As governments struggle to meet the ongoing threats of violent extremists, experts and observers are questioning whether efforts to undermine the attraction of these movements and ideologies are working. In some cases, they actually have the reverse effect.
“Many years of experience have proven that short-sighted policies, failed leadership, heavy-handed approaches, a single-minded focus only on security measures and an utter disregard for human rights have often made things worse,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the General Assembly on Jan. 15. “We all lose by responding to ruthless terror with mindless policy – policies that turn people against each other, alienate already marginalized groups, and play into the hands of the enemy.”
Today, CVE initiatives across government agencies, as well as those implemented by the private sector, NGOs and others, are rapidly evolving and being rigorously evaluated.
The implications of this additional layer of complexity will have a direct impact on international development organizations that are implementing these increasingly sophisticated strategies.
Some experts in the field of countering violent extremism suggest that getting rid of the CVE “label” or “brand” would actually be more beneficial to the cause. Peter Mandaville, Ph.D., the Senior Advisor in the U.S. Secretary of State’s Office of Religion & Global Affairs, questions whether CVE may be a fatally “tainted brand” with programs that often create tension between governments and the groups they seek to benefit. This tension may lead to an increased risk of radicalization.
During a Jan. 14 presentation called “Limits of CVE” at the National Counterterrorism Center, Mandaville cited the fallout of an ongoing CVE initiative in the United Kingdom.
After the 2005 London bombings, authorities launched the PREVENT program that sought to protect vulnerable individuals who could be at risk of radicalization. PREVENT combined police and intelligence services efforts to cut off extremism at the source by funding community programs and addressing the alienation felt by many young Muslims.
However, the irony is that it has become counter-productive, said Aminul Hoque, a lecturer and author on British Islamic identity at the University of London.
“If the idea was to understand the roots of extremism, the roots of radicalization, by putting a magnifying glass across the Muslim communities of Great Britain, what has happened is that it has widened the schism between the ‘Muslim’ us and the British ‘other’,” Hoque is quoted in a BBC article by Frank Gardner, “Prevent strategy: Is it failing to stop radicalisation?”
Separately, Dal Babu, who was a chief superintendent with the London Metropolitan police before he retired in 2013, was quoted in a 2015 article in The Guardian as calling PREVENT a “toxic brand.”
Mandaville noted that examples like PREVENT and similar programs have become powerful recruiting tools for violent extremist organizations by spreading the message of “us vs. them,” further isolating target communities. Although most people are open to the PREVENT strategy and understand its importance, it is seen as a spying tool across Muslim communities.
Focus on good development work
Instead, Mandaville asks whether the increased attention and focus on CVE as a distinct policy space risks devaluing existing tools in diplomacy and development that address the underlying causes of violent extremism.
He discussed the potential of eliminating the countering violent extremism funding stream and instead investing more in existing programs that closely correlate to democracy, conflict transformation and development. Funders could mandate the inclusion of a CVE component into a project’s goals and work plan.
Mandaville’s argument does not intend to stop CVE work. Rather, he recognizes that we can implement effective programming, with underlining CVE measures and outcomes, without taking the focus of the original intent envisaged for the project.
Paul Turner, Senior Conflict Advisor and CVE expert at Creative Associates International, says: “I think an important point to make here is that both are necessary, how to place the CVE lens over existing relevant programming just like we saw with approaches to conflict prevention and later stabilization operations. Complementing this approach should be an effort to design CVE specific interventions that can help chart a course forward.”
In the United States, a new CVE Task Force that was announced Jan. 8 will coordinate domestic activities across agencies.
“Beginning in the summer of 2015, representatives from 11 departments and agencies reviewed our current structure, strategy, and programs and made concrete recommendations for improvement,” according to the Jan. 8 statement by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “The review validated the objectives of the 2011 strategy but identified gaps in its implementation. The new task force will coordinate government efforts and partnerships to prevent violent extremism in the United States.”
Embracing CVE “relevant” work
As CVE initiatives envelop policies and programs, implementing organizations cannot forget that they have been doing CVE relevant work for decades, whether we called it that at the time or not.
Those who just want to contribute to peacebuilding efforts will say that we don’t care what we call the effort, whether it’s CVE, community resilience, capacity building or conflict transformation. However, it is important to recognize that we are operating in a certain amount of gray space that comes with CVE.
There is no clear line between CVE relevant work and CVE specific work, which tends to blur individuals’ perceptions and raise concern between non-lethal assistance and intelligence work. So, as we progress forward in the gray space of CVE or peacebuilding, let’s not forget that our goals and objectives are in one way or another nested in our effort towards the same outcome.
As for the brand of CVE, use it as necessary on an individual case by case basis.
Roman Terehoff is a Training with Industry Fellow selected from the U.S. Army Civil Affairs branch on a one-year assignment at Creative. Roman will share with Creative his skills and experience as a civil affairs operator, while learning innovative industrial management practices, techniques and procedures. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or its components.