A little noticed provision in the annual defense policy bill for 2018 required President Donald Trump to submit to Congress a “comprehensive interagency national strategy for countering violent extremism,” in June. This call for a first ever-comprehensive U.S. strategy for countering violent extremism (CVE), which would presumably have to be reconciled with the just-released national counterterrorism framework (which eschews the term CVE, preferring instead to speak about “terrorism prevention”), could help policymakers benefit from many of the lessons learned in the CVE field over the past few years, particularly given the rapid growth of programs since 2015.
Now, we’re months after the deadline. And, while there are rumors that a draft strategy exists, there is no indication when it might be submitted to Congress. The good news is that this delay may allow the drafters to benefit from some of the analysis and recommendations in the Prevention Project’s and RUSI’s recently published report on the global perspective on the same topic, which we refer to as preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE).
The report is driven by the recognition that, more than 17 years after the 9/11 attacks, the terrorism threat is both more global and local than ever and that military and security-focused operations in isolation do not end terrorist movements. Governments cannot prevent radicalization and recruitment or build community resilience to violent extremism on their own. They need to work in partnership with non-governmental and local actors. The report offers a critical appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of the P/CVE agenda and the comparative advantages of the various government and non-governmental, national and local, security and non-security stakeholders around the globe that are increasingly involved in this “whole of society” approach to the challenge of violent extremism.
There has been notable progress on a number of fronts. The United Nations’ normative and programmatic role has expanded in recent years. This is despite lingering (and in some cases fundamental) differences among Member States as to the scope and relevance of the P/CVE agenda. U.N. engagement has generated a steady increase in the number of countries – now more than 30 – developing P/CVE national action plans (NAPs) inspired by the previous U.N. secretary-general’s Plan of Action on Preventing Violent Extremism launched in December 2015. These NAPs, however, far too often (as appears to be the case in Washington too) fail to emerge from meaningful consultations with civil society, if they even take place at all, and other local actors and struggle with implementation.
The number of P/CVE initiatives and networks, often led by local, civil society actors or municipalities, has grown. Our ongoing mapping exercise has identified more than 1,400 such programs from open-source data, with a growing number focused on supporting youth-, women-, or other civil society-led initiatives in some 100 countries.
This increased programmatic support is tied to two positive trends. Firstly, a growing awareness of policymakers and practitioners that local actors, especially civil society organizations, have comparative advantages when it comes to P/CVE, and, second, the growing body of increasingly contextualized and conflict-sensitive research on the drivers of violent extremism. This latter trend has also started to debunk a number of stereotypes regarding the role of youth, religious actors and women in P/CVE. Sadly, many (unproven) assumptions still prevail.
The increased involvement of international development institutions such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation (OECD), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and the World Bank (WB) in the P/CVE field is also noteworthy. Though previously reluctant to engage in what was perceived as a politicized and securitized agenda, development actors are more increasingly deploying development tools and resources to help them address violent extremism. This is in recognition of the nexus between security and development. For example, issues, such as inequality before the law, economic and political exclusion and marginalization, governance and trust deficits, corruption, and uneven resource allocation and service provision, can lead to rising levels of violent extremism, which in turn can undermine development gains.
Another area of progress involves the increase in the number of multi-agency and multi-disciplinary P/CVE programs focused on “at-risk” individuals. These pre-criminal efforts, often involve diverse representatives including local agencies, such as education, health, social welfare, youth, and, if suitable, police and corrections. These are increasingly common in Australia, Canada and Western Europe, but are also starting to emerge in less-developed settings as well, such as Bangladesh, Kosovo and Macedonia.
The prevalence of these practical initiatives reflects a growing awareness that programs concentrated on early interventions, targeting “at-risk” individuals who have yet to commit to violence, can, if sensitively designed to mitigate against stigmatization and discrimination, fill a critical gap between security-focused counterterrorism measures and broader-based P/CVE efforts that focus on building social cohesion and resilience at the community level.
The increase in these and other P/CVE programs worldwide also reflects a rise in funding levels. The most recent State Department and USAID budget attributes some $230 million (the highest U.S. figure to date) to international P/CVE efforts – a marked contrast to the absence of any such funds for domestic P/CVE efforts in the Trump administration budget. Not only is more money being made available internationally, but donors are doing a better job of ensuring that the funds are used to support the efforts of local actors on the front-lines. Donors are better at recognizing the need to look beyond “usual suspect” recipients with the most visibility and traditional power, such as large international NGOs, to smaller, community-based organizations and actors representing key sectors of society. In doing so, they are increasingly relying on “small-grants” mechanisms to get money into the hands of the often under-capacitated grassroots actors.
The positive P/CVE trends are noteworthy, particularly given the wide array of stakeholders now involved in P/CVE and the increasing polarization and populism in parts of the world, which are or could be driving violent extremism. However, significant obstacles to achieving broader and more sustainable progress on the global agenda persist.
First, and perhaps most fundamentally, too many governments fail (or are unwilling) to appreciate the need to align counterterrorism and P/CVE policies, programs and practice. This means recognizing that repressive, short-term counterterrorism measures can generate grievances that radicalize and recruit young people to violence. One cannot voice support for a “whole of society” approach to P/CVE while at the same time limiting the legal and political space for civil society groups, which is, regrettably, a growing trend worldwide.
Secondly, definitional and scope issues continue to constrain the P/CVE space. Stakeholders cycle among various CVE, PVE, and P/CVE labels when they may not have analogous definitions or interpretations, creating confusion. There is also the preference of some governments, including the United Kingdom and a number of countries in in the Middle East, North Africa, Gulf, and Central Asia, to focus on extremism with no direct link to violence. This creates the potential for abuse as some governments use P/CVE to target political opponents.
Analysis of the effectiveness of P/CVE programming continues to be constrained by these porous conceptual boundaries and a lack of coherence in the field. This includes, for example, whether interventions should prioritize behavioral or cognitive change, or both. P/CVE stakeholders can lack a shared understanding of how violent extremism operates and what preventive programming is trying to achieve. Ambiguity translates into problems of defining “success” and identifying “end target groups.”
Beyond the issues around terminology, there is the prevailing challenge of aligning the framing of a “global” agenda” with the priorities and concerns of the local stakeholders critical to sustaining it. Among the lessons learned over the past few years are that many (but not all) efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism work best when they are led by local actors, which are often better positioned to understand the local context and the relevant community members. However, the willingness of these local actors to engage in this space is often linked to how the issue is framed and what terminology is being used. Terms like “violent extremism” and P/CVE – while prevalent in inter- and intra-governmental discussions — can alienate communities through the perception that the beneficiaries are a threat and are therefore stigmatized by P/CVE programs.
Policies and programs aimed at P/CVE at the local level need to be framed around issues and discourses that resonate with local understandings and concerns and not those of national governments or international donors. Appreciation of local priorities and concerns requires governments to consult with and listen to local communities, including historically marginalized ones, before elaborating policies and programs that involve them. Canada is a standout in this area, but, unfortunately, it is the exception rather than the rule.
An interlinked challenge is that despite the increasingly acknowledged comparative advantages of municipal and other sub-national authorities, they are rarely consulted when national governments are developing and implementing NAPs, including in the U.S., even when many of the traditional prevention capacities (such as health, education, social welfare) are concentrated at the sub-national level. Further, too few countries have elaborated a clear division of labor and facilitated sustained information sharing, including relevant research, and other cooperation between the different levels of relevant actors within their territories. This inhibits the local implementation of P/CVE good practice where it matters most, at the local level.
Too often, it appears that P/CVE interventions are defined by political and other considerations, leading to a preference for short-term, risk-averting measures, and based on assumptions rather than evidence. Narratives and strategic communications to counter the Islamic State’s sophisticated media and dissemination capabilities are prominent examples. Although these P/CVE programs are popular, there is little proof that they are effective in isolation in reducing the threat and the evidence base to support such interventions is thin at best. The global popularity of counter-narratives is in part driven by the fact that they allow the focus to remain on the behavior and ideology (often coming from outside of a country or society) of the terrorists and not on how governments treat their citizens and the structural grievances in a society.
Unfortunately, this tendency is exacerbated by the current role of the United States, though this falls outside the scope of the report. Although it continues to fund P/CVE programs overseas, the U.S. seems to have downgraded its commitment to this effort, particularly at the policy level, with the tendency of the White House to cozy up to authoritarian regimes, ignore human rights abuses committed in the name of counterterrorism, and stoke Islamophobia. While the number of P/CVE programs will continue to grow; it will do so in a policy environment that is likely to become less rather than more hospitable to the notion that how governments treat their citizens, particularly the ones that have been historically marginalized, matters if one hopes to make a serious dent on the levels of violent extremism around the globe.
An additional challenge is that despite increasing, contextualized research on the factors contributing to violent extremism, significant gaps remain. This includes understanding why some areas, populations and or communities are more or less vulnerable than others to violent extremism, and which community- or individual-focused P/CVE interventions are most likely to succeed. There is currently little consensus regarding the effectiveness and impact of preventive programming, largely due to problems regarding the different definitions of PVE and CVE, data collection, data quality and data shortages. Consequently, the default seems to be to frame interventions on assumption-based discourse that seems intuitive – leading to a surplus of gender-centric initiatives, counter-narrative campaigns, and the use of faith actors and religions institutions, for example – but, which require further testing.
An Agenda Worth Preserving and Strengthening
The state of the global P/CVE agenda is mixed, yet the reality remains that violent extremism persists as a multi-faceted, dynamic threat. Reducing it requires national leadership and multi-stakeholder and multi-disciplinary solutions, with local actors at the center of the action, alongside an alignment of counterterrorism and P/CVE strategies so they reinforce rather than undermine each other.
More innovative, locally owned, and evidence-led responses – as opposed to assumption- or politically driven ones – across contextually distinct environments are needed. Collaboration and cooperation between national and local actors needs strengthening. P/CVE interventions in specific geographic contexts need to be synchronized more effectively while encouraging co-creation between different actors to avoid the current duplication of efforts and to share lessons learned. Similarly, it is incumbent to recognize that P/CVE, even if the field is strengthened, will always have its limitations. We need to more accurately diagnose when it is relevant and where P/CVE can add value. Understanding the current “state-of-play,” including a critical appraisal of the field’s strengths and weaknesses and the comparative advantages of different stakeholders, particularly local actors, is an essential element to designing effective P/CVE policies and programs and to enhancing the impact of P/CVE practice.