The Strategic Ambiguity of the United Nations Approach to Preventing Violent Extremism

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The use of international peacebuilding as a delivery vehicle for preventing violent extremism (PVE) initiatives is a recent and pivotal development in United Nations (UN) counterterrorism strategy. However, existing research has not considered the contradictions that emerge when international organizations transition to new peacebuilding approaches such as PVE. Further, it remains unclear whether and how intervening organizations overcome these contradictions. Based on forty-seven interviews with UN, government, and nongovernmental organization officials in Kyrgyzstan and New York this article critically analyzes the shift to PVE as an underlying strategic approach to UN peacebuilding and the mismatch between external expectations and local priorities. Interview narratives feature ambiguity in conceptions of foundational PVE concepts and in how interveners reference a menu of drivers for violent extremism according to project requirements. This article argues that ambiguity is strategically tolerated and employed, whereby not clarifying the terms of engagement with (sub-)national counterparts supports external agendas and achieves a basic unity of purpose by permitting counterparts increased managerial latitude to satisfy self-interests.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)(In-press)
JournalStudies in Conflict & Terrorism
Early online date13 Aug 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Aug 2019

Bibliographical note

This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism on 13/08/2019, available online: 10.1080/1057610X.2019.1647685

Copyright © and Moral Rights are retained by the author(s) and/ or other copyright owners. A copy can be downloaded for personal non-commercial research or study, without prior permission or charge. This item cannot be reproduced or quoted extensively from without first obtaining permission in writing from the copyright holder(s). The content must not be changed in any way or sold commercially in any format or medium without the formal permission of the copyright holders.


Fieldwork was supported by a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant.


  • United Nations
  • peacebuilding
  • preventing violent extremism
  • extremism
  • radicalization
  • ambiguity
  • Kyrgyzstan
  • strategic ambiguity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Political Science and International Relations

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