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Preventing Violent Extremism in 2017 and Beyond: Fading or Renewed UN and U.S. Leadership?

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The current UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, and U.S. President Barack Obama will both leave office in January 2017, with at least one common legacy: a more comprehensive framework for addressing the threats of terrorism and violent extremism. Both threats became more global and localized during their tenure, forcing leaders to increasingly recognize that military responses would not be sufficient. While progress has been made and more stakeholders have been brought into the tent, much more can be done to ensure this more comprehensive approach endures and delivers sustainable results.

The next UN Secretary-General and U.S. President will be confronted with a range of international crises that will require immediate attention, and there may be a reluctance to prioritize an issue so closely associated with their predecessors. But the problem of violent extremism will continue to demand concerted attention and a multi-dimensional response in the face of continuing attacks and new challenges. 

A February 2015 White House Summit on countering violent extremism, and a series of international regional summits that followed, shined a spotlight on how governments cannot tackle the problem alone. Communities themselves—families, friends, cultural and faith leaders, teachers, health professionals, social service workers, and neighbors—are critical partners in preventing people from being radicalized to violence. The Secretary-General’s 2016 Plan of Action on Preventing Violent Extremism reinforced this view, calling on all governments to pursue this “whole of society” approach and elaborated some 70 recommendations for different government and non-government stakeholders to follow.

In large part because of this political leadership, discussions on how to reduce terrorist threats are much different than they were when Ban and Obama assumed office: They are no longer limited to military, law enforcement, and intelligence solutions.  They are no longer focused solely on how to investigate, prosecute, incarcerate, and kill or capture suspected terrorists because treating only the symptoms has proved ineffective. Rather, they are increasingly looking to address the underlying conditions that can give rise to terrorism and violent extremism in the first place. These include the alienation and marginalization of so many young people around the globe, conditions which have contributed to attacks in places as diverse as Belgium, France, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, and Tunisia. What had traditionally been a government and security-dominated conversation now includes a broader range of non-governmental partners, such as those with expertise in education, development, media and strategic communications, gender, and peacebuilding, for example.

There is also more attention to the need for a more strategic preventative approach, encapsulated by efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism (P/CVE), but there is much less action here. On the positive side, an increasing number of national and regional P/CVE strategies highlight a growing convergence among practitioners and policy makers in recognizing that local partners, communities, and civil society are critical partners in addressing the underlying drivers of violent extremism and crafting more effective and sustainable responses. This convergence in strategic thinking around P/CVE, as well as the expanding number of local authority or civil society-led initiatives aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism, is promising.  However, a number of resource, coordination, political, and strategic challenges to operationalizing and sustaining the agenda remain, and will need to be overcome if the rhetoric around P/CVE is to be translated into action and, ultimately, have an impact.

 The challenges to effective implementation that need to be overcome include:

  1. Lack of resources: The lion’s share of financial support is still channeled to the military and intelligence, while there is ad hoc and insufficient funding and other resources from the public and private sectors to support community-level P/CVE programs;
  2. What works and what does not?: A lack of knowledge of ‘what works’ to prevent and counter violent extremism is a fundamental problem, leading not only to underfunding, but also inefficient use of finite resources, and potentially counter-productive interventions to address violent extremism built on received wisdom and politicized assumptions;
  3. Too many stakeholders, too little coordination: Insufficient coordination and collaboration among the diversity of key stakeholders that includes both traditional security and development actors, national and municipal government officials, as well as civil society, whether small community-based organizations or large international NGOs;
  4. An unmet need for innovation and experimentation: A reluctance among donors to embrace the kind of innovation and experimentation needed to support locally owned solutions;
  5. Where’s the trust?: Lingering trust deficits between governments, in particular the police, and the relevant communities, which can generate grievances that can make individuals more susceptible to violent extremism recruitment;
  6. Limited vertical and horizontal cooperation: Continued insistence of too many national governments to view national security issues like violent extremism – which require locally driven solutions – as being the exclusive policy domain of the capital or even single ministries (e.g., Interior);
  7. It’s not just the message: There is a tendency to place a disproportionate emphasis within the wider P/CVE world on efforts to counter the message being promoted by ISIL and other violent extremist groups, without a commensurate focus on changing behaviors and structural conditions, or offering alternative courses of action for those who are being recruited or mobilized;
  8. An international architecture that’s fit for purpose: The international architecture for addressing terrorism and violent extremism continues to be driven by the interests and needs of national governments and has yet to heed calls to be more inclusive of civil society and other sub-national actors. These stakeholders are the ones most likely to notice the early signs of radicalization and most effective in steering an individual away from violence, including by developing programs that offer alternatives to alienated youth, for example;
  9. The consequences of “zero tolerance”: The public continues to demand a “zero tolerance” approach to terrorism that emphasizes the arrest, prosecution, incarceration, and even killing of terrorists and their supporters. This can make it unpopular to argue for more P/CVE measures, e.g., rehabilitating and reintegrating violent extremist offenders or returning foreign terrorist fighters who are deemed not to pose a security threat, and resources. This is particularly shortsighted given that that many returnees cannot be prosecuted, whether due to lack of laws or evidence, or, if prosecuted and convicted, they may serve short prison sentences in environments that have been found to be incubators of radicalization.
  10. Balancing tactical, short-term CT priorities with strategic, medium to long-term P/CVE objectives: Too many national governments continue to double-down on authoritarian policies and practices (often with direct or indirect support from partners in the West). These are geared to protecting the regime and the status quo – and ultimately do more in the long run to create grievances that can spur radicalization to violence – rather than providing security and liberty to the people they are meant to serve.

Requirements: What’s needed to overcome these obstacles?

  1. A more dynamic and complete set of policies and programs, and involving a more diverse set of actors, in particular at the local level, to address the complex nature of the threat. National P/CVE strategies and action plans that embody the inclusive, “whole of society” approach championed during the White House CVE Summit and enshrined in the UN Plan of Action should be developed and properly resourced. These strategies must include a role for local authorities, as well as public health, mental health or social services providers; parents; researchers; teachers; businesses; or women, religious, and youth leaders.
  2. Leveraging (although not co-opting and certainly not securitizing) a wide array of efforts – including development, peacebuilding, good governance, gender equality and public health – that can contribute to P/CVE by helping address some of the grievances that fuel the spread of violent extremism and build resilience among core stakeholders.
  3. Recognizing that how governments treat their citizens really matters when it comes to preventing and countering violent extremism and terrorism. In many respects, the broader aim of strengthening the relationship between the state and its citizens, and building trust between all levels of government and local communities, lie at the heart of the P/CVE agenda. More urgent attention is therefore required to address the issues that damage the government-citizen relationship and are among the most prevalent drivers of violent extremism: marginalization and alienation, poor governance, and state-sponsored violence.
  4. Deepening investments in P/CVE from governments, the private sector, and private philanthropy. Despite the increasing rhetorical importance that leaders from around the globe now attach to P/CVE, specific programming and funding for these efforts continues to lag. The lion’s share of CT resources continues to be directed to support short-term, tactical military efforts.
  5. Making the strategic case for P/CVE: Political leaders and national security professionals must do more to refute the false dichotomy between “hard” and “soft” measures and to make the strategic case for a more nuanced approach to P/CVE to national parliaments and at all levels of society, as part of a spectrum of counterterrorism approaches that include a strong prevention element.

Seeing the differences that exist among the Member States around some aspects of Ban’s PVE Plan of Action – including disagreement over the drivers and definition of violent extremism— incoming Secretary-General António Guterres may think twice before investing his precious political capital in mobilizing the UN system to support its implementation. And, President-elect Trump may be inclined to show disdain towards an agenda that he and his national security team might view as “soft” as compared to his seemingly preferred strategy of “bombing the s—t” out of the terrorists and banning all Muslims from entering the United States.

However, an agenda that focuses attention on expanding the counterterrorism toolkit to include a strong prevention element aimed at addressing the grievances that can drive recruitment remains as important as ever, if not more so, given the potential fallout from military campaigns in cities such as Mosul and Raqqa.

The new leadership in New York and Washington – when deciding on their respective priorities – will fail if they do not pay attention to the evolution of the threat and the need for a sustained, strategic response. They will also miss the mark if they do not prioritize the implementation of the P/CVE agenda that their predecessors set in motion to help make communities around the world more resilient to the siren call of violent extremism, and in doing so, making the world safer.

Image: The U.S. State Department

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About the Authors

Founder and Executive Director of the Global Center on Cooperative Security

Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings, Director of “The Prevention Project: Organizing Against Violent Extremism” in Washington, D.C.