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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Friday, August 19, 2011

Finding A Way Forward For CVE

I recently came across an interesting discussion on an extremist Internet forum about a particular brand of ideology and whether it had outlived its usefulness. The discussion continued for more than 130 pages (when rendered as a PDF), and it was a fascinating look at how extremist ideologies can decay and even collapse.

As I've said before, I am not a fan of the idea of government policies for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). But I recognize the desire for such strategies and approaches, and I continue to think about the issue in an effort to find ways to contribute something positive rather than complain from the sidelines.

With this recent example in mind, I went back and revisited the Obama administration's new "strategy" for fighting violent extremism. I found myself thinking about goals and end states for counterradicalization programs. Part of the problem I have with the President's plan and others I have encountered has to do with their goals.


1. Make good citizens
2. Instill values
3. Create community or government partners
4. Actively address or remove grievances
5. Change underlying beliefs

I outlined most of my objections to these goals in a previous post and one before that. The short version is that I think it's devilishly difficult to tell people how to think, especially when those people are already suspicious of you. The goals above smack of social engineering and manipulation. Manipulation is what the bad guys do. It shouldn't be what we do, even if it was likely to work, which it's not.

That doesn't mean we have to sit idly by and ignore centers of radicalization, such as online forums, groups within communities, or within formal terrorist and extremist networks here and abroad. We just need goals that are more realistic and that reflect what actually happens when people abandon violent extremism. To that end, I suggest that we want would-be violent extremists to arrive at the following end-states:


1. Discouraged
2. Disillusioned
3. Divided
4. Doubt-filled
5. Directionless

Discouraged means that would-be extremists believe they cannot achieve the goal of promoting or institutionalizing their ideology. Most -- but not all -- people will be reluctant to take action if they believe that action is pointless or purely symbolic.

Disillusioned means that they have lost faith in specific leaders and co-ideologists whom would-be extremists see as failing to live up to the ideals they espouse. It's important to keep in mind that while violent ideologies seem negative to those of us on the outside looking in, adherents seem themselves as idealists and utopians. A disillusioned idealist creates powerful negative energy within a community.

Divided is an obviously desirable trait. The more disagreement and paranoia fester within a group of people, the less capable that group is of collective action. There are multiple lines of disagreement that can be opened and aggravated by strategic government policies and disruptive psychological operations.

Doubt is one of the most powerful emotions we can experience as humans, and it saps the will to take dramatic or extreme action. Doubt can apply very broadly within extremist communities -- it can mean doubt about particular elements of the ideology, doubts about co-ideologists' sincerity or intelligence, doubts about the pragmatism of the movement's goals, or doubts about the safety of forums in which extremist conversations are held. Doubt is an element of the first three goals, and can also be a goal unto itself. The important thing to remember is that there is great utility in planting seeds of doubt that deter action, as opposed to trying to uproot an entire existing worldview and replace it with a new one.

Directionlessness is the final piece of the puzzle. Even if extremists manage to overcome the first four Ds to  remain committed and unified, differences over strategic direction can render them paralyzed. This is a particularly tricky area for government to meddle in -- namely because there is always a risk of pushing individuals or the collective into a specific direction. I suspect it is better to look at directionlessness as a barometer for success rather than as a tactical goal.

Aside from the considerations I have written about previously, this approach has a couple of specific advantages. All other considerations aside, it's simply easier to destroy than it is to create. And most CVE discussions are about creating positive communities by targeting people who have not yet been radicalized rather than disrupting extremist communities as they exist.

Perhaps more importantly, the Five Ds approach is not exclusive to Muslim radicalization. For all that people talk about not singling Muslims out for corrective actions, the fact is that the President's CVE prescription and most others I have encountered target Muslims very specifically and call for tactics of engagement which cannot realistically be applied to, say, white supremacists or pedophiliac religious cults.

Remember that online conversation I mentioned at the top, the one that got me thinking about this again? It was found on a white supremacist forum. Disruption has the potential to work with any kind of extremism, and it's essential that any CVE policy we undertake be flexible enough to deal with threats from all quarters.

For more about radicalization and American jihadists, check out J.M. Berger's new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, on sale everywhere.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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