Insight and foresight from the global frontlines

Questioning the 'root causes' approach to countering violent extremism

It's a tough job at best, and hard to sustain if the proper conditions don't exist.

Ben Curtis/AP/File
Libyan rebel fighters belonging to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group took time out for prayer in April 2011 as they battled dictator Muammar Qaddafi, who was overthrown just months later. Qaddafi's earlier efforts to 'deradicalize' members of the group proved unsuccessful once the revolution against him broke out.

The Obama White House hosted a three-day summit last week targeting public initiatives to take on the ideologies that drive groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, an effort the US likes to call "countering violent extremism."

"CVE" seeks to address "the root causes of extremism" with three general approaches, according to the White House:

Building awareness— including briefings on the drivers and indicators of radicalization and recruitment to violence;

Countering extremist narratives—directly addressing and countering violent extremist recruitment narratives, such as encouraging civil society-led counter narratives online; and

Emphasizing community-led intervention—empowering community efforts to disrupt the radicalization process before an individual engages in criminal activity.

Academics and intelligence analysts express considerable skepticism that this approach is useful. The root causes as they're often defined – poverty, ignorance, economic and political injustice – are prevalent in many places where there isn't much violent extremism. And in places where there is some, huge portions of the population experience the "root causes," yet only a minority sign up for what amount to hyper-violent, secret societies.

But it's easy to find other trouble spots in this framing.

The last two bullet points above are central to the "deradicalization" programs of recent decades aimed at gently weaning jihadis and jihadi sympathizers off violence. But Omar Ashour, author of "The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements” and a professor at at the University of Exeter in the UK, reviewed those programs' recent track record for the Washington Post last week, and argues that they don't succeed unless the broader national and social conditions are right. In Qaddafi-era Libya as well as with prisoners held by the US in Iraq, those conditions were not right – and the efforts largely failed. 

Of the American effort in Iraq, which began in 2007, he writes: "It had some initial positive effects, and by 2008, about 10,000 prisoners were freed while the country was in a process of de-escalation. But by 2010 most of the effects dissipated."

As for Muammar Qaddafi's efforts with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, many of whose members figured prominently in the 2011 civil war that drove him from power and have since joined Islamist militias that are helping to tear the country apart, there was almost no hope once the uprising against Qaddafi began.

"A sustained transformation from armed to unarmed activism had little-to-no chance" amid that turmoil, he writes.

When do such efforts work, particularly in a Middle Eastern context? Hard to say, he writes.

Pre-2011 Egypt, Algeria and Libya witnessed large-scale, collective deradicalization processes that combined ideological de-legitimization of political violence with processes of demobilization, disarmament and reintegration. The rates of success of these programs and processes were highly contested though, mainly due to macro-level, structural challenges and inhospitable environments. So far there is no consensus on how to measure success, although it is easier to measure collective transformations (organizations and factions) than individual ones. Additionally, the sustainability of these programs or processes – without a thorough process of political and security reform and transitional justice – is questionable.

I've added the italics. In the cases of Syria, Libya, and Iraq, where the self-styled Islamic State is now well-established, the conditions for reforming security services and justice systems, meaning ending arbitrary arrest and detention, summary executions, and the use of torture, don't exist. Political "reform" for the moment, likewise, is only notional.

Egypt, where the military is in the process of reasserting its political authority, is far more stable than those three. But in an environment of widespread oppression, militant groups have sprouted, including would-be jihadis who have murdered dozens of soldiers, police officers, and civilians in the country's troubled Sinai Peninsula. 

Though he doesn't write it this way, Mr. Ashour's review indicates that a programmatic approach to countering extremism, which implies a time-limited, near-term effort, is a mistake. What's needed are fundamental changes in the way countries are governed, the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. In environments with low trust, high political violence, and plenty of guns, it appears any gains are ephemeral.

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