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Countering Violent Extremism: gimmick or solution?

William Schomburg wrote "Countering Violent Extremism: gimmick or solution?" as part of the 2015 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship

I. Introduction

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) is an evolving field of policy interventions with the goal of lowering the threat and impact of terrorism. This is no easy task. Indeed, ‘violent extremism’ is the latest, most -politically- correct label for (essentially Islamic) fundamentalism. The concept refers to acts committed both at ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ by radicalised individuals. That said, analysts tend to view the developing world, and in particular the Middle East, as the primary source of violent extremism. Policy solutions that seek to engage perpetrators must consider vulnerable groups, as well those who have already entered pathways towards radicalisation. More importantly, interventions must recognise the underlying causes of the CVE phenomenon and not just its shocking symptoms. The weak evidence base and novelty of the concept has led to many critics describing CVE as orientalist, reductive pseudoscience. In the coming pages, we’ll explore some of thinking around the topic, before making conclusions regarding the concept’s validity and how programming in this field could be improved. 

II. What is Countering Violent Extremism?

A simple definition of violent extremism evades us. A quick scan of online media demonstrates that the term violent extremism is basically code for Islamic fundamentalism. Accordingly, actors involved in the analysis and practice of efforts to counter violent extremism use sometimes clichéd definitions of radicalism and extremism to support their arguments. The Australian National Counter-Terrorism Committee defines violent extremism as “a willingness to use or support the use of violence to further particular beliefs, including those of a political, social or ideological nature. (1) The failure to include other forms of violent extremism such as white supremacism or green fundamentalism denies us a much needed comparative lens to understand the phenomenon holistically.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, an accepted definition of CVE is similarly elusive. The United States Institute for Peace defines CVE as “a realm of policy, programs, and interventions designed to prevent individuals from engaging in violence associated with radical, political, social, cultural, and religious ideologies and groups.” (2) However, opinions vary. The spectrum ranges from non-coercive awareness raising to murkier concepts of counter-terrorism.

Western literature on CVE, whilst recognising the role of cultural specificity and nuance, points towards a broad conceptual model of violent extremism that is applied to a variety of contexts. The model posits that various push and pull factors guide an individual’s path from social alienation to participation in violent extremist acts. At risk individuals are those who, for a host of reasons, may have a sense of disconnection and alienation from mainstream social norms in their environment.

The individual’s journey towards participating in violent acts traverses increasing radicalisation of thought, to espousal of a narrative that promotes violence as a necessary vehicle for justice, and eventually participation in acts of violence. Violent extremism is therefore viewed as the endpoint of a gradual process and its ideological underpinnings are in radicalisation. The journey towards increasing radicalisation is usually guided by particular individuals – who may be part of larger organisations or networks – that champion a cause and gain converts to participate in acts that support their narrative of change.

The central hypothesis of much of the analysis is that violent extremist behaviour is a consequence of radicalised thought. 

III. Understanding pathways to violent extremism

There is no single way to deconstruct and understand the path to radicalisation. Individuals become radicalised for a variety of reasons, and as Horgan notes, ‘‘the reality is that there are many factors (often so complex in their combination that it can be difficult to delineate them) that can come to bear on an individual’s intentional or unintentional socialisation into involvement with terrorism.’’ (3)

Furthermore, according to Neumann, “the principal conceptual fault-line is between notions of radicalisation that emphasise extremist beliefs (‘cognitive radicalisation’) and those that focus on extremist behaviour (‘behavioural radicalisation’).” (4) Some analysts downplay the importance of ideology and cognitive radicalisation and contend that research and initiatives should focus on individual “action pathways” to violence. Other experts consider that without reference to underlying beliefs, violent extremist acts just don’t make any sense.

This debate has translated into the emergence of two significantly different approaches to countering violent extremism. One approach deals with behavioural radicalisation, especially acts of terrorism and violence. By contrast, a wider and more developmental approach aims to confront both cognitive and behavioural radicalisation. This regards terrorism as a system, reflecting a wider failure to confront extremist ideas. The choice, according to Neumann, leads to a necessary trade-off between short-term counter-terrorism objectives and longer-term social cohesion. Unfortunately, policy makers lean towards the former. 

IV. Push factors: Radicalisation milieux

If the central hypothesis that radicalised thought leads to violent actions is true, then identifying the “push” factors that give rise to radicalised thought becomes hugely important. There is little evidence however that factors like poverty, poor governance, social and economic marginalisation have a causal link to extremist behaviour. Such behaviour is manifested in many different types of social, economic and political contexts; and only a very small fraction of the population in badly governed and poor states resort to violent extremist behaviour. On the contrary, one study cites that up to two-thirds of identified terrorists have received some form of higher education. (5)

Two commonly cited “push” factors are religion and economic marginalisation. Deeper examination of each of these factors suggests a more nuanced picture. Radicalisation in religious institutions such as mosques in the UK comprises a tiny proportion of the overall number of CVE cases. (6) Similarly, Islamic madrassas, or religious schools, are often considered to be hotbeds of radicalisation, but the evidence is mixed. Studies do not show a clear link between madrassas and violent extremism. For example, according to one study of 400 terrorists only around 10% were madrassa-trained. (7)

At the same time, some religious spaces can serve as radicalising milieux. Online forums, prayer groups, and associations provide religious spaces beyond the control of mainstream imams. As a result, certain Western governments have increased surveillance on Islamic centres. The New York Police Department, for example, has been accused of spying on imams. (8) This is not a practise that is restricted to the West, as intelligence services in the Middle East, such as Kuwait's Ministry of Religious Endowments, also ensure that preachers proactively walk the line. (9)

Economic hardship alone is also an inconclusive radicalisation pathway. Alan Krueger has conducted studies that demonstrate that wealthy young men are overrepresented in radical groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, suggesting that, “More educated people from privileged backgrounds are more likely to participate in politics, probably in part because political involvement requires some minimum level of interest, expertise, commitment to issues and effort, all of which are more likely if people have enough education and income to concern themselves with more than minimum economic subsistence.” (10) The paradox is that while historically most terrorists are not poor or uneducated, it is also true that impoverished and badly governed societies generate far more terrorism than do wealthy and well governed ones. This paradox is explained by Jacob Shapiro: “Extremist groups tend to select their members carefully. In the Palestine-Israel conflict, higher income levels and greater education consistently predict membership in terrorist organisation, but the quality of fighters and levels of violence are greater when the economy is bad.” (11) Thus, low income and poor education do not lead directly to membership of fundamental groups. Terror groups, like any other employer, seek the most able candidates for the job, meaning that the wealthy and the educated are likely to be recruited first, especially when an economy is weak and the pool of jobless young people is therefore higher. The commonly accepted understanding of push factors hereby conform to a flawed Western paradigm. The inaccurate fixation on Islamic rhetoric, is evocative of neo-conservative policy making, whereas the incorrect assumption that the poor should be the most violent echoes neoliberal economics. 

V. Pull Factors: Pathways to violence

If the relationship between “push” factors and participation in violent extremism is complex and indirect, the role of “pull” factors, related to human agency, appear to be very important. The importance of “extremist entrepreneurs” who use personal relationships, social bonds and group dynamics to recruit individuals to participate in violence is recognised as a key “pull” factor that can galvanise underlying resentments into violent actions.

One theme that extremist entrepreneurs build on is a sense of grievance or injustice, which is often cited “as a motive for self-sacrifice.” (12) Personal grievance is more likely to result in violent extremism if it is channelled as part of a broader group grievance. Such sentiments can be more effectively captured around certain trigger events such as intense feelings of revenge for the death or torture of other Muslims (e.g. Abu Ghraib, drone attacks on civilians), or the outcome of reprehensible cultural (mis-)communication such as cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. (13) These catalysts, when combined with a complex web of other factors, may contribute to the radicalisation pathways for some young Muslim men and women.

Social networks play a key role in channelling radicalisation into action. While moral outrage and personal experience can have a radicalising effect on individuals, this by no means results in action; “what transforms very few to become terrorists is mobilisation by networks.” (14) Such networks provide mutual aid and identity to those who might otherwise perceive themselves as being on the margins of society.

Affinity networks may exist in physical spaces or online. Regardless, they provide echo chambers where grievance is channelled into radical thought and eventually – for a few – into violent action. Such environments tend to amplify grievances, intensify the members’ bonds to each other, generate local values rejecting those of wider society and facilitate a gradual separation from their host society. (15) Family connections can be an important social milieu that might channel radical thought into action. Both, the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the Boston Marathon Bombing, were committed by two pairs of brothers. Marc Sageman has provided an influential analysis of a “leaderless jihad” where he describes kinship and affinity networks as being the most powerful driver of radicalisation. (16)

The messaging of violent extremists also serves as a strong pull factor. In contrast to the lag time with Al Qaeda tapes and recordings a decade ago, radical groups today increasingly use social media to communicate with an instant online audience. For example, one estimate suggests that at its peak there were upwards of 100,000 tweets published daily via some 50,000 Twitter accounts that could be linked back to ISIS. (17)

The underlying narrative of extreme groups continues to attract people. “Jihad” promises empowerment, happiness and wealth (both spiritual and financial). The narrative is often skilfully layered so that local grievances are put into a broader framework of global (increasingly sectarian) oppression of Muslims. When compared to the stagnancy and apathy of many Muslim country governments, the jihadists’ action-orientation may be attractive to impressionable young people, for whom joining a jihadist group provides simple thrill-seeking. (18) In more simple terms, jihad for some, maybe just looks cool. For the individual who joins a violent extremist group, a desire to demonstrate loyalty to that group may work to increase the relative size of his, or her, internal radicalisation. (19) High-risk behaviour such as violent acts can be a method to increase status within the in-group as part of a rite of passage.

If we are to reconcile push and pull factors, it would seem that violent extremists are often young, affluent men from traditional, poor societies with low development outcomes who gravitate to pull factors as an alternative to the status quo. Individuals that fit this broad (and imperfect) profile may not be directly affected by the economic and social ills of their context. However, relatively high levels of wealth and education allow them to view these injustices more astutely, and perhaps comparatively, if they have had enough exposure to foreign culture. At the same time, those with better education might find it harder to get good jobs, especially in the Middle East where the youth bulge is a contributing factor towards large-scale under-employment.

This could lead to a two-fold sense of alienation. On the one hand, radicalised individuals might feel unsatisfied with their wealth and incapable of achieving the aspirations that their families shape, and that their education promises. Simultaneously, such individuals will also be disconnected from the majority of their compatriots who suffer from inequality, but who often do not have the opportunity or willingness to improve their livelihoods. Individuals might then be drawn towards radical spaces and entrepreneurs via social networks and imagined communities. In the absence of legitimate political institutions that act as vehicles for mobilisation and change, privileged individuals become increasingly susceptible to marginal and violent narratives of these milleux that promise direct action. 

VI. Approaches to Tackle Violent Extremism

Strategic communications feature as one of the main approaches to counter violent extremism. A major debate on strategic communications and counter-narratives is about whether such counter-messaging should touch upon underlying ideology, which reflects the wider behavioural versus cognitive radicalisation debate. CVE counter-messaging thus differs depending on whether the objective is to tackle violent behaviour or to change underlying beliefs.

Certain successful initiatives have focused on countering violent ideology. For example, Shaykh Mohammed al-Yaacoubi, a prominent Sunni cleric has engaged Islamic State fighters and supporters in Syria with religious arguments that invalidate the group’s ideology. The success of such messages relies on legitimate voices. Government messaging tends to be viewed as illegitimate, as was attested by the reactions to the US Department of State’s “Think Again, Turn Away Twitter” strategic communications programme. Similarly, efforts to control or limit social media output seem to have had very limited success. Campaigns to block or shut down accounts on YouTube and Facebook, for example, have led to the mushrooming of accounts and the use of alternate social media that are harder for counter-terror analysts to track.

Many states also rely on traditional counter-terrorism programming in the name of CVE. For example, since the early 2000s, a portion of the United Kingdom’s strategy to combat terrorism, PREVENT, has focused on the prevention of violent extremism. Within this objective, Number 10 has sought to prevent the radicalisation of individuals and groups deemed at risk of being drawn to terrorism. The Channel programme, which is part of PREVENT, is designed to identify vulnerable individuals before they become committed to violent extremism, and provide individualised support to persuade them away from radicalisation. The programme was first piloted in 2007, and expanded to all of England and Wales in 2012.

The primary tools of the Channel programme are multi-agency panels managed through local government. These panels are responsible for reviewing referrals to the programme, assessing the suitability of participants, designing and administering interventions, reviewing results, and deciding to continue or discontinue assistance.

But does any of this actually work? While in principle practitioners seem keen to support evaluations of CVE programming, the challenges of doing so and the relatively recent emergence of this field of work explain why little robust evaluation has been conducted to date. Evaluation therefore tends to be the weakest component of the “CVE policy cycle.” As such, many practitioners describe evaluating CVE programmes as a challenging process. Obstacles include “practical considerations, such as determining the objectives and scope of an evaluation and identifying an evaluator, while others are more conceptual, such as elaborating a theory of change. All agree on the difficulty of specifying metrics sufficient to measure a negative outcome.” (20)

However, serious steps are now being taken to develop evaluation methods to determine the efficacy of CVE interventions. For example, evaluators are relying on “progression schemes” that measure alarming behaviour and also members of radical groups’ willingness and resilience to change. (21) As the practice of CVE grows, proper monitoring and evaluation methods need to be applied to assess the effectiveness of such interventions in reducing the risk of violent extremism. 

VII. Conclusions

CVE is neither quite a gimmick nor a solution. However, the ill-defined concept often feels like jargon that does little more than to repackage and soften the edges of the War on Terror rhetoric. Although violent extremism is clearly a growing problem, the thinking around the issue remains hinged on tired stereotypes of Muslims and quick-fixes. As this sphere of policy continues to grow, interventions should continue but a strong focus must be placed on monitoring and evaluation in order to improve impact and long-term strategies.

Importantly, efforts to tackle CVE – which generally come from Western governments or institutions – have failed to understand the relationship between extremism and Western policy in the developing world, and the Middle East in particular. While policy interventions aim to counter narratives or deal with symptoms of radicalisation, they do so in vacuum, ignoring systemic root causes that will continue to vindicate extremists to susceptible individuals.

In relation to the Arab World, three engrained realities cannot be ignored. Primarily, Western support for the region’s autocrats has created a deep democracy deficit that has empowered radicals. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was long supported in Washington. In reality, the inability of his police state to deliver effective public services led Egyptians to increasingly support Islamists, a fraction of whom are violent. Meanwhile, Western support for the ruthless leadership of Saudi Arabia has been almost unequivocal. This backing has allowed the House of Saud to spread its own version of radical Wahabism. Secondly, Western militarism in the region has been a continued source of grievance in the Middle East and beyond. Military intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, coupled with a permanent military presence across the region, has been a longstanding grievance that plays well into the narrative of jihad. Finally, Israel’s continued occupation of Palestine and the quiet acquiescence of Israel’s human rights abuses by the West has had a radicalising and polarising impact on peoples across the region. (22)

Nevertheless, the CVE interventions that have been mentioned in this article should continue, at least in the short-term. However, more research is needed into how radicalisation occurs and this evidence base must inform smarter programming that empowers legitimate, local voices who are better positioned to counter extremism. Ultimately, Western policy makers need to think of durable solutions that improve the complex realities of frustrated young people who are the most likely to turn towards radicalism both domestically and overseas. Instead of solely countering narratives, we must focus on creating new ones. In the Middle East, this might occur through a shift in Western diplomacy and security policy, in order for community engagement and state accountability to grow.

Ultimately, in order to sustainably reduce the appeal of pull factors linked to radicalisation in the region, a new social contract must encourage young people to drive forward political development for themselves. 










1. Nasser-Eddine, Minerva. Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Literature Review: Australia Department of Defence - Defence Science and Technology Organisation, 2011.

2. Holmer, Georgia. Countering Violent Extremism: A Peacebuilding Perspective: United States Institute of Peace, 2013.

3. Horgan, John. Psychology of Terrorism, Rutledge, 2005.

4. Neumann, Peter R. The Trouble with Radicalization. International Affairs (London), 2013.

5. Nasser-Eddine, 2013.

6. UK House of Commons Home Affairs Committee. Roots of Violent Radicalisation, 2012.

7. Parvez, Tariq. Terrorist Rehabilitation and Counter-radicalisation: New Approaches to Counter-terrorism. Ed. Rohan Gunaratna. Routledge, 2011.

8. Walker, Jade. NYPD Secretly Designated Entire Mosques As Terrorism Organizations, The Huffington Post, August 2013.

9 . Miller, David. Who's Minding the Mosque? The Jerusalem Post, July 2011.

10. Krueger, Alan, and Jitka Maleckova. Education, Poverty, Political Violence and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2003.

11. Jacob N. Shapiro (Co-Director of the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project, Princeton University), paper presented at The Aspen Institute Roundtable on “The Economics of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Nexus: Drivers & Solutions (September 8, 2015; Washington DC).

12. Mccauley, Clark, and Sophia Moskalenko. Mechanisms of Political Radicalization: Pathways Toward Terrorism. Terrorism and Political Violence, 2008

13. Leuprecht, Christian. Containing the Narrative: Strategy and Tactics in Countering the Storyline of Global Jihad. Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, 2010.

14. Marc Sageman (testimony), United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs: Radicalization of Global Islamist Terrorists, 2007.

15. Ibid.

16. Sciolino, Elaine. A Not Very Private Feud Over Terrorism. The New York Times, June 2008.

17. Berger, J.M, and Jonathon Morgan. The ISIS Twitter Census. The Brookings Project On U.S. Relations With The Islamic World, 2015.

18. Awan, Akil. Success of the Meta-Narrative. Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 2013.

19. Leuprecht, Christian, 210.

20. Romaniuk, Peter. Does CVE Work? The Global Center on Cooperative Security, 2015

21.  Fink, Naureen. Evaluating Countering Violent Extremism Programming. Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation, 2013

22. Khouri, Rami G. Beware the Hoax of Countering Violent Extremism. Al Jazeera, 29 Sept. 2015.

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