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Ambiguities of CVE Theory & Practice


Over the past two decades, so-called ‘violent extremism’ is supposed to have assumed an expanding presence and emerged as a critical threat to states and societies in the Horn. In Somalia, the armed forces of Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and other states are engaged in supporting the Somali Federal Government in its conflict with the Harakat Al-Shabab Mujahideen or Al-Shabab in short. The Al-Shabab in addition to its frequent military attacks in Somalia, has also mounted successive attacks targeting civilians not only in Somalia but also in Kenya which have led to extensive casualties, and also attempted to do so in Ethiopia. The Al-Shabab while the most newsworthy is only the latest incarnation of a number of movements that have emerged over the past two decades and utilized many of the same tactics. What makes the situation in the Horn even more critical is that prevailing socio-economic and political conditions supposedly provide many of the structural pre-conditions for violent extremist movements (Rotberg 2005: 3-5).

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) is not only an emerging and topical policy agenda and sphere of programmatic interventions, but also a vast and complex research agenda for academia, civil society and government agencies. CVE programmatic interventions are garnering momentum, support and resources across the world, a state of affairs also reflected in the Horn of Africa (Horn).

CVE emerged as a distinct policy agenda and approach in the context of the Global War on Terror (GWOT). A number of important signposts in this process can be pinpointed. The CVE summit chaired by the then president of the United States, Barack Obama, in February 2015, and held at the White House and attended by officials from nearly seventy countries, was a key event. The White House summit was followed by a high-level United Nations meeting in September 2015 involving government representatives, civil society and business. In February 2016, the United Nations Secretary General presented a plan of action to prevent violent extremism to the UN General Assembly. However, CVE as a policy agenda and CVE policies and programs have antecedents such as the British government’s Prevent program, which has undergone several iterations since it was first unveiled in 2003. Prevent is widely understood to be one of the first examples of CVE strategies.

The US government, the European Union and Global CT Forum (GCTF), a group of twenty-nine countries have funded CVE programs with the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and bilaterally with IGAD member states. The EU has its program ‘Strengthening Resilience to Violent Extremism’ in the Horn of Africa (STRIVE), which focuses on capacity building and civil society engagement in Somalia and Kenya. International organizations including USAID, DFID are also actively engaged in CVE-related projects in the Horn. The IGAD has also formulated a regional strategy for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) and also established an IGAD Center of Excellence for P/CVE. Currently only one member state of the IGAD, Kenya has formulated a national CVE strategy.[1] Several civil-society organizations are also implementing CVE projects and programs in the Horn.

This article does not seek to describe or analyse CVE practice at the state or civil-society level. The focus is to problematize certain aspects of CVE theory and practice and in the process draw conclusions regarding the implications of the expanding focus on CVE in the Horn.

Definitional ambiguities

A key aspect of the theoretical lacunae in relation to CVE is the difficulty in defining CVE and its remit. A common solution is the attempt to define the concept negatively i.e. by what it is not. CVE is often distinguished from Counter Terrorism (CT) and/or Counter Insurgency (COIN) with CVE being understood as encompassing softer approaches. CVE practice emphasizes a focus on root causes such as socio-economic deprivation as a way to tackle both the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors driving ‘violent extremism’. Many critics believe that in practice the lines between CVE, CT and COIN are often blurred. Nonetheless this barely addresses the problem as some of the foundational terms associated with CVE are also contested, a key instance being the concept of ‘violent extremism’.[2]

The tendency on the part of some actors to invariably conflate Islamist extremism or radicalism with terrorism is also fraught with problems. It can and has led many Muslim communities in the West, the Middle East and the Horn to perceive the GWOT as a thinly veiled attack against Islam. As Githens-Mazer (Ibid: 560) so aptly puts it, ‘the contemporary security discourse of radicalization represents the translation of a perception of social risk from Islamically inspired terrorism into the concrete focus of a policy agenda’. A glaring anomaly in this regard is the implicit association of ‘violent extremism’ and therefore the referent/object of CVE with Islamist violence, whilst other forms of violence such as those deployed by militants subscribing to other religious ideologies are not tagged with the ‘violent extremism’ label.

Another puzzling issue is the lack of consensus over the precise relationship between ‘radicalisation’ and violent extremism.[3] Some also doubt the validity of identifying indicators that reflect growing radicalisation and the possibility of establishing a typical profile of a violent extremist.[4] What this suggests is that the repertoire of tools and methodologies associated with CVE and even the theories of change (TOCs) may be less effective and plausible than many think.

Lacunae in researching Violent Extremism

The literature on CVE is vast and expanding at an exponential rate. However this literature is characterised by several limitations such as; limited repertoire of research methodologies, minimal reliance on field research and primary data, focus on certain regions and countries and the dominance by scholars from Western Europe and North America.[5]

‘Voluntarily induced cognitive dissonance’

Luttwak coined the phrase ‘voluntarily induced cognitive dissonance’ to refer to a widespread tendency in media, government and civil society to avoid engaging the ideological underpinnings of movements such as the Al-Shabab.[6] Luttwak and critics see this as emerging from an expansive sense of political correctness and the hegemony of epistemic-cultural relativism. In a related vein Cottee also argues that what he conceptualizes as the three dominant paradigms in CVE thinking; the ‘terrorism as pathology’, ‘terrorism as political resistance’ and the ‘infantilization of terrorism’, all share the same implicit refusal to engage the ideological-political justifications of violent extremist movements.[7]

The motivations behind avoiding engaging with the ideological foundations of violent extremism may be understandable in terms of avoiding the stigmatization of communities and belief systems; something that is all the more pressing especially at the current moment where Islamophobia in some circles has almost become normalized.

While laudable, this refusal to explore the ideological-political underpinnings of some forms of ‘violent extremism’ comes at a cost. It has led to a situation where the discussion and analysis of the impact of certain strands of extremist Salafi-Wahabi thought on insurgent movements in the Middle East and the Horn has become almost taboo. Analysts and actors in the CVE realm have wilfully and consciously chosen to ignore and side-line what potentially could be a key factor behind the rise and resilience of these movements.[8] The usual defence offered for this is the flawed argument that the religious polemics utilized by movements such as Al-Shabab, Al-Qaeda and Da’esh are ‘wrong’ or ‘distorted’, begging the particularly relevant questions in this context; whether there is a single correct interpretation of religious texts, and who decides which interpretation is authoritative?[9]

As mentioned earlier CVE practice emphasizes a focus on root causes, but this emphasis is accompanied by excluding the role of ideology as if an emphasis on root causes necessarily excludes ideology. This exclusion also leads to contradictory and curious situations because it also by definition excludes some of the tools in the CVE repertoire such as counter-messaging and intra-religious dialogues. The desire to shy away from the issue of ideology has also affected CVE programming itself in that CVE programs and projects in several countries of the Horn avoid the term ‘extremism’ and instead utilize terms such as ‘resilience’, ‘livelihoods’ etc.

De-politicizing what is inherently political?

The refusal to confront the ideological component of movements tagged as ‘violent extremists’ coupled with the emphasis on root causes has the effect of avoiding the inherently political nature of the challenge posed by these movements. Discounting the ideological aspect either leads one to regard these movements and their supporters as either ‘deluded’ or ‘psychologically impaired’ and leads to avoiding key issues such as political power and socio-economic relations which should be the crux. The focus on root causes intentionally or otherwise reduces political conflict and violence which may be rooted in structural inequalities to the technical issues of vocational skills training, education, employment etc. The paradox here is that the de-politicization of what are by definition political issues inevitably postpones raising questions about, and, doing something to tackle the structural foundations of socio-political conflict. CVE discourse also suffers from the drawback of ideologically interpreting and deploying terms such as political violence and terrorism. And of course, the term, terrorism has always been instrumentally deployed by governments to delegitimize political opponents and challenges to the status-quo, a phenomenon that also exists in the Horn.

Reinventing the Wheel: CVE and COIN complementary or distinct?

As alluded to earlier, the consensus has been to draw a distinction between CVE on the one hand, and CT or COIN on the other. In fact, CVE has been commended for its emphasis on socio-economic drivers, re-education and dialogue instead of the legal-military centric emphasis of CT/COIN. But the distinction is a fuzzy one at best, not least because actors engaged in CVE realize and accept the reality that their activities complement the policies and actions of states and their agencies in confronting the threat posed by insurgents, defined as ‘violent extremists’. Actors in the CVE realm are also disingenuously ignoring history in choosing to forget that COIN strategies and tactics since the middle of the 20th century have always pushed for a holistic approach in combatting insurgencies combining military-police actions with tokenistic socio-economic initiatives. But what is also perplexing here is the role and positionality of civil-society. Civil-society actors by engaging in CVE programs and projects risk imperilling their neutrality and impartiality by partnering with governments to participate in (if one is absolutely honest) in state driven COIN policies. The ethical questions posed by such a partnership are vexing and should be a matter of debate and reflexivity.

CVE Competing with Development & Peace-building?

There is growing concern amongst civil society organizations engaged in the spheres of development and peace-building at the growing priority assigned to CVE and the concern that it could lead to a diversion of resources to projects and programs working on CVE. The evidence for this concern is inconclusive. Several studies have argued that a key impediment facing current CVE efforts is the lack of funding.[10] However many studies also suggest that donor approaches are increasingly shifting to a perspective that sees investing in security and stability i.e. CVE, as tantamount to investing in poverty reduction and development. What this has led to in some cases and contexts is the diversion of funding and resources to fund CVE projects and programs.[11] This has led to a situation where mainstream development and peace-building interventions are increasingly facing a crunch and civil-society actors have been forced to rebrand their proposed or actual interventions as CVE actions. CVE in terms of its emphasis on structural variables such as poverty etc. can easily be instrumentalized to draw away resources from other spheres. It is also a testament to the increasingly precarious erosion of civil-society neutrality and impartiality due to their probably inevitable entanglement in the CVE sphere.


The earlier very schematic overview of the gaps in CVE theory and practice raises several questions and also points to areas where actions may need to be taken. The central and most pressing issue is the necessity for civil-society actors to engage in deep debate and reflection on the question of engaging in CVE and the modalities of this engagement. Civil-society actors who choose to engage in CVE should also seek to ensure that their engagement does not converge with state driven and led COIN strategies. The research agenda on CVE is also critical and behoves the greater involvement of researchers not only drawn from the Global South but also adhering to different perspectives. As discussed earlier some of the political cum ideological taboos that still constrain analysis and actions in the CVE realm should be questioned. Finally, research on CVE and the assessment of the impact of CVE interventions should be a top priority. Currently, CVE programs and projects are mostly confined to Somalia and Kenya in the Horn, so research and impact assessment on actually existing CVE programs could also inform future CVE programs in the other countries of the Horn.


Femi Ayat is an independent researcher from Nigeria focusing on conflict, counter-insurgency and extremism. He can be reached at



[2] (USAID 2011) defines violent extremism as, ‘…advocating, engaging in, preparing, or otherwise supporting ideologically motivated or justified violence to further social, economic and political objectives.’ The government of the UK defines it as, ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of

law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’, while the government of the Netherlands deploys the terms ‘violent extremism’ and ‘violent jihadism’ interchangeably. Schomerus, M. & El Taraboulsi-McCarthy, S. with Sandhar, J. 2017. Countering violent extremism (Topic Guide). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham). Pg. 7.

[3] See for instance, McCauley, Clark & Moskalenko. 2008. ‘Mechanisms of Political Radicalization: Pathways Toward Terrorism’ in Terrorism and Political Violence. Vol:20, Issue No. 3.

[4] Patel, Faiza & Koushik, Meghan. 2017. ‘Countering Violent Extremism’. Brennan Centre for Justice at New York University School of Law. Pgs. 9-13. See also, Nabulsi, Karma. 18, May, 2017. ‘Don’t Go to the Doctor’ in the London Review of Books. Vol. 39: No. 10.

[5] Douglass, Rex W. & Rondeaux, Candace. 2017. Mining The Gaps: A Text Mining-Based Meta-Analysis of the Current State of Research on Violent Extremism. RESOLVE: United States Institute of Peace. Washington.

[6] Luttwak, Edward N. September 12, 2017. ‘ ‘Strange’ and ‘Strangers’ ‘ in, Tablet Magazine,

[7] Cottee, Simon.April 27, 2017. ‘Terrorists are not Snowflakes’, in Foreign Policy.

[8] Wood, Graeme. 2016. The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State. Random House: NY

[9] Ibid: 75-81.

[10] Koser, Khalid & Rosand Eric. 2016. ‘A Better Way To Counter Violent Extremism-Why Business as Usual Won’t Work’ in Foreign Affairs.

[11] Kessels, Eecole & Nemr, Christina. 2016.’Countering Violent Extremism and Development Assistance: Identifying Synergies, Obstacles, and Opportunities’. Global Center on Cooperative Security. UK. Pgs. 8-12.

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