Talking Loud and Saying Nothing
Four big problems with the Obama administration’s plan for countering violent extremism.
If the last decade was the age of the GWOT, or Global War on Terror, we’re currently living in the era of CVE. If you’re not caught up with the lingo, that’s countering violent extremism — and just as we had counterinsurgency tactics and counterterrorism experts who specialized in the GWOT, a new cottage industry has sprung up of CVE analysts and officials. The White House even had a summit about CVE earlier this year — mostly notable for the lack of any workable recommendations it produced.
The concept of preventing men and women from sliding down the path of radicalization is, of course, not new. But the term is catching on because of the flow of young Westerners traveling to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State (IS), and also a handful of incidents of young Muslim Americans launching attacks at home — potentially including the Chattanooga, Tennessee, shooting on July 16 that killed four Marines, though that man’s motives remain unclear.
I recently returned from the Aspen Security Forum, which was three days of intense discussions about homeland security, foreign policy, and cyberwarfare with experts, foreign ambassadors, administration officials, and members of Congress. From FBI Director James Comey, who told the assembled crowd that the biggest threat to the United States is now IS, to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, who spoke of outreach to Muslim American communities, extremism and how to counter it was the event’s recurring theme.
If I have one takeaway from the experience, however, it is this: Nobody really seems to know how to go about countering violent extremism, and, more crucially, no one knows if it really works. There is no way to quantify success. And a number of different trends, countries, and problems are thrown together in one haphazard approach to deal with all of it.
CVE is supposed to be about far more than Islamic radicalism. Keep in mind that since 2001, twice as many people have been killed in the United States in attacks by white supremacists and other non-Muslim groups than by radical Muslims. And perhaps jihadis and neo-Nazis do have more in common than we think: As John Horgan, author of The Psychology of Terrorism, put it: “The similarities of how they get engaged, involved and disengaged in terrorism by far exceed the differences.”
Yes, U.S. officials take great pains to make clear that they are not focused on the Muslim community and that Islam is a religion of peace. As the Department of Homeland Security website on CVE says, “The threat posed by violent extremism is neither constrained by international borders nor limited to any single ideology.” However, when people in Washington discuss CVE, most of them are thinking of the so-called Islamic State and other radical Muslim groups.
When applied to the effort to counter IS and its hangers-on, here are four key questions about CVE that need better answers — or aren’t being asked at all.
What is the counternarrative?
Much of CVE seems to be focused on countering the narrative put out by groups like IS, with its slickly produced videos and aggressive recruitment on social media. The question, however, remains — what is the West’s offering in place of the Islamic State’s worldview? One participant in the Aspen Forum had a unique suggestion: Bring in the advertisers, this person said. If they can convince me I want something I never knew I needed, surely they can put out positive messaging against the Islamic State and convince people to turn away.
But this is not an advertising war — it’s not about selling a beautiful product. Unless Europe and the United States are actually offering access to a stable, happy, if somewhat imperfect life in the West — but judging from how few desperate Syrian refugees have been welcomed into these countries, it’s safe to assume that this product is not for sale to everyone. Public diplomacy to promote Western values or lifestyles failed miserably under President George W. Bush’s administration, and is barely more successful now.
Establishing good governance and rule of law in broken countries would be a good start — creating better education systems, too. However, those ideas rarely came up in the discussions at Aspen about how to prevent the spread of extremism. Few are calling for nation building, but CVE efforts are happening in a silo that ignores the fact that Arab countries use the pretext of extremism to clamp down on all domestic opposition — often with the silent acquiescence of Washington, as in the case of Jordan or Egypt. The truth of the matter is that state repression and lack of civil liberties are directly linked to rising extremism.
In a January speech in Brussels, Undersecretary of State Sarah Sewall addressed that fact by noting that preventing violent extremism requires “using traditional foreign policy tools, such as development, stabilization efforts, humanitarian assistance, and peace building.”
However, Sewall seems to be the only one who discusses CVE and governance in the same breath. And she’s up against a host of U.S. policies and regional leaders at odds with exactly that multilayered approach.
Who is the audience?
There is a difference between trying to convince a young, middle-class British woman that traveling to Syria to marry an IS fighter is going to make her life a living hell and trying to convince a Jordanian from Zarqa, the hometown of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, that his life as an unemployed, single man there is better than life under Caliph Baghdadi. There are smarter, more creative approaches to addressing each of these people: Officials, for example, can give a voice to former IS recruits about the reality of life under the militant group, and enlist mothers of victims or current and former fighters to speak out about how extremism destroys lives.
Then there are those joining out of deep conviction — including Western men, mostly Europeans, who joined Islamist rebel groups in Syria a couple of years ago out of anger that the West wasn’t doing enough to support the rebels, as Gilles de Kerchove, the EU counterterrorism coordinator, pointed out at the forum.
The backgrounds of those who have become radicalized, and the reasons why they did, are incredibly diverse. There are also the recent converts to Islam, who are joining the caliphate and who baffle many experts. And there are differences between the few dozen Muslim Americans joining the so-called Islamic State and the several thousand European Muslims who have made the journey. This difference is not because the United States has a better grasp of CVE, but comes down to what European officials acknowledge are gaps and failures in the integration of generations of immigrants, which has left scores of young Muslims on the margins of society.
For now, the discussion in the West about CVE seems to conflate all those groups. Organizations in the Arab world or specific initiatives in countries like Denmark, which has a de-radicalization and reintegration program for returning fighters and a comprehensive approach to preventing violent extremism, provide a more targeted approach — but the results are still unclear.
Does CVE work if everyone has different foreign-policy priorities?
Some analysts consider the U.S.-led airstrikes against IS an essential component of the overall CVE strategy. But the military campaign was also criticized heavily by Republican members of Congress attending the Aspen Forum, who decried the small number of targets struck so far and the lack of political solution to accompany the military effort. Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) said, that in her view, a more sustained campaign against IS and more pressure to find a political solution would help CVE efforts by making clear to potential jihadi recruits that the militant group has no staying power. Four years into the war in Syria, that’s still easier said than done.
And a key question remains: How is this going to work if the United States is focused on defeating the so-called Islamic State while some of its allies have their eyes set on bringing down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? While the U.S.-led coalition is bombing IS positions, governments in the region stand accused of turning a blind eye to the flow of foreign fighters into Syria.
The mismatch between the priorities of the different allies is part of what has allowed IS to hold on to territory and keep recruiting. It took Turkey more than a year since the fall of Mosul to finally engage fully in the anti-Islamic State campaign — and it did so not just because it started to worry about the repercussions of IS growth on its own territory, but also because it hopes to curb Kurdish advances in northern Syria. The Saudis also probably still prefer to bring down Assad first and take Iran down a notch, before dealing with IS.
These are real-world problems that are hindering the effort to decrease the appeal of the so-called Islamic State. But too many of the discussions about CVE efforts are happening separately from foreign-policy discussions about how to engage the Middle East.
So does CVE work in the context of the Middle East’s many conflicts?
Is there any point in Secretary Johnson engaging in CVE efforts and reaching out to Muslim American communities if there is a raging conflict in the Middle East that stirs deep feelings in the hearts of Sunnis?
As Rashad Hussain, State Department special envoy for counterterrorism communications, pointed out, it is “also important to acknowledge [extremism] is stemming from an ideology, and if you don’t address it in one place then it will appear somewhere else.”
What Hussain was probably trying to touch on — very delicately — are the elephants in the room of the CVE discussion, such as Wahhabism, the austere brand of Islam spread by Saudi Arabia and which has been taken to extremes by a minority of radical militants. The other issue is that many Sunnis feel, rightly or wrongly, that their faith is under attack either by the West or by Iran, and are eager to defend it — or at least turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by IS.
So, isn’t trying to counter extremism while wars and radical ideologies spread across the Middle East akin to trying to plaster over a breach in a dam? That’s what one U.S. official seemed to think when he told me the CVE effort would be useless if the conflict in Syria wasn’t brought to an end in a way that also made Sunnis feel their grievances were being taken into account. As a representative of the U.S. government, this thinking is a difficult proposition: Before you know it, you’re explaining the violent acts of others by blaming it on your own foreign policy. But what this official was trying to say was that, to reverse the trend of radicalization, it was important to acknowledge how the Syrian conflict was playing into the hands of IS.
No one believes that removing Assad will bring about the demise of Islamic State. But the group thrives on the broken politics of countries like Iraq and Syria, has taken root in their ungoverned spaces, and feeds off the resentment created by the West’s apparent lack of interest in the deaths of more than 200,000 Syrians. A renewed effort to try to bring the Syrian conflict to an end could partly pull the rug out from under the organization’s feet.
One of the problems with CVE is that it is focused on countering the spread and allure of IS, while the reality is that no one has yet given a comprehensive and convincing explanation for the group’s rise and its staying power. Some of it starts by thinking through the questions here.
While CVE is worthwhile as an effort to ring-fence young, vulnerable souls from the lure of violent adventure, it does little in its current form to address the roots of the problem and turn the tide.
ABDIRASHID ABDULLE ABIKAR/AFP/GettyImages