The global CVE agenda: Can we move from talk to walk?

Much of the discussion following last month’s attacks in Brussels focused on the need to address intelligence sharing and border security shortcomings. However, the attacks also shined a spotlight on how youth alienation and marginalization and lack of trust between local authorities and communities can fuel terrorist violence. Similar conditions have contributed to attacks in places as diverse as France, Iraq, Mali, and Nigeria.

More political leaders now understand that addressing the symptoms of terrorism through security-focused measures and national government action alone has not been sufficient. Attention is focusing on the need to reduce the pool of mainly young people who may be exploited by violent extremist propaganda or join violent extremist groups. Localized interventions to diminish the allure of violent extremism and prevent people from joining the cause in the first place is key to getting ahead of the threat. Expanding notions of who should do this and how is essentially what the countering violent extremism (CVE) agenda is all about. 

Localized interventions to diminish the allure of violent extremism and prevent people from joining the cause in the first place is key to getting ahead of the threat.


Starting with the February 2015 White House Summit, there have been a series of high-level conferences to energize this more positive, preventative approach. This month’s U.N. gathering in Geneva was the latest stop on the global CVE conference circuit. The objective was to discuss the implementation of Ban-Ki moon’s Plan of Action on Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE, the U.N.’s acronym for CVE), with its 70 recommendations and call for all countries to develop “national PVE action plans.” 

There is a wide diversity of CVE efforts: Some involve youth, women, and religious leaders to create positive alternatives to joining the Islamic State or other terrorist groups; others address the need to rehabilitate and reintegrate fighters returning from Iraq and Syria or those defecting from Boko Haram or al-Shabab, as well as preventing prisons from being incubators of violence; still others involve new hotlines or counselling services for families who believe their loved ones may be on the cusp of becoming radicalized. 

On the surface, there is broad consensus on the need for CVE efforts that 1) align with ongoing military, law enforcement, and intelligence activities; 2) focus on addressing the drivers of violent extremism; 3) are not limited to national security institutions; and 4) involve a diversity of community-level stakeholders. 

Bumps in the road

But there are also political and practical challenges facing the ambitious U.N. plan (and the global CVE agenda more broadly)—ones that confronted me on an almost daily basis when I was serving as the State Department’s policy coordinator for the White House Summit Process. 

First, there is the challenge of ensuring CVE interventions are properly targeted and do not stigmatize the communities from whom cooperation is needed. For example, when Kenya targets entire Somali communities and paints them as a “Fifth Column,” we have a problem. There is no common definition of “violent extremism” (let alone CVE or PVE, leaving it to each country to define) and the limited empirical data on what drives violent extremism exacerbates the complexity of this challenge. 

While there is limited appetite for addressing the definitional deficit, there is more research on the drivers. The data increasingly shows that marginalization, poor governance, and state-sponsored violence to be among the most prevalent factors. Effective targeting of a CVE program should therefore focus on both governing institutions and communities. States’ willingness to acknowledge their own role in fueling grievances and advance bold policies of inclusion and reconciliation as part of an effort to prevent violent extremism, however, remains to be seen. 

Yet, while more data might improve the targeting of CVE programs, will it help convince states to change their behavior? For example, while the research increasingly demonstrates a strong correlation between the presence of state-sponsored violence and violent extremism, many of those governments with long histories of security force abuse dismiss these findings and assert, without supporting data, that “foreign occupation” and “Islamophobia” are in fact the key drivers. 

Second, it remains unclear whether the CVE agenda can in fact shape counterterrorism policies and actions or if it will become simply a programmatic tool—including for foreign assistance and largely long-term development—with limited relevance to dealing with existing threats. Will core CVE messages about how governments treat their citizens be integrated into security dialogues? Or will they be kept separate for fear of jeopardizing tactical cooperation against existing terrorist threats? Will more attention be given to the impact that security-focused interventions can have on marginalized populations most prone to radicalization to violence? Or will development actors bear responsibility for preventing violent extremism without any meaningful change in security actions that can fuel grievances? So far, the admittedly young CVE agenda has yet to have a meaningful influence on counterterrorism. 

So far, the admittedly young CVE agenda has yet to have a meaningful influence on counterterrorism.

Third, the state-centric nature of counterterrorism strategies and cooperation can make it difficult to identify and enable sub-national actors, whether local authorities or community leaders, that have critical roles to play in identifying and intervening against early signs of support for violence. For example, although more cities are developing innovative CVE programs in partnership with local communities, too many national governments remain reluctant to empower municipalities in this space. 

Civil society is providing expertise and support in efforts to build resilience to violent extremism, but many capitals remain unwilling to enable grassroots actors to contribute, or they seek to micromanage civil society-led CVE interventions. Some governments even label civil society groups themselves as “violent extremists,” which only damages the state’s credibility in the communities they are trying to positively influence. Meanwhile, governments sometimes shy away from resourcing the NGOs with the most local credibility, preferring to partner with pro-government NGOs that may have limited influence. Non-violent Salafists, for example, might agree with the West on the Islamic State but little else—the Salafists, for their part, might be reluctant to receive Western funding. 

Wanted: Dollar bills

Finally, there is the resource challenge. Despite the political momentum from the White House Summit, the funds aren’t being made available to scale up many of the pilot initiatives it generated. Developing countries have highlighted the need for funding support to develop and implement national plans of action, let alone activities. And some—like Egypt, Pakistan, and Kenya, which all face pressing terrorist threats—oppose diverting funding away from existing counterterrorism efforts. Development agencies and NGOs, meanwhile, don’t want shrinking development budgets diverted for CVE work. 

Even the West struggles for resources. Despite the fact that Europe has been at the vanguard of the CVE movement, most EU members are not investing sufficient resources to support local prevention efforts. This is notwithstanding the elaborate EU Radicalization Awareness Network, which the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague has called “instrumental in gathering good practices and raising awareness among practitioners,” but whose “influence at the policy level has been piecemeal.” The situation in the United States appears similarly troubling, with the Department of Homeland Security receiving only $10 million to support domestic grassroots CVE interventions. The search for additional public funds to support CVE work, which needs to be more of a priority, will likely remain a struggle when political leaders are under pressure to demonstrate toughness in the aftermath of an attack—tighter borders, better intelligence cooperation, more information sharing, longer prison sentences, and beefed up security services—and until better metrics can be found to show the impact of CVE programs. 

The private sector—beyond the already-engaged social media and technology firms—can be a critical constituency for CVE. Violent extremism is bad for business, destroys infrastructure, and reduces consumer confidence. Attacks have devastated tourism and damaged national “brands”, for example, by creating an association of instability and insecurity in Tunisia and elsewhere across the Sahel. There is both a business and corporate social responsibility case to be made for investing in local CVE efforts. Apart from reducing the financial burden on governments, private-sector investment will likely generate more innovative programs and involvement of communities that might be leery of engaging in government-funded CVE initiatives.

Growing the CVE clique

The global CVE agenda is still young, and many lessons have yet to be learned. However, the nature and scale of the terrorist threat today demands investing in innovative approaches with new partners, not simply an intensification of past measures that have yet to reduce the nearly weekly headlines of attacks and, while in most cases necessary, do not offer much promise on their own for preventing future threats from emerging. 

Although there may be agreement on the need to get ahead of the threat, mobilizing the political will and resources in key capitals around the world to do so, remains elusive. This is particularly true in the midst a terrorist threat with more geographical spread than ever and with far too many capitals unwilling to second guess—let alone measure—the effectiveness of their “hard security” counterterrorism efforts. 

At the end of the day, U.N. conferences like the one in Geneva can usefully shine a light on the challenges that lie ahead. However, much like we have seen in the broader world of counterterrorism, the politics, procedures, and state-centric nature of the global body make it a less-than—ideal venue for open and frank discussions among the key stakeholders (which extend well beyond the diplomats that tend to dominate discussions at the U.N.). Those are the discussions we need in order to find practical solutions to the challenge of violent extremism.