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Countering violent extremism: Challenges in policy and practice

The Horn of Africa sub-region is highly prone to terrorism. Almost all countries of the sub-region have been victims of terrorist attacks and have been responding unilaterally and collectively. Multinational organizations and donor countries have been engaged in various counter terrorism (CT) initiatives particularly since the 9/11 terrorist attack  in the United States of America as part of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) led by the United States (US) Government and its allies in the region and beyond. It is important to note terrorist organizations have been operating in the sub-region well before 9/11. Increasingly, global CT efforts have come to be perceived as ineffective and/or counterproductive for many reasons including flawed policies and practices that prioritized militarized and law enforcement responses discounting local contexts and driving factors and catalysts to violent extremism ((Brett, J; Eriksen, K.B; Sorensen, A.K.R and Aps, T.C (2015) Lessons Learnt from Danish and Other International Efforts on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in Development Contexts, DANIDA . Romaniuk, P (2015) Does CVE Work: Lessons Learnt from the Global Effort to Counter Violent Extremism, GCCS)) . Home grown terrorist acts have also become more prevalent in the West. This has encouraged the policy community and practitioners to look for alternatives, which in turn explains the ’emergence’ of the discourse and practices associated with ‘Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).  CVE has now become the primary focus of intergovernmental organizations such as the European Union and donor countries. CVE has not replaced the entirety of CT measures but should be rather understood as a subset of the fight against terrorism focusing on ‘soft’ and grassroots approaches engaging communities and civil society organizations that the GWOT had previously overlooked.

This article will discuss the emergence of CVE, its merits and the challenges in addressing violent extremism in practice. CVE has ushered in some positive changes in the form of a comprehensive and inclusive approach focusing at grassroots community engagement and state-civil society partnerships. On the other hand, CVE also reiterates some old approaches. This article argues that CVE is devised to delink the perception that the GWOT targets Islam and its civilization and seeks to encourage allies from the Arab world and moderate Muslims to partner in the fight against terrorism and violent extremism. That is, CVE, in some ways, is being used to rebrand or revitalize the less popular GWOT ((Romaniuk, P (2015) Does CVE Work: Lessons Learnt from the Global Effort to Counter Violent Extremism, GCCS. Fink, N.C. (2014) Something Old, Something New,: The Emergence and Evolution of CVE Effort, United states Institute of Peace, INSIGHT, Issue 1, Spring 2014, http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/Insights-Spring-2014.pdf.)) .

In practice, CVE would be a difficult, long term effort and ambitious in its intent to address the ‘root causes’ and change ‘ minds and hearts’. The fact that CVE lacks a persuasive definition has led to multiple interpretations of concepts and terms that can make it a ‘catch-all’ rather than a clear field of practice ((Heydermann, S. (2014) ‘Countering violent Extremism as a Field of Practice’, United states Institute of Peace, INSIGHT, Issue 1, Spring 2014, http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/Insights-Spring-2014.pdf.)) . In spite of its limitations and challenges, CVE can positively contribute to the prevention and countering of terrorism and violent extremism, if policy community and practitioners are committed to the tenets of CVE.

CVE’s Tenets: A new paradigm or evolving approach?

In the wake of the 9/11 attack, members of the international community led by the US government, responded in a heavy handed and militarized way to terrorism. This simplistic approach viewed terrorism as a form of criminal and subversive activity that targeted the West and its values. A more measured approach would have viewed terrorism as a complex and evolving social problem that requires addressing the structural and functional causes (political, economic and social grievances) that drive and catalyze individuals and groups towards violence.

Counter Terrorism (CT) practices increasingly showed a proclivity for grave violations of human rights and international law. Some countries have also manipulated CT measures to silence political opposition and criticism ((Gorka, K. (2014) The Flawed Science Behind America’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy, White Paper, The Council on global Security.)) . The acts committed by US security personnel in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the widespread practice of illegal detentions and renditions, decades of arrest without charge in Guantanamo are all manifestations of the failures of the GWOT. Terrorist attacks and fatalities have dramatically increased, more powerful terrorist groups have been created, the landmass controlled by terrorist groups has expanded, the number of foreign fighters crossing borders to join terrorist groups has surged, and terrorist attacks have reached new heights of cruelty and depravity in the last few years ((Brett, J; Eriksen, K.B; Sorensen, A.K.R and Aps, T.C (2015) Lessons Learnt from Danish and Other International Efforts on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in Development Contexts, DANIDA. Gorka, K. (2014) The Flawed Science Behind America’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy, White Paper, The Council on global Security.)) .

There has been a conscious effort not to link terrorism with Islam by avoiding terms such a ‘jihad’, ‘mujahedeen’, ‘Islamic extremism’ in the CT policy discourse with a view to not offend Muslim countries and entice moderate Muslims ((Ibid.)) . However, other observers believed that this dilemma has been a counterproductive in the fight against terrorism ((Ibid.)) .

As a result of the growing perception that GWOT approaches have been inefficient and counterproductive, policy makers and security advisors have sought alternatives. In a nutshell, this arguably explains the emergence of CVE. In the last few years, CVE has been at the top of CT discourses in governments, multinational organizations and non-state actors. The February 2015 White House Summit on CVE that brought together more than 60 countries and intergovernmental bodies is a showcase of the mainstreaming and growing priority of CVE. The Summit recognized the need for comprehensive and integrated response other than militarized and law enforcement actions ((Romaniuk, P (2015) Does CVE Work: Lessons Learnt from the Global Effort to Counter Violent Extremism, GCCS)) .

CVE is conventionally understood to be comprehensive, inclusive, demand driven (contextualized) and supposedly incorporates preventive and anticipatory measures. In its preventive domain, CVE is intended to address structural causes and aggravating factors (catalysts) sometimes referred as push/pull factors and enabling environment ((Brett, J; Eriksen, K.B; Sorensen, A.K.R and Aps, T.C (2015) Lessons Learnt from Danish and Other International Efforts on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in Development Contexts, DANIDA. Romaniuk, P (2015) Does CVE Work: Lessons Learnt from the Global Effort to Counter Violent Extremism, GCCS.)) that create grievances and thereby violent extremism. This approach is not novel or ground breaking. The UN Global Counter Terrorism Strategy (2006) clearly articulated that CT should address ‘conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism’. The conditions stipulated in the UN strategy include among others conflicts, lack of rule of law, human rights violations, discriminations and marginalization. However, the causal relationship with regard to what factors cause grievances that lead individuals to violent extremism are often assumed ((Fink, N.C. (2014) Something Old, Something New,: The Emergence and Evolution of CVE Effort, United states Institute of Peace, INSIGHT, Issue 1, Spring 2014, http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/Insights-Spring-2014.pdf. Heydermann, S. (2014) ‘Countering violent Extremism as a Field of Practice’, United states Institute of Peace, INSIGHT, Issue 1, Spring 2014, http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/Insights-Spring-2014.pdf. Brett, J; Eriksen, K.B; Sorensen, A.K.R and Aps, T.C (2015) Lessons Learnt from Danish and Other International Efforts on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in Development Contexts, DANIDA. Romaniuk, P (2015) Does CVE Work: Lessons Learnt from the Global Effort to Counter Violent Extremism, GCCS.)) .

In its early warning/response measures, CVE seeks to identify vulnerable individuals and groups, and early signs of radicalization and mitigate the risks through engagement, education and counter-narratives ((Brett, J; Eriksen, K.B; Sorensen, A.K.R and Aps, T.C (2015) Lessons Learnt from Danish and Other International Efforts on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in Development Contexts, DANIDA)) . The anticipative role also serves as an input to identify and address the push/pull factors and enabling environment. This practice is actually borrowed from the wider concept of risk management.

In addressing violent extremism, CVE assigns greater emphasis to community engagement, the role of civil society organizations, partnerships between state and non-state actors and the call for context specific responses. In particular the emphasis on resilient communities invulnerable to recruitment and lacking sympathy with violent extremists and who are able to deter and disrupt extremist recruitment and mobilization can be considered as a fresh contribution. The growing consensus that ‘ideology cannot be defeated by guns/bullets but by better ideas’ is a promising initiative. These ‘soft’ approaches are promising and a relatively new development in the CT sphere.

CVE’s revitalized principle of ‘do not stigmatize’ is somewhat derived from the Development Assistance Committee’s (DAC’s) ‘do not harm’ principle.

In summary, CVE has ushered in some new and positive developments into the CT space; at the same time it has to be acknowledged that much of the approaches are predominantly borrowed from different fields such as community policing, governance, risk management, social work, and peace-building. In this regard, CVE is not so much a paradigm shift in the fight against terrorism, but much more an adaptive response to evolving security threats and challenges of violent extremism that seeks to transcend the limitations of the traditional ‘securitized’ CT response. CVE has brought something new but also pursued old approaches.

CVE challenges

CVE faces a multiplicity of challenges. Some of the terms associated (mostly taken-for-granted without clear and agreed definitions) with CVE in policy discourses and practice such as extremism and radicalization are often contentious. The unfortunate prevalence of active ‘Islamic’ terrorist groups has made interpretations and use of terms very difficult and often associated with Islam or Muslims. There are no clear indicators to determine whether someone is radicalized or even to determine vulnerability. As discussed above, the lack of clear definitions of CVE itself has complicated its implementation in practice. What is not defined and has no clear indicators cannot be measured or evaluated.

Another critical problem centres on the lack of consensus regarding what constitutes radicalism or extremism and the possibility that attempting to define it, could encroach on the very basic notion of freedom of expression. This makes agreement on a set of clear and measurable standards with regard to what is extreme or radical problematic. Extremism is a relative concept which is best articulated (even if simplistically) in the cliché that ‘someone’s freedom fighter is a terrorist for others’.

CVE is considered as a ‘whole of government’ response involving many sectors of a government demanding intra/interagency cooperation and coordination to address the structural causes of terrorism. Bringing together such a diversified set of actors together is a daunting job. For obvious political, economic and cultural differences, the same is even truer for cross-border cooperation that CVE demands given the fact that terrorism is a transnational phenomenon.

The critical and central dilemma is that addressing root causes is seemingly impossible at the global level and a long-term effort, and thus governments, intelligence and law enforcement communities tend to respond reactively using traditional hard power. Evaluations of existing CVE programs reveal that CVE only enjoys a fraction of the overall budget allocated for CT – 7.5% in the US State Department, less than 3% in the UK’s Office for Security and CT and about 1% in Canada’s Police ((Romaniuk, P (2015) Does CVE Work: Lessons Learnt from the Global Effort to Counter Violent Extremism, GCCS. P. 39.)) . Thus, one could very well question whether CVE is still rhetoric or a mature CT agenda?

With respect to the Horn of Africa and its countries, the challenge of CVE is that there is no mapping of violent extremism to determine realistic and context specific actions. Intergovernmental bodies operating in the sub-region and member states have yet to develop their own CVE strategies. As CVE is predominantly a Western driven initiative ((Heydermann, S. (2014) ‘Countering violent Extremism as a Field of Practice’, United states Institute of Peace, INSIGHT, Issue 1, Spring 2014, http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/Insights-Spring-2014.pdf)) , countries of the Horn are pressured to implement initiatives based on assumed problems and their root causes rather than evidence based interventions.

CVE initiatives in the Horn of Africa

In the past few years, multinational agencies and donor countries have funded various CVE initiatives in the Horn of Africa. The US government, European Union and Global CT Forum (GCTF), which is an informal group of 29 States including the EU have been engaged on CVE programs with the Inter-governmental authority of Development (IGAD) and bilaterally with Member states. Among others, following the statements of the White House CVE Summit held in February 2015, experts of the Horn sub-region agreed to establish a regional CVE and Counter Messaging Hub under the auspices of IGAD. This initiative was reaffirmed in the 30 September 2015  Experts meeting held in New York following the agreement of leaders reached in the 29th September White House Summit on ‘Countering ISIL and Violent Extremism’. This initiative is a work in progress and so too early to assess. It can be considered as an indication of progress, if the regional CVE hub is established taking into account the specificities of the of the region best practices. The GCTF, Horn of Africa Desk, engaged in capacity building measures is another initiative supported by the EU and donor countries. The EU through its program ‘Strengthening Resilience to violent Extremism’ in the Horn of Africa (STRIVE),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 ((Brett, J; Eriksen, K.B; Sorensen, A.K.R and Aps, T.C (2015) Lessons Learnt from Danish and Other International Efforts on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in Development Contexts, DANIDA)) .

The challenge of these initiatives is that they lack coordination and they provide the support based on their own specific policies on CVE rather than developing an agreed regional policy and strategy that is contextualized to fit the specific situations and threats of VE in the sub-region and its member states. The efforts are also being implemented in an ad-hoc and piecemeal manner. However, this does not necessarily mean that the efforts are not contributing at all to CVE. In fact as Brett (2015) shows, the initiatives implemented in Somaliland, Puntland and Kenya have contributed to building community resilience and brought state and non-state actors together in addressing CVE.

Conclusion

It could be argued that that there is nothing inherently wrong with the intentions of CVE whether it is merely changing terminology to make it more inclusive and mitigate misperceptions or the attempt to address new dimensions.  The author asserts that the role of CVE, in spite of all the challenges, would contribute to remedying the negative perceptions that the GWOT has caused, if and only if it is implemented properly. At a higher level of expectation, CVE can also play a significant role in countering terrorism through soft measures, if it is designed in a context specific manner, ensures real ownership among actors and ultimately if governments (both donors and recipients) are committed to the core values.

Otherwise, it will only amount to a semantic shift instead of a change in content. The US government and its allies seem to be more interested in CVE in a bid to replace the name of the ill-fated ‘GWOT’. However, CVE should be defined in a clearer and comprehensive way at least at the national level and if possible at regional/sub-regional levels. The states in the Horn of Africa, through their intergovernmental arrangements should develop a regional policy framework and a platform to share their experiences, information and exert mutual assistance in CVE.

Tuemay Aregawi Desta is the Head of Counter Transnational Organised Crime Pillar with the IGAD Security Sector Program. He may be reached at tuemay.aregawi@igad.int

References

Meeting outcome document of the Horn and Eastern Africa Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) Experts Workshop –“Building Regional CVE Capacity/Cooperation.” held 28th-29th August 2015, Djibouti

2 Responses to “Countering violent extremism: Challenges in policy and practice”

  1. TAD

    Thank you for those who expressed their views no matter their position

    Reply
  2. Patrick Gonzag

    I have participated in this IGAD workshop, but what do you think are the measures taken so far to consider CVT Vis-a Vis Refugee context in the Horn of Africa and world wide. this is a vulnerable group that is a potential for terrorism recruitment based on discriminatory factors: political, socio-cultural, economic or religious.
    what will you think are the factors and enablers of the VT within refugees.

    Reply

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