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Countering Violent Extremism: a Promising Response to Terrorism

12 Jun 2012
Short Read by Alex P. Schmid

What used to be called the "Global War on Terror" (GWOT) under the George W. Bush administration has, under the Barack Obama administration, given way to the less bellicose "Countering Violent Extremism" (CVE). The shift away from a war terminology has been welcomed, especially in Europe, where a criminal justice approach to terrorism has been generally preferred to a war model. On the other hand, terrorists themselves continue to use military terminology, portraying themselves as holy warriors engaged in a defensive jihad or as freedom- and resistance-fighters liberating what they consider to be their land or fighting domestic oppression. Their deeds, directed mostly against civilians, are, however, closer to war crimes than to legitimate acts of war. On the other hand, the American shift from GWOT to CVE is not complete. There is a continuing reliance on a military approach to terrorism, e.g. in the form of drone attacks.

Terminology matters here since words tend to shape and justify action. Winning the war of words often means winning half the battle (a view shared by Al-Qaeda) as it involves winning the "hearts and minds" of people torn between allegiance to goals favoured by terrorists and positions held by governments countering terrorism. While some consider the term "violent extremism" as little more than a codeword for "Islamist terrorism" or 'Salafist jihadism" – conveniently avoiding any reference to one of the major world religions or, more precisely, one non-mainstream variant of it – political Islamism – it can be applied to various types of ideology-based political violence without moral restraints. The term "violent extremism" has the further advantage that it can serve as substitute to the still "UN-defined" term "terrorism" since the Legal Committee of the United Nations’ General Assembly has not yet reached agreement among its 193 Member States as to what exactly the term "terrorism" should cover in international criminal law.

Yet what is the difference between "countering terrorism" and "countering violent extremism"? Terrorism is, after all, an extreme form of political violence, directed mainly against civilians. Is the concept of "extremism" - and its derivative, "countering violent extremism" - a promising conceptual tool to build or enlarge a (preventive) counter-terrorism policy on? In my view it is – for two reasons.

(i) "Countering Violent Extremism" stands for a policy that addresses the propaganda of terrorists and not just their violence. It marks a turn away from a mainly coercive to a more persuasive counter-terrorist strategy whereby the narrative of the terrorists is one target of attack. Empowering moderates and wider society and enabling them to have their voices heard is another part of efforts to counter violent extremism. CVE also stands for a "soft power" approach to win foreign support through various forms of "public diplomacy", supplementing (but not replacing) a more robust military approach. "Countering Violent Extremism" also stands for a social engineering approach directed at 'vulnerable youth" – "homegrown" young men and women who are seen as being in danger of radicalisation and of falling prey to terrorist recruiters.

Since terrorism is violence for communication, counter-terrorism cannot avoid using communicative tools and carrying the fight into the realm of the media and the Internet. While there are some legitimate concerns about the use of "targeted communications" by democratic governments, the fact is that we live in a world full of public relations and strategic communication campaigns. Ultimately it is the sender’s credibility and the persuasiveness of the message that matters, based, in the case of counter-terrorism, on holding the moral high ground. CVE also stands for countering the "propaganda of the deed" of terrorists.

(ii) Yet there is another reason why "countering violent extremism" is a promising approach to counter-terrorism. It lies in the concept of "extremism" itself. The term "extremists" covers not only terrorists but also some of their radical, but often not (yet) violent, supporters who provide assistance and may also pose a threat to democracy. Extremist movements and parties tend to have, overtly or covertly, a political programme that is anti-constitutional, anti-democratic, anti-pluralist, authoritarian or even totalitarian. Supporters of extremist movements tend to be fanatical, intolerant, non-compromising and single-minded, believing that only they are in possession of "truth" and that they alone have the solution to pressing social problems. Their rejection of well-established Rule-of-Law principles in favour of an ends-justify-means approach sets them apart not only from mainstream political parties but also from those radicals who might share some of the goals of extremists but reject their methods to achieve them – the use of political violence against opponents, both armed and unarmed. Extremists, whether coming from the traditional political left or from right-wing parties as well as those of a religious-fundamentalist orientation tend to advocate, and, when in power, implement, four pernicious "values" that suck the life out of civil society:

  • uniformity over diversity,
  • collective goals over individual freedoms,
  • orders over dialogue, and
  • force over persuasion

Extremist individuals, groups, movements and parties that pursue such "values" are a challenge for democracies. Tolerance of extremists in our midst who show no tolerance themselves (except, occasionally, for tactical reasons) is ultimately self-defeating. While profiling terrorists is difficult, profiling extremists is less so because most of them can already be recognised by their speech acts. Hate speech often precedes political violence and countering it in an effective way has to be part of efforts to prevent acts of terrorism. However, countering incitement to violence should not be used as an excuse to curb the freedom of speech of those who merely hold dissenting opinions. Debate is, after all, the lifeblood of democracy.

The concept of Countering Violent Extremism reflects awareness of the fact that many terrorists are homegrown, i.e. embedded in diasporas and other sub-cultures within our societies. While the violence-prone extremists themselves might well be beyond the reach of dialogue and persuasion, their non-violent social surrounding is not and must be engaged with. Without a responsive constituency extremists cannot survive for long. Those constituencies also need to play a role in countering violent extremism in our societies if they want to avoid the risk of being associated with it.

In conclusion, the concept of "countering violent extremism" is a promising tool for responding to terrorism as it stresses a more flexible approach to confronting terrorists and the milieu that they come from.