In this forum post, Tom Wein follows Will McCants and Clinton Watts in arguing that to counter violent extremism, we must focus on behaviour, not perceptions or beliefs.
The months following the September 11th attacks were scary. The scale of the attack seemed to suggest a powerful and well-organized enemy. Drastic action was needed, to counter the assumed network of violent millenarian Islamists and their supporters. That drastic action started with traditional law enforcement efforts to pursue the culprits and conspiracists. It also involved the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Transport Security Administration; the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and military action in Pakistan, Yemen and beyond; the use of torture to extract intelligence and indefinite detention without trial; the reorganization of the US intelligence establishment and unprecedented new powers to monitor citizens; and the creation or extension of whole new bureaus in every department of government.
The scale of the changes is understandable, given the fear of the time. Yet at a dozen years distance, we can begin to say that not every effort was worthwhile and wise.
It is in this context that we may turn to the US government’s strategic communication and public diplomacy efforts, both domestic and foreign, and in particular its Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programme.
In US dealings with the Muslim world, the question has often arisen: “why do they hate us?” The answer is complex: some do, some don’t, and those that do may do so for any number of reasons. Yet too often, the reasons were debated, and the premise of the question was accepted. In fact, it is only partially relevant. Hate is certainly not a sufficient cause of radicalization; sometimes it is not even a necessary one. Despite that, vast effort has been poured into persuading people to have favourable views of America, and negative views of Al-Qaeda.
The recent FPRI research note by Will McCants and Clinton Watts on the CVE programme is therefore particularly welcome. Among other recommendations, they call for a distinction between passive sympathizers, and active supporters. It is a valuable divide. There are plenty of ranting coffee-shop jihadis, passionate in their hatred of US foreign policy and sympathetic to the aims of violent groups. They may say so in surveys, and lecture visiting journalists. They may pray for Uncle Sam’s destruction. They probably have no inclination to do anything about it.
Most CVE approaches target such sympathizers. For a country founded on principles of free speech and free thinking, that is morally tricky. More than that, though, it is also wasteful, and not particularly effective at reducing the number of terrorist attacks. As McCants and Watts observe, it can even be actively counter-productive, alienating communities with a presumption of guilt. There are better ways to combat terrorism, and all of them start by focusing on behaviour, not attitudes.
Imagine now the wife of our loudmouth sympathizer. She does not hate America. In fact, she rather likes Oprah. She certainly doesn’t like bombs. Yet when the young men come collecting to support the jihadists in Afghanistan, she always gives them something, because they remind her of her son. These two figures are simplistic to the point of stereotype, but even so they begin to illustrate some of the complexities of active, behavioural support for terrorism. The CVE programme would have targeted the wrong one.
McCants and Watts also point out another flaw of the CVE programme: a tendency to export models across borders. They are quite right to say so, but they may not go far enough. Just as (in their example), different cities tackle gangs in different ways, so too must counterterrorists adjust their approach in every single community they work in. Messages must be attuned to each new group and location, drawing on detailed, laborious study of the local context. Nothing less will work.
There are numerous other flaws in the CVE strategy, and in the US approach to counterterrorism in general; the FPRI note adroitly details a good many of them. McCants and Watts may well be right that it is at last time to downgrade terrorism in the list of national priorities; the current threat apparently amounts to a dozen or so new recruits a year, and an unsuccessful attack once every three years. Leaders will have to make a judgment about the level of risk. Whatever they decide, Countering Violent Extremism can be done better, and more efficiently, through focusing on behaviour, not opinions, and local contexts, not rigid strategies.
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