Is It Really Possible to Counter Violent Extremism?

The White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism, at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC, on February 19, 2015. Photo by US Department of State (public domain).


In the wake of the Paris attacks, governments and private citizens are turning their attention to a critical question: how do we prevent future terrorism? While counterterrorism, or the tactical disruption of terrorist financing and networks, is key to short-term prevention, ultimately, terrorism can only be stopped by limiting the number of young men and women who seek to join violent extremist groups in the first place. These efforts to stop terrorist recruitment or to turn already-radicalized individuals away from violence are commonly called Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE. Unfortunately, CVE has proven both difficult to implement and deeply divisive in Western states.

Critiques of CVE usually follow two lines of argument: that CVE quickly becomes an exercise in racial profiling, and that CVE efforts are ineffective anyways. Both of these arguments reflect common shortfalls in CVE programming. At their core, western states face a credibility challenge. ISIS, for example, has a clearly defined ideology that powerfully drives its propaganda and recruitment efforts. Western states have not yet been able to clearly articulate a relevant counter message.

The lack of a clear counter message has not stopped the US government from leaping into the fray online through programs such as “Think Again, Turn Away,” a US State Department effort to counter terrorist messaging by responding to jihadists on twitter with counterfactuals to ISIS statements as well as videos depicting the brutality of the group. The program eventually folded after experts argued that it actually helped extremists by playing into their rhetoric. However, the State Department’s new strategy, to make counter-messaging “more factual and testimonial,” will run into the same problem, namely, a lack of credibility. As Alberto Fernandez, who ran ‘Think Again, Turn Away,’ noted, the US currently has “half a message: ‘Don’t do this.’ But we lack the ‘do this instead.’”

Western states face similar challenges with CVE programs that are implemented in real life instead of online. As seen in February’s White House Summit, Western governments desperately want to promote CVE. However, government-run programs are perceived as punitive and have been accused of violating civil rights. Even when programs only support non-government CVE leaders, they may inadvertently hurt their partners’ credibility through association. For example, Sara Khan, the founder of Inspire, a Muslim organization running CVE programs for young women in the UK, has faced criticism for her perceived support for the UK’s controversial CVE program, PREVENT.

So how do governments and concerned citizens go about ensuring that CVE is successful? They must make sure that CVE efforts match credible authorities conveying relevant anti-violence messages to audiences who are truly at risk of being radicalized to commit acts of violence. A failure on any of these points will backfire, and may even inadvertently contribute to radicalization.

An important first step is to accurately identify at-risk audiences in need of intervention. This is a difficult task because radicalization results from a unique mix of grievances, individual psychology, and opportunity. For example, while poverty and alienation from American culture seems to have been a factor motivating some Somali immigrants in Minnesota to join ISIS and al Shabaab, these grievances also affect many others who will never become radicalized extremists. While it is tempting for western governments to target CVE efforts on the basis of easily identifiable criteria, like religion or immigration status, this results in useless, discriminatory profiling and overlooks individuals like Anders Breivik, a Norwegian extremist who was motivated by an anti-multicultural and anti-Islam ideology to set off a bomb and shoot a children’s camp in Norway.

Similarly, attempts to find at-risk individuals by identifying behavioral markers of radicalization misunderstand the fact that the radicalization process manifests itself differently depending on the person. A recent FBI program that uses a computer game to teach teachers and peers to recognize and intervene in cases of youth radicalization has come under fire for promoting stereotypical signs of radicalization that inadvertently profile Muslims.

It is usually family and friends, who know the individual well, who are best able to recognize signs of radicalization. Relatives, however, may be afraid that reporting their child or friend to the authorities could create legal challenges, or they may actually support the radicalization process. Therefore, it is important to provide communities with access to social service-oriented resources, such as community leaders who are trained to recognize and respond to radicalization with culturally and locally-relevant anti-violence messages.

Finding these leaders is tough. Interveners must be able to walk a fine line between being close enough to a radicalized sub-culture to be considered credible by at-risk individuals, while still exercising the social and ideological chops to divert these individuals towards non-violence. Traditional leaders, such as religious scholars or social workers, are therefore not necessarily effective interveners. For example, Samir Khan’s parents invited notable Muslim scholars to intervene with their son, but these efforts did not stop Khan from joining al Qaeda because, for Khan, traditional religious leaders lacked credibility. The most effective interveners may actually be former members of terrorist organizations. Disillusioned returnees from ISIS, for example, have earned credibility through their experiences, and may be able to show potential recruits the holes in ISIS’s narrative. Additionally, coalitions of Muslim leaders are making admirable efforts to counter radical Islamic recruitment,

In a larger sense, CVE is also about addressing legitimate grievances that are leveraged by terrorist groups to promote recruitment. While there is always a moral argument to be made for non-violence, it is more difficult to placate frustrations in the face of widespread racism and intolerance. Instead of creating gimmicky messaging strategies on twitter or top-down CVE programs with little measurable impact, western governments should focus on addressing these broader challenges. By welcoming refugees and promoting and protecting minorities, western states present a more credible message than terrorists ever can: liberal societies, utilizing peaceful rule of law, are better at protecting and promoting minority interests than any terrorist organization can ever hope to be.


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