From countering to preventing violent extremism

Fighting extremism isn’t just about military and intelligence solutions. What strategies should governments and civil society groups pursue?

Luke Waggoner Geoffrey Macdonald
22 November 2016

Bangladeshi students and teachers protest against terrorism in 2016. (AP/Press Association)

Bangladeshi students and teachers protest against terrorism in 2016. (AP/Press Association)Countering violent extremism (CVE)—which aims to hinder the recruitment efforts of violent extremists as well as address the conditions that facilitate radicalization—has become an umbrella term encompassing disparate non-coercive responses to terrorism and other forms of ideological violence. This has led many to lament the conceptual confusion of CVE as a field of practice and theory. Certainly, the boundaries between CVE and peacebuilding, international development, or democracy promotion are blurry. However, the nascent effort to introduce the terminology of “preventing violent extremism” (PVE) into the field both clarifies and illuminates the unique role that democracy, rights, and governance (DRG) programs and activities play in impeding the growth of violent ideologies.

The global policy response to terrorism has evolved significantly in both substance and emphasis over the last 15 years. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, governments around the world employed a “kinetic” response to terrorism focused on the military and intelligence communities killing and capturing terrorists. During the Iraq War, the U.S. embraced a more comprehensive response to terrorism that sought to win “hearts and minds” in conjunction with traditional military tactics, an approach that came to be known as counter-insurgency (COIN). Once combating violent political mobilization became a policy priority of the U.S. government, the State Department and Agency for International Development (USAID) led efforts to reframe conventional development goals such as poverty alleviation as components of effective counterterrorism.

As part of a new holistic approach to combating terrorism, the U.S. government deployed counter-messaging and rehabilitation programs, and sought to address the “push factors” of extremism, such as unresponsive and alienating governance. Yet this broader approach, which eventually became known as CVE, obscures important programmatic distinctions. Promoting alternative narratives to terrorist recruitment efforts or re-socializing former terrorists are truly attempts to “counter” violent extremism, whereas promoting democratic institutions and a diverse civil society do not counter existing extremists, but seek to prevent their emergence in the first place. Building the capacity of pro-democracy civil society groups enhances broader awareness of nonviolent democratic norms. 

While the drivers of violent extremism often include perceptions of global injustice, such as the oppression of coreligionists around the world, these sentiments are frequently viewed through the lens of local grievances. Marginalization, social discrimination, lack of opportunity, corruption and other by-products of weak or bad governance often pervade areas where vulnerabilities to extremism are high. These grievances can cut across socioeconomic categories: the educated middle class can become disillusioned with corruption and undemocratic local and national government structures that impede their access to influence, while the lower and uneducated classes can become frustrated with governance that fails to provide basic social services. Research indicates that the latest generation of terrorists—those joining Salafi jihadist movements since the Iraq War—are more likely to be poorer and less educated than previous generations.

In light of these many areas of crossover, traditional DRG programs hold significant potential to meaningfully contribute to PVE. For example, equipping legislators with data to inform policymaking and enhance the communication channels between government officials and their constituents can improve policy outcomes and decrease grievances. Supporting programs that advance economic and political opportunities for youth and other marginalized groups can prevent radicalism by providing viable alternative paths. Strengthening inclusive democratic governance provides nonviolent mechanisms for social and political change. Building the capacity of pro-democracy civil society groups enhances broader awareness of nonviolent democratic norms. Bolstering the inclusivity and responsiveness of political parties and leaders strengthens the public’s confidence in the democratic process thereby lowering the urge to resist it violently. Promoting cross-cultural dialogue generates positive inter-group relations that undermines hateful stereotypes and dehumanizing narratives that legitimize extremist attacks.

Unlike traditional counterterrorism and CVE approaches, PVE aims to address the drivers that push vulnerable individuals to violent extremism. This theory of change creates several challenges for implementing and measuring PVE programs. The time frame for success is long-term, as altering governance outcomes and social perceptions almost always takes years to come to fruition. Additionally, the target for implementation is broad: rather than focus on extremists themselves, PVE targets a broader subset of potentially vulnerable individuals, which makes implementation more complex.

Despite these challenges, policymakers increasingly recognize that success against violent extremism will have to include improving political, social, and economic outcomes in these societies. Traditional counterterrorism and CVE approaches are essential to detecting, averting, and addressing violent extremism and terrorist plots, but PVE-focused programs provide a way to potentially reduce the threat of violent extremism in the long-term. The diverse DRG implementer community—including international and domestic NGOs, governments, and international organizations—can and must play a leading role in this effort.

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.


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