Countering violent extremism on & offline

By Jillian Slutzker

April 6, 2015

As world leaders gathered in the White House in February to discuss strategies to counter the spread of violent extremism, the world’s attention focused on ISIS with its estimated 20,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq and a sophisticated media operation broadcasting radical messages on social media to supporters and potential recruits.

From ISIS to Pakistan’s Taliban to Nigeria’s Boko Haram, extremist organizations globally are grabbing headlines and radicalizing young recruits.

In this climate, countering violent extremism (CVE) has become a top priority for the international community and particularly for the U.S. government, which reasserted its commitment in a statement coinciding with the White House summit.

“The U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are committed to countering today’s threats, and building capacity and resilience to prevent tomorrow’s challenges,” said the State Department in the Feb. 19 statement. The statement also said the U.S. will advance ongoing and planned efforts, including civilian-led programming, totaling nearly $188 million.

As governments ramp up efforts to counter violent extremism, international development organizations face the challenge of advancing effective and innovative approaches that build community resilience, mitigate the “push” and “pull” factors influencing individuals to join extremist groups and put forward alternative narratives of tolerance, unity and peace to counter extremists’ calls to radicalization on social media.

Tom Wheelock, Senior Vice President at Creative Associates International, says there is opportunity for both “CVE-specific” programming (community-level prevention, intervention, interruption and reintegration programs) and “CVE-relevant” programming (shaping a community’s environment through public policy, social programs, workforce development and more) to reduce grievances and build community resilience to prevent radicalization.

A communications campaign offering an alternative narrative should accompany these efforts, says Wheelock.

At a recent presentation at the U.S. Military Academy, Wheelock explained that these interventions complement host governments’ ongoing counterintelligence, military and diplomatic counterterrorism efforts but cannot be perceived as being linked to police or intelligence-gathering operations. Otherwise, he says, CVE programming loses its credibility within communities.

Lt. Col. Bryan Price, Director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, adds that these efforts are a key part of a comprehensive strategy to counter violent extremism.

“Effective counterterrorism efforts employ all elements of national power. International development actions can in some cases reduce the so-called ‘greed and grievance’ issues that can trigger, facilitate or speed up the radicalization process,” says Lt. Col. Price.

Where the action is

Wheelock says, “Radicalization for any individual is a unique process driven by a mixture of several contributing factors—such as peer influence, kinship ties, socioeconomic grievances or political marginalization.”

Most international donor-funded programs can be characterized as CVE-relevant—helping to build a community’s resilience and mitigate political, social and economic grievances that may push youth into violent extremism.

However, CVE-specific programming is where the action is and the difficulties lie, says Wheelock, especially in identifying youth-at-risk and intervening to prevent them from becoming radicalized. For these types of CVE interventions, he says U.S. government-funded programs should principally support local governments and community groups and acknowledge host government leadership.

These CVE-specific efforts can focus on the prevention and intervention phases by facilitating government-community collaboration; providing advice, training and funding to local partners; and supporting “alternative narrative” communications campaigns.

This should be done discretely, says Wheelock, without the usual requirements for U.S. government branding and marketing so that beneficiaries’ credibility and security are protected.

Investing in prevention

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Prevention is a key part of countering violent extremism, which often means reaching the most at-risk youth in complex, multiethnic, mutli-sectarian, urban environments.

For programs working in the prevention phase—including boosting community policing or enhancing the capacity of civil society organizations—Wheelock says building trust and gaining the confidence of local governments, partners and community members is critical.

“The first step is gaining entry into a community and figuring out how to do that in a complex, multiethnic, mutli-sectarian, urban environment….Once having established that confidence and entry, then we talk to them about peace, unity and tolerance,” he says.

Interventions at the prevention phase, says Lt. Col. Price, are especially beneficial and help reduce radicalization down the line that could lead to violence.

“The more we can do to prevent members of society from radicalizing and conducting acts of political violence, the fewer plots we will have to foil at the 11th hour,” Lt. Col. Price says. “Policing, intelligence, and the criminal justice tools will always be a part of counterterrorism efforts, but they are not the only ones.”

Countering violent extremism is a long-term process, he notes. It is also multi-faceted, requiring measures to reduce community and individual vulnerabilities to radicalization, while also reaching the most at-risk individuals, using judicial systems to prosecute crimes and rehabilitating ex-radical individuals.

Wheelock maintains that CVE programs seeking to focus on prevention and intervention can benefit from techniques and methodologies used in Crime and Violence Prevention (CVP) programs to determine risk factors, identify youth-at-risk and provide support and counseling to these youth and their families.

In Central America, Creative implements primary and secondary crime and violence prevention activities as well as community policing programs and is looking at how to adapt these methodologies and lessons learned for CVE.

Social media for alternative narratives

Messaging through social and broadcast media must be part of a comprehensive CVE campaign, Wheelock says. This comprises interventions that rebut extremist ideology (a counter-narrative) or offer a more moderate world view (an alternative narrative) supporting themes of peace, tolerance and unity.

Extremist groups are highly proficient in using their own social media to identify and recruit young people. Twitter shut down 2,000 ISIS-linked accounts in early March, but the use of social media by radical groups is wide-reaching and continues to play a role in the radicalization of many youth globally.

President Barack Obama, in a speech at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism on Feb. 19, said: “We need to do more to help lift up voices of tolerance and peace, especially online.”

The President also said that political, community and religious leaders in the Muslim world have a responsibility and big role to play in pushing back against radical messaging.

The Obama Administration reports it is launching several initiatives to boost its messaging efforts, including a peer-to-peer challenge empowering university students to produce digital content to counters extremists’ messaging online, as well as technology trainings to help social media companies and other stakeholder create content to discredit violent extremists’ online material.

Wheelock says that U.S. CVE programs are able to support local efforts to produce and disseminate messaging that promotes peace, unity and tolerance.

Social media is a particularly potent tool for reaching vulnerable youth, a demographic using social media in greater proportions than other age groups.

By supporting social media campaigns around tolerance, unity and peace and by providing technical assistance to broadcast media disseminating anti-radicalization content, CVE programs have “been able to help build and brand an identity for youth in urban areas that emphasizes community…and use that as a starting point to gain confidence of the community, civil society and the local government,” says Wheelock.

‘While this is not a counter-narrative to violent extremism,” he says. “It is an alternative narrative that also needs to be in place.”

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