PS21 Report: Countering Violent Extremism


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  • “Countering Violent Extremism” programs are ballooning. Many do not work.
  • Rationale behind them often oversimplistic, discriminatory.
  • Can produce heightened sense of grievance in Muslim communities.
  • West still  “fishing” for counterterrorism strategy 14 years after 9/11.
  • With ISIS, Al Qaeda, primary problems in the Middle East. But focus largely on domestic risk.
  • Much greater effort should be devoted to  wider social issues.
  • Different narratives, messenger is needed for different target audiences.
  • CVE programs often ignore wider politics, genuine frustration at Western policies.
  • Individuals join groups for much more personal reasons, however.
  • Little solid data. Very low number of terror attacks makes analysis hard.

On Friday, May 29, 2015, the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21) held its first event in New York in conjunction with New York University’s Just Security blog.

A full transcript can be found here and video here.

The panelists were as follows:

Ryan Goodman (Moderator): NYU professor of law and co-editor, Just Security

Richard Barrett: Former British diplomat and intelligence officer who headed the United Nations monitoring team covering Al Qaeda and the Taliban for nearly a decade. Now Vice President at the Soufan Group and an International Advisor at PS21.

Faiza Patel: Founding editor of Just Security, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU.

Please feel free to quote from this report referencing both PS21 and NYU/Just Security. If you wish to get in touch with any of the panellists, please e-mail

Ever since 9/11, there has been a tendency to try and find clear-cut programs to identify the emergence of militant/terrorist tendencies. They have almost invariably been over-simplistic.

Patel: There’s such an urge to do something about the problem that we are using models that are simply not based on empirical science and still using them to build programs which have very real impacts on communities.

Barrett: Measuring effectiveness is a real, real problem. Because the instance of terrorism is so small, you can’t really relate that back to any of the actions you have taken.

If you look at violent extremism — and you look at the cases that we know of and plot — you get a collection of individual stories. From those individual stories, of course, you can make generalisations. The danger with that is they cover a huge population, far greater than those who have gone off to join the Islamic State.

The most serious issues and consequences around groups such as Islamic State are in the Middle East. But there is a tendency to view the problem primarily through the prism of homeland terror attack risk.

Barrett: Clearly, the main policy response has to lie with the region… (But) people are worried not because they worry about Iraq and Syria or the future of the Middle East or North Africa — which are the areas most affected — but because they are worried about what might happen at some convention they go to in Texas. They worry about what might happen when they go to the local Wal-Mart store.

In total, some 5-6000 Europeans and North Americans appear to have travelled to join militant groups. More research is needed on why — as well as why they in many cases choose to return.

Of that number, however, many probably represent little or no risk on their return.

Barrett: The great majority of people who go I don’t think are much of a threat. But there is a real concern — and this is the nature of terrorism, of course. To make the public concerned, that’s the whole point.

Almost 15 years after 9/11, the West is still struggling in its approach to terrorism.

Barrett: The development of counterterrorism over the years I’ve been involved has been remarkable. Immediately after 9/11 the idea was that you could essentially eradicate terrorism by killing everybody. And of course that became ridiculous pretty quickly.

Almost 14 years after 9/11, we’re still fishing around in the dark to find an understanding of terrorism, let alone effective countermeasures. But there has been a remarkable change in attitude. It’s not just about a military response. It is also about understanding why people from our societies would want to be terrorists. And law enforcement definitely has a role.

Traditional CVE programs such as those of the FBI and NYPD have been based on the concept that studying previous militants can show a path, allowing detection and intervention in future cases. Initially, this focused on signs of increased religiousness such as growing a beard and stopping smoking. More recent emphasis has been on psychological factors, looking for those alienated from society who might be seeking a new purpose.

The problem with both approaches is that they capture a vast number of young people, most of whom will not become militants. At worst, it can alienate them and to speed up the process.

Patel: I am a “CVE sceptic”. That’s how I define myself in this debate. I don’t see the kinds of things that have been put forward as predictors of radicalisation or violence or extremism as particularly useful. I look at my own kids who are 15 and 17 and I can assure you that if I went through the indicators of radicalisation put forward by Lisa Monaco from the White House about a year ago, my kids would probably meet about five of them.

The focus on counterterrorism misses the point that many of these problems are much more broadly societal.

Government can actually do harm by attempting to force its own “counter narrative”. In some cases, association with government-backed CVE programs has undermined previously effective local community projects such as those aimed at building local leadership.

Patel: You put that CVE tag on them and you are already turning off a large portion of your audience. Whatever you do in this space, your first principle I think must be to do no harm. What I see when the government intervenes in counter narrative, particularly on the domestic side, is a lot of harm.

Barrett: Those kind of objectives are important and can fall very broadly into a framework of a general social policy. But people like to feel they are engaged in countering terrorism. It’s a bit more attractive than saying: “I’m engaged in social work”. I would say that social work is probably more valuable.

Lower sentences for support for terrorism can, perversely, lead to higher detection rates because communities will co-operate more. Frequent raids, meanwhile, can stifle discussion within communities and raise discontent.

Modern Muslim groups are often criticised for failing to “fight” the Islamist narrative. This, again, is over-simplistic.

Patel: There is this false idea that moderate Muslim groups are going to be able to put forward messages that are going to be appealing to the people who are going to join ISIS. I think we really need to get away from that. It puts this kind of blame and responsibility on people where it really does not belong.

The most effective counter narratives are those that aren’t even meant to be counter narratives. These are things that are organic that come from the community and are really people’s individual responses to what they see as the distortion of their religion.

All too often, the CVE debate completely ignores the broader politics.

Patel: When we talk about countering violent extremism, we never talk about politics and what’s going on in the world. We assume this is some kind of poisonous ideology that we need to inoculate kids against.

Now you may not agree with their geopolitical view but if you don’t even acknowledge that there are factors other than ideology, other than mental health that are going on in this recruitment process, you’re not getting at the problem at all.

It is the general sense of this tension between the West and Islam but there are specific things which really capture people’s imagination. In particular, for example, the use of drones.

The narratives of the major militant groups are tightly focused on the Middle East. Al Qaeda and ISIS have different but overlapping approaches, particularly ideologically. Both are particularly critical of the West for supporting what they see as corrupt, illegitimate local dictatorships.

Barrett: One of the key differences is that Al Qaeda believes that the local (Middle Eastern) regimes are the secondary target and the first target is their supporters, the West, who really prop them up. Islamic State says: “no, we want to attack the local regimes and that is our primary target”.

What drives individuals to militant groups, however, can often be more personal.

“Counter narratives” will never be effective against the most hard-core militant supporters. They may be more effective against those who are simply sympathetic.

Barrett: This group is much more important. They are interested in things being put out by extremist groups and think maybe they make a bit of sense. They need access to other people who can give them the other side of the story.

Stories from similar people can be more effective than more moderate religious voices.

Barrett: There is a lot of attention on Imams talking about the “true meaning” of Islam. There isn’t a “true meaning”. You have the Koran, you have the Hadith and there is an interpretation of what they mean. You can be a literalist like the Islamic State or you can take a broader view.

My sense is that people are tempted to a radical violent extremist group because they want to belong to something; they want to have a stronger sense of identity.

A former militant could say: “Okay, I was exactly the same. I was exactly like you. I came from a very similar demographic and tried this. It didn’t work out. Now what I am doing is this.” You provide them with alternatives.

It is also important to reach out to “neutrals”, members of the community who would not themselves be tempted to become militants.

Barrett: If we are to manage and spot people who are going to join violent extremist groups, it is only their friends, relatives or family who can do that. It’s not going to be the local policemen. So these people have to be aware of the signs.

Then there are the people who are inclined to think terrorism is a bad thing. They are a useful audience to go to and say: “This is what you could do”. There are also those who are already doing something about it, they need to be given more ammunition and more support and more help.

You have these different audiences and for each of them you need a different message. You need a different messenger, whether or not it is a “former”, and you may need a different medium.

Law-enforcement agencies are not used to some of the problems of counterterrorism — not least that most police officers have never met and never will meet a terrorist.

It is also important to acknowledge the “pull factor” of groups like Islamic State. Part of combating that is finding other outlets for frustrated young people.

Barrett: They prey on these feelings and say: “You can come here, you can help build something, you can be part of something”.

Now for the vast majority of people, 99.99%, that isn’t enough. But for some it is. And it is unfortunate that the people who get up and go… are people who could do something rather more worthwhile.

Policymakers should be looking not just at how to prevent people becoming radicalised but alternative outlets for people who have the energy and determination that takes them out of their family and into the unknown.

Broader social initiatives are almost certainly a good idea. Some others with a narrower counter extremism focus may not be.

Patel: It’s important to look at different kinds of initiatives.

One set of initiatives are those which would be good for any community: building a community centre, building a highway that connects the suburbs of Paris more effectively or increasing digital literacy amongst populations. All these things are in the social services category and I think that if you took them out of the securitised space of counterterrorism they could be helpful. They are helpful on their own.

There is a second set of programs that are most problematic and those are the ones we’ve seen emerging in the United States, imported from Great Britain. I think these are a really bad idea.

These are programs that say: “We are going to identify vulnerable Muslims and then we are going to conduct interventions”. I have two fundamental problems with that.

Firstly, how are you going to identify vulnerable? This is very, very risky and an open-ended proposition, particularly when you are looking at minority populations who are not understood by, much less by public school teachers in Minnesota.

If I’m a schoolteacher and I’m worried that some Somali kid in my class is alienated or seems troubled, what am I going to do? Am I going to report him or her to the principal? Am I going to go to a police officer who has been designated as my CVE liaison and put this kid on a list for no good reason?

It may be worth narrowing the focus of some programs — for example, to focus solely on the risk of very small numbers going overseas to fight.

Patel: We have this risk and it’s very small, particularly in the United States. You’re looking at roughly around — according to law enforcement estimates — 100-130 people who have left.

So I can imagine something that says: let us educate parents about the kind of propaganda put forward and then they can think about the best ways to engage with their kids on that.

Gender roles are important when it comes to women joining ISIS in particular.

Barrett: A woman joining the Islamic State is much more likely to see her role as a wife and a mother rather than a fighter in the front line. There are many women who slightly fret that they are not being allowed to fight, particularly after they have been there some time. But the idea of going, particularly if you are relatively young, is often the idea of going to marry this heroic guy and become part of a sisterhood.

She thinks: “I’m going to belong to this really strong sisterhood. I’m not going to be discriminated against. I’m not going to be teased for wearing my hijab. I’m really going to be somebody who is going to contribute and I’m going to build the future of the state through my children and so on.” It’s a mixture of idealism and romanticism.

Most of them are in fact coming from the West because in Arab societies — and many other Muslim societies —  a woman getting up and leaving to a foreign country on her own or with her sister is much more difficult.

All too often, such actions — as well as the broader CVE narrative — simply fuel the sense of alienation in Muslim communities.

Patel: Asking some of these questions would simply be unacceptable with any group except Muslims.

Community leaders say: “in my mosque I don’t want to talk about foreign policy because if I talk about it the FBI is going to be at my door. Parents don’t want to talk to their children about these issues because they are afraid to do so. This is actually a real dynamic that you see in the community which is really detrimental to allowing the organic community institutions to push back against the ISIS narrative.

Report by Peter Apps. Transcript by Gabrielle Redelinghuys and Elyse Warren.

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