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26 January 2023

New War Studies Podcast episode reveals how trauma drives violence and peace in conflict zones

How could a traumatic experience lead to radicalisation? Are there interventions to prevent extremism in conflict zones? These are some of the questions that researchers will answer in the first episode of ‘Breaking cycles of conflict’, the new War Studies podcast mini-series.


Researchers from the Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy and Trends (XCEPT) research programme will offer insights on how traumas can drive violence and peace in conflict zones, the experiences of Islamist prisoners with terrorism, the importance of trauma interventions, and the role of women in the frontline combat in Syria.

The first of four episodes featured the work of Dr Fiona McEwen, Survey Director at XCEPT, and Dr Nafees Hamid, Research and Policy Director at XCEPT, who shared their experiences in exploring the factors that contribute to radicalisation and extremism, including the impact of violent conflict on mental health, trauma, trust and community relationships.

From a multidisciplinary perspective, which involves clinical psychology, history, sociology, political science and regional expertise, the team of experts at XCEPT are seeking to understand how to break the cycle of violence. To achieve this, they will implement methodologies, such as qualitative research and longitudinal psychometric surveys, focused on mental health and trauma issues, as well as the factors that could increase people's desire for reconciliation and peace.

Violent conflict can lead to mental health and trauma issues, fissures between communities, destruction of trust and institutions, and pitting families against families. Even in the post-conflict scenario, these issues remain present and perpetuate further conflict if left unhealed. Our goal is to understand these processes and determine if healing these issues can break the cycle of violence and increase the desire for reconciliation and peace"

Dr Nafees Hamid

As part of the XCEPT programme, the team at King’s is working on a longitudinal survey which will be rolled out in Iraq, South Sudan, and Syria, examining risk factors and mental health outcomes related to exposure to conflict and other forms of violence. As part of the early stages, the researchers are looking to survey 2,000 people in Iraq and follow up for nine months to gather as much information as possible. Additionally, the survey will consider factors such as personality traits and social cohesion, to understand how they interact to shape people's propensity for violence or peaceful outcomes.

Dr McEwen, who has a background in developmental psychology, stated that there is less research in lower-income countries and the zones most affected by conflict, as it's challenging to conduct longitudinal studies when populations are often displaced. Prior to joining the team at XCEPT, she had been part of a study involving Syrian refugee families in Lebanon, which found “that while past exposure to conflict predicts the likelihood of mental health problems, current living conditions have a much stronger effect. For example, lack of access to basic resources and education for children are stronger predictors of current mental health problems, highlighting the importance of addressing them", she added.

The experts also reflected on how the relationship between mental health, traumatic experiences, and social context is complex and cannot be reduced to individual psychology. Indeed, research conducted by Dr Hamid in Northeast Syria with returnees from al-Hol camp showed that many of those who were affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had higher adverse childhood experiences and lower social capital compared to those who did not join the terrorist organisation. He observed that groups like AI Qaeda understand how creating chaos, and destroying trust in institutions, can lead to people seeking stability from authoritarian regimes.

We found in our study in Lebanon that young people with more family support and strong social structures around them had better outcomes when receiving treatment for mental health problems. Those without strong social support struggled more with interventions. Our research has the potential to provide alternative interventions that focus on building social cohesion and helping people understand their trauma symptoms, which could potentially disrupt negative cycles”.

Dr Fiona McEwen
XCEPT podcast  400x400

Finally, Dr Hamid concluded that “policymakers, practitioners, and the general public can benefit from our research as it can transform how we approach mental health and trauma, not just from a humanitarian perspective but also from a national security perspective. By creating traumatised children with high adverse childhood experiences, low social capital and little emotional regulation, we're creating a recruitment pool for groups like ISIS. We need to invest in helping these people for humanitarian reasons and to prevent them from becoming potential recruits for terrorist groups".

To listen to the War Studies Podcast episode now on Soundcloud, Spotify and Apple Podcast.

XCEPT brings together world-leading experts to examine conflict-affected borderlands, how conflicts connect across borders and the drivers of violent and peaceful behaviour. Funded by UK Aid and partnered with Asia Foundation, Chatham House and Kings College London, it offers actionable research to inform policies and programmes that support peace. More information in