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More Countries Have Programs to Counter Violent Extremism, But Will They Work?

  • CVE programs have become more widespread in the past 10 years
  • There is no consistent global approach to countering violent extremism
  • Sometimes programs are misused by governments for greater repression

Following 9/11 and the intensification of Islamic violent extremism that followed, many countries realized that a military response alone was not enough. Counterterrorism had to begin much earlier, with programs to identify and address the root causes, help individuals on the path of radicalization change course, and to deal effectively with the return of those who had gone to take part in extremist movements abroad.

In 2016 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, calling on member states to engage in efforts to counter violent extremism (CVE).

Since then, the U.S. State Department reports that as many as 88 percent of 84 countries reviewed had a CVE program of some sort in place by 2017, up from 58 percent in 2010. But there has been no agreement on how best to proceed.

“A global approach to CVE does not exist,” writes Caitlin Ambrozik, adjunct professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, and an expert on global counterterrorism, who constructed a database of international CVE programs and recently published the initial findings. The data excludes domestic U.S. programs and focuses on domestic programs in other countries around the world.

While the increase in the number of countries with a CVE program might seem encouraging, Ambrozik highlights many differences between the approaches. As well as the extent to which a country has actually implemented its strategy and which of the above elements it comprises, she looked at whether it was government-driven not, whether civil society was engaged or not, and whether any program was specifically aimed at extremism prevention or only “CVE-relevant,” such as a general development aid program designed to reduce hardship. In 2010, the group was split roughly evenly between countries with direct specific CVE programs, those with indirect programs, and those whose program included both elements. By 2017, only 47 percent of countries had programs including both elements.

CVE programs typically comprise one or more elements:

  • Prevention – efforts to stop violent extremism from surfacing
  • Intervention – to provide assistance to individuals on the path toward radicalization
  • Counter-messaging – programs to put out narratives or messages to challenge an extremist narrative
  • DDR (deradicalization, disengagement and reintegration) – aimed at individuals who have already engaged in violent extremism and assisting them to leave this world and reintegrate into society

“Prevention” can take many forms, from aid projects addressing economic and social grievances, through training programs for police, prison guards and customs and immigration officials or general integration programs for culturally mixed societies. Unsurprisingly, therefore, over 75 percent of countries reported a prevention program of some kind in 2017.

“Intervention” usually involves more intense activity directed at individuals at risk already on the path toward radicalization. In 2017, only six countries reported such programs.

“Counter-messaging” is much more widespread, with 60 percent of countries reporting such programs in 2017, including many prominent programs in the Islamic world, from Morocco to UAE to Pakistan. Sometimes these involve creating ‘counter-messaging centers’ and sometimes, as in the example of Morocco, this involves monitoring sermons and promoting religious moderation.

“DDR” programs were reported in 46 percent of countries in 2017, and have risen with the return of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria. Such programs are challenging, as the report observes: “DDR programming is complex and requires proper resources and professionals to implement.”

The number of countries with CVE programs comprising more than one of these elements has risen from 40 percent to 64 percent in the period 2010-17.

Even more sharply, the percentage of countries with active non-government actors has grown dramatically from 18 percent in 2010 to 49 percent in 2017, having peaked at 56 percent in 2015. The causes of terrorism are many and complex, and a diversified strategy involving a wider range of actors seems to be more effective. “Countries with formalized CVE strategies are increasingly developing multifaceted strategies that tackle a bevy of root causes. This approach corresponds to academic findings that individuals radicalize for a variety of different reasons,” writes Ambrozik.

However, there can be a downside. Sometimes CVE can seem to stigmatize certain communities, threaten religious freedoms, or appear a vehicle for increased state surveillance, Ambrozik notes. Uzbekistan is mentioned as a case where the government has gone to particular lengths to monitor religious activity and published religious content, to the extent that there is now a government monopoly over religious publications, which the State Department identifies as potentially problematic. Fortunately, this is relatively rare – only five countries were identified as having problematic programs in this sense in 2017.

While there have been many encouraging developments, the report draws attention to the fact that countries with CVE strategies remain the minority, and many of the programs only indirectly prevent or counter violent extremism.

Ambrozik said that such a program should involve non-state as well as state participation, should have a mix of direct and indirect programs (i.e. directly tackling individuals and indirectly addressing economic and other related issues), and should not go too far into suppressing minorities or religious freedoms.

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Phil Price is a multilingual writer and translator based in London, UK. A graduate of Oxford University, Phil went on to hold senior management positions in several major British and German companies, and spent time living and working in Germany and Poland as well the UK. For HSToday, Phil reviews the latest findings from academic research and international studies into all aspects of international terrorism and presents the key trends and insights.

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