Since the 9/11 attacks on the US, the subject of terrorism has evolved – both in the battlefield as well as the academic space. Initially, it was the straightforward field of counterterrorism (CT), which by and large continues to play an important role in discussions today. Then, as the US started to prolifically occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, CT became supplemented with another acronym – COIN (counterinsurgency). Though these topics existed before the 9/11 era, they saw a resurrection post the attacks.
The discussions shifted yet again to account for real and perceived policy failures. There was a recognition that simple ‘hard’ responses (military/police action) were insufficient, but at the same time, engaging in long-term and expensive ‘hearts and minds’ projects were out of favour with policymakers. There was a need to confront the factors that encouraged the growth and adaptation of violent extremist ideology. Thus, a ‘soft’ approach – countering violent extremism (CVE) – has served as a fashionable framework for policymakers dealing with the continuing issues of terrorism and violent non-state actors. In 2015, then-President Obama hosted an international summit with leaders from over a 100 countries, multilateral bodies and civil society organisations to discuss the issue.
Like its predecessors, CVE hasn’t been without considerable controversy, not just because it is a new field, but also because many want to hijack the conversation. It is undeniable that Islamic extremist groups are responsible for more attacks globally than any other. But while Islamic extremism receives more research, media/policymaking focus and programmes than any other, it often occurs at the expense of other forms of extremism such as white supremacy, Buddhist extremism, or Hindu nationalism.
This excessive focus on Islamic extremism in the West at the expense of other lethal forms of extremism is one reason why the field has become so politicised, because by making it only about Islamic extremism, we end up, by default, focusing on Islam as the problem rather than extremism.
Nevertheless, progress is being made. Through universities, some think tanks, or the occasional public government report, a lot of discussion on the various factors that affect individuals and communities is moving forward. Some of this might seem small. Take for example efforts to classify the driving factors that lead to extremism. In a 2016 report for the Royal United Services Institute on programme design and evaluation for CVE, James Khalil and Martine Zeuthen move away from the popular push/pull classification system used in various discussions across the world to divide the driving factors into three categories: structural motivators, individual incentives and enabling factors. It helps open the distinctions and nuances between the role of the state, the individual and other actors and organisations. It also allows a better paradigm to examine and expand on the various aspects of what drives extremism, including the states who themselves would want to implement such CVE programming.
Research organisations throughout the world, such as the RESOLVE Network in the US, Hedayah in the UAE and others are encouraging additional academic research on the topic. Assumptions are regularly challenged, and new, innovative works are being published.
One aspect of research of the larger CVE subject that has received a lot of attention is radicalisation. While research on this topic continues today, more and more research has added the necessary complexity and nuances to our understanding on how various factors interact with one another to cause radicalisation. Of course there are the older ‘grievance’ models that, while valuable, give us an incomplete picture. While much of the work has focused on what affects the individual, these same efforts have allowed researchers to expand their work and incorporate large policy issues in our understanding of extremism.
Mohammed M. Hafez’s book from 2003, Why Muslims Rebel: Repression and Resistance in the Islamic World, is an early example of this kind of work. More and more, it is becoming known how larger structural factors, and other cleavages in society, can help foster extremism. Yet, the link of how this led to the formation of religious extremist groups that were willing to conduct horrific violence was less understood. Rather than a straightforward answer of grievance or greed, Hafez showed how repressive policies by authoritarian states interacted with exclusionary policies that help create favourable ground for extremist groups to form.
Reasons for radicalisation
But while CVE researchers look at what factors drive extremism, or why individuals join extremist organisations, this leads to the question of how does one identify as an extremist? Many public discussions of ‘detecting’ extremism rely on outdated models and stereotypes. There is no objective profile of who becomes a terrorist, or who radicalises.
Many experts will point out that having radical belief does not mean that the person will engage in violence. Yet in the past, many government agencies have relied on discredited indicators such as disagreeing with US foreign policy, becoming more religious, showing outrage at international events like Israel’s abuse of the Palestinians, and involvement in social activism were all indicators that someone was at risk at becoming an extremist.
None of this is actually backed by research. Indeed, what it actually shows is discomfort towards religious Muslims, or those who disagree with US policies. This could describe human rights and social justice activists or anyone who is politically active. This is no small quibble. In the past, important figures like Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Gandhi were all smeared by the governments of their time. Radicalisation is a complicated process, and trying to predict who will be extremists based on a few, problematic indicators is a pseudo-science at best.
In academic circles there is a recognition importance of local expertise and knowledge in researching extremism and deradicalisation. From examining symbols and narratives associated with extremist ideology, to how and why people join armed groups, a lot of specialisations and studies are imperative. This pulls from the larger bodies of research associated with terrorism and insurgencies and is necessary for understanding CVE. Yet this involves a great amount of research and a large knowledge base to be effective. Understanding the history, politics, socioeconomics and ideologies of CVE can be daunting.
This leads to another prominent issue that has plagued the field of CVE (as well as the terrorism field before) – the ‘terrorism’ expert. There are great, credible experts on CVE and terrorism who also express concern at the ‘terrorism’ expert. Here the ‘terrorism’ expert serves a political purpose more than an academic or illustrative purpose. This is perhaps most visibly demonstrated with last year’s Senate hearing on Islamic extremism featuring controversial figures Asra Nomani and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Neither was an expert on CVE, but they served the political purpose of criticising Islam.
As CVE expert Jasmine el-Gamal remarked on Twitter, the hearing lacked objectivity, judgement and was a disappointment for anyone who cares about CVE. Unfortunately, this practice of ‘terrorism’ experts is only going to continue. The desire for ‘terrorism’ experts has allowed the rise of many who try to pass off bigotry as ‘scholarly’ and ‘expertise’. Most famous of these is Sebastian Gorka, former deputy advisor to Donald Trump. Sadly, many television experts from Steve Emmerson, to Frank Gaffney, the number of fake terrorism and extremism experts who have some level of influence over policy matters is worrying.
But while this is all continuing, larger issues of measurement, definitions and determining, what actually works continues to take up the time of researchers. Just as there is no single set path to extremism, so also it is difficult to proscribe a single path to have someone exit violence. As with many other academic subjects in the social sciences, conducting exact scientific inquires with control subjects remains difficult. Even many studies that examine biographies of former militants, although useful for our understanding, suffer from selection bias limitations.
Although there has been much progress in understanding what factors may lead an individual into extremism, some basic questions remain unanswered. There is an understanding of why someone will participate in violence, what factors can make this more or less likely, but reliable understandings of ‘who’ joins extremist groups or movements is limited, making it difficult to predict who would become a militant. For example, many Palestinians living under Israel’s occupation have the motivation to join an armed group – after all many of them have undergone the brutal and humiliating treatment by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints, have opportunity to join organisations that already exist, and many are finding that ways of peaceful protest are quickly shut down and ineffective. Despite this, relatively few individuals will ever join an armed faction.
This is not a unique case. In many conflict zones and repressive environments, where many will share the same politics, beliefs, religion and rationale for fighting, many still don’t. This doesn’t take away from the research being done by academics so much as demonstrating the importance of taking the time and effort to engage with these questions. Whether this will happen in the current political climate, though, is debatable.
On February 5, a Twitter town hall was held to deal with this. The #StopCVE town hall involved multiple organisations and individuals discussing their criticisms. Some of these criticisms range from the ‘flawed’ science that the programmes are based on, the lack of empirical evidence on the effectiveness of many CVE programmes, its stigmatising of Muslim communities, with one commentator even going to say it’s the new COINTELPRO. Critics of the hashtag could say that the #StopCVE drastically misunderstands the science behind CVE, or that many of the organisations promoting the hashtag only were upset that they were denied CVE funding. Even if that’s true, this still does not deal with the fears and concerns that many have about CVE programming.
These fears and gripes with CVE programming cannot be easily dismissed. In the US, the reality is that race has long served as a major divide in society, and there is a long history of distrust of marginalised communities towards the law enforcement. Whether it was the effects of the war on drugs, the large number of police killings disproportionally hurting minorities, or the general suspicion and spying by police departments of Muslim communities in the post 9/11 era, all have created justifiable misgivings about a new programme. The fact that Muslim police officers were spied on and forced out because they were Muslim does little to help. There are well-founded fears on what a perceived security oriented programme would do to the communities. For others, it erodes trust that members have with each other in the community (especially if the Imams are involved).
While CVE practitioners and advocates might say that the purpose of these programmes is not to spy on individuals or to stigmatise communities, the communities who the CVE programmes are supposed to help have pointed out that the programmes ignore the real issues they face. Among Somali refugees in Minnesota, where issues of mental health and lack of housing are important, these issues are only considered if they help prevent extremism. Rather than helping Somali refugees integrate into the community and improve their living standards, social services are provided simply for the sake of trying to counter extremism. It is difficult to see how helping refugees under the rubric of CVE does not create a negative perception of refugees or securitise the problem.
One major concern is that CVE programming primarily targets Muslims. Under the Obama administration, theoretically, all forms of extremism in the US would be combated. Yet during the above-mentioned CVE summit, the topic was focused on Islamic extremism. Once Trump obtained office, he made clear that CVE would only target Islamic extremism. This is despite the fact that within the US, far-right extremists have killed more people than Islamic extremists, something that has been true most years since 9/11.
It is also no secret that since Trump came into office, he has been using the Department of Homeland Security, and other departments to justify his racist rhetoric towards Muslims and immigrants. A recently leaked DHS report encouraged long-term surveillance of Sunni Muslim immigrants, and a joint Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security report used questionable methodology (and cherry-picking the data) to try and encourage the perception that immigrants were potential terrorists. Even organisations that were willing to try and help out in CVE programming have been turned off by the Trump administration. In the words of Faiza Patel of the Brennan Center for Justice, “It’s time to let this dog die.”
As the pros and cons of CVE continue to be debated among experts, the communities it affects and others, it is important to know about these debates and the issues at hand. It would be nice to have fair CVE programmes in countries that target all forms of extremism, whether far-right, Buddhist, Hindu, or Islamic. But working the politicised spaces where CVE would be needed, and considering all the larger issues that nations face besides terrorism, a bigger question remains: is it worth it?
Hari Prasad is an independent researcher on Middle East/South Asia Politics and Security. He holds an MA from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.