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Why Summits on “Countering Violent Extremism” Matter

Junaid Afeef - 24th February 2015
Why Summits on “Countering Violent Extremism” Matter

Junaid Afeef argues that while efforts to counter violent extremism are no silver bullet, they are essential work that pushes back against extremist propaganda.

With ISIS drawing recruits from around the globe, and with an estimated 70 to 100 Americans currently among them, the White House convened a long overdue summit on countering violent extremism last week in Washington, DC. The three day summit examined pilot CVE programs presently underway in Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis; there were discussions on whole-of-nation approaches that would bring together government at all levels, local communities, and the private sector (particularly in the area of technology). The effort was also transnational: numerous partner nations, the private sector, and local communities met to discuss their respective work on CVE.

Despite criticisms from the right (perpetually upset upon not hearing the words “Islamic extremism”) and simultaneous disgruntlement from numerous American Muslim and civil liberties groups for, as they saw it, unfairly singling out American Muslims, the summit may turn out to be a catalyst for a more vigorous CVE effort among allies working against the so-called Islamic state, or ISIS.

CVE efforts are essential domestically and internationally because they fill key needs in a comprehensive, whole-of-government counterterrorism strategy. The idea of CVE is an effort to address the root causes of extremism, treating the disease itself (alienation, frustration, and radicalism) rather than the symptoms (individual acts of violence). Moreover, they inform the actions that governments take at home to stop the recruitment of their own young men and women into violent death cults like ISIS.

The summit brought together American Muslims from across the country, as well as members of law enforcement, other faith-based leaders, elected officials, researchers, technology sector professionals, foundation leaders, varying levels of ministerial officials from around the world, and members of the federal government. A significant amount of attention was paid to at-risk American Muslim youth. Vice President Biden’s opening remarks touched on the need for engaging those who feel marginalized. President Obama’s closing remarks also addressed disaffected Muslim youth as being particularly vulnerable to radicalization and violent extremism.

After the summit, Rep. Michael McCaul, chair of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, called the summit a “psychotherapy session,” claiming that nothing of substance came out of it. Rep. McCaul’s remarks were shortsighted, however. There was much discussion of mental illness, social disorders, and other clinical terms that are generally accepted in medicine and psychology. Experts shared useful information, and identified areas in need of further study and research.

William Braniff, an expert on CVE and counterterrorism at the University of Maryland’s START Consortium, shared observations gleaned from his research on lone actors engaged in violence. Among other important points, Braniff discussed mental health issues that were often associated with lone actor violent extremism. He also called for more research into what causes people to go from radicalization to violent extremists.

Jodie Elgee, Director of the Boston Public Schools Counseling and Intervention Center, discussed “failed joiners,” a mental health term associated with school shooting noting that it may be instructive in understanding why young Muslims may become violent extremists. The idea is to look to established social science and medical information whenever possible to find answers questions about who is most susceptible. At the very least, it provides a hypothesis that requires further research, but it is far better than building public safety and national security on conjecture.

In short, Rep. McCaul’s dismissal of the summit does not appear to be borne out by reality. This may be due in part to the fact that the summit’s participants attempted to move beyond the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy that strict adherence to Islam results in violent extremism. In addition to expanding the discussion of radicalization beyond ideology, there were also conversations about disrupting online recruitment. And again, this was a challenging topic desperately in need of innovation—the type of subject well suited for a summit.

Summit participants stressed the importance of public-private partnerships. The summit spotlighted why technology matters: ISIS puts out approximately 90,000 tweets every day, employing all of the social media innovations used by people all over the world and is also developing some of its own along the way. Jared Cohen of Google Ideas, Sasha Havlicek of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, and Michael Davidson of Gen Next Foundation discussed why it is critical to leverage technology to amplify the voices of the majority of Muslims’ counter-narratives. ISIS’s social media prowess exacerbates the risks of terrorist recruitment, but the public-private collaboration holds a lot of promise for thwarting the polarizing narratives that help radicalize and mobilize would-be terrorists.

Leading up to the summit, one senior administration official described CVE as only one element of America’s counterterrorism and national security toolkit. To drive home this point, President Obama stated clearly in his closing remarks that there will continue to be a military component, readily declaring that “there are savage cruelties going on out there that have to be stopped.”

If the success of the summit is measured by whether or not it focused on U.S. Rep. Peter King’s CVE plan (“find them and kill them”), then yes, it was not very successful. But by just about any other, more reasonable measure, however, it would earn at least a “wait and see” assessment.

Clearly, no one is suggesting CVE is a magical panacea, or that terrorists can be ‘talked down’ from their positions. Obviously, those who have crossed the line between radicalization and mobilization—like the barbarians in ISIS who beheaded Egyptian Coptic Christians and burned a Jordanian pilot alive—can only be dealt with by force. But CVE efforts are the other side of the coin, essential work that pushes back against extremist propaganda. CVE is about finding out how terrorists are connecting with their target audience, and then stopping the polarization and the radicalization. As General Lloyd Austin III of U.S. CENTCOM said, “To defeat an idea, you need a better idea.”

Words are important, and dialogue matters. Domestically and internationally, our efforts to defeat those who would do us harm with kinetic, military action must be buttressed with governance, messaging, inclusion, and opportunity. Rather than talking to the terrorists, we must focus our efforts on reaching those at risk of recruitment; together, we can show them that participating in society is much more fulfilling than destroying it.

Junaid M. Afeef is an attorney focusing on criminal justice policy, a former executive director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, and Truman National Security Project Political Partner. His views are his own.