February 19, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Countering Violent Extremism: Challenges and Solutions

• The ongoing Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) conferences in Washington D.C. highlight what is actually the largest battlefield in what was once a global war on terror but is now a war of global terror

• The issue of CVE is so complicated that even the idea of governments setting up CVE programs can be controversial, as some communities feel unfairly targeted or that CVE programs are monitoring programs by another name

• Adding to the difficulties of effective CVE is that governments don’t do nuance well, and every at-risk community or individual is different and even effective programs can backfire when used too broadly.


Violent extremism, and the violent ideologies that support it, have been variously described as an infection or a cancer that inflicts its host with lethal intention. Yet the response to this extremist infection has primarily come after the fact. This is extremely costly and ineffective, with the better course of action being to prevent an infection in the first place. After all, we don’t treat polio as much as we inoculate against it (though extremists are fighting even that in places like Pakistan).

This inoculation on a broad scale is called “Countering Violent Extremism,” or CVE. Yet unlike medicine, CVE is neither an exact science nor does any approach work best among the larger population. The difficulties of CVE are on full display this week in Washington D.C., as a White House-sponsored conference and several others take place, all aimed at determining the best ways in which to counter violent extremism.

Precisely because the issue extends to an individual level—after all, a population isn’t radicalized, but rather, individual people—governments find it difficult to tackle what is an obvious concern. Even the most nimble government can’t hope to create large-scale programs that fit every situation. What works in Minneapolis or Boston might be counter-productive in other U.S. cities, let alone in Copenhagen or Paris.

Most CVE programs aim to promote “credible voices,” meaning those indigenous voices that have spoken out against extremism without the taint of government affiliation. This is much more difficult and less straightforward than it seems. Once a government steps up to empower a credible voice, that voice becomes corrupted and suspect among the target audience. It is important, when crafting CVE programs, to always keep in mind that those already supportive of CVE or the government in general are not the target audience. What briefs well in presentations to policy-makers likely won’t work with the actual people who need the message. Effective CVE resists talking points, even as the entities that fund CVE programs require them.

One of the larger complications of CVE is the scale of the problem. Violent extremism is a huge issue, but solutions to counter it aren’t scaled well. Micro-grants or education for credible voices on how to create effective YouTube or Twitter campaigns might be more effective than large-scale programs that seek to teach disaffected people the ‘proper’ way to understand religion or conflict resolution. But each case is different, making the entire effort so frustrating and so seemingly free of progress.

The most resonant result of the CVE conferences might well be that there is no single most effective program. Extremists are preying on communities and the young across the globe, and yet CVE programs as a whole have a negative stigma. Some conflate CVE with government monitoring or government stereotyping. Many of the most well-intended efforts are doomed before they begin since there is no trust or connection to the vulnerable communities. This is unfortunate since extremists seize upon disconnection and disaffection. They prey on individuals while CVE seeks to inoculate communities, and therein lies the imbalance. No government can be expected to reach down to every household and ensure that individuals are not trending towards violent extremism. But the further CVE efforts can get from their broad policy goals—through relentless outreach and listening—and closer to the actual target audience, the less infections will need to be treated and countered. Violent extremism is a large-scale problem with small-scale solutions.


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