A view from the counter terrorism foxhole: Interview with Tom Wheelock
By Lt. Col. Bryan C. Price
May 1, 2015
This piece was originally published in the CTC Sentinel, a publication of the Countering Terrorism Center at West Point.
Tom Wheelock is a Senior Vice President of Creative Associates International and the Director of its Communities in Transition Division. He oversees implementation of a wide range of development, stabilization, and political transitions programs funded by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Over the past few years, these programs have increasingly focused on countering violent extremism (CVE). His portfolio of countries includes Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Colombia, and numerous other at-risk countries. He is a 1969 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor and a Purple Heart for action during combat operations in Vietnam. He later received an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
CTC: Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs have received a lot of attention since the White House hosted an international summit on the topic in late February. The concept is not new, but it has gained momentum with the rising numbers of foreign fighters flocking to Iraq and Syria, many of whom are from the West. How would you best articulate the concept of CVE to our readers?
Wheelock: CVE is the use of non-coercive means to dissuade individuals or groups from mobilizing towards violence and to mitigate recruitment, support, facilitation, and engagement in ideologically motivated terrorism by non-state actors in furtherance of political objectives. It complements but should not be confused with counterterrorism operations. It recognizes a wide range of motives—such as political or economic grievances, feelings of marginalization, money, kinship, coercion, and radicalization. Those that radicalize don’t always turn to violence.
CTC: This is such a broad and all-encompassing topic. What is the best way to frame CVE? How do we go about conducting CVE in a practical sense?
Wheelock: The best framework I have heard for thinking about CVE has two parts: CVE-relevant and CVE-specific programming. CVE-relevant programming tries to favorably shape the environment for a particular community in terms of political, social, and economic issues. Basically, what you’re trying to do is to ameliorate the grievances that people have and make them less vulnerable to extremist recruiters. You’re making communities more resilient to the lure of violent extremism.
There is also more targeted CVE-specific programming. It consists of four stages: prevention, intervention, interdiction, and rehabilitation. These match closely with the stages of crime and violence prevention (CVP) programming, so there may be a lot of crossover in best practices that we can apply in a CVE context. Here you get down to the nuts and bolts inside a specific community, trying to identify youth at risk by analyzing a range of appropriate risk factors. Then, having identified those youth at risk, it is about intervention: working with families, local leaders, and institutions to guide those individuals away from these negative activities…and toward more positives ones. The United Kingdom and some U.S. cities such as Los Angeles and Boston have community-level programs focused on prevention and intervention.
Next is the interdiction phase, where law enforcement and the military respond to those that have already radicalized.
The final phase is the reintegration phase. This entails de-programming those who have radicalized and bringing them back into mainstream society. Saudi Arabia CVE programming is an example of this. The U.S. Government does not engage in reintegration.
A strategic communications campaign should be overlaid on all of these phases. Broadcast and print media can emphasize the broader values of peace, unity, resilience, and tolerance of other views. It can also highlight instances where acts of violent extremism go against established religious or cultural norms. A more focused communications campaign would concentrate on social media and interact with specific individuals under the influence of radical ideologies. The question becomes: How can we reach them and convey a message that they will respond to in a positive manner?
CTC: What role can the U.S. government play in regards to conducting CVE activities in other countries?
Wheelock: Many of our foreign assistance programs are CVE-relevant programs. These include improving educating systems, fostering economic growth, and facilitating good governance. These programs attempt to reduce the window of opportunity for extremists to take advantage of political, economic, and social grievances.
In terms of U.S. CVE-specific programming overseas, there isn’t that much right now. There are U.S.-sponsored CVE communication campaigns in various countries and pilot programs – some of which we at Creative implement—to test how a program can gain entry into communities, create the space needed to operate, and build the confidence of local partners, communities, and local governments to emphasize messages of peace and tolerance and introduce CVE-specific type of programming. A U.S. implementing partner such as Creative would not directly conduct prevention or intervention activities. That is best done by local organizations. Our role would be to train local organizations in best practices for conducting prevention and intervention activities, making technical assistance available, and providing funding to support the CVE programs of our local partners and broadcast media.
Having said that, we don’t call it CVE—that kind of language is offensive to a foreign government and local communities. So it might be called a “peace and unity campaign,” or a “resilience campaign.” This sets it into a positive light and mitigates the political difficulties that these types of activities may cause a partner government. There is a USG program designed to interact with potential extremists through social media, but it does not have sufficient capacity to counter the overwhelming number of social messages generated by extremist groups.
CTC: Is it best to conduct CVE at the grass roots level or is it better coordinated by the host country government?
Wheelock: My view is the more local the better. Community leaders, civil society organizations, and parents know their communities, the context, and relevant grievances. They are best placed to identify and work with youth at risk. The central government should provide grants to fund these programs and then determine and disseminate best practices. When it comes to the law enforcement aspect of it, of course you need the capabilities of the central government, but on the prevention and intervention side, those activities should be very much locally driven.
CTC: When you talk about gaining entry into these kinds of communities, is it through the central government or going directly into these communities yourself?
Wheelock: All U.S. development assistance programs are implemented with concurrence from the host country government, which may ask us to work in certain communities. We deliberately seek to work with relevant government ministries (education, sports, and youth) to gain their buy-in and support. Partner civil society organizations, local government officials, or other trusted interlocutors generally facilitate entry into communities. In order for a program to be sustainable over a long period of time, the government must buy-in to the program with its approval and we hope financial support.
CTC: What about CVE in failed states such as Somalia or Yemen, where the government is non-existent, unable or unwilling?
Wheelock: You’re not going to be able to do much, if any, CVE-specific prevention and intervention programs in those kinds of places. Those types of situations can only be dealt with through a counterterrorism type of approach.
CTC: That seems like a major problem that does not bode well for our long-term prospects in minimizing radicalization in these countries. In the countries where we are conducting CVE, is there support at the community level?
Wheelock: There is support for the most part—especially when we are implementing in communities where we’re already working with a trusted and respected interlocutor or partner organization. The level of community support is generally high once someone has made the introduction and we’re allowed to execute one or two activities, which may not be directly relevant to CVE but which gain trust and allow a partnership to develop,. You’re not going to get anywhere without community support.
CTC: How do we measure the effectiveness of CVE programs? How do we know which ones work and which ones do not?
Wheelock: It is a difficult issue because it is hard to empirically prove a negative. If recruitment of youth to extremist organizations declines in a community, what caused the drop? CVE-specific programming, strong police action or changes in public policy that remove grievances? Anecdotally, you can cite examples of success, but how do you quantify and ascribe causation for that success? Right now I don’t have the answer for it, and I don’t think the CVE community yet has an answer either.
It is somewhat easier to evaluate metrics when you look at crime and violence prevention (CVP) programs. You can see if the number of crimes has gone down and if the number of murders has gone down, even if it takes a long time to gather the data. There was a recent Vanderbilt University study on our primary crime and prevention programs in Central America, and there was a strong correlation between these kinds of programs and the drop in homicide rates.
CTC: So would you recommend that U.S.-sponsored CVE programs borrow somewhat liberally from the crime and violence prevention programs?
Wheelock: Certainly, there are techniques and best practices of CVP that are applicable and can be adapted to CVE programming. We can learn from successful CV programs that have an integrated, place-based strategy, including programs in Los Angeles and Central America. When an area is identified as a hotbed of extremism, a best practice that can be adapted to CVE is to implement an integrated program of prevention, intervention, policing, and rehabilitation—along with an overlay of strategic communications. This has been successful in Los Angeles. The U.S. State Department and USAID are starting an integrated CVP strategy in Honduras and El Salvador. [Editor’s note: These two countries have among the highest murder rates in the world because of gang and drug-trafficking activities.]
CTC: You’ve had experience with CVE programs in some of the planet’s most conflict-ridden countries. What country or countries do you feel are leading the pack in implementing CVE strategies?
Wheelock: The emphasis changes in different countries. For example, in Saudi Arabia the focus is on rehabilitation and less on prevention. The British are focused more on prevention and intervention.
CTC: What about the differences between crime and violence prevention programs in Latin America where religion is not a motivating factor in the violence like it is in countries such as Nigeria and Pakistan, where violent extremism has a distinct religious component?
Wheelock: The religious component is a major distinction between CVP and CVE programs. To be clear, gangs do have an ideological component, but I would argue it is not as enduring, nor as strong as it is in the case of Islamic extremism.
CTC: Can you provide examples of some successful counter-narratives? Specifically, what counter-narrative can we provide to discourage disenfranchised Sunnis from radicalizing? What could dissuade those who are considering joining jihadist groups such as Islamic State in situations where the predominant grievances can be legitimately focused on the corrupt central government?
Wheelock: Counter-narratives ultimately have to be locally driven. They have to come from the people who know the context and what is going to appeal to the populace. For the Middle East, the people you have to convince are the senior sheiks and tribal leaders as well as religious authorities. It is vital for religious authorities to articulate messages of peace and tolerance and to provide convincing arguments bolstered with religious underpinnings explaining why nonviolent methods are better able to accomplish change in political and economic systems. Beyond the contributions from trusted interlocutors, there are several instances of locally produced television and radio programming and print media that promote values of peace and tolerance.
CTC: What are some things that decision-makers should know about CVE? What are some of the misconceptions they have that may result in bad policy?
Wheelock: A lot of U.S. foreign assistance can be viewed as being relevant to CVE in building resilient communities, removing economic grievances, and reducing political grievances. The increasing emphasis on CVE, I think, will result in more of the typical foreign assistance programs being couched in these kinds of terms.
But that just sets the context. I think that much debate will center on how the United States can contribute to CVE-specific types of programming—prevention, intervention, interdiction, and reintegration. Where in the spectrum will the U.S. focus? Maybe the U.S. role is only supporting prevention or intervention programs or assisting police work on the interdiction side. It will be different in each country, but at least there is a framework for how to think about and discuss CVE programs.
The second point I’d like to make is about the prevention/intervention side. I think you can take a good hard look at the lessons from crime and violence prevention programs in Los Angeles and in Central America. These programs excel at identifying youth at risk and working with them to bring them back from the brink. If we can apply that framework and appropriate lessons to the countries where want to do CVE, I think that’s a great place to start.
CTC: How would you invest the lion’s share of resources among the four buckets in your CVE-specific framework (prevention, intervention, interdiction, and rehabilitation)?
Wheelock: The key word there is resources. Policymakers are more likely to invest resources into the interdiction part, because these activities go after individuals who have already been radicalized and are easier to identify. You get short-term results.
The prevention/intervention part is going to be much more difficult to do. You have to mobilize a lot of community groups, get them on board, train them, and it may be more costly—especially when you are attempting to identify youth at risk and work with them. It is very manpower intensive. In the long-run, however, investing resources in this area is probably more effective than interdiction. How we strike that balance between the policing effort and the prevention/intervention effort is going to be the essential issue.
CTC: I imagine that some practitioners would recommend concentrating resources into interdiction because evaluating its effectiveness is relatively easy. In comparison, it will be difficult to gather metrics on prevention/intervention, even though it may be the most effective over the long-run.
Wheelock: Exactly. It is tough to prove a negative.
CTC: Given your knowledge of violent extremism around the globe, which region or group do you think poses the greatest risk to the security of the United States?
Wheelock: Syria and the Islamic State along with Yemen and AQAP have to be high up on the list of threats, but CVE programs need to focus on countries such as Tunisia and Jordan that are major sources of jihadi foreign fighters.
CTC: Final question. What question or issue do you think is important for our readers to know about?
Wheelock: I think communications campaigns are an area that needs improvement and should be a priority. This is not just in the broad sense—the broadcast media where we can overlay messages of peace, resilience, unity, tolerance—but also in regard to how we can shape some of the more individualized communications on social media and work with companies like Twitter that are involved at that level. The question we need to answer is how can we get locally driven messaging to the forefront? The U.S. government can provide funding in the background for the technology, and provide funding for the programming element as well. But local leaders and institutions have to frame and articulate the message. The U.S. Government cannot and should not do it all. You don’t want to “hug your partners” too hard, because that will expose them to criticism and undercut any media campaign’s effectiveness.