Why Countering Extremism Fails

Washington's Top-Down Approach to Prevention Is Flawed

Still frame of a masked man speaking in what is believed to be a North American accent in a video that ISIS militants released in September 2014. FBI Handout / Courtesy Reuters

In 2014, as a speaker at a countering violent extremism conference, I had to pull the organizers aside for an awkward conversation about a post to my Twitter account. Just before I was about to present, a supporter of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) had publicly tweeted at me: “Kill them, you have their trust.” His logic was simple: The conference would be the perfect opportunity to engage in mass murder because no one would see it coming. He knew that the conference included a number of people who, like me, work daily to push back against the extremist propaganda circulated online by people like him.

Such incidents—witnessing people targeting and recruiting others to engage in violent activities or issuing threats on social media—are not uncommon to those who work in my field. On Saturday, another shooting took place, but this time in Copenhagen. On Jan 7, 2015, days after the attack in Paris on Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper, an ISIS supporter had proclaimed on Twitter, “Our prophet isn’t a joke. Insha allaah next time we will hit Denmark #CharlieHebdo.” The tweet was quickly taken down, but the question still lingers: What is being done to counter violent extremism?

There is a lot of talk about countering violent extremism: It has been on the forefront of the U.S. domestic counterterrorism agenda for many years and the White House will meet from February 17-19 for a summit on the topic. But, like terrorism, the term has no universally accepted definition despite the fact that it is included in policy directives across the world and in the UN Security Council Resolution 2178 condemning violent extremism. In 2011 and 2013, Washington issued a number of policy guidelines on possible strategies but to date has not provided a single definition. I define “countering violent extremism” as: “the use of non-coercive means to dissuade individuals or groups from mobilizing towards violence and to mitigate recruitment, support, facilitation or engagement in ideologically motivated terrorism

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