How do you convince a supporter of ISIS to turn away from the group and pursue productive political action instead? Countering violent extremism (CVE) is one answer that has received extensive attention from the DC foreign policy community. CVE involves providing at-risk individuals with a positive alternative to violent action, a counter-narrative that undermines those of insurgent and terrorist groups, and enhances civil society efforts to accomplish the same.
Practitioners of CVE have focused their efforts on the Middle East, and particularly on insurgent groups like ISIS and Jubhat al-Nusra. American citizens have attempted to join both groups, and both represent serious threats to US interests in the Middle East. These interests include the well being of millions of inhabitants in countries where such insurgent groups operate (Syria), or are gaining a foothold (Libya). In addition, the impacts of CVE extend beyond at-risk individuals, since governments in the region may use CVE as a pretext for targeting opposition movements.
In this context, YPFP’s Middle East Discussion Group took on the topic of CVE at its February 2016 meeting. Several members of the Combatting Terrorism group attended as well. The group discussed what kinds of activity CVE includes, who its targets are, and whether such efforts will likely be successful in the Middle East.
Even setting the terms of the discussion proved contentious because “violent extremism” is itself a difficult term to define. Extremism can be non-violent, and supporting violence is not analogous to actually carrying it out. Furthermore, extremism can take many different forms (for example, far-left, far-right, or religious). These nuances also make designing a one-size-fits-all approach to CVE difficult and potentially undesirable.
The group was skeptical that the United States could seriously alter violent extremist narratives. There is little support for the US in the region among the general population, and even less among at-risk individuals. Attempts to push a counter-narrative would be delegitimized on-face because this counter-narrative would originate from a poorly trusted actor. Further complicating the situation, the US government has no authority on matters of Islamic jurisprudence. Messages referencing Islam or the Qur’an are likely to have limited, if any efficacy. Because of this mistrust, the group suggested engaging local actors. Such partnerships would allow the US to enhance efforts already in progress on the ground. Grassroots movements to stop violent extremism exist and could benefit from financial support. Supporting groups that work with Islamic leaders who preach against violence would be particularly useful.
Foreign fighters are a transnational problem that CVE is designed to dissuade as well. Recognizing the transnational aspect of this problem, the group emphasized the importance of preventative efforts. While ISIS and Jubhat al-Nusra exist predominantly in Iraq and Syria, potential fighters theoretically exist anywhere there is an internet connection. A complete CVE strategy should address the legitimate grievances of at-risk individuals in the US itself. These individuals are often single young unemployed and socially isolated men. The US could learn from British initiatives how to successfully engage these individuals. Key to this success will be treating communities and their members with respect rather than as a potential security threat.
Finally, the group discussed efforts to rehabilitate former violent extremists. Members cautioned against seeing radicalization as a permanent change, and emphasized the need to integrate former violence sympathizers back into a community. Helping these individuals find a job and start a family is not “rewarding terror,” but rather giving those prone to radicalization “something to lose,” as one member put it.
Measuring the efficacy of CVE efforts is difficult because it is the study of non-events. Counting, for example, how many individuals did not join ISIS is a challenging task. Some group members pointed out that serious CVE efforts have not been in place long enough to expect significant changes on the ground. However, others believed that even given ample time, CVE is unlikely to itself stem violent extremism.
Despite several areas of disagreement, the groups’ discussion reveals three major points of consensus. First, CVE cannot itself stop violent extremism. Even if it were to deploy the very best counter-narratives, the US and its allies could not convince every would-be insurgent to turn away. Rather, the US must pursue a comprehensive approach to degrading ISIS and similar groups, even if this approach involves the use of force. Second, CVE must target multiple stages of violent extremist radicalization. Insurgents are not born overnight, but rather go through a process of contact, engagement, persuasion, and joining a violent group. Efforts to counter this process should target each stage of radicalization. Finally, CVE must weigh the benefits of deterring violence against the costs of regional alienation. CVE has the potential to stop violent extremism. It also has the potential to embolden repressive government, stifle freedom of speech, and alienate people in the region who feel that the US views them merely as would-be terrorists. CVE efforts should be designed to minimize these costs and acknowledge these shortcomings. The US should reach out directly to people in the region to form alliances that help reduce violence and dispel the perception that it is merely “anti-terrorist brainwashing.” Given widespread disapproval of violent extremism in the region, CVE should take advantage of the opportunity to build bridges between decent people rather than exacerbate mistrust.
Scott Weiner is the chair of YPFP’s Middle East Discussion Group, and a Ph.D Candidate at The George Washington University.
Image: “National Guard’s 177th Fighter Wing “Jersey Devils” at Sunrise” (credit: Matthew Allen Hecht/Flickr).