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Countering Violent Extremism

Daniel Benjamin
Coordinator, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism
Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies (NESA)
Washington, DC
January 25, 2012


First of all, I’d like to thank NDU’s Near East South Asia Center and Ambassador Jim Larocco and his team for hosting this timely meeting. NESA has long been engaged in efforts to both build sustained partnerships among and train security professionals and leaders from Marrakech to Dhaka.

Second, I’d like to thank all of the participants who have travelled from near and far to contribute their expertise, share their insights, and explain lessons learned to those involved in the planning and development of the world’s first international Center of Excellence on Countering Violent Extremism.

Third and most important, on behalf of Secretary Clinton, I want to express the United States’ gratitude to His Highness, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, for stepping forward at the September launch of the Global Counterterrorism Forum and announcing the UAE’s willingness to host this institution. Sheikh Abdullah has been a leader in global efforts to counter violent extremism and the UAE government has developed creative and targeted programs to address vulnerable populations in countries and regions such as Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. Establishing an international venue in Abu Dhabi for training, dialogue, collaboration, and research to counter violent extremism in all its forms and manifestations is another demonstration of the UAE’s leadership in developing innovative ways to address the drivers of violent extremism, one of the critical long-term CT challenges we all face.

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This initiative could not be more timely. There is widespread agreement on the need to prevent individuals from starting down the path toward radicalization, the embrace of violence, and support for terrorism, as well as to divert those already on that path before they are fully committed and mobilized. There is no institution, however, dedicated to addressing this challenge. The international community urgently needs a venue devoted to training, dialogue, collaboration, and research to counter violent extremism, one that can bring together the experts, expertise, and experience that exist in countries around the globe.

One of the unsung successes of the past decade has been the extraordinary level of international cooperation we have achieved in counterterrorism. Although we have not been able to prevent all terrorist attacks, we have disrupted dangerous conspiracies, taken bad actors off the street, and broken up capable networks. Much of that cooperation was the result of intelligence work and law enforcement cooperation. Much of it was bilateral. Some of it occurred in relatively small groups. As a global community, there is much to be proud of – we have become exceptionally effective at tactical counterterrorism.

But having said all that, the challenges that violent extremism presents are not fading with the international community’s success against al-Qaida (AQ), its affiliates, and its adherents, as well as other terrorist groups. The loss of Usama bin Laden puts AQ on a path of decline that it probably cannot reverse. However, the factors that make some populations vulnerable to internalizing the worldview expressed by the AQ and other violent extremist narratives are still present in many communities. As we know, even more than its financing, what sustains terrorist groups is the steady flow of new recruits. They replace the terrorists that are killed or captured, and then go on to plan new attacks.

In other words, we, the international community have become so adept at tactical counterterrorism that we haven’t focused sufficiently on the need to defeat terrorists at the strategic level. That means we have to undercut ideological and rhetorical underpinnings that make the violent extremist worldview attractive to some individuals and groups while also addressing local grievances and other factors.

Over the last ten years, we’ve learned a lot about how terrorist networks find their followers and maintain support and protection in particular communities. But there’s much we still don’t know about how best to disrupt their efforts and deny them support. As a global community, we need to do a better job of diminishing the drivers of violent extremism and demonstrably reduce the effectiveness of terrorist propaganda.

Our research has shown that radicalization is often driven by factors at the local level and that to be effective, CVE work needs to be driven by local needs, informed by local knowledge, and responsive to the immediate concerns of the community. CVE is a top priority at the State Department, and increasingly for other parts of our government. So, I would like to briefly outline our approach because it informs our hopes and aspirations for the Center.

Recognizing the importance of local factors, the first pillar of our CVE strategy emphasizes micro-strategies customized for specific communities – and even neighborhoods. When owned and implemented by local civil society or government partners, such efforts have a better chance of succeeding and enduring. For several years now, for example, we have supported efforts by countries to engage youth in at-risk communities through police-led sports programs and have worked with several countries to counter the spread of violent extremist ideologies in prisons and detention centers.

The second line of this effort has to do with messaging. The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) was launched over one year ago, and is tightly focused on undermining terrorist propaganda and dissuading potential recruits. The center is housed at the State Department, but is a true whole-of-government interagency endeavor, with a mandate from President Obama in the form of an executive order. As part of this effort, a group of tech savvy specialists – fluent in Urdu and Arabic – that we call the digital outreach team are contesting online space, media websites, and forums where extremists have long spread propaganda and recruited followers. With timely posts, this team is working to expose the contradictions and abuses employed by violent extremists. This is not broad public diplomacy. We are reaching out to a specific, narrowly defined overseas audience: People who are or may be sympathetic to the views of violent extremists and are thus vulnerable to its propaganda; people who could be persuaded or enticed into crossing the boundary between sympathy and action.

Our third pillar focuses on strengthening our partners’ capacity and engagement in CVE work, propagating best practices, and building an international consensus behind the effort to delegitimize extremists and their ideologies. Here, we envision the Global Counterterrorism Forum’s CVE Working Group, which the UAE and UK are co-chairing, as having a significant positive impact. We also are working through the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute to develop a consensus on best practices in disengagement programs, with an eye to creating a technical assistance delivery capability managed by UNICRI.

The field experience of our colleagues in international development is also pertinent as we develop CVE as a discipline. International development agencies and NGOs have worked for years on community development, youth empowerment and education, among other relevant areas. Development practitioners also have accumulated best practices and tools for designing programs in conflict settings. Finally, our development colleagues often have pioneered metrics - to measure not just outputs but often outcomes of their work. We look forward to also tapping these areas of expertise in our substantive contributions to standing up the Center.

I know we’ve only scraped the surface in terms of the things we can be doing. The challenge the international community faces in countering the violent extremist sentiment that fuels recruitment extends to finding truly innovative ways to provide police, educators, religious and other community leaders, and other relevant government and non-government personnel with the necessary training and practical tools to design and implement effective programs and policies.

The CVE Center of Excellence can help us do just that. We see the Center giving us all deeper and clearer insight into the pathways to radicalization, which vary by region, country, and community. So a Center course could look at different models of radicalization and case studies and draw on the latest research from experts around the world, including work undertaken by visiting researchers, to help us understand, for example, what radicalization factors appear most consistently, as well as those easiest – or most difficult – to mitigate.

The Center stands to play a pivotal role helping us find innovative ways to overcome a range of other challenges. Let’s explore a few.

For good or for ill, teachers play a critical role in shaping the thinking of young people. We know that indoctrination at an early age can make individuals more open to the violent extremist worldview. Some countries are making excellent progress in addressing this challenge and could provide experts on good practices to benefit other countries trying to do better on this score.

As an institution of research, the Center could also explore the role that teachers and other educators can play in identifying both the signs of violent radicalization and appropriate ways for educators to intervene to prevent students from becoming radicalized. To date, this space has been largely left to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, a far from ideal situation. Finding ways to empower educators to play a more important and pro-active role in identifying and then helping reverse the process of radicalization at earlier stages – before it becomes a case requiring law enforcement and intelligence intervention – would be an important step, as well as an investment in the future of our young people.

Speaking of law enforcement, sometimes security personnel – with the best of motivations in mind – engage with communities in the absence of being properly trained. The results can be embarrassing and even counterproductive. This is an area where my own country faces some challenges and could benefit from the experiences and accumulated wisdom of our friends.

Despite our advances through the CSCC in understanding the role of traditional and new media in content delivery and message resonance, there is still a vast amount of learning before us. Fundamentally, we are guessing at what works and what does not. The Center could serve as a focal point for coordinating research into how attitudes are shaped across cultures and for deepening understanding of how trust and resonance vary by culture.

The U.S. government has a growing body of evidence about what constitutes the most appropriate and effective ways to build community resilience against violent extremist ideology within our borders. This is information we would like to share with our partners through the Center. And we would certainly benefit from understanding what has worked for our partners

I mentioned our work with and through UNICRI on best practices in disengaging incarcerated terrorists and on preventing prisons from becoming recruiting centers for violent extremists. Given the great interest in these subjects voiced by GCTF members at an organizational meeting of the CVE Working Group last July in London, I am confident that Center efforts in conjunction with UNICRI would be welcomed.

Finally and critically, we need to deepen our understanding of how to know what works and what does not – that is measuring and evaluating the immediate and long-term results of CVE programming and other activities. I am pleased that the Government of Canada, together with other governments and the Center for Global Counterterrorism Cooperation, will host a colloquium on this important subject next month. But our learning will have to be ongoing, and the Center is the right place for that to happen.

While standing up this particular Center is an entirely new undertaking, there are many lessons we can learn from others’ experiences in establishing and operating international, regional, and national training and research centers in a range of related fields. We’re grateful for NESA’s experience and knowledge in this very area and also its willingness to bring relevant officials and experts from around the world to exchange ideas about good practices and the inherent challenges we’ll face as we move ahead and make the Center a reality.

We must work together to reduce recruitment and counter the spread of violent extremism. Only through concerted international action, though the Global Counterterrorism Forum and this Center and other multilateral platforms, can we effectively tackle violent extremism.

Thank you again for inviting me to speak. I invite your questions and wish you a successful conference.


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