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Preventing, er, Countering Violent Extremism comes to America: Part One

04/01/2010

I suppose I knew it was inevitable, but it looks as if Britain’s Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) strategy is coming to America, as…Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Prevent is one of the 4 P’s (the others being Pursue, Prepare, and Protect) ofCONTEST, the UK counterterrorism strategy. Prevent is a national effort that draws heavily on local governments and funds community organizations. It is designed to:

•    challenge violent extremist ideology and support ‘mainstream’ voices
•    disrupt those who promote violent extremism and support the institutions where they are active
•    support individuals who are being targeted and recruited to the cause of violent extremism
•    increase the resilience of communities to violent extremism
•    address the grievances that ideologues are exploiting

And, it is very controversial.

I now quote Daniel Benjamin, the head of the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the State Department, at length. He gave a speech last month on CT policy in the Obama Administration. I know this post is about a month late, but I thought it best to wait until after the holidays.

Benjamin’s speech is signaling a major domestic and foreign policy development – partially in reaction to a year full of Islamist terrorist plots. Benjamin is an old National Security Council hand from the Clinton years and one of the first people to start seriously talking about al Qaeda and mass casualty terrorism in government before 9/11. Now, as Benjamin explained in his speech:

We are also addressing the local drivers of radicalization that still lead large numbers of people to adopt al-Qaida’s ideology, and as I said earlier, we understand the dangers of radicalization, and we are working both to undermine the al-Qaida narrative and to ameliorate the conditions that make it attractive. We know that violent extremism flourishes where there is marginalization, alienation, and perceived–-or real–-relative deprivation. In recognition of this, my first step has been to build a unit focusing on what we in the government call “Countering Violent Extremism” in my office to focus on local communities most prone to radicalization. There is a broad understanding across the government that we have not done nearly enough to address underlying conditions for at-risk populations–-and we have also not done enough to improve the ability of moderates to voice their views and strengthen opposition to violence.

Adopting a tailored-approach to countering violent extremism does not mean we can neglect broader structural problems. There is no denying that when children have no hope for an education, when young people have no hope for a job and feel disconnected from the modern world, when governments fail to provide for the basic needs of their people, when people despair and are aggrieved, they become more susceptible to extremist ideologies. But a tailored-approach to CVE requires identifying which of these problems are driving radicalization and are amenable to change with the help of local governments and leaders who understand the problems best.

Over time, the measures and the methods I have described above will reduce terrorists’ capacity to harm us and our partners. No element can be neglected if we are to succeed since they reinforce one another. Global engagement builds coalitions based on mutual interests and mutual respect. And these coalitions, in turn, help us partner with individual nations to enhance their capacity to counter extremism. This, finally, enables us to work with them to develop tailored-approaches to preventing extremists from becoming violent extremists.

The influence of the British experience is evident: Focusing on ‘local communities most prone to radicalization.’ Local governments and leaders will be vital to the effort.  And, most significantly, the last sentence in the excerpt indicates the strategy will be focused on keeping extremists from becoming violent extremists, rather than keeping them from becoming extremists in the first place – a major hallmark (some might call it a flaw) of Prevent. And c’mon: PVE and CVE?

Stay tuned for a series of posts on radicalization and counter-radicalization. I’ll be…

•    Challenging some of the assumptions in Benjamin’s remarks that are also pervasive in the discourse on the subject (namely about marginalization, alienation, and deprivation – relative or otherwise);
•    Addressing the crucial and overlooked role of collective identity;
•    Discussing the problems with Prevent in the UK and its applicability to the US;
•    Observing how US-based ‘non-violent’ Islamists have seen the writing on the wall and are positioning themselves to co-opt any US counter-radicalization programs;
•    And tying it together with some other thoughts and observations.