Learning by Doing: Community-Based Approaches to Countering Violent Extremism

Tarek Maassarani
Program Director
Salam Institute for Peace and Justice


The large conference room was buzzing.  Breaking news of the nine local youth recruited to Syria had traveled fast in the small province of Amushen, which was already beleaguered by a slate of social, political, and economic crises.  Social media went electric. The youth’s families were distraught, clamoring for help, as well as for dignity and privacy.  The Governor sought to convey a sense of confidence, but visibly struggled to maintain composure during a press conference that turned tense.

A variety of local and international civil society organizations – from women’s and youth groups to aid workers and human rights advocates – rallied into action.  Religious leaders spoke to their communities’ fears from the pulpit, while the police waited nervously on high alert.  It was a situation that both accentuated existing fault lines of distrust and offered new opportunities for close collaboration behind a common cause.  And while this particular scenario and its setting were completely fictional, the specter of youth recruitment hit too close to home for the many participants from the Maghreb and Sahel present in the room.  The emotions were palpable.


Last year, Lamia Lahrech and I, at the Salam Institute for Peace and Justice – an organizational member of the Network of Religious and Traditional Peacemakers – designed this multi-player simulation entitled “The Case of Youth Recruitment in Amushen,” for a USAID-funded, FHI360-led project to build community-based capacity for countering violent extremism among civil society organizations in Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Mali, Niger, and Tunisia.  As part of a regional workshop in Casablanca in September 2015, 32 representatives from these countries participated in the inaugural run of the simulation, taking on one of 16 roles that included families, government and security officials, peacebuilding and development organizations, news and social media outlets, and faith leaders.

Before the simulation started, participants received confidential background information on their particular role along with prep time to analyze the relevant drivers, identify their goals, and prepare a strategy to attain them.  They were then free to conduct meetings, issue statements, make agreements in pursuit of their strategy and in response to the actions of others and the newest developments in the scenario during the live half-day simulation.


Simulation-based learning has been common since the early 1900s, touching a wide range of fields from the military to health care.  Whether in the form of role-plays, models, or computer programs, simulations are an instructional tool grounded in adult learning theory that allow learners to experience and experiment with a facet of reality without the danger, expense, complexity, or irreversibility of real life. Given how pronounced these factors are in conflict settings, the benefits of simulation-based learning for the peacebuilding field cannot be overstated.

In the Amushen simulation, participants not only confronted participants with the dilemma of youth recruitment, but also the relational dynamics that often hamper cooperation between international and local nonprofits; religious leaders across majority and minority faith communities; human rights and peacebuilding actors; security forces, civil society, and media; traditional and social media, young and older generations; male-dominated and women’s groups; and central and provincial authorities. Participants not only witnessed, but directly lived the significance and role of open communication, collaborative approaches, and multi-stakeholder engagement processes in effectively addressing a community-level problem.


Once out of character, the chaos subsided and an air of solemn reflection descended upon that conference room in Casablanca.  In the discussion that ensued, participants raised and processed the many learnings from the simulation experience, including insights on the challenges of reintegration that we had not contemplated during the original design. Questions such as; how is a community to navigate the government’s impulse to prosecute returning youth, the families’ desire to reunite, and civil society’s limited social services in a way that ensures justice and wellbeing for the individual and the collective, where left for further contemplation. With a issue with such complexity at hand, complex thinking stimulated by real life might just provide steps towards the right answeres.


Delightfully surprised by the richness of this experience, we continue to offer the simulation as an instructional (and planning) tool elsewhere and are eager to share it with anyone interested.  Please contact maassarani@salaminstitute.org to learn more.