A Better Way to Counter Violent Extremism

Pakistani students study a comic book distributed by nongovernmental organization CFXcomics, which aims to counter extremist propaganda, at a school in Lahore in June 2015. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

The prevention and security communities must combine efforts to defeat terrorism

By Dr. Harald Weilnböck, Radicalisation Awareness Network

The security community and the radicalization prevention community two very different worlds have started talking to each other, which is why I have been given the opportunity to write for this Marshall Center security publication. Arguably, this would not have happened 10 years ago. However, to achieve effective and sustainable solutions for a societal challenge as complex as violent extremism, practitioners from the security and prevention communities will need to cooperate even more intensely. 

Clearly, significant readjustments of our security paradigm are needed. A new Marshall Plan for European security — something the Marshall Center could promote as one of its historical legacies — could change how we think about and approach security by bringing the security and prevention communities together. Or we could continue spending billions and still make things worse.

The Practice of Prevention
How do I come to this conclusion? We prevention practitioners from the social services, mental health and similar fields have often been asked to formulate the criteria and methods of good practice for working with young people who are at risk or already recruited into forms of violent extremism. Lately this has focused on so-called foreign fighters that include ISIS and right-wing extremists traveling to war zones like Ukraine, as Miroslav Mares points out in a 2015 report in the Bundeskriminalamt’s (German Federal Criminal Police) EWPS Journal, while neglecting other forms of violent extremism. We prefer to call this work disengagement, rehabilitation, resocialization or simply relational work, rather than deradicalization.

We have done so in detail and in a solidly evidence-based way through the framework of the Radicalisation Awareness Network and have articulated and presented these criteria, principles and methods in various instances, including in my book The Narrative Principle: Good Practice in Anti-Hate Crime Interventions within the Radicalisation Awareness Network. In so doing, we have also attempted to be clear about the required contextual conditions for the intricate work of disengagement/rehabilitation to be successful and sustainable.

To give one current example: Prevention practitioners assert that one should not criminalize travel to Syria or to any comparable places such as Ukraine because in a free and human rights-based society, people’s freedom to go wherever they want must be respected. However, joining a terrorist organization may and should be criminalized. Furthermore, one should not criminalize support for certain ideologies — while you can and should penalize incitement of group hatred and violence against others — because in a free society everybody is entitled to his own beliefs.

The United Nations Human Rights Council states: “Freedom of opinion and freedom of expression constitute the foundation for every free and democratic society,” and any restrictions relating to extremism and terrorism must be “clearly and narrowly defined.” Without respect for these freedoms and civil liberties, good-practice disengagement and prevention are not possible. And if we cannot employ good-practice disengagement and further develop a sustainable prevention infrastructure, then European societies will soon be in pretty bad shape because we will then probably just continue with what was once confidently called the Global War on Terror but has turned into a quite desperate and futile, costly and ineffective War on Global Terror.

Although these requirements of good practice were developed as requested, the security sector and legislators in most countries have not listened, as shown by recent policy writing and legislation on travel to Syria. However, Denmark and Finland, where strategies for prevention and rehabilitation are outstandingly successful, are telling exceptions. Most people involved in writing security legislation don’t understand what the prevention people are saying. It’s still an us-versus-them, security-versus-prevention mindset. Rather than working together and producing viable solutions, there is polarization (also a characteristic of violent extremism).

Spanish civil guards in the North African enclave of Melilla detain a man suspected of using social media to recruit people to violent groups like the Islamic State. AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Spanish civil guards in the North African enclave of Melilla detain a man suspected of using social media to recruit people to violent groups like the Islamic State. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A Fresh Start
Let’s try to start over and do this right. Maybe we prevention practitioners need to explain better why travel to war zones like Syria or support for any ideology should not be criminalized? The practical answer to this question is that criminalizing travel is counterproductive in that it keeps young people who went to banned places from returning home. And even more important, it keeps family and friends from seeking help from authorities and social services when a young person seems to be on the verge of traveling to a war zone, since people generally loathe to subject their loved ones to law enforcement scrutiny. These quite evident and easily anticipated effects make very clear the negative impact that criminalization may have, not only on disengagement, but on the overall objective of reducing radicalization.

In addition, it must be made clear why it is that criminalizing travel and/or ideologies basically pre-empts any sustainable prevention and/or rehabilitation work, even with those clients who find their way into intervention programs. This is because the first-line prevention practitioners who facilitate this sensitive work need to be able to offer a maximally trustworthy space. They need to have a maximum of integrity before their clients, not only personal integrity but also systemic integrity — the integrity of the system and society that the practitioners implicitly represent. In the eyes of young people who are susceptible to or have engaged in violent extremism, these practitioners are always representatives of and role models for society (but not necessarily of the state).

Speaking of trustworthiness, remember that practitioners of this kind of intervention work with the most hard to reach and difficult to engage young people, those who are highly distrustful and feel alienated from society for various social, political and personal reasons. The deradicalization process that includes disengagement, rehabilitation and reintegration, to which these young people would need to commit, is challenging and emotionally demanding. In addition to trust, it requires personal dedication, sharing experiences, opening up, utmost honesty, and exchanging ideas about sensitive issues of violence, victimization and gender, as well as confronting deep-rooted beliefs. This is not easy for anyone, particularly not for the young people we are most concerned about, which is why practitioners require a maximum of trustworthiness and personal and systemic integrity.

A society that criminalizes travel to certain places or support for certain ideologies clearly lacks sufficient respect for civil liberties and human rights and therefore is not seen as fully trustworthy. The young people will look at this and say: “They want to brainwash me! They are all brainwashers in the service of a corrupt system.”

Human rights is only one factor that undermines trust on the part of our most at-risk young people and thus renders it almost impossible to practice good disengagement. There is also the issue of sense versus nonsense. If practitioners seek to reach and engage the most distrustful and difficult-to-engage young people, they must make sense. However, actions such as criminalizing travel and ideology not only are human rights issues, but also they do not make sense. Criminalization in general, and in the areas of ideology, extremism and religion in particular, has never been effective, but rather has often been quite counterproductive and contributed to further radicalization and support for violent extremism instead of advancing sustainable solutions. Criminalizing travel makes no sense — in other words, it is nonsense and the young people we need to reach most urgently are very tough on nonsense.

Making things even more difficult, security policies are often not made primarily to solve security problems. Rather, sometimes such policies’ inherent purpose is to cater to certain constituencies or simply conform to institutional traditions of “how things were always done.” Or, as noted in a February 2015 countering violent extremism (CVE) report by the Soufan Group, these measures are occasionally based on what “briefs well in presentations to policymakers.” In a word, sometimes security measures are about politics, anxiety and power rather than sustainable solutions to intricate security challenges. And most young people are smart enough to sense this.

Under such circumstances, it is virtually impossible to engage those young people who we most urgently need to work with because they will not have sufficient respect and trust to commit to a deradicalization intervention. Of course, prevention practitioners can still try to distance themselves from this or that policy or, if necessary, from the current security paradigm altogether. However, that could entail the practitioners themselves being criminalized and put under surveillance by security legislation, as has happened in Germany quite recently during the time of the so-called extremism clause. The most excellent practitioners can work best when overarching security policy at least strives to meet the do-no-harm principle and/or the above mentioned no-nonsense, no-dishonesty criteria.

New Marshall Plan 
How can these adverse circumstances be overcome and good-practice programs in prevention and rehabilitation employed to build resilience on a European and global scale? We have already had success in developing good practices on a micro level and midlevel. Now we need to focus on the macro level — the overall security paradigm.

In February 2013, the Institute for Inclusive Security paid tribute to then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s legacy “in promoting a new security paradigm,” referring to Clinton’s work on women/gender, prevention and peace building. The institute states that “like Secretary of State George Marshall before her, she’s championed a bold new security paradigm” that will “bear fruit in seasons to come.” It maintains that “Clinton’s unique contribution: the elevation of women as a powerful force for a more stable world” is undoubtedly significant. The “elevation of women” rests on the clear insight that any polarization, such as gender polarization, may be the kernel of radicalization and violent extremism.

In the spirit of George Marshall’s plan to rebuild Europe after World War II, a new Marshall Plan on global security should be built starting with what Clinton promoted. The new Marshall Plan would not only be inspired by the idea of gender polarization, but it would take it to another level and look at polarization even more comprehensively. Hence, it would first and foremost strive to overcome the polarization between security/legislation practitioners and prevention/rehabilitation practitioners.

This, however, is a quite challenging task; it means bringing together two worlds and two mentalities that are quite different. It seems fair to say that the professionals from these two polarized areas tend not to understand each other, and distrust, dislike and hold prejudices about each other. Hence, to build intensive dialogue and cooperation between security and prevention, people will require systematic preparation and facilitation. Perhaps the peace-building and mediation methods used for preventing and mitigating radicalization could be useful.

I propose establishing a targeted, high-level working group that brings key practitioners and experts from the security/legislation and prevention/rehabilitation fields into a process of intense exchange and cooperation with an objective of creating a commonly owned security paradigm from which a sustainable national security action plan could be produced and concrete policy recommendations formulated. This joint working group could draw interagency support and expertise from other fields such as education, health care and local government as needed. Most important, the group and its activities would be as transparent as possible and regularly liaise with the media.

Methodologically, the group’s working process would follow a synthetic bottom-up approach rather than moving analytically top-down. It would thus delve into the field(s) as much as possible, consult with additional first-line practitioners and examine real-world scenarios, including investigating promising practices from different regions/countries. The examination of already existing interagency approaches such as in Aarhus, Denmark, and the current Finnish police prevention pilot should be a priority because such methods seem furthest developed in view of producing the desired co-owned strategies and action plans.

Most important, this working group would be given high political authority. This means that it would anticipate — and would be given the means to mitigate — the challenges of communicating its results and recommendations to politicians of different parties and to the public. Thereby, the group would make great efforts to work inclusively with a nonpartisan expert body. Policymakers, politicians and key administrators would need to contact the group regularly. The party representatives, while remaining independent in their decision-making, would be answerable to the group about how and whether its recommendations are implemented. Such a working group arguably would be more sustainable than traditional ways of introducing expert knowledge into the political process and would be more productive than any one-time, commissioned expert committee that writes a report that may not even be publicly accessible.

But is such an effort really necessary to overcome the polarization and create a new CVE protocol? Is a new Marshall plan for security needed? Some observations seem to suggest that this is the case. One need only think of the intricacies of political and media discourses and the automatism in which subjects like violent extremism have been treated by political discourses in many legislatures, or how issues like violent extremism trigger calls for stiffer sentences, criminalization of travel and so forth, while all available evidence suggests that these measures are ineffective or counterproductive. Hence, to get beyond this deadlock and successfully research and communicate on politically laden challenges such as violent extremism, strong efforts and special settings seem to be required.

People attend a vigil organized by Muslim groups at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in January 2015 to commemorate the victims of terror attacks in Paris. GETTY IMAGES
People attend a vigil organized by Muslim groups at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in January 2015 to commemorate the victims of terror attacks in Paris. GETTY IMAGES

Principles of CVE
Having highlighted the macro-level issues of security policies’ impact on prevention, we can focus on what has thus far been discovered on the micro level. The principles of good practice in disengagement/rehabilitation have been established through research, which was then substantially buttressed and further substantiated through recent activities within the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN). It allowed for intensive but affordable practitioner exchange across many European Union members.

Through extensive analysis, RAN has concluded that good practice in disengagement/rehabilitation (deradicalization) and downstream prevention require the following:

  • Develop successful trust building between participants and facilitators and constant development of mutual trust, confidence, and personal commitment.
  • Offer a safe space of confidentiality from which no personal information or report writing may issue.
  • Present an open process, i.e., no fixed curriculum or session plan. This is by definition maximally participatory, exploratory and self-directed, and requires methodological flexibility on the part of facilitators.
  • Allow voluntary participation.
  • Proceed without formally and openly assessing the participants since this would hamper trust-building. Any necessary assessments should not be done by the facilitators but by other providers within the institution.
  • Follow a narrative mode of interaction that facilitates processes of personal storytelling, which relate personally lived-through experiences and subjectively perceived actions. Narrative approaches steer away from (counter-) arguments, rational discussion and ideological debates. Good practice doesn’t counter, it builds.
  • Convey an atmosphere that combines being accepting/supportive and challenging/confrontational in a way which is sensitively adjusted to the person and the situation that accept, respect and support participants as individuals, but address opinions and behaviors that pertain to violent extremism and group hatred.
  • Focus on social skills and emotional intelligence, particularly in areas of conflict, anger, shame and anxiety; therefore, group settings are preferable as much as possible.
  • Base sessions on face-to-face work relationships while keeping Internet, videos or media in small roles. (Contrary to the general belief, my research indicates that countermessaging campaigns are largely ineffective in disengagement and prevention.)
  • Facilitate, ideally, with external, nongovernmental practitioners who have license to act independently within and across statutory institutions within the context of firmly delineated institutions (prisons, schools, etc.)
  • Build close cooperation between intelligence and prevention professionals to play a crucial role in this interagency framework.
  • Maintain an open process that leads to accounts of the clients’ actual life-world context, biography, family, and topics of victimization, gender identity, power and violence, and experiences of extremist recruitment.
  • Occasionally touch upon political and religious issues, as well as on personal and social grievances. These grievances may also address certain media narratives/films, fictional or documentary, that can be used as one element in the intervention.
  • Allow participation by representatives from the family, significant others or suitable community and civil society members.

Issues of Gender
Among the subjects that may arise and are deeply explored in the intervention process, gender issues have proven to be of particular importance. European practitioners’ experiences throughout RAN’s working groups, as well as from the Women/Gender in Extremism and Prevention Network (WomEx ) and similar national practitioner networks, have taught us the following:

  • There are hardly any violent extremist, terrorist or hate crime offenders who are not also sexist and homophobic, manifesting highly conflictive gender identity issues (hyper-masculinity, sexism, homophobia).
  • Conflictive gender issues not only coincide with violent extremist behavior and group hatred but are key psychological driving forces behind them.
  • Women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities are prime victim groups of virtually all forms of violent extremism (right-wing, al-Qaida/ISIS related, radical Christian fundamentalist).
  • Most violent extremist organizations are based on ideologies and practices of gender inequality, which is why they forcefully counter the emancipation of women.
  • Women also play a crucial role in violent extremism as perpetrators, ideologues and supporters.
  • Young men and women join extremist groups mostly because of social and gender-related motives aside from ideological or religious issues.
  • Violent extremist and terrorist organizations launch gender specific appeals to recruit women and to recruit both women and men along specific ideas of being female and being male.
  • Women and girls tend to be overlooked by prosecution, law enforcement and prevention as potential or actual extremists.
  • It is often more effective to focus on personal gender identity concepts of masculinity or femininity than to engage in narrower ideological or religious debates.
  • Besides gender specific approaches, and in combination with them, successful strategies of preventing and responding to violent extremism and group hatred also require gender focused approaches.

WomEx’s key conclusion is that accounting for gender perspectives in group hatred and violent extremism is more than adding a missing piece to the puzzle; it means that CVE needs to be approached in a more holistic way to secure success. Therefore, gender not only needs to be mainstreamed, it is advisable that gender-sensitive methods for both men and women are introduced into preventive and response strategies to effectively defuse the strong, effective charge that propels the highly gendered subcultures of violent extremism and group hatred.

It’s All About Youth
Arguably, the most important aspect of CVE practice, aside from fundamental research on good practice, is that any prevention strategy needs to be effective with young people. It should not only be able to engage youth in general, but really needs to have an impact on those groups of young people who are of particular concern. These young people face multiple challenges (social/familial, psychological, educational/professional and existential) and, as a result, may tend to be more affected by group hatred (group-focused enmity) and different sorts of violent extremism. Our societal institutions often seem to have lost most lines of communication, rapport and mutual trust with these young people. Many prevention programs, while following good practice in principle, have not been able to reach and impact them.

One approach that seems to have had more success and yet corresponds with good-practice guidelines is “Fair Skills.” Fair Skills is being tested in Eastern European countries and largely operates on a peer-facilitation basis, using youth culture as a medium. The approach combines youth cultural workshops (rap, breakdancing, comics/cartoons and digital music production), moderated by peers from youth cultural scenes, with post-classical methods and exercises in civic education (anti-bias, human rights pedagogy, mediation and conflict transformation, gender awareness and communicational soft skills), and adds psychologically based self-awareness group work to allow for exchange of personal and life-world issues, as well as of social and political grievances.

If CVE practice manages to bring together the security and prevention worlds, focuses its policymaking on empirical evidence about good practice principles of disengagement and prevention work, emphasizes gender issues and succeeds in reaching out to young people of concern, then we will be able to create an effective strategy for security and resilience in our societies.

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