Strings Attached

How politics and fear threaten a new global effort to combat terrorist recruitment.

Khan Raziq/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Khan Raziq/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The fight against terrorist recruitment is getting a big — and much-needed — injection of cash. But the politics behind the money could undermine an otherwise exciting international effort.

In late September, Secretary of State John Kerry and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced the creation of a $200 million "Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience." The fund will provide grants to organizations working to counter violent extremism (CVE). It was unveiled at a meeting of the Global Counterterrorism Forum in New York, a relatively new body consisting of 29 countries and the European Union that deliberates on counterterrorism policy and programs. The United States is set to initially contribute $2-3 million to the fund in the hopes of encouraging other nations and private companies to reach the $200 million mark over the next ten years.

The fund is a promising development in the realm of CVE, which is notoriously ill-defined and under-resourced. NGOs in poor countries often have a good sense of how to curb terrorist recruitment in their own backyards, but they do not know where to find money — and their governments often interfere with their programs for political reasons. Wealthy countries, meanwhile, are not good at identifying effective local NGOs in donor recipient nations. So they spend a lot of time in their own cubical labs cooking up new ways to thwart terrorist recruitment in faraway lands, often without much verifiable success. Compounding the problem is that most wealthy countries are bureaucratically structured to award large grants for multiyear development projects, whereas most good CVE programs are much smaller in scope and ambition.

The new global fund seeks to solve these problems by pooling the resources of wealthy nations so that NGOs in poor countries can apply for small grants to fund their CVE programs. Such programs might include interfaith dialogue among religious leaders, or educational and vocational training for former militants in countries like Pakistan and Mali. Projects agreed on by a local government and stakeholders will be vetted by subject-matter experts before being submitted for consideration to the governing board, which will make the final decision.

According to friends of mine at the State Department involved in creating the fund, it brings together an array of key stakeholders in a way many other CVE initiatives do not. Representatives of donor states will sit on the governing board, as will representatives of the governments of countries where funded programs will be conducted. So, too, will representatives from the private and NGO sectors who are involved with CVE work at the local level.

Integrating all of these stakeholders into the governing structure of the fund increases the chances that small but important programs will be implemented. Yet the management design also increases the chances that the board will not fund certain politically risky programs that could make a real short-term difference in diminishing support for terrorist organizations.

Although it represents perhaps the most important part of CVE, most governments and NGOs have been leery of trying to turn around young men and women who have expressed support for terrorist organizations — and are thus in prime positions to be recruited — but have not broken any laws. This is because they worry about violating laws against support for designated terrorist organizations. For example, a government development agency or an NGO will not want to put an al-Shabab fanboy — even a law-abiding one — in their programs for fear of being seen as aiding a terrorist group. And, even they decide it’s acceptable to try and reform the al-Shabab fanboy, they risk huge political backlash if he later engages in terrorism.

Reorienting even one of such individual in a more positive direction through a CVE program could tangibly reduce the number of potential violent actors in the world, which is the whole point of counter-radicalization. Yet governments usually prefer to either turn these would-be terrorists into intelligence assets or, if they are uncooperative, to build cases against them.

Governments and NGOs also expend their energies on reintegrating former, known terrorists into society and on reducing mass public sympathy for terrorist organizations. The latter, it seems, is meant to do the work of more politically sensitive, turn-around programs that don’t typically receive funding. Decreasing mass sympathy, the argument goes, will eventually decrease active support. But this does not appear to be the case. To be sure, a well-orchestrated media campaign can drive down public sympathy for a terrorist organization like al Qaeda. But, while this has occurred in the years since September 11, the level of active support for the organization has remained small but constant — suggesting that there is no correlation between sympathy and support, at least in the short term.

Ideally, both kinds of programs would get funded: those that aim to decrease mass sympathy and those that seek to reform law-abiding supporters of terrorist groups. A single government, however, is unlikely to fund the latter programs because of the political risks involved. A collection of governments, like the one that will oversee the new global CVE fund, is even less likely to do so.

Despite this probable flaw, the fund is a major improvement over the status quo. It will be easier to finance and implement certain small, locally designed CVE initiatives. The real test of the fund’s impact, however, will be whether the work of programs receiving money leads to fewer terrorist attacks. At the end of the day, that is the only measurement that matters when human lives and $200 million are on the line.    

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