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Countering violent extremism has traditionally involved tactics undertaken by outsiders aimed at preventing individuals from engaging in ideologically-fueled violence. USIP Senior Program Officer Georgia Holmer explains the increasing intersection with peacebuilding and how that can strengthen local communities to identify and address the drivers of radicalism and ultimately develop a more effective means of preventing extremist violence.

A store window riddled with bullet holes caused during a four-day siege at Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, Sept. 30, 2013. The attack, which the Islamist extremist group al-Shabab has taken credit for, left more than 60 people dead and scores more wounded. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
A store window with bullet holes caused during a 4-day siege at Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The attack, which the Islamist extremist group al-Shabab has taken credit for, left more than 60 people dead & many more wounded.Photo Credit: NYT/Tyler Hicks

Holmer, who leads USIP’s project on Women Preventing Extremist Violence (WPEV), presented her views July 8 during the latest Conflict Prevention and Resolution Forum, a monthly event conducted in Washington since 1999 to highlight innovative and constructive methods of conflict resolution. USIP is one of nine co-sponsors of the forum. Holmer’s remarks have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.


I would like to start with two key assertions: First, the fields of peacebuilding and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) are two distinct domains, but with increasing overlap, as the field of CVE evolves and expands.  Second, the practice of peacebuilding can inform CVE work in ways that makes it more effective, relevant, conscientious and enduring.

CVE is a diverse and evolving field, but I think it is helpful to start with a working definition.  I offer this one:  CVE refers to a realm of policy and strategy that aims to prevent individuals from becoming engaged in violent extremism and terrorism.   It is non-kinetic, it is “upstream,” it is a soft tool. It is not – and this is an important point for the purposes of this discussion –an alternative to other counterterrorism approaches. 

Although there are many who feel it is a more viable approach to mitigating terrorism, certainly from a policy perspective, CVE is understood as a corollary to other interventions, as one important tool in a larger Counterterrorism (CT) toolkit, and as part of a broader security strategy. 

Although there are multiple ways to think of CVE both within the U.S. and internationally, there are identifiable streams of work and trends in the field, and there has been a clear evolution in approach.  When CVE first emerged a few years  after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it was foremost an effort to counter the appeal of extremist ideology.  I call this early iteration CVE 1.0.

Countering ideology had been understood to be a missing element of counterterrorism strategy, and when identified and refined as a tactic, it was quite a brilliant evolution in policy. Counter-ideology or counter-narrative efforts aimed to muffle the call to jihad, to make the message less inspiring, less compelling, less attractive.  The aim was to challenge the veracity, credibility or logic of recruitment appeals, call attention to the hypocrisy or limitations of the extremist leaders, dispel myths about them and as a result, one hoped, reduce the numbers of recruits.

Many more questions

In the era of al-Qaida’s Inspire magazine and before Abbottabad (the Pakistani town where U.S. forces found and killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden), and focused very heavily on al-Qaida, the tactic of countering extremist ideology characterized CVE work.

But it gave rise to many more questions:  what about those with a superficial attachment to the ideology but a strong need for revenge, or those who had financial incentives to participate, or those who were manipulated or shamed into participation, or whose activities were tied more to the realities of local politics or the absence of other opportunities than to the inspiration of a set of radical beliefs?

Certainly, anyone focused on Al-Shabab in Somalia and Kenya and on Boko Haram in Nigeria knows that the extremist ideology that is used to justify the violence of these groups is only part of the explanation for why a man or woman would join.

This more complicated understanding of the drivers of violent extremism and the changing nature of the groups perceived as significant threats to security led to an expansion of work under the umbrella of CVE.  The field now represents a broad spectrum of approaches. They range from development work that aims to address the structural conditions giving rise to violent extremism (such as poverty, lack of education, political marginalization) to the promotion of local community policing models to the counter-messaging and counter-narrative programs. 

This growing realm reflects numerous methodologies and actors.  It is not just the U.S. government that promotes and funds CVE programs. A number of other national governments do, as do other international organizations such as the United Nations, and regional bodies such as the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). 

Where peacebuilding comes in

In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis on promoting and empowering non-governmental actors, including civil society, in developing their own CVE capacity.  The CVE realm is now populated internationally with many non- governmental, community and faith-based organizations that work to counter extremist ideology and narratives and that provide options for employment to youth at risk. 

A new wave of CVE programming attempts to support and develop such skills and awareness among local media, communities, religious leaders and teachers. This reflects the reality that effective CVE programs must be conceptualized and implemented locally.

This is where the overlap with peacebuilding comes in.

Peacebuilding traditionally engages local actors and communities and has deep experience in working with civil society.

Peacebuilding also represents a broad range of methodologies that cross sectors  - religion, media, economics, gender, and justice and security reform– in order to prevent violence. Peacebuilding, when done effectively, is also rooted in a nuanced understanding of the drivers of conflict and violence.

This is not to suggest that all peacebuilding is CVE.  Peacebuilding works to prevent violence and conflict, writ large, not just extremist violence.

A program to reform curricula in a madrassa, or to promote tolerance through interfaith dialogue, or to promote rule of law in a post-conflict environment or the role of women in constitution making, or to teach democratic principles through radio drama -- all might contribute to, and are relevant to, efforts to prevent violent extremism. But they also serve broader agendas of stabilization and reform, and should not be conflated with efforts explicitly focused on extremist violence.

What can the peacebuilding community bring to CVE?

Local solutions

Local is the mantra of  the CVE community.  It is widely accepted that good CVE work must be locally derived, conceptualized and implemented to be truly effective. Peacebuilding approaches have always included an emphasis on building capacity among local stakeholders, and to this end, the peacebuilding community houses a well-tested library of teachable skills to empower people in fragile or conflict environments to build resilience and prevent violence.  

Peacebuilders know also that working within existing local mechanisms, networks, and practices ensures the sustainability, relevance and impact of any conflict.

This suggest the need for an important shift and reframing of CVE work, from something that is done to others or employed as an offensive tactic  to something we can enable and support others to do for themselves.  That requires an effort that has teachable skills associated with it, and a role for the implementers as facilitators rather than orchestrators.  Peacebuilders can ensure local ownership of CVE.

More inclusivity

A central tenet of peacebuilding is that sustainable peace is achievable only with the engagement and consideration of the rights and needs of both men and women. CVE policy and practice have been criticized for failing to consider the pivotal role women can play in preventing extremist violence. 

Because of the significant influence of socialization and relationships in the process of radicalization, both men and women arepart of the dynamics that push and pull an individual toward and away from violent extremism. Peacebuilders appreciate the need to examine the role gender plays in both mitigating and fostering trajectories of violence, and can ensure an inclusive approach.

Engagement of civil society

Civil society actors are critical stakeholders in peacebuilding and play a pivotal role in building good governance in conflict or post-conflict societies. They contribute to reform and transformation in powerful ways.   In weak and fragile states, civil society organizations are often substitute service providers and, in this way, are significantly positioned to help prevent conflict and violence.

CVE programs that focus on building capacity in civil society can be truly effective if it’s undertaken in a way that ensures the safety of these civic activists and ensures they’re not treated as simple tools.  Civil society has a role in the prevention of extremist violence regardless of any engagement with the security sector or other state actors. In certain fragile environments, it may be dangerous or counterproductive or inappropriate to collaborate with police in identifying groups of individuals who are at risk of radicalization or who pose a security threat.   Peacebuilders can help create space for CVE that isn’t necessarily laden with the risks of association with security apparatuses.

In this way, peacebuilders are well-positioned to help advance a new approach to CVE, one rooted in a paradigm of human security. This approach actively engages and enables civil society, supports local and relevant programs rooted in a deep understanding of the drivers of violent extremism, and reaches into profound expertise in facilitating, training and promoting mechanisms to prevent violence and conflict. In this way, it offers more sustainable solutions to the problem of violent extremism.

Last year, I chaired a working group at USIP that explored the intersection of CVE and peacebuilding. One of the issues that we wrestled with was whether and how an affiliation with counterterrorism strategy impacted our effectiveness and neutrality in the field. 

The reality is that many working on CVE projects in places like Pakistan call it something else to dissociate it from the counterterrorism agenda.  Our working group argued that if CVE work is approached with a peacebuilding ethos --  by supporting others to develop organic solutions, working from an inclusive human security paradigm, with sensitivity to partners’ vulnerability and safety, promoting full transparency in objectives --  then we minimize the reason or need to rebrand the effort. 

A peacebuilding approach to CVE suggests a commitment to reframing CVE, not just rebranding or using peacebuilding as camouflage for externally determined interventions.  A peacebuilding approach to CVE should be understood as a distinct contribution and a potential way forward in the prevention of violent extremism.

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