should robustly assess their fitness and train them on program mission and tasks before they begin working.

Many of the promising practices identified in this study warrant additional empirical research to determine best practices for the field of terrorism prevention writ large. However, RTI’s study contributes to the knowledge base on the efficacy of terrorism prevention programs by identifying promising practices and emphasizing direct steps funders and practitioners can take to develop and improve programs that seek to prevent terrorism and radicalization. By finding consensus on effective practices through surveys and interviews with terrorism prevention experts from across the globe, this study seeks to advance public safety in the near term and set the stage for future impactful research refining terrorism prevention strategies.

Terrorism prevention is an emerging area, and uncertainty remains as to what constitutes effective programming. Governments face the added challenge of implementing programs that observe constitutional protections while effectively deterring individuals from radicalization. These struggles exist around the world, as practitioners work to detail theories of change and logic models and researchers grapple to create viable evaluation approaches to strengthen the knowledge base. RTI’s research recognizes these challenges and seeks to mitigate them. We are engaged in several projects to evaluate local terrorism prevention programming (e.g., evaluations of DHS targeted violence and terrorism prevention grantees from fiscal years 2016, 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023) and to engage and learn from extremists who have already disengaged and deradicalized or are trying to do so (Research and Evaluation on Domestic Terrorism Prevention: A Prospective Longitudinal Analysis of Extremism Exit study; Research and Evaluation on Domestic Radicalization to Violent Extremism study). Terrorism is one of the most pressing social problems today—nationally and internationally—and our findings provide a springboard for funders looking for research ideas, researchers considering design options, and practitioners seeking to implement effective, real-world terrorism prevention strategies.