Terrorism deaths down but effective CVE must look beyond military

By Jillian Slutzker

December 8, 2017

For the second year in a row, fewer people have died in terrorist attacks, according the to 2017 Global Terrorism Index, which catalogues and reports statistics and trends in terrorism across more than 160 countries. Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria—countries that along with Iraq accounted for 75 percent of all deaths from terrorism in 2016—also saw a drop.

But to sustain this progress and stem a still insidious threat, efforts to counter violent extremism must clearly define objectives and work to address specific underlying push and pull factors, said a panel of experts at the United States Institute of Peace on Nov. 28.

Despite the overall reductions in deaths in the last year, the report finds that 2016 was nonetheless the third deadliest year on record since 2000 and that terrorism is spreading its reach, with 77 countries experiencing at least one terrorism-related death in 2016. While OECD countries have seen an uptick, terrorism tends to be more prevalent and deadlier in states affected by conflict.

“Terrorism is really following an arc of conflict globally,” explained Michelle Breslauer, Program Director of the Americas at the Institute for Economics & Peace, which produced the Index.

She said that social exclusion tends to be a predominant factor in radicalization in OECD countries while group grievances manifest more heavily as a factor in radicalization in developing countries.

The report finds that military surges against violent extremist organization had success in reducing the footholds of groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS in Syria, and thereby reducing terrorism-caused deaths.

However, panelists warned about the limits of force to address underlying grievances, the unknown dangers of a “virtual caliphate”, as well as the potential for collateral deaths of civilians in the midst of these campaigns to stoke more grievance and heighten risk.

“You can’t wiretap a grievance and you can’t bomb away an ideology,” said Leann Erdberg, Director of Countering Violent Extremism at USIP.

To reach individuals at risk of radicalization, she said, “It is a completely different toolkit.”

Expanding the toolkit: Tackling radicalization as a public health problem

Addressing the grievances that can propel individuals toward radicalization to violent extremist ideology requires innovative and holistic approaches beyond kinetic force.

It also takes a clear expression of the objectives we are trying to achieve with regard to preventing violent extremism, noted panelist Kim Field, Director of Countering Violent Extremism at Creative Associates International and a retired Brigadier General in the U.S. Army.

“When we cannot use the military because it is not active conflict, we’re going to have to get very place-based using the public health approach,” Field said.

“We have to take steady incremental investments in the structural and prevention issues coupled with interventions aimed at the higher risk individuals and groups and a human rights-based approach to our law enforcement and military interventions, as well as evidence-based efforts to reintegrate former violent extremists.”

Field says that any effective theory of change will concentrate resources in a well-understood specific at-risk area, clearly state the CVE objectives a program is trying to achieve, and then align the tools to achieve them.

By taking long-term prevention measures and reaching those individuals and groups at the highest level of risk for being radicalized, programs can help to stem the spread of violent extremism- viewed as the disease in a public health approach.

This holistic approach can also minimize costs in terms of resources and lives.

“If you look at terrorism as a cancer, we are spending so much money to address the cancer, but when you look at what we could do to prevent the radicalization, we could spend a fraction of that money,” added panelist Basil Catanzaro, Colonel in the U.S. Army. He represented his own views, not those of the U.S. government.

One piece of the public health model is showing statistically significant positive results in Tunisia, where Creative works with family counselors to reach youth at the highest risk of radicalization as well as their families in two hot spot communities for ISIS recruitment.

“In some places, the family unit is the only place there is trust, not at community or national levels,” said Field, noting the power families can have in prevention or, on the flip side, radicalization.

Based on model developed to prevent gang joining in Los Angeles and adapted to Central America by Creative, the approach works with the family unit over the course of a year to lower a youth’s risk factors including, in the Tunisian context, social vulnerability, religious extremism manifested in concerning behaviors such as accusing others of disbelief, and religious extremism displayed in alarming behaviors such spending hours on extremist social media networks.

It uses an empirical risk assessment known as the Youth Service Eligibility Tool.

Field and the other panelists hope that evidence on what works from projects like this, as well as data from the Global Terrorism Index, will feed into smarter programming to prevent and counter these threats.

“Understanding what works is incredibly difficult,” said USIP’s Erdberg. However, she added, “Data does drive us to look at much more of these conflict management and peacebuilding pieces.”

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