Why Counterterrorism Needs Countering Violent Extremism (CVE): How Human Rights and Good Governance Help Prevent Terrorism
Why Counterterrorism Needs Countering Violent Extremism (CVE): How Human Rights and Good Governance Help Prevent Terrorism
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights
Thank you so much for the warm introduction. It is a pleasure to be here today, especially at Columbia with folks like Professor Sarah Cleveland, Professor Elazar Barkan, and Greta Moseson here today.
Since 9/11, the United States has arrayed a broad range of counterterrorism efforts to keep Americans safe: airport security, intelligence collection, military operations, security assistance, and community partnerships. Our investments have prevented a catastrophic attack on the homeland and have degraded al-Qa’ida’s core leadership.
But as we look around the world, we continue to see terrorist attacks and acts of violent extremism from a more diffuse and decentralized set of threats.
The threat of ISIL globally highlights that while military action, border security, intelligence collection, and police work are critical parts of a comprehensive counterterrorism approach, they alone are insufficient.
As Secretary Kerry said, “Eliminating the terrorists of today with force will not guarantee protection from the terrorists of tomorrow.” No matter how many terrorists we bring to justice, those groups will replenish their ranks. We need to do more to prevent young people from turning to terror in the first place. And the young people that turn to violent extremism do not exist in a vacuum – they are often part of communities and families today and then lured into a barbaric and nihilistic organizations tomorrow.
The individuals that are part of violent extremist groups have many complex, overlapping, and context-specific motives for being there. As the global community, we are eager to understand why violent extremism proliferates and to develop solutions.
Earlier this morning, I met with over 50 researchers, methodologists, and other experts from around the world to hear about their endeavors to use data, analysis, and social science to better understand terrorism and violent extremism and improve our efforts to prevent its spread. We have much more to learn, but we have documented a range of grievances and motives that propel individuals, and in some cases, communities to join or align with terrorist actors.
I have found it is helpful to look at motives along what psychologist Abraham Maslow famously posited as a human hierarchy of needs. Maslow argued that individuals have a range of needs that must be met – in priority order – before people attain their greatest self-realization. At the bottom of the pyramid are needs critical to physical survival, such as food, shelter and safety. Higher up the hierarchy of need, individuals look to find love and belonging, self-esteem, and purpose.
The Hierarchy of Needs helps us understand why dramatically different profiles of persons can be drawn to organizations antithetical to what we would identify as progress and humanity. The conditions that make individuals or communities vulnerable to violent extremist recruitment – often called “push factors” – prominently feature conditions like physical insecurity or the inability to provide for oneself or one’s family. But even where people’s lower-level needs are met, social and political marginalization can impact higher-order human needs such as a valued role or purpose.
For example, President Obama noted, “groups like al- Qa’ida and ISIL exploit the anger that festers when people feel that injustice and corruption leave them with no chance of improving their lives.” Or according to a 2015 Mercy Corps study on Afghanistan, Colombia, and Somalia, “for many youth, narratives of grievance are animated by the shortcomings of the state itself, which is weak, venal or violent. Or all three. Young people take up the gun not because they are poor, but because they are angry.”
Many observers talk about ideology or religion as a form of pull factor, and certainly we recognize these dimensions of violent extremism. But rather than debating whether ideas constitute the root cause of violent extremism, we try to understand the complex interplay among various factors – social, political, economic, and cultural – that combine to push a person towards the potential for violent extremism. Religion can be one among numerous factors that play into or otherwise inform a person’s higher-order needs such as identity or purpose.
At the same time, terrorist groups recruit by preying on human needs that are unmet or exploiting situations where there may be violations or abuses of human rights. And terrorist groups will continue to capitalize on local grievances and anger. This suggests secondary benefits in better addressing needs and grievances and providing for political, economic, educational, and entrepreneurial development so people have hope for a life of dignity.
So how do we do this? Displacing terrorism from its current position as a top global threat requires a much longer-term strategy. As Secretary Kerry has said, “we have to devote ourselves not just to combating violent extremism, but to preventing it.”
So our strategy looks to do just that, and expands our efforts to do so. First, we are enlarging “the who”:we are multiplying who is involved in this work far beyond governments to empower all of those who can build credible and visible alternatives to terrorism. Second, we are growing “the what”:we are expanding the use of non-security tools to counter violent extremism by better addressing grievances. As part of that we are also redoubling efforts to understand what activities work to keep people from being recruited and radicalized. And thirdly, we are prioritizing “the where”:we are using these tools in places in a targeted way to better address grievances among those most vulnerable to violent extremism.
This approach has been brought in a big way to the international arena since the February Summit to Counter Violent Extremism – or as we call it, CVE.
At the Summit, President Obama hosted governments and global representatives from civil society, business, and the faith community from 60 countries, and included 12 multilateral bodies and helped set in motion a global movement.
The Summit launched an ambitious Action Agenda that has governments, civil society, and the private sector all working together to do things like expand research on the drivers of violent extremism and how to address them, develop inclusive national CVE strategies, empower civil society, expand economic and political opportunities for at-risk populations, and promote human rights.
This thinking has spread far beyond the beltway, prompting a remarkable pace of activities, including eight countries’ hosting CVE regional summits, the inception of several global networks, and countless new actors joining the conversation. And next week, here in New York, President Obama will convene a Leaders’ Summit on Countering ISIL and Violent Extremism, where many more significant achievements will be unveiled and new efforts launched.
Our own emphasis on a preventive international approach to CVE has elevated the non-security dimension of counterterrorism to the top of the international agenda, engaging us in a broader, even more comprehensive conversation about counterterrorism.
So more about “the who.” As Secretary Kerry said in August, “our comprehensive strategy has to earn the support of religious authorities, educators, and citizens who discredit hateful doctrines and who are ready and willing to build stronger and more resilient communities."
CVE is catalyzing these actors and more to build a network of global partners. Civil society, community and religious leaders, and the private sector are part of this movement. We are expanding the network of actors – bringing in women, youth, and other at-risk groups that often lack a public voice. Each of these stakeholders are performing different functions, bringing different perspectives, and deploying new approaches to preventing the next generation of violent extremism.
This process is helping forge relationships of mutual interest, often for the first time, between civil society and governments. For example, we see civil society helping families advocate to their governments for better policies and stronger laws, to protect youth from terrorist propaganda.
When visiting Mombasa, Kenya earlier this year, I met with civil society representatives who explained how the CVE agenda helped them connect with county and national government officials. Previously, there had been limited NGO-government dialogue on virtually any security issues or similar topics of concern. Now, civil activists, religious leaders, and others meet with police leaders to discuss how to increase transparency and accountability of security forces and how communities can help contribute to trust building activities. They did note that civil society often had to call and host the meetings.
As this demonstrates, shared success depends on building trust between the authorities and the public, and we must be careful to preserve the voices of those who are critical when they express dissent peacefully. Operating space for youth, women, religious groups, and civil society must be safeguarded—so that these populations can speak their minds, organize among themselves, and bring their experiences to bear on creating more peaceful, tolerant, and democratic societies, including CVE work. As we grow “the who” we must also develop “the what” we mean when we talk about CVE efforts.
CVE helps build resilience within individuals and communities. CVE is proactive – programs, institutions, and actors working to undermine the attraction of, and recruitment by, violent extremist movements and ideologies that promote violence. CVE has many complementary components.
At times, tools such as messaging and amplifying credible voices are used to expose the dead-end lies of violent extremism and build positive alternatives such as what a future without violence looks like. In other situations, government trainings strive or encourage better CVE policy changes and government accountability and can help address popular grievances among citizens.
At other times, CVE may involve initiatives that curb corruption and promote the rule of law, so that members of marginalized communities can enjoy the same rights as members of the elite. And in other situations, it may include job training and expanding economic opportunities, so that young people can envision a future of dignity and self-reliance.
I encourage you to check out cvesummit.org to learn more about the Summit and follow on process through the Action Agenda which give even more details about the tools and key areas of “the what” of CVE work. There are nine elements on the agenda, all critical pieces to understanding the fabric of CVE work.
I would like to discuss one action agenda item of particular interest to today’s topic. And that is Agenda Item 3: Strengthening Community-Police and Community-Security Force Relations as Ingredients for Countering and Preventing Violent Extremism.
This aspect of the CVE agenda supports activities and policies to enhance security forces’ respect for human rights, build strong relations with the communities they protect, and when needed, reorient their organizations to support community-oriented policing. Because while security actions are very much needed to protect civilians from terrorist actions, when security forces either fail to provide adequate services and protection, or fail to respect human rights.
Mistreatment by security forces – whether shaking down citizens for money or committing sexual violence that scars survivors, their families, and communities for generations – creates a barrier of fear and resentment and makes it impossible for communities and police to work together effectively against terrorism. And then, all too often, violent extremists exploit such abuses, capitalizing on them to fuel their recruitment and radicalization. And though progress may be slow and halting, it is encouraging. Also in Mombasa, I met with a national police commissioner who concluded that large-scale arrests and sweeps of ethnic Somalis were not productive and could in fact be radicalizing. He sought to abandon such practices in favor of intelligence-driven operations and there is where foreign partners can help reinforce and strengthen positive change.
These examples of progress in Kenya illustrate the value of engaging communities on CVE. We urge the Government of Kenya to publicly release its CVE Strategy, which will help provide a shared understanding of the roles for government, communities, civil society, and international partners can play to expand and accelerate CVE efforts.
Now to do “the what” and “the how” better, we must also invest in better research, analysis, and evaluation. Empirical information can identify the factors that best enable or prevent the spread of violent extremism. And empirical information can help us see errors more clearly, course correct, and promote new or better programs. Monitoring, evaluation, and assessments are critical to ensure what we are all doing is working, or if it’s not, that we know why, which is why a new research network RESOLVE that links local research and expertise to international research and expertise is so critical. So we must all do more to address these grievances, and base it on better information. But where?
CVE efforts must be tailored and targeted to meet specific needs in specific places. The task of preventing individual radicalization in a western or European country will look different from how those same countries seek to use its development assistance or diplomacy to contribute to preventing violent extremism, in let’s say, the Sahel. The processes of individual or community radicalization and the types of interventions that are most effectives may differ dramatically. In terms of foreign assistance, we must identify the places that could next metastasize into the chaos that breeds terrorism and instead seek to improve and invest in those communities.
Of particular concern are areas close to active terrorist conflict where populations are vulnerable to the spread of violent extremism. Also of interest are the communities further upstream, where preventive CVE efforts can have impact before the risk of large-scale radicalization and recruitment, or active conflict has moved in.
CVE is not development or national building writ large. It requires and again research is critical here, careful prioritization of the areas or communities most vulnerable to extremist messaging or infiltration.
We are beginning to apply this approach in our own foreign assistance programming, and by partnering with other governments, international financial institutions, the philanthropic community, the private sector, and non-government organizations.
To summarize, the U.S. and partners are (1) working with a broad array of global partners, (2) increasing activities that address grievances, and (3) doing so in more places that are vulnerable before they are infected with the cancer of violent extremism. This represents the best opportunity to actually shrink the numbers of those drawn to the fight and can better prevent the rise of a violent extremist movement that could become the next ISIL.
Terrorist actors take innocent lives every day. And governments face real challenges in both responding effectively and avoiding counterproductive responses.
We continue to see disturbing reports of civilian casualties from state counterterrorism operations. We see overreach of regulations in the name of counterterrorism that instead are used against members of political oppositions. We see systematic profiling of members of certain minorities. We in the United States have and continue to grapple with these issues in our own policies and actions.
Yet the framing of CVE is fundamentally a positive, proactive approach to this generational challenge. It offers greater opportunity to both help change state behavior and reduce the number of supporters of terrorist behavior.
Returning to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, CVE moves our counterterrorism response closer to promoting human rights and human needs. Our work on CVE also reinforces that respecting, protecting and promoting human rights enhances long term security. Violating rights in the name of security all too often backfires and feeds the lifecycle of terrorism.
Within a human rights framework some roles for meeting needs are for governments, and some roles are best left outside governments. But in both cases, governments must be part of a holistic solution, and at a minimum, not fuel the growth of violent extremism. Good governance is critical to help protect communities and individuals from the false promises of violent extremism.
We know that sustaining and amplifying CVE efforts will take patience, resources, and commitment. But the Obama administration’s CVE approach, as Secretary Kerry said, “can send a clear signal to the next generation that its future will not be defined by the agenda of the terrorists and the violent ideology that sustains them.”