Three questions terrorism experts are afraid to ask about “countering violent extremism” programs

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Date: 
June 4, 2016
Author: 
Kay Guinane

A May 5 blog in The Hill presented participant “conclusions” from the April Symposium on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).  Unfortunately, these conclusions do not reflect the viewpoints of all stakeholders. In particular, grassroots voices from communities where so-called CVE programs are being implemented were noticeably underrepresented and the agenda failed to give adequate space to significant civil liberties and human rights issues.  As a result, some hard but important questions did not get the attention they deserve.

To be clear, the first conclusion – that “human rights violations, political marginalization, lack of good governance, and systematic barriers to economic opportunities” are potential drivers of violent extremism – is generally agreed upon. This premise can serve as a starting point to confront the remaining conclusions– that we know what works and that more money should be allocated to existing program approaches – which are not universally accepted.

The second conclusion as that "we know what works." But it would be more accurate to say “we know what does NOT work.” The evidence demonstrates the ineffectiveness of CVE approaches that rely on discredited theoretical models of terrorist radicalization and focus predominantly on Muslim communities. Such programs have repeatedly been found to be ineffective and counterproductive, increasing distrust and divisiveness. For example, a March 2011 report, Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Literature Review, by the Australian Department of Defense, found that “understandings of terrorism as set out in the literature still cannot explain why some people become terrorists whilst others do not. It is easy enough to show how radical ideas are internalised by terrorists post facto. But this does not explain why some people exposed to radical ideas are not radicalised. In fact, the majority of people exposed to radical ideas are not radicalised.”   

In the US, communities targeted for pilot CVE programming in Boston, Los Angeles and Minnesota have expressed civil rights and liberties concerns. Symposium participants would have benefitted from hearing these groups’ critiques. However, they were not adequately represented among speakers.

Participants also did not hear enough about the problems with CVE overseas, where the situation is far worse. Many foreign governments have used these programs as a license for cracking down on civil society organizations and political opponents. In a September 2015 report, Human Rights First made concrete recommendations for U.S.-sponsored CVE programs in foreign countries that have engaged in such abuse, noting that “Security efforts rife with human rights violations undermine security and encourage violent extremism.”

The sponsors’ third conclusion – that more money needs to be directed at CVE -does not account for the criticism, which has focused on the need to change how funds are spent. For example, 41 international organizations issued a joint statement last July asserting that the White House “CVE strategy risks repeating the same mistakes as other post-9/11 stabilization initiatives: prioritizing securitized responses over investments to address the structural causes of instability, and coupling the two lines of effort creating confusion and working at cross purposes.”  And a coalition opposed increased funding for CVE at DHS in letter stating, “any further plans on CVE should await the results of ongoing independent evaluations of these pilot programs… The risk factors that government agencies put forward often include common behaviors associated with religious practice and political activism.”

So what are the three hard questions that must be answered?

  • How will the U.S. address the contradiction between the need to counter violent extremism and laws that make it illegal for civil society groups to engage violent extremists to turn them away from violence? In other words, how can you counter extremism if you can’t engage extremists? The prohibition on material support of terrorism is so broad that, illogical as it seems, civil society groups trying to reduce conflict and bring peace and stability to communities are stymied.

  • If CVE is intended to strengthen and support community resilience and cohesiveness rather than to enhance intelligence gathering, why are CVE programs in the U.S. led by law enforcement agencies? CVE pilot programs in Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles are administered by the U.S. Attorneys.  The FBI and DHS are each establishing their own CVE programs. This structural flaw cannot be overcome with firewalls or rhetoric.  Without structural change, domestic programs will at best lack credibility, and at worst serve to further fuel alienation.

  • How can the U.S. ensure that programs it supports in other countries are not used to suppress political dissent and justify human rights violations?  Is the U.S. willing to call out these abuses, even when strategic allies are the culprits?

In the push to make countering violent extremism an effective component of national security strategy, these questions must be heard and discussed.  Otherwise, we will remain stuck in the ineffective whack-a-mole counterterrorism strategies of the past 14 years.