In anticipation of the upcoming White House summit on countering violent extremism (CVE), the Brookings Institution on February 4 convened an expert panel to discuss the efficacy of current and past U.S. approaches to CVE, strategies deployed by other countries, and ideas on improving CVE efforts in the future.
The discussion was moderated by Daniel Byman, senior fellow and research director at the Center for Middle East Policy (CMEP) at Brookings, and featured panelists Bruce Riedel, director of the Brookings Intelligence Project and senior fellow at the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and CMEP; Anastasia Norton, manager at the strategic consulting firm Monitor 360 and former senior analyst in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center; and William McCants, director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings and fellow at CMEP.
Riedel began with background on the ideological, strategic, and personal differences that contributed to the split between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) in early 2014 and the current competition for leadership of the global jihadist movement, which Riedel said IS is clearly winning, for now at least. According to Riedel, the Charlie Hebdo attack — which many analysts believe was directed or facilitated by Al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate — and the Islamic State’s recent release of a video showing their immolation of a Jordanian fighter pilot represent attempts by the two rival organizations to demonstrate their respective capabilities and claim primacy within the global jihadist movement.
From a CVE perspective, Riedel argued that governments should exploit these fissures, stating that “one of the best ways to defeat a terrorist organization is to have it defeat itself — to have it eat itself and fight internally.”
“One of the best ways to defeat a terrorist organization is to have it defeat itself — to have it eat itself and fight internally.”
— Bruce Riedel
One way to accomplish this is for intelligence agencies to release publicly any captured private correspondence documenting discord between the groups to reveal their infighting and expose these groups for what they really are.
Focus on Changing Behavior, Not Beliefs
Norton’s remarks centered on government-directed messaging strategies aimed at countering extremist narratives, particularly in the online and social media contexts. Norton argued that the traditional CVE focus on trying to change people’s beliefs is misguided, arguing instead that the focus should be on trying to behavior, as beliefs don’t necessarily influence behavior, but rather are often used after the fact to justify one’s behavior.
Norton also criticized the emphasis in U.S. government CVE initiatives on relying on “credible messengers” (i.e., not the U.S. government) to promote counternarratives, arguing that “the message in many cases matters a lot more than the messenger” and that the messenger — even if it’s the U.S. government — is less important than whether the message resonates with the target audience.
“The message in many cases matters a lot more than the messenger.”
— Anastasia Norton
Norton said that exposing the disconnect between the specific grievances driving an individual or community to support an extremist group and the group’s actual goals and broader narrative espoused is especially influential.
Intervention Not Alienation
William McCants looked at domestic U.S. CVE initiatives that have been pursued over the years and argued that these initiatives have not only failed but have actually backfired because they are almost all based on a fundamentally flawed law enforcement-centric approach that targets American Muslim communities. Rather than building trust and facilitating communication between at-risk communities and law enforcement, government outreach initiatives to American Muslims have alienated these communities and cultivated a sense of paranoia and persecution that discourages concerned parents and community leaders from reaching out to law enforcement.
McCants also challenged a belief he said is common within the U.S. government that radicalization and terrorism are driven by socio-economic “root causes” such as poverty, underemployment, and lack of education. He stated that “the effort to retool social services [in American Muslim communities] to make sure people don’t radicalize continually sends the message: ‘We are terrified of you.’”
“The effort to retool social services [in American Muslim communities] to make sure people don’t radicalize continually sends the message: ‘We are terrified of you.’”
— William McCants
The better approach, said McCants, is one that focuses on “law-abiding supporters” — that is, those individuals who are actively celebrating terrorist propaganda but who haven’t yet broken the law. McCants proposed that the U.S. develop a program — similar to the United Kingdom’s “Channel” program — aimed at identifying such individuals and steering them toward individually-tailored intervention programs that offer a chance to back away from violent extremism before they ruin their lives.
However, McCants noted that, especially in the United States, such intervention programs are politically very risky. If a participant in such a program subsequently carried out a terrorist attack, the program and the careers of all involved would be over.
First, Do No Harm
In the end, all the panelists agreed that the first rule of CVE should be to “do no harm.” Programs that are ineffective at countering violent radicalization are bad, but programs that exacerbate the situation and alienate communities already vulnerable to radicalization are even worse.
Listen to the full audio recording of the event here.