Despite colossal investments in the prodigious security field known as Counterterrorism (CT) and its sprawling junior partner, known either as Preventing or Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE), extremism appears to be spreading across the globe. Violent extremist organizations (VEOs) alarmingly are ascendant, escalating their presence and capacity to destabilize and command influence in regions such as West Africa and elsewhere. In this context, efforts to stop terrorism don’t seem to be working very well.
I’ve been thinking about this fact since the violent Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. It inspired me to revisit a stirring assessment of the P/CVE field released last year. Among the crucial issues that the report mentions is how today’s “fastest accelerating terrorism threat” comes from the far-right (a fact that the Jan. 6 protagonists enacted before the entire world). Hard to find on the web, published in tiny type and chock full of lawyerly prose, the powerful “Human rights impact of policies and practices aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism” has not attracted widespread attention outside a field of experts and United Nations stakeholders.
But it should: The analysis is sharp, impassioned, and timely. The report was a submission to the U.N. Human Rights Council by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, who has the long title of: Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism. (Ní Aoláin is also an executive editor at Just Security and wrote a recent contribution.)
What follows are key points taken from the report, followed by my thoughts about their relevance for 2021.
P/CVE is weighty and influential. Most of Ní Aoláin’s points are directly relevant to those engaged in fields such as diplomacy, peacebuilding and virtually every sector of what is known as international development, in addition to CT. Let’s take a look:
- The meaning of violent extremism is vague. Even after many years of concerted effort, it remains unclear exactly what P/CVE should prevent or counter. That’s because the definition for VE “remains opaque and deeply contested” and “without a clear notion of the phenomenon” being addressed. Sometimes VE is switched out and replaced by “terrorism,” which similarly features vague definitions. This benefits States seeking to crack down on human rights and civil society activists “under the guise of countering extremism.”
- Evidence of success is thin. Ní Aoláin found “little or no robust monitoring or evaluation” documentation. Yet the debate on P/CVE impact routinely is dominated either by: (a) “Private actors and consultants who are self-proclaimed experts” or (b) those “influenced by government policies” that pursue “scientifically disproven” issues. She also states that “there is no robust data” to establish that one particularly popular set of P/CVE initiatives – creating counter-narratives to those marketed by VEOs – is successful. Instead, she suggests that these initiatives don’t fool anyone.
- Policymakers know about – and yet largely ignore – the significance of bad governance. Ní Aoláin is emphatic about this point. After stating that “Study after study reveals that the experience or perception of abuse and violations by government authorities” directly contribute to levels of vulnerability to violent extremism, she spotlights policymakers who fail to “take into account the decades of knowledge and data on local political grievances, underlying drivers of conflict, long-term structural instability and political tensions over resource allocation.” Given what’s at stake and how well-known these failings are, she considers this determined oversight “unforgivable.” In short: reckless, violent governance fuels VE. But most of the time, it’s not addressed.
- Some governments use VE threats as an excuse to quash peaceful dissent. Ní Aoláin is “profoundly concerned” about how governments transform perceived terrorist threats into a rationale for the suppression of speech and the active repression of their citizens. Anticipating terrorist acts has opened the door to government crackdowns that dodge the “legitimately protected rights” of citizens. The focus on thoughts and beliefs deemed “extremist” and language deemed “hate speech” enables governments to silence those in the minority, including religious groups. P/CVE also “increasingly functions as a device to silence, limit the scope of and target civil society actors.” Furthermore, the heavy focus on violent Islamist extremist groups (like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram) has often overshadowed the actions of far right-wing VEOs. Recent events in the United States certainly suggest this is true here.
- P/CVE routinely co-opts international development, peacebuilding, and foreign aid. The result is “profoundly compromising” of any attempt by development and humanitarian actors to be impartial or neutral. P/CVE thus is “fundamentally at odds with principled humanitarian action.” However, P/CVE is where the money is, Ní Aoláin Accepting P/CVE funding can shift an agency’s focus from a needs-based approach to predetermined “at-risk” groups. This distorts relations with aid recipients and can convert agencies into “the subcontractors of government security agendas.”
- It gets worse: taking P/CVE funds may lead agencies to hide their sources of funding and become “deliberately dishonest” with recipients. For example, initiatives promoting themselves as empowerment or skills training for women may hide the underlying security rationales that underpin their work. Accepting P/CVE funds can inadvertently promote exclusion, securitization, and stigmatization, writes Ní Aoláin. All of this can create significant credibility challenges for development, humanitarian, and peacebuilding actors.
Two elements of Ní Aoláin’s scope, both also highlighted in my report, “Youth and the Field of Countering Violent Extremism,” call for further comment. First, Ní Aoláin’s report connects gender mainly to women. This covers only part of the landscape. Expanding gender horizons is necessary to deal with VEOs, which regularly display gender expertise in their recruitment of both male and female youth. Unfortunately, the literature on gender concerning VEOs and P/CVE “is surprisingly weak overall, particularly on critical issues such as emasculation, alienation, humiliation, the prospect of failed adulthood for female and male youth, and issues of masculinity more generally,” as I write in my report.
Second, youth are not highlighted in Ní Aoláin’s report. This, too, is unfortunate, for the simple reason that “the overwhelming majority of people who become violent extremists are youth.” Still, P/CVE is challenged to identify “the fraction of youth populations most likely to enter” a VE group and undercut that option.
Where do we go from here? Ní Aoláin proposes some excellent next steps. They include the need for national security practice to comply with international human rights law, and for States to “engage with the broader conditions conducive to violent extremism and terrorism.” She lists four priorities to address: weak governance, human rights violations, poor rule of law, and corruption. These admittedly can be exceptionally hard to address (States normally resist doing so). Ní Aoláin insists, however, that “only sustained engagement with the complexity of those conditions will fruitfully address violent extremism.”
She’s right. It will be impossible to stop VEOs from recruiting and carrying out attacks if root causes – largely tied to repressive, corrupt national governments – aren’t addressed. Although governments naturally may resist such efforts, there is a way ahead. When two important correlations are woven together – the direct relationship between nations with “youth bulge” populations and State repression, and the connection between State repression and increased violent extremism – the following conclusion comes into view: State force is self-destructive.
Can we sell this? Can we convince politicians and military leaders that violence backfires and good governance works? Given that the security-driven status quo in CT and P/CVE hasn’t worked well, it’s worth a shot. Let’s give this approach a chance, keeping in mind that being proactive matters, just as the bipartisan U.S. Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States (convened by the U.S. Institute of Peace) asserts.
Accordingly, diplomats, donors, program implementers, civil society, and others must support badly needed reforms. To do this effectively, the broad scope of governance must be examined and addressed. Sustained, determined, and coordinated efforts to move national governments away from corruption and violence and toward transparency, respect for citizen rights, accountability and service provision, all with an eye on vulnerable young people, is vital. It’s highly unlikely that the VE threat will diminish until this takes place.