The field of countering violent extremism (CVE) has been the subject of much criticism – that it is, for example, conceptually murky, applied discriminatorily, and showing limited evidence of effectiveness. Yet its positive impact continues to be felt in virtually every region of the world. This even includes Central Asia, a surprising phenomenon considering the predictions a decade ago. In fact, in many respects, Central Asia offers a snapshot of the state of the global CVE agenda – in terms of both progress and the challenges that remain.
If one had polled CVE experts when the agenda started to gain traction in the late 2000s and asked them which part of the world could stand to benefit most but would be least receptive, Central Asia would have been at the top of the list. They would have cited the region’s autocratic leaders, heavy-handed security-forces, largely non-existent independent civil society, limited political freedoms, and tendency to use anti-terrorism laws to crack down on political dissent.
Few would have thought that a framework could gain traction in a region like Central Asia by emphasizing the need for a “whole of society” approach. Such a methodology goes beyond traditional national security and other government actors to address the drivers — not just the manifestations — of extremist violence, including through locally-led preventative measures. Yet the agenda has begun to gain some traction in the region, which continues to grapple with the implications of having had more that 4,000 of its citizens travel to support Jihadist groups. That might indicate the global, practical relevance of CVE, as well as a recognition of the limitations of a state-driven, security-dominated approach to managing the challenges presented by violent extremism.
Multi-disciplinary rehabilitation and reintegration
Surprisingly, a region that has traditionally favored a security-dominated, repressive approach to terrorism has become a pioneer in applying two core elements of CVE. The first involves developing programs to rehabilitate and reintegrate foreign fighters or former members of terrorist organizations leaving prison and those who may not enter the prison system but who may have had some contact with violent extremists. That includes women and children who returned from territory held by the so-called Islamic State.
The second core element the region has started to take on board is ensuring that these programs are multi-dimensional. That is, they include educational and vocational training, counseling, employment opportunities, and religious or ideological engagement to adequately address the diverse needs and risks that these individuals can present. That kind of approach requires the involvement of non-law enforcement professionals such as psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, teachers, religious mentors and other guides, teachers, and family members.
These two elements are reflected in the recommendations, guidance, and best practices elaborated by a variety of international and regional bodies, from the United Nations, to the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), to the OSCE, to the EU. Yet, until recently, there have been few (if any) examples of how these elements have been put into practice outside of a Western context, thus perhaps calling into question their global applicability.
Central Asia is now offering one such example. Much has been written on how the region is “leading the way” for other regions in implementing multi-dimensional rehabilitation of violent extremists who are citizens repatriated from Iraq and Syria. This is perhaps best exemplified by the 17 regional rehabilitation and reintegration centers that have been opened across Kazakhstan to manage the more than 500 women and children the government has so far repatriated. Each center is “staffed with psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, theologians, lawyers, nurses, and teachers, [who are] working together to help the children, mothers, and their extended families and host communities.”
It remains to be seen whether these centers have or can be provided the capacities, including the ability to deliver trauma-informed psycho-social care and respect for human rights, that are required to assess and address the needs and risks of the women and children they are responsible for and to sustain the necessary care over the long-term. Further, as with so much of the CVE field, measuring success may present challenges.
Nevertheless, with so many countries, particularly in the West, lacking the political will to take responsibility for their citizens languishing in Al-Hol or other camps in Syria, and no other country having developed similar centers dedicated to this cohort of individuals, the CVE community of practice will be looking to draw lessons from the courageous example being set by the Kazakhs.
Cities as key CVE actors
Another fundamental CVE principle centers on the important role that cities and other sub-national jurisdictions play in an area that has traditionally been dominated by security and other national-level institutions. Cities have numerous comparative advantages in the CVE space. They are closer to and often better understand the relevant groups and individuals. And they are generally more practical and nimble — and less risk adverse — than their national counterparts. They also often are better placed to identify and steer individuals away from extremist and other forms of violence, and to tackle social polarization to prevent extremism from taking root.
Yet, despite these comparative advantages, many national governments remain reluctant to consider cities or other local jurisdictions as partners in addressing violent extremism or to relinquish control or resources over what they perceive to be a national security concern. And local government and civic groups are often excluded from policy and programming discussions about P/CVE. This is particularly so in regions such as Central Asia, where authoritarianism, centralized governance, and a security-dominated approach to terrorism have been the norm, and municipal-level capacities remain under-developed.
This is slowly beginning to change in the region, however. For example, the city of Isfara in Tajikistan has established a cross-sectoral working group that is conducting public-awareness campaigns at the local level focused on reducing domestic and other forms of violence, strengthening community-police relations in an environment where trust levels are low, and promoting peaceful ways to resolve conflict. The working group will soon lead an effort to map the drivers of extremist violence in local communities. The group will aim to draw attention not only to the individual-level issues that led community members to travel to Iraq and Syria, but also the underlying local grievances and conditions that provided a fertile ground for recruitment.
More broadly, cities in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, with encouragement from their national governments, are soon to join the Strong Cities Network (SCN). SCN is a network of mayors and local practitioners from some 130 cities around the globe that shares CVE experiences, expertise and the role that local actors can play. National governments from the region have also expressed an interested in participating in an ongoing GCTF initiative to strengthen cooperation between national and local actors in CVE. The initiative emphasizes the need to balance national leadership with local ownership.
The importance of context in research on local drivers of violent extremism
Another hallmark of the global CVE agenda has been the growing body of increasingly local and conflict-sensitive research on the drivers of violent extremism. Armed with this enhanced base of evidence, policymakers and program implementers should be in a better position to develop policies and programs to mitigate these drivers, and thus reduce the likelihood of individuals being recruited and radicalized to extremist violence. Different sub-regions, countries, and communities within Central Asia have been the focus of some of this research, and a growing number of international organizations and donors — the U.N., the EU, the United States, and Hedayah, for instance — are investing in these efforts.
As a result, a more nuanced understanding of the drivers is emerging. A group of Central Asia scholars has underscored that the drivers of violent extremism includes a multitude of specific factors, most of which are non-theological. Rather, the drivers are related to “conflicts between political factions about inclusion, inequality, and political economies perceived as unjust. Most importantly, there is a vast amount of variation from one alleged extremist group to another.”
Interviews with demobilized foreign terrorist fighters from Central Asia living in third countries as well as with some from Central Asia who are still in Syria have demonstrated that “personal networks, perceived injustice or discrimination as political grievances and some prior exposure to criminal or family violence are supported as primary drivers to mobilization.” In fact, according to researcher Noah Tucker at George Washington University, many of those interviewed were not responding to or influenced by the ideology of any specific group when they initially mobilized.
This contrasts sharply with what has been the prevailing, virtually monolithic narrative espoused by governments in the region. They point the finger at foreign religious practices (read Saudi-trained imams who then return to the region to practice), or “radical Islam,” “destructive religious movements,” inaccurate interpretations of Islam, or the “Islamization” of certain communities. This occurs despite evidence such as the above that indicates many Central Asians who traveled to Syria were exposed to violent religious ideology and radicalized after they arrived in the conflict zone.
Despite the above areas of promise, there are a number of barriers to further progress, and they are not necessarily unique to Central Asia. Two merit particular attention: the over-emphasis on (often abusive) legal- or law-enforcement-focused remedies for violent extremism and the disconnect between research on violent extremism and the focus of government-led CVE policies and programs, as illustrated above.
Over-emphasizing legal- and law-enforcement remedies
The first, and perhaps most fundamental, challenge is the continued over-emphasis on legal and law-enforcement measures to counter violent extremism and the failure to fully appreciate how repressive steps taken in the name of security can undermine efforts to prevent such violence, including by generating or exacerbating grievances that radicalize and recruit young people to violence.
The relevant legal frameworks in the region, which rely heavily on Russia’s approach, are a case in point. To cite one example, one expert ran a plagiarism-detection tool on extremism legislation in Russia and Kyrgyzstan and found the latter was 79 percent copied directly from the former. Considering where Central Asia gets its legal inspiration, it should come as little surprise that the definitions those governments use in their criminal codes remain overly broad and unclear, with countries criminalizing the vague and subjective concept of “extremism” without any links to violence. According to a recent EU-sponsored report, the “lack of clarity about what is and is not extremism has resulted in uneven and harsh application of these laws, with lengthy prison sentences for those convicted of no more than liking an extremist Facebook post.”
Equally concerning, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights while Countering Terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin (full disclosure: she serves as a Just Security executive editor) has noted how legal provisions in certain countries in Central Asia that criminalize incitement to “social, national, ethnic, racial, class or religious hatred” are often used against civil society activists, and against religious organizations specifically.” This enables governments to “target civil society groups and activists with judicial harassment and obstruct them from carrying out their work.”
For example, she has pointed to how “non-violent criticism of State policies can effectively constitute a criminal offence, as the provisions on extremism and terrorism have been applied to criminalize the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression and of thought.” Further, she has found evidence that these laws are being used “against members of religious minorities, civil society, human rights defenders and aimed at political opposition as well as specific political parties.”
Such a repressive approach is often framed as part of a comprehensive solution to address violent extremism, and it often includes heavy-handed measures to take down extremist websites and restrict access to entire platforms in order to suppress extremist material. Needless to say, this is not conducive to marshaling, let alone sustaining, a “whole of society” CVE effort. It can undermine attempts by governments to build trust and social cohesion in the very communities where involvement and partnership is critical to effective prevention and rehabilitation and reintegration efforts. Further, such an approach would seem to risk exacerbating some of the very grievances that the research shows are key drivers of radicalization to violence in the region.
Over-emphasizing the role of religion and ideology
The second, and related, key challenge for effective CVE in Central Asia, as in some other regions, is that religion plays a much greater role in the policy and programmatic response to violent extremism than the research (including that referenced above) indicates it should. This is a manifestation of an all-too-familiar global trend, in which CVE policies and programs are too often driven by political factors and other considerations rather than data and other evidence.
As noted above, despite the mounting research pointing increasingly to non-theological drivers, government-driven CVE approaches continue to emphasize religion, often part of a wider pattern of situating radicalization within certain elements of society, but delinked from the state. As such, rather than looking, at least in part, at their treatment of certain communities or groups, governments too often see threat through the lens of religion.
They thus point to the need to eradicate “destructive religious movements” that have taken root in certain communities, as well as to correct “inaccurate” interpretations of Islam, to prioritize government-driven counter-narratives that explain the “correct” approaches to religion, to block extremist websites (typically linked to a religious group), and to train imams on how to use Internet. As a result, ministries and committees on religious affairs seem to be the primary non-law enforcement actor when it comes to CVE.
This is not to say that governments in the region are ignoring the need to address the feelings of marginalization, exclusion, injustice, and unmet expectations, particularly among young people, that are proving to be the key mobilizers to extremist violence. One such initiative is the U.N. Development Programme’s $6.15 million regional project that was launched in 2018 to help stop violent extremism among youth in Central Asia. It focuses on addressing youth unemployment and a lack of involvement in local decision-making, both of which are drivers of violent extremism.
These programs in Central Asia that are more consistent with a locally-led, “whole of society” response to the challenge of violent extremism – and this includes Kazakhstan’s potentially ground-breaking effort to rehabilitate and reintegrate more than 600 of its citizens who have returned from Syria – are a clear sign that the global CVE agenda is having an impact on the region. However, their effect will be diminished as long as overly broad and heavy-handed approaches continue unabated.