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The White House CVE Summit: What should we expect? More of the same or a new direction to counter ISIS?

Author:  Clint Watts
February 18, 2015

The White House CVE Summit: What should we expect? More of the same or a new direction to counter ISIS?

Yesterday, Vice President Joseph Biden kicked off the much anticipated White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). He noted the need to,

“engage our communities and engage those who might be susceptible to being radicalized because they are marginalized….societies have to provide an affirmative alternative for immigrant communities, a sense of opportunity, a sense of belonging that discredits the terrorist’s appeal to fear, isolation, hatred, resentment.” 

This seems like a long and large task list to keep three guys with guns from killing people in the streets of Paris.

America trots out CVE every three years or so in response to the latest atrocity perpetrated in the West by a confused young man inspired by whichever terrorist group has recently grabbed headlines.  As the Vice President noted above, CVE proponents as a whole will likely propose eliminating extremism by solving all the problems of disenfranchised communities-–something no government in history has been able to achieve to date. This general theme will ultimately settle on pushing two feel-good programs as the mechanisms for CVE: (1) community engagement through law enforcement and NGOs and (2) countering the ideology of the latest terrorist group through the promotion of Mulsim “Moderate Voices”.  These programs, on the surface, seem great.  Who wouldn’t want to engage at risk communities and tell the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) they stink?  Despite their merits on paper though, these programs will have almost no impact on extremism aside from interdicting an occasional fence sitter who was likely torn between whether he should go to Syria, hang out with his friends, or play video games.  I’ll spare the reader my issues with CVE but for a longer critique see this article I wrote with Will McCants and my opening remarks at The Washington Institute a couple of weeks back. 

Properly conducting CVE today requires a simple, narrowly focused strategy that answers three questions: “Where?”, “Who?” and “How?”

Where do you want to counter violent extremism?

Today, jihadi extremism, labeled al Qaeda, ISIS or some other name, occurs in both physical and virtual worlds.  In the physical world, extremist recruits primarilly emerge from three separate theaters: (1) North Africa through the Middle East to South Asia (known hereafter as MENASA), (2) Europe to include the Caucuses and the Balkans, and (3) North America.  Each of these theaters hosts a mixture of virtual and physical radicalization and recruitment.  

On the ground in extremist environments now known for propelling three decades of militancy, young recruits physically encounter jihadist recruiters in mosques, apartments, and prisons where the disenfranchised congregate to share their lives’ misfortunes and collectively embrace jihadism and violence as an answer.  Online, virtual radicalization and recruitment occurs throughout nearly every social media platform and a few password protected Internet forums.  Online extremist content predominately comes in the form of Arabic, but can be found broadcast in any language for which there is a vulnerable community.   

The ratio of physical to virtual radicalization and recruitment generally decreases across all of these theaters the further one gets geographically from Syria and Iraq.  Of course, there are exceptions to this rule in certain extremist hotspots in Europe.  The chart below (Figure 1) shows my overall ballpark estimate of the breakdown of physical to virtual recruitment across each of these theaters and each theater’s total contribution of fighters to the Syria/Iraq jihad. 

Today, extremism is Europe’s problem more than America’s.  From a temporal perspective, the rate of American extremists recruited to Somalia may in fact outpace the rate at which American extremists have been recruited to Syria.  Meanwhile, Europe watched thousands of its citizens and immigrants stream into Syria over the past three years and are now feeling the pain of what was bound to come. Hint: It’s a little late for preemptive CVE, intelligence and law enforcement operations should be the main effort.  Overall, if one wants to counter the most extremists via physical engagement programs; MENASA is the place to do it.  If one wants to focus on virtual CVE programs, North America and Europe should be the focus–that’s right, those places most creeped out about governments playing around with peoples minds on the Internet–thank you Ed Snowden!

For the most part, CVE proponents recommend their pet strategy be applied everywhere to combat extremism.  But this is unwise.  Community engagement should be applied in locations where there is significant physical recruitment such as MENASA.  Instead, community engagement will probably be discussed more in the permissible environments of North America where physical recruitment to extremism is far less likely to occur and difficult to detect. 

Who do we want to counter? Which extremists do you want to counter?

Extremism as a term lacks a clear definition.  As Will McCants noted in this excellent piece, there are many people referred to as extremists ranging from the vulnerable community of disenfranchised youth suspectible to extremist messages to the committed, law-abiding supporter of a terrorist group.  Different CVE approaches should be applied against different characters on this spectrum.  Rarely, however, is this the case. Instead programs seek to target extremists as a whole without clearly identifying where the extremists are and where they reside on this spectrum. 

How do you want to counter extremists?

Today’s general CVE approach involves a milieu of efforts, some tackling virtual aspects of extremist radicalization and others focusing on mitigating physical recruitment.  In whole, these efforts may achieve limited success where they are applied but lack the needed synchronization and appropriate tailoring for how today’s ISIS recruit becomes radicalized.  Last decade’s CVE measures are tired and have been proven ineffective.  We have more extremists today than we did ten years ago.  Why would we continue using these same failed approaches?

Moving forward, CVE needs to recalibrate the message, messenger, medium and method by which they counter extremism.  CVE efforts should begin in the virtual environment where discussions can illuminate physical hotspots of extremism for the nimble application of traditional CVE programs.  As seen in Figure 2, ISIS’s recruitment message (“come to Syria and Iraq and create an Islamic State”), messenger (“a foreign fighter like you waging battle against the infidel”), medium (high quality video showing violence and administration of state), and method (through tailored social media mechanisms) is being countered through messages and messengers misaligned to the group’s success. 

Moving forward, conducting CVE to counter ISIS’s appeal should begin by engaging in the virtual space as a way to illuminate extremists hotspots where physical interactions such as community engagement and “Moderate Voices” can be effectively and efficiently applied. As seen in Figure 2, the message should focus not on convincing ideological novices that jihadi ideology is “bad”, but that when they travel to be a foreign fighter, they will be participating in something quite different than what they expected.  The best messenger for this message isn’t an elderly imam, but instead a disenfranchised foreign fighter that can relay their experience back to those with jihadi dreams that don’t match reality.  Defector videos should be coupled with well-produced dramatic video narratives that connect with vulnerable audiences.  Videos should be deliberately inserted into online audiences and discussion facilitated by non-governmental organizations that can then facilitate phsycial interventions. 

I could go write more, but I’ll instead end with a question.  Is the West really serious about CVE?  If so, Western governments should stop focusing on what ‘sounds’ or ‘feels’ good and re-examine what is likely to be most effective at curbing radicalization and recruitment.  The proposal I briefly outlined above doesn’t require a summit, but merely creativity, a credit card, and some film students.

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