Preventing violent extremism during and after the COVID-19 pandemic

FILE PHOTO: Displaced people, who fled from attacks by armed militants in the town of Roffenega arrive on a truck in the city of Kaya near Pissila, Burkina Faso January 24, 2020. Picture taken January 24, 2020. REUTERS/Anne Mimault/File Photo

While the world’s attention appropriately focuses on the health and economic impacts of COVID-19, the threat of violent extremism remains, and has in some circumstances been exacerbated during the crisis. The moment demands new and renewed attention so that the gains made to date do not face setbacks.

Headlines over the past few weeks have suggested that violent extremist and terrorist groups ranging from Colombian hit squads to ISIS affiliates in sub-Saharan Africa to far-right extremists in the United States are watching the disruption caused by COVID-19. Many are at least aware of the potential to benefit from that disruption, and in some cases they are already taking advantage.

As with so much reporting on and analysis of the pandemic, however, there is a shortage of data and evidence to support the headlines. The Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF), where two of the authors work, has surveyed 50 local NGOs it supports to build community resilience against violent extremism in eight developing countries worldwide, to try to understand the nature of the threat. Six themes recur.

First, in most communities surveyed, with many schools closed and recreational and cultural activities suspended, most young people are now confined to their homes, and are spending even more time online. Their frustration, combined with a rapid growth of online vitriol, makes them more vulnerable to online radicalization to violent extremist agendas.

Second, ill-founded rumors and suspicions abound that the pandemic has been caused, or at least spread, by minorities in the community — whether herders in the Middle Belt in Nigeria or Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. This echoes the ongoing efforts of right-wing extremist groups in the United States, who blame Jews for the spread of the virus. Some even seek to motivate their supporters to take violent action. Social cohesion that has been painstakingly developed by a range of organizations and government entities in recent years through countless community-based activities in fragile and conflict-affected countries is at risk.

Third, community policing — one of the most effective early warning signs of violent extremism and a critical tool to address one of the most commonly identified drivers of radicalization to violence (heavy-handed police tactics) — has reduced in many communities. Where it is maintained, it now focuses on enforcing lockdowns. There have been reports from Nigeria and Sri Lanka that vigilante groups are filling the vacuum. In some instances, such as Rwanda, South Africa, and Uganda, the response of security actors has risked exacerbating the crisis. They have reportedly included tear gas and beatings, resulting in dozens of injuries and possibly exposing many more to COVID-19. Among the potential casualties has been the (already uneven) public trust in the government’s strategy for safeguarding its citizens from the pandemic and other threats.

Fourth, there are concerns that the impacts of the pandemic and — as the situation in a number of African countries highlights — government responses may exacerbate some of the underlying drivers for radicalization to violent extremism. More people will become unemployed, fewer people will be educated, and the marginalized are becoming more so. At the same time, religious, cultural, and other gatherings that can foster an individual sense of purpose, strengthen social cohesion, and bolster community resilience against these risks are no longer occurring.

Fifth, there are indications that community confidence in local authorities is also flagging, especially as local health facilities collapse. In fact, there are reports that in some countries (although not in those where GCERF operates) violent extremist groups are providing public health services and filling the vacuum. Building the capacities of local authorities and bridging the confidence gap between communities and such authorities have been some of the most significant successes of initiatives to prevent violent extremism in recent years, providing a network of local actors to identify concerning behaviors of those who may be heading towards violence and steer them down a non-violent path. The recent Kogi Youth Development Commission Bill in Nigeria is a good example.

The current pandemic may even knock terrorism from the top of the threat chart for many governments, and signal an end to the “post-9/11 era.” It may precipitate a long-overdue end to the “endless wars” and, more broadly, the heavily militarized counterterrorism efforts since September 2001.

At the same time, for all the above reasons, it is essential to maintain — and even increase — investments in preventing violent extremism in the current climate. But this is not happening.

The foreign aid budgets that tend to support preventing violent extremism (PVE) initiatives are being diverted to COVID-19. The lessons of the global financial crisis are that there may be a significant dip in funding for overseas development for the next 18 to 24 months. Many of the traditional activities that PVE interventions rely on — interfaith dialogues, training and education, employment schemes — involve in-person interactions and simply cannot currently take place. And non-governmental organizations and charities that directly support PVE are themselves cutting back as a result of budget pressure and needing to allocate some of their limited resources to protect themselves and their communities against the virus.

This explains the sixth challenge posed by several local NGOs. If donors withdraw support now because of a shift in priorities, shortage of funding, or an inability to complete programming, then why should these NGOs and communities trust donors when they want to resume PVE again next year?

All of this has short-, medium- and potentially longer-term implications for preventing violent extremism.

In the short term, existing PVE projects could be adjusted to allow for more agile programming such as online  or over cell phone (e.g., WhatsApp) instead of in-person gatherings. Schools, sports clubs, and the private sector are developing ways to adjust to the “new normal”: keeping students, members, and employees engaged at home. Depending on the local implementing partner, unforeseen training and technology may be required to enable the transition, and donors should be flexible.

In addition, PVE project funds could be used for COVID-19 activities that will allow local NGOs to continue with their local PVE programming — and to help ensure that communities don’t feel abandoned during the crisis. This might include purchasing personal protective equipment for the staff members. It could also involve raising awareness on COVID-19 within local communities that are the project beneficiaries. This would demonstrate the commitment of international donors and their NGO implementing partners to the well-being of these communities, and help retain the trust that has been built up over time and will be needed to re-launch PVE and other activities.

In the medium term, more attention should be given to building the capacities of local NGOs and local communities more broadly. They should become better positioned to address their priorities without being so reliant on international donor funding — which is likely to be more fragile going forward — and more resilient to future external shocks.

For donors, this might require shifting away from the predominant short-term (i.e. one to two years), project-based approach to funding local PVE initiatives. Instead, donors should undertake longer-term investments that build the administrative and substantive capacities of local organizations to address a diverse set of community-level challenges, including extremist violence. Rather than initiating new PVE projects, this might instead involve working through existing community-based programs, structures, and organizations, that can contribute to building the social cohesion and community resilience to withstand different forms of threats and crises.

In the longer term, the current public health crisis and dwindling development budgets may help catalyze a long-overdue move beyond the siloed approach that has characterized funding in the peace, security, and development spheres. Donors have often relied on disparate funding streams to support work on the different global agendas, whether related to PVE; conflict prevention; preventing gender-based violence; protecting human rights; youth empowerment; or women, peace, and security.

Too often, instead of conducting a comprehensive peace, conflict, and gender-sensitive assessment to determine the needs and priorities of local communities and channeling resources in a coherent and sustainable plan, there is fragmented analysis, and erratic and short-term funding that can fuel competition rather than cooperation. This disparate approach has sometimes resulted in local communities being saturated with a series of narrowly-framed, short-term initiatives focused on achieving limited objectives rather than creating incentives for a more integrated approach that allows community-based organizations to service the evolving needs and priorities of their constituencies. Instead of building the long-term capacity of these organizations, the prevailing approach favors project-based support to local actors to deliver on a single issue.

Going forward, international development assistance should be viewed less as a zero-sum game about which priorities to fund and more about how to make better use of the increasingly limited resources to address multiple ones. In many cases, it should be about investing in local communities and NGOs to allow them to do so, while gradually becoming self-reliant. At the end of the day, this shift may be necessary to ensure that PVE continues to get the attention it merits in a post-COVID-19 world where the threat of extremist violence remains.