A how-to on countering violent extremism

With rise of groups like ISIS and al-Qaida, efforts to counter the appeal of violent extremism have assumed high priority on agendas across the world. Over the last several months, Brookings has hosted several events focused on countering violent extremism (CVE), which have underscored the complexity and diversity of approaches to CVE.

Make new friends, and keep the old

On March 14, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, a Brookings distinguished fellow and president of the International Crisis Group, spoke about today’s jihadist landscape and current CVE efforts. Referring to a new ICG report , Guéhenno reviewed the factors that led to the rise of ISIS and al-Qaida, and offered recommendations to policymakers on how they should respond. 

Guéhenno emphasized the importance of expanding local partnerships as a way to “disaggregate rather than conflate” extremist movements. This requires that governments “keep lines of communication open to anyone who wants to talk to [them].” In a separate event at Brookings in February, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken also emphasized the importance of expanding partnerships in countries and communities vulnerable to violent extremism. Expanding partnerships, Blinken explained, will allow us to “better understand violent extremism and its drivers at the international, regional, national, and local levels.” Through local partnerships, Blinken continued, the U.S. government will be able to form more effective policies aimed at countering violent extremism. 

Blinken also spoke about pushing back against extremist propaganda and recruitment by “empowering local voices, including disillusioned returnees, religious leaders, women, and young people.” In his discussion, Guéhenno went one step further by urging governments to not make enemies of nonviolent Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, for example. Working with Islamists, Guéhenno explained, will have the effect of disaggregating radical movements, creating opportunities for the de-escalation of violence. Communicating with non-violent Islamists is critical to CVE, according to Guéhenno, and must be “an operational consideration rather than a political consideration.” 

Going local

According to Guéhenno, Sunni Arab marginalization is a major factor that contributes to the spread of violent extremism in the Middle East. By failing to engage with and gain the trust of local communities, governments around the world risk exacerbating the conditions that enabled ISIS’ rise in the first place. In an effort to prevent the spread of violent extremism, Guéhenno recommended the United States slow military operations in the Middle East and work to regain the trust of local Sunni communities. War, according to Guéhenno, is the biggest contributing factor to the spread of violent extremism. Conducting military operations against extremist groups without a broader political plan only deepens the chaos that allows extremism to spread. CVE efforts, according to Guéhenno, must focus less on “defeating and destroying” and more on conflict prevention and mitigation. This will in turn help to contain violent extremism and prevent it from spilling over into other parts of the world. 

Conducting military operations against extremist groups without a broader political plan only deepens the chaos that allows extremism to spread.

Like Guéhenno, Blinken recognized that “if we are going to actually win, in a sustained fashion, the fight against violent extremism, it will not be through combat alone.” CVE policies must reach “the classroom,” “houses of worship,” “social media,” “community center,” “sites of culture heritage” and “the sports field.” “In many environments where the risk of violent extremism is high,” Blinken went on to explain, “development has failed to take root, governance is weak, access to education limited, and unemployment common.” Addressing these issues, Blinken explained, will help to “reduce the vulnerabilities of local communities.” 

Unlike Blinken, however, Guéhenno urged governments to narrow their CVE agendas by treating development issues separately from CVE. The “root causes” of violent extremism, according to Guéhenno, should be addressed “whether related to extremism or not.” By “re-hatting” as CVE those activities pertaining to a government’s obligations to its citizens, such as education, health care, or employment, policy will likely be “pushed in the wrong direction.”

De-radicalization and early action 

On November 9, 2015, the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World invited a panel of experts on violent extremism to discuss unconventional approaches to CVE. The panel focused primarily on early interventions and de-radicalization programs in the United States and Europe. Lorenzo Vidino, director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, began by comparing CVE approaches in the United States to those in Europe. According to Vidino, the United States is shifting its focus towards “building trust-based dialogue with communities,” but unlike Europe, lacks programs that deal with extremists or potential extremists one-on-one. 

Daniel Koehler, a fellow at the Program on Extremism, spoke from his experience working with extremists in Germany. He strongly advocated for early intervention programs for individuals and communities at risk of engaging in violent extremism. Early intervention tools, Koehler explained, are mainly social tools, including “family counseling, specialized trainings for teachers, police officers, and community leaders.” Such programs, Koehler suggested, are vital to a comprehensive CVE strategy.

Policymakers, Guéhenno urged, should think carefully about what they label CVE to avoid further destabilizing already vulnerable communities.

Rashad Ali, a senior fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, spoke about his experience working with prison inmates, law enforcement, and local communities in the United Kingdom to implement de-radicalization and rehabilitation programs for those at risk of becoming radicalized. This approach to CVE is one that Blinken advocated in his February speech at Brookings. An important part of the U.S. State Department’s CVE strategy, Blinken explained, involves preventing radicalization in prisons by offering counseling and vocational training, and working with former foreign fighters to ensure that they are properly rehabilitated and reintegrated back into society.

Ali described the challenges and ethical questions that must be considered when implementing de-radicalization and rehabilitation programs. How, for example, are we to determine when someone is or is becoming radicalized? How do we measure the effectiveness of de-radicalization programs? Guéhenno posed similar questions during his talk, warning about the danger of CVE policies when we have no way of defining what an “extremist” is. The ambiguity of the word “extremist,” Guéhenno explained, leaves room for governments to misuse and abuse the term to further their own political agendas. Policymakers, Guéhenno urged, should think carefully about what they label CVE to avoid further destabilizing already vulnerable communities.