Just Security and the Project for the Study of the 21st Century (PS21) recently hosted an extremely interesting discussion between ex senior UN counter terrorism official Richard Barrett and Just Security’s Faiza Patel on Western efforts to counter violent extremism (often described as CVE). Moderated by Just Security’s Co-Editor-in-Chief Ryan Goodman, the wide-ranging conversation touched on the evolution of CVE approaches, the effectiveness of the programs, gender in CVE efforts, and how to build successful counternarratives to extremism.

Barrett is a former British diplomat and intelligence officer who headed the United Nations monitoring team covering al-Qaeda and the Taliban for nearly a decade. Patel is a founding editor of Just Security and Co-Director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

The full video and highlights from the conversation are below.

Responding to a question on the nature and structure of government attempts to counter violent extremism, Patel pointed out that there is a serious lack of empirical evidence backing many of the theories behind governments’ CVE initiatives:

Now the problem with [radicalization] theory is that I haven’t seen a single empirical study that backs it up. Pretty much every study that comes out on these issues says it’s a very individual process. In fact I don’t even know if I can call it a process.

[S]ince people have started pushing back on the theory of radicalization, the response has been “yeah, they’re not predictors, but they’re factors.” Now, sure, you can say that, but if you’re using exactly the same kinds of things to target programmes, you’re treating these things as predictors, as reasons why you should be looking at particular individuals in order to provide some kind of programming, whether that programming be a programme like the NYPD’s Muslim Surveillance Programme or what’s now being put forward as a softer, kinder guise of countering violent extremism, driven by communities.

Barrett emphasized the need to provide constructive alternatives for people to direct their energies toward that are today being funneled into terrorism and extremist movements:

[P]olicymakers are not just looking at how to prevent people becoming radicalized to the point of going to join the Islamic State, but they should also be looking, if they are not looking, at offering alternative channels for people who have that energy and determination that takes them out of their family and into the unknown of the Islamic State. Finding ways that they could expend those energies in a much more positive way to help society. And I think that those two objectives are important objectives for any politician and they have to be considered in all sorts of policies, which can fall very broadly into a framework of a general social policy, rather than a specific countering violent extremism policy. But people like to think that they are engaged in countering terrorism. It’s a bit attractive than saying I’m engaged in social work. I would say that social work is probably more valuable.

Patel responded by pointing out that, while social services programs are one type of CVE program, there is another kind that raises larger concerns about government “interventions” in Muslim communities inside the United States and United Kingdom:

I think [the programs] that are most problematic, and those are the ones that we’ve seen emerging in the United States, imported from Great Britain, and I think these are a really bad idea. And these are programs that say we are going to identify vulnerable Muslim youth and then we are going to conduct interventions. Now I have two fundamental problems with that. One is, how are you going to identify vulnerable youth? This is a very, very risky and open-ended proposition, particularly when you are looking at minority populations, who are not well understood by law enforcement, much less by public school teachers in Minnesota. So, you have that one set of issues.

And my second problem with that is, how is that intervention, whatever it might be, and whatever it might be based on, going to dovetail with law enforcement efforts. Because, if I’m a school teacher and I’m worried that some kid, some Somali kid in my class, is alienated or seems troubled, what am I going to do? Am I going to give that child counselling? Am I going to report him or her to the principal? Am I going to go to the police officer whose been designated as my CVE liaison and put this kid on a list, possibly for no good reason? And one of the problems with these programmes is that that relationship, between social workers and law enforcement, is a black box for us. And we don’t know what the criteria are, which is going to take a kid who is troubled in high school and someone wants to give him or her counselling to getting put on some kind of a watch list. It’s a very risky proposition.

Later in the conversation, in response to a question about what makes for a successful counternarrative to violent extremists, Patel pointed out that the best counternarratives aren’t deliberate ones:

[T]here is this false idea that there is this moderate Muslim group out there who is going to be able to put forward messages that are going to be appealing to the people who are going to join ISIS. And I think we really have to get away from that because it’s not my responsibility to put those messages out. I’m not an effective messenger. It’s just when we start talking about that, we put this kind of blame and responsibility on people which really doesn’t belong there. So let me start with that. …

I think that the other thing that I’ve noticed is that the most effective counter narratives are those that aren’t even meant to be counter narratives. Those are the things that are organic that sort of come from the community and that are really people’s individual responses to what they see as the distortion of their religion. And something that has really ill effects, not just on the individuals who are going overseas to fight with these people but also to the broader Muslim communities in the United States who feel the aftershocks of this.

Finally, Barrett said that the ever changing nature of violent extremism around the globe makes measuring the effectiveness of CVE programs incredibly difficult:

[M]easuring effectiveness is a real, real problem. Because the instance of terrorism is so small, so to measure well what happened last year, what happens this year is not a really good way of doing it because you can’t really relate that back to any of the actions that you have taken.

A full transcript is available here.