Preventing Violent Extremism: A New Paradigm or Evolving Approach?

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This article originally appeared in swisspeace’s à propos No. 148 which is published by swisspeace in November 2016.

In the wake of the 9/11 attack, members of the international community responded in a heavy handed and militarized way to terrorism and adopted a counter terrorism (CT) approach. Yet, terrorist attacks and fatalities have dramatically increased and more powerful terrorist groups have been created. With the emergence of the prevention of violent extremism (PVE) approach, a greater emphasis is now given to so-called “soft” alternatives. However, the question remains whether it is a change in content or just a semantic shift.

Multinational organizations and donor countries have been engaged in various counter terrorism (CT) initiatives particularly since the 9/11 terrorist attack as part of the Global War on Terror (GWOT). This simplistic approach viewed terrorism as a form of criminal and subversive activity that targeted the West and its values. However, 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. 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 this approach. 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.

As a result of the growing perception that these approaches have been inefficient and counterproductive, policy makers and security advisors have sought alternatives. In a nutshell, this arguably explains the emergence of preventing violent extremism (PVE). In the last few years, PVE has been at the top of discourses of governments, multinational organizations and non-state actors.

PVE is intended to address structural causes and aggravating factors that create grievances and thereby violent extremism. It seeks to identify vulnerable individuals and groups, and early signs of radicalization and mitigate the risks through engagement, education and counter-narratives. The approach 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. The growing consensus that ‘ideology cannot be defeated by guns but by better ideas’ is a promising initiative and these ‘soft’ approaches are a relatively new development in the CT sphere.

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 peacebuilding. In this regard, PVE 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.

PVE faces also a multiplicity of challenges. Some of the terms associated (mostly taken-for-granted without clear and agreed definitions) with PVE 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 also no clear indicators to determine whether someone is radicalized or even to determine vulnerability. The lack of clear definitions of PVE itself has complicated its implementation in practice. What is not defined and has no clear indicators cannot be measured or evaluated.

Another critical problem centers 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’.

Lastly, PVE is considered as a ‘whole of government’ response involving many sectors of a government demanding 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 PVE demands given the fact that terrorism is a transnational phenomenon.

It could be argued that there is nothing inherently wrong with the intentions of PVE whether it is merely changing terminology to make it more inclusive and mitigate misperceptions.

The role of PVE, in spite of all the challenges, would contribute to remedying the negative perceptions that the CT has caused, if and only if it is implemented properly. At a higher level of expectation, PVE can also play a significant role in preventing 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.

This article is a slightly modified version of an article by the author, published in the Horn of Africa Bulletin (January-February 2016).

About the Author

Tuemay Aregawi Desta is the head of Transnational Organized Crime Pillar at the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Security Sector Program (ISSP), based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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