From countering to preventing violent extremism

Bangladeshi students and teachers protest against terrorism in 2016. (AP/Press Association)Countering violent extremism (CVE)—which aims to hinder the recruitment efforts of violent extremists
as well as address the conditions that facilitate radicalization—has become an
umbrella term encompassing disparate non-coercive responses to terrorism and
other forms of ideological violence. This has led many to lament the conceptual confusion of CVE as
a field of practice and theory. Certainly, the boundaries between CVE and peacebuilding, international development, or democracy
promotion are blurry. However, the nascent effort to introduce the terminology of “preventing violent
extremism” (PVE) into the field both clarifies and illuminates the unique role that
democracy, rights, and governance (DRG) programs and activities play in
impeding the growth of violent ideologies.

global policy response to terrorism has evolved significantly in both substance
and emphasis over the last 15 years. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, governments
around the world employed a “kinetic” response to terrorism focused on the
military and intelligence communities killing and capturing terrorists. During
the Iraq War, the U.S. embraced a more comprehensive response to terrorism that
sought to win “hearts and minds” in conjunction with traditional military tactics,
an approach that came to be known as counter-insurgency (COIN). Once combating
violent political mobilization became a policy priority of the U.S. government,
the State Department and Agency for International Development (USAID) led
efforts to reframe conventional development goals such as poverty alleviation
as components of effective counterterrorism.

As part of a new holistic approach to combating terrorism, the U.S. government
counter-messaging and rehabilitation programs, and sought to address the “push
factors” of extremism, such
as unresponsive and alienating governance. Yet this broader approach, which
eventually became known as CVE, obscures
important programmatic distinctions. Promoting alternative narratives to terrorist
recruitment efforts or re-socializing former terrorists are truly attempts to
“counter” violent extremism, whereas promoting democratic institutions and a
diverse civil society do not counter
existing extremists, but seek to prevent
their emergence in the first place. Building the capacity of pro-democracy civil society groups enhances broader awareness of nonviolent democratic norms. 

the drivers of violent extremism often include perceptions of global injustice,
such as the oppression of coreligionists around the world, these sentiments are
frequently viewed through the lens of local grievances. Marginalization, social
discrimination, lack of opportunity, corruption and other by-products of weak
or bad governance often pervade areas where vulnerabilities to extremism are high.
These grievances can cut across socioeconomic categories: the educated middle
class can become disillusioned with corruption and undemocratic local and
national government structures that impede their access to influence, while the
lower and uneducated classes can become frustrated with governance that fails
to provide basic social services. Research
indicates that the latest generation of terrorists—those joining Salafi jihadist
movements since the Iraq War—are more likely to be poorer and less educated
than previous generations.

light of these many areas of crossover, traditional DRG programs hold
significant potential to meaningfully contribute to PVE. For example, equipping
legislators with data to inform policymaking and enhance the communication
channels between government officials and their constituents can improve policy
outcomes and decrease grievances. Supporting programs that advance economic and
political opportunities for youth and other marginalized groups can prevent radicalism
by providing viable alternative paths. Strengthening inclusive democratic
governance provides nonviolent mechanisms for social and political change. Building
the capacity of pro-democracy civil society groups enhances broader awareness
of nonviolent democratic norms. Bolstering the inclusivity and responsiveness
of political parties and leaders strengthens the public’s confidence in the
democratic process thereby lowering the urge to resist it violently. Promoting
cross-cultural dialogue generates positive inter-group relations that undermines
hateful stereotypes and dehumanizing narratives that legitimize extremist

traditional counterterrorism and CVE approaches, PVE aims to address the drivers
that push vulnerable individuals to violent extremism. This theory of change creates
several challenges for implementing and measuring PVE programs. The time frame
for success is long-term, as altering governance outcomes and social
perceptions almost always takes years to come to fruition. Additionally, the
target for implementation is broad: rather than focus on extremists themselves,
PVE targets a broader subset of potentially vulnerable individuals, which makes
implementation more complex.

these challenges, policymakers increasingly recognize that success against
violent extremism will have to include improving political, social, and
economic outcomes in these societies. Traditional counterterrorism and CVE
approaches are essential to detecting, averting, and addressing violent
extremism and terrorist plots, but PVE-focused programs provide a way to potentially
reduce the threat of violent extremism in the long-term. The diverse DRG
implementer community—including international and domestic NGOs, governments, and
international organizations—can and must play a leading role in this effort.

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.


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