Preventing Violent Extremism at a Crossroads

Preventing Violent Extremism at a Crossroads

In March 2019, the congressionally mandated Task Force on Preventing Extremism in Fragile States released a strategy taking stock of past successes and failures in efforts to defeat terrorism and prevent violent extremism. The report called for a shared understanding of how to prevent extremism, the division of responsibilities and roles among U.S. government agencies, and the establishment of a partnership fund, among other recommendations. Some of the report’s lessons were incorporated into the House and Senate versions of the Global Fragility Act. These bills and the report have been highly lauded for their bipartisan commitment to incorporating evidence into policy-making and focusing on prevention by addressing the root causes of violent extremism. However, their analysis and recommendations, though not new, stop short of assessing the shortcomings, outcomes, and results of preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) efforts, and fail to explain how the international community should take stock of these results to enhance future prevention initiatives.

As the report rightly notes, exorbitant funding has been earmarked to pursue counterterrorism and P/CVE objectives. Since 2001, the United States has spent an estimated $5.9 trillion on post-9/11 wars. While the recent results of efforts to diminish the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)’s territorial control seem promising, the threat of violent extremism is still formidable and continues to impact the day-to-day reality of many communities around the globe.

Although prevention has not had as high of a price tag attached, it still represents a significant financial investment. Based on the identified drivers and vulnerabilities of violent extremism in specific contexts, programs have been developed in order to strengthen community resilience. U.S. funding for these P/CVE efforts has increased significantly over the past few years, and although exact amounts are ambiguous due to a lack of clarity about what may qualify as P/CVE, there is speculation that the State Department has spent a little less than $100 million per year, in addition to the millions spent by USAID.

As the international community grapples with developing a concerted and coherent response, the threat of violent extremism continues to morph and evolve in unprecedented ways. In spite of the defeat of ISIS on the battlefield, violent extremist groups—often widely ranging in ideology—maintain an agenda that resonates with many individuals from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, and continue to attract supporters. Even as ISIS territorial control has diminished, the recent video appearance by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reinforces the group’s global mission to inspire more homegrown attacks, rendering their operations even more unpredictable.

Violent extremist groups continue to have success in creating hyper-localized, targeted incentives and tailored recruitment messages. For example, in the Philippines, the recent Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) plebiscite—the product of decades-long peace talks between the government and one of the primary violent groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front—have ignited community tensions in Cotabato City and Isabela City. While the BOL represents an important step toward peace, malign actors (including ISIS affiliates) could gain more popularity and influence as they exploit unaddressed grievances dating back centuries, and as the peace process yields gains and losses for various non-state actors.

The achievement of the intended results of P/CVE programs and projects has been hindered by numerous methodological and programmatic challenges. First, national P/CVE strategies have sometimes demonstrated progress in identifying the upstream factors that lead to violent extremism. However, they are often mutually exclusive with the country’s counterterrorism policies and strategies. The latter undermines the effectiveness and progress of P/CVE programs by putting in place measures and operations that often violate human rights standards and principles. In a range of contexts, from Bahrain to Hungary to India, research has also shown that governments are using counterterrorism measures and legislation as a convenient justification to curtail human rights and crack down on civil society. Time and time again, counterterrorism and security interests have outweighed P/CVE objectives. This occurs despite widespread knowledge of the fact that deficits in human rights, when coupled with high levels of political violence and instability, eventually provide a fertile ground for radicalization and recruitment. Iraqi forces, for example, committed human rights abuses in the fight against so-called ISIS fighters and families. Yet, little attention has been given to due process accountability, which is a more sustainable solution to halting recruitment and radicalization.

Second, it is widely recognized that P/CVE policies and programs targeting certain individuals have compounded discrimination among marginalized groups, as evidenced by the United Kingdom’s Prevent Strategy, which has received criticism for encouraging community members to “look for a threat that does not exist” and excessively targeting Muslim individuals. It is also problematic to focus such initiatives on vulnerable communities (those that contain many terrorist recruiters, face immense socioeconomic challenges, have contributed a large amount of homegrown or foreign terrorist fighters, or possess whatever other “qualification” that may designate a community as susceptible). These communities are pigeonholed into the category of being “terrorist towns”—a long-lasting label that discourages economic investment and tourism. For example, citizens of Hyderabad, India felt that their home was being unjustly stereotyped as a terrorist hub, which only further aggravated perceptions of marginalization. Hasty implementation of prevention programs without taking into consideration these unintended consequences have significantly damaged trust in P/CVE efforts in some communities, undermining the P/CVE community’s goal of bolstering locally driven initiatives.

Moreover, for years, the international donor and development communities have delivered projects and programs focused on fostering moderate Islamic messaging and countering falsehoods surrounding radical Islam. However, research found that these programs “did not change [PVE program beneficiaries’] beliefs as to whether terrorist groups’ violent acts were justified under Islamic principles or whether the United States was engaged in a war with Islam.” Religion is overemphasized by certain governments as the leading factor for radicalization in order to avert attention from what should be done—instating human rights, responsive governance, and rule of law.

P/CVE programs rightly focus on building vulnerable and marginalized populations’ capacities, with the aim of empowering youth and women economically and socially. Yet, while well-intentioned, these programs do not take into account broader contextual dynamics, including legal, structural, and institutional barriers that impede individuals’ ability to put their newly gained knowledge and skills into practice. This, in turn, sharpens relative deprivation and potentially exacerbates vulnerability to violent extremism, instead of truly addressing social and economic exclusion and grievances.

Similarly, a dearth of gender analysis of VE and P/CVE further exacerbates these issues. The roles of women as preventers of violent extremism efforts, victims, and active participants have been widely documented. The recent Sri Lanka attacks were perpetrated by eight men and one woman, enabled by the country’s long history of involving women in acts of political violence. Yet, P/CVE programs have too often been either gender blind, placing an outsized focus on reducing young men’s vulnerability to violent extremism, or bolstering the stereotypical roles of women to counter VE in families or communities.

As some stakeholders strive to demonstrate impact, and others get more fatigued in response to seemingly unsuccessful approaches, there is increasing buzz about how to measure the results of P/CVE programs. A common limitation cited is that “proving a negative”—or definitively demonstrating that an individual would radicalize had an intervention not taken place—is impossible. Not only does this and other limitations hinder effective measurement of project effectiveness, but an overemphasis on results is in itself counterproductive. Experts have warned against seeking “quick and visible” results in fragile contexts after only a short period of implementation. This is not to say that measuring effectiveness is futile, but rather that building resilient communities requires a concerted, coordinated, and multidimensional strategic vision.

Though pushing for unrealistic results is problematic, it is still essential that policymakers strive for new approaches to monitoring and evaluation that capture results and encourage responsive adaptation. Such approaches must move beyond solely assessing the quality of intervention, especially in particularly complex environments such as those affected by violent extremism. An evaluation and monitoring approach based on quasi-experimental design—that determines the effects of P/CVE programs on the attitudes and behaviors of target groups and compares the results to control group—can build out holistic understanding of what works and what does not. Evaluations can sometimes falsely associate results with P/CVE programs, instead of analyzing external forces at play that also have an influence.

As violent extremism thrives in predatory states, P/CVE programs may not be designed to navigate complex, fragile environments, and may instead widen societal divides by supporting the over-trained predatory elite, rather than truly engaging youth and other marginalized groups. While avoiding this in future programs may require greater planning and design, implementations should also provide for consistent monitoring and evaluation in order to capture results and adapt accordingly.

 Although there is certainly much progress to pursue in an effort to close these gaps, the P/CVE agenda should continue to be preserved and protected, especially since the risks of abandoning current efforts are much higher as strands of violent extremism become more nimble and persistent. A severe reorientation of the agenda would only disrupt results, create whiplash among beneficiaries who have slowly become accustomed to P/CVE-specific programming, and may inflame VE vulnerabilities addressed under P/CVE initiatives. Instead, coordinated efforts, locally-driven initiatives, and deeper evaluations must be emphasized in order to ensure that outcomes are sustainable and long-lasting. P/CVE cannot be effectively undertaken in isolation from diplomatic and security agendas. Striking the right balance between human rights, development, and security imperatives would ensure the intended transformational change. This is a harder task, but it is one worth undertaking.

Lana Baydas, Ph.D. is a human rights expert. She has worked as both an academic and a practitioner in the fields of human rights, gender equality, and international development for the last seventeen years, holding posts at headquarters and in field operations with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the United Nations, Crisis Action, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Dr. Baydas has extensive experience in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Lauren Mooney is a democracy and human rights researcher and practitioner. Previously, she was the program manager and research associate for the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.