Countering Violent Extremism, Pt. 2: Scope

In my previous post, I proposed a minimal definition of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) as reducing the number of terrorist group supporters through non-coercive means. I also suggested that the spectrum of support ranges from those who are vulnerable to becoming supporters to those who are engaged in criminal activity.

There are pros and cons associated with intervening in each group. The three groups at the far right of the spectrum are the easiest to identify because they have either consistently voiced their support for a terrorist organization or taken action on its behalf. Although they are extremely difficult to dissuade, focusing on them risks less blow back from the broader communities of which they are a part. There is also less risk of straying into the policing of thought crimes.

Conversely, the two other groups, “vulnerable” and “radicalizing,” are theoretically easier to dissuade than the others but they are far, far harder to identify. Because they are harder to identify, focusing on them risks alienating the broader communities of which they are a part and can easily stray into the policing of thought crimes.

Countries will focus on different groups for non-coercive intervention depending on the nature of the terrorist threat they face and their perceptions of risk. In the United States, AQ supporters generate the most concern and the government’s CVE focus is on the vulnerable and radicalizing populations, whose size it hopes to shrink by building community resilience. U.S. government officials believe this approach is more holistic than law enforcement alone. By comparison, white hate groups generate far less concern and the CVE focus, if any, is on turning around their law-abiding and incarcerated supporters.

Based on the incredibly low numbers of AQ supporters in the United States (see Charlie Kurzman’s recent study), the United States should treat the problem of AQ support like it treats supporters of white hate groups. It should focus on turning around law-abiding and incarcerated supporters rather than reaching out to the broader communities of which they are a part. This approach may not suit law enforcement (which prefers to build cases), the administration (which wants to increase the resilience of US Muslims against al-Qaeda propaganda), civil libertarians (who worry about infringing on personal freedoms), or large swathes of the public (who are terrified of fifth columns). But it is commensurate with the threat; its success can be measured; it carries less risk of alienating communities from which terrorists arise; it undermines the narrative that these communities are potential threats; and it is far less threatening to civil liberties than the current approach.

All of that said, I am not sanguine about the possibility of turning around law-abiding or incarcerated supporters of terrorist groups. It is incredibly difficult, particularly given the intractable nature of larger political problems that drive some forms of terrorism. But if counter terrorism is to involve more than just locking people up, it should not stray too far from stopping bomb throwers into social engineering and thought policing. (As an experiment, read this excellent study of Zachary Chesser‘s radicalization and consider how the U.S. might have dealt with him differently.)

Recommending that the U.S. government should reorient its domestic CVE policy toward dissuading law-abiding and incarcerated AQ supporters does not mean that the government is the best suited to do it. Neither does it imply a certain way to go about it nor that this approach will work in every country. In my next (and final post), I’ll survey a range of CVE programs and explore who is best suited to carry them out and how effective they are.

Update: J.M. Berger kindly spiffed up and clarified my graphic.

Filed under:
Share this:
Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on telegram
Share on email
Share on print

8 Responses


    Islam rejected reason long ago. While there are people who call themselves Muslims who do embrace reason, they are ostracized by the vast majority (and often murdered). For example, this is the case with the fellow who helped create the documentary “The Third Jihad”. He has not been murdered yet, but very likely will be. Let us hope that this does not happen and that he continues to speak out against the blind hatred that has dominated Islam for so long.

  2. I’ve learned a great deal from your 2 posts and the papers you’ve linked to so far. Thank you.

    “Because they are harder to identify, focusing on them risks alienating the broader communities of which they are a part and can easily stray into the policing of thought crimes.”

    This notion that targetting the vulnerable and being radicalised/radicalising groups will somehow alienate Muslims in general is certainly pervasive, but it’s also erroneous. Most Muslims in my experience are as keen as anyone to weed out the extremists living amongst us. Unfortunately, many organisations which claim to represent supposed Muslim ‘communities’ (I’m not talking about smaller mosque and resident associations here, but the larger umbrella organisations like CAIR in the US and the MCB in the UK) are broadly supportive of non-violent Islamism and hence claim that programmes designed to build community resilience must not exclude support for non-violent extremists and their Islamist agendas.

    Any programme that seeks to counter violent extremism must therefore deal with the language and tactics of non-violent Islamism in the first instance. This would include ensuring that university campuses do not host those who preach homophobia (not for value judgements such as ‘homosexuality is wrong’, but for statements of ideological rigidity such as ‘gays must be killed according to the consensus of Islamic scholars’); that local government does not give funding to ethno-specific charities which support gender-apartheid etc.

    The problem, as I see it, is that there are just too many people willing to give extremism a pass just because someone happens to have a Muslim-sounding name or they have a higher than average skin melanin content.

  3. Shlomo,

    Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful reply. In the United States, I don’t think the problem of Islamist terrorism is pervasive enough to warrant mobilizing Muslims against it. I also think it is unusual for the US government to deal with ideologically-motivated violent groups this way. White hate groups are much more prevalent in this country but we don’t enlist the help of white people to combat them. We let them spout their nonsense and arrest them if they commit crimes.

    As for speaking out and working against the objectionable things promulgated by non-violent Islamists, by all means. But I doubt it will have much effect on Islamist terrorism in the US, which is already minuscule.

    I suspect some of our disagreement arises from our different legal and demographic contexts. By spelling and argument, I’m guessing your a Brit who likes the Tory approach to the problem. 😉

    This is exactly the kind of discussion I was hoping to have by sharing my framework (my policy prescriptions are tangential). It’s not perfect but I believe it helps people interested in CVE to better articulate their differences in understanding and approach.

  4. Will,

    How does the Saudi Arabia anti-Salafist experience relate to what you are saying? Is your Princeton colleagues book a good read?

    Extremist Reeducation and Rehabilitation in Saudi Arabia
    By Dr. Christopher Boucek (Princeton University)

    Just returned from Saudi Arabia, Dr. Christopher Boucek, a Princeton researcher, describes a little-known program of the Saudi government. Recognizing that irregular warfare is essentially a battle of wills, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Singapore, and Egypt have launched programs to reeducate and rehabilitate their imprisoned violent Islamists.

    The Saudi program is intended to de-radicalize terrorist sympathizers through intensive religious debates and psychological counseling to counter takfiri beliefs. Muslim clerics opposed to violence attempt to persuade those caught up in the Third Jihad that religion cannot justify their actions, which are wrong and based upon a corrupted understanding of Islam. The clerics teach an interpretation of Islam that stresses the personal, inner, nonviolent Jihad al Akbar, rather than the jihad that advocates the killing of non-believers as a way to paradise. The program is based upon a presumption of benevolence rather than on vengeance. It assumes that the takfiri beliefs are the result of abuse and lies that have taken the individuals away from the “true Islam.”

    Though critics have questioned the effectiveness of these programs, they reflect an attempt by Muslim governments to counter a global Muslim revivalist movement seeking their overthrow.

    “However successful in the Middle East, these programs offer little for America and Europe in their worldwide struggle for men’s minds. Though success in irregular warfare requires strategic communication superiority, the defenders of Western civilization have so far failed to counter the propaganda of the Third Jihad either by responding rapidly with effective counter messages or by proactively challenging the messages, methods, and ideology of those seeking to replace Western civilization with “the ways of the Prophet.” To learn how that might be achieved, see “Strategic Communication Changes: It’s Time to Call Evildoers Evil” in the Commentary and Analysis section above.

  5. Is the goal of cve to keep Kurzman’s handful of Muslims from committing murder, or supporting those who do? If so, I can’t see the need for it. There are well established and effective means of dealing with such social pathologies. Some made short work of Black and Indian separatist movements, Soviet sponsored political fronts, German American Bund, etc.; others are used on a daily basis to take down gangs, mobsters, corrupt unions, etc. And when there’s a will, FBI is dang effective at applying such techniques. Infiltrate, inform, agitate, subvert, factionalize, etc.

    Some say it’s wrong to treat a religion this way. Why? There’s a long tradition of doing precisely that. Worked well for the KKK (a religion by any definition), NOI, and any number of fundamentalist Christian and LDS separatist groups. If your religion or parts of it violate the law or subvert the Constitution, the law and Constitution trump. The feds ordered the LDS to get rid of their divinely-revealed polygamy or be wiped out. A new revelation forbidding polygamy arrived in no time flat.

    Kurzman’s numbers are problematic, though, so much so that the scope of the problem is obscured. Even if one’s counting ‘real’ violent radicals, his numbers run low.

    — Especially since 9/11, the preference has often been to get the bad guys off the streets as quickly as possible. Lesser charges and deportation are common. Further, given the nature of the evidence and how its gathered, such cases can be hard to prosecute to the maximum. To make sure you get the conviction, you aim low: and a Hezbi cell may end up going down for petty crime.

    — Also, Kurzman’s numbers don’t take into consideration those American Muslims who wage jihad abroad and either die there or are never prosecuted on return. How many are there? 3,000? 4,000?

    — Again, his numbers do not include the foreign jihadis who now live in the U.S. There are lots, especially from the 1980s and 1990s. Getting wiped out by your local Arab potentate? Head to New York and become an imam. What portion of the Gama’a ended up in the U.S. by the mid-1990s? 20%? 50%?

    — And again, Kurzman’s numbers take no account of the foreign jihadis who spent time in the U.S. but went on to do their business elsewhere. If a Yemeni Baloch (say) is radicalized at a little Baptist college in North Carolina, and then heads off to Afghanistan, and then later plans 9/11, he’s a homegrown, no?

    Radicals beget radicals. If the U.S. ever hopes to stop homegrown jihadis, they’re going to need to stop those fathering them. If a convert to Islam goes from his shahada in the local tablighi mosque to the battlefield in less than a year, is the problem fixed if you prosecute the kid? No, but in a court there’s not much else you can do. That’s when one might want to try other techniques: spreading rumors, e.g., about said imam’s sexual preferences, his having been turned by the Mossad, his love of America … whatever discredits him in the eyes of his fans.

    The bigger problem in American Islam is finding a way to drive a wedge between the incredibly progressive lay Muslims and that large portion of the (Sunni) leadership that is reactionary. Consider ISNA’s recent series of jihad-detox videos. Each of their speakers goes on for 20 minutes about how evil the U.S. is, how it’s committing genocide against Muslims, how it’s about to ban Islam and throw Muslims in the concentration camps, and then closes with a warning: “No matter how much it might be justified, or how much you want to do it, don’t do jihad in the U.S. — especially if you have a valid visa.” (What then? Let your visa expire and then kill lots of kuffar?) Most Muslim kids will just laugh at these silly old men who claim to speak for them and for Islam. A portion will watch and nod their heads gravely, and are one step closer to the edge.

    What distinguishes the typical AQ vid from these ISNA vids? They both look at the world in _exactly_ the same way, and differ only in terms of a minor point of tactics. If the kid goes to Pakistan and heads for the border to kill Americans, that’s fine. It’s his duty as a Muslim. If he does it at home, that’s bad, as he’s breaking the implied contract of his visa.

    As I see it, the real monster that needs to be fought is a fictitious and absolutely ubiquitous presentation of post-WWII history. In it, Americans hate Islam, are waging genocide against Muslims, are raping and pillaging Muslim lands, and have never ever played fair with any Muslim or done anything to help any Muslim, and all the rest of the standard sermon.

    When the knife hits the bone, if this presentation is believed to be true, the Muslim kid is morally obligated to defend Islam. Hell, most every American would agree, and some would be happy to join in helping the unjustly persecuted. In fact, we’ve done it as a country more than a few times.

    An agressive campaign is needed at present to counter the Sunni leadership: to show Muslims that the U.S. is not Satan incarnate. It doesn’t need to be 100% true, just true enough to be compelling. Would it help? Perhaps. One must recognize, though, that there’s more that feeds this beast. Bin Laden’s recommended reading list included a dog-eared copy of Chomsky. And in point of fact, there’s little difference between the typical jihadi anti-Americanism and the Soviet surplus kind. Ever notice that Press-TV and RTV are indistinguishable? The Soviets were masters at this game, and spent much time and effort setting the narrative in the 1960s. It’ll be hard to undo. For the older generations, it may well be impossible.

  6. Some very initial thoughts/questions about the subject your raise:
    • How would you identify these admittedly very few at risk individuals and do so before they go down the rabbit hole?
    • The overwhelming security/law enforcement approach is based on the heavy burden of responsibility on those tasked with the priority: protecting the homeland. Parents who have reported their children’s radicalization have seen their children go to prison, not rehabilitation. Mosques throw out radicals lest they contaminate the congregation and attract the FBI. How do you build a constituency for your approach?
    • Noting the domestic British political controversies surrounding the PREVENT initiative and the equally divisive American discourse on anything to do with Muslims, how would you neutralize Islamophobe attacks and muster bipartisan support or at least, non-interference?
    • Not being a Muslim entity, what would be the basis on which you would base the legitimacy of your anti-terrorist message?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest Jihadica