Listen to this story
I am sitting in an upmarket hotel in Amman, Jordan, in a faceless conference room, drinking bad coffee and making desultory conversation with the handful of people at my table. It’s a familiar scene. Amman is one of the few stable, friendly and functioning capitals in the Middle East, and it hosts many conferences such as this. It also hosts the Middle East offices of a multitude of international organizations. It’s 2016, and the world is worried about the Islamic State group. The United Nations agency that has convened this meeting is eager to find a way to combat the group’s appeal.
One young researcher is presenting findings from a U.N.-funded project to understand why children in Iraq joined armed groups, including the Islamic State. To dress up his work as “science,” the researcher presents a graph. The horizontal axis is labeled “extremism,” the vertical axis is called “radicalization.” The audience exchanges confused glances. Undeterred, the young man goes on, linking the four quadrants of his graph to differing tendencies toward violence. He provides no data or causal explanation to justify this link between violence and belief.
Eventually someone asks: What exactly is the difference between extremism and radicalization?
Extremism had to go on the horizontal axis, from left to right, because we often talk of politics in terms of left and right, he says. Radicalism had to go on the vertical axis, bottom to top, because the word comes from the word “radix,” meaning “root,” and therefore grows from the ground up. The answer leaves the room even more mystified. It is unclear how an index as subjective and arbitrary as this could help explain the problem of children joining violent groups.
“But what’s the actual difference, in the real world?” someone asks.
The researcher struggles to answer. He is from a for-profit company based in the Netherlands and his boss suddenly steps in to help. “I don’t care if you call it radicalization or peanut butter,” she says, “There’s something going on that we need to address.” I didn’t want to be that academic who always quibbles over definitions, but this was too much: Our use of words matters in crafting a response to problems, and these words meant nothing at all. If we call it peanut butter, I point out, we would give out bread.
This is the world of “countering violent extremism” — CVE in the jargon. In a legitimate desire to tackle radical violence, governments started flinging money at the problem. First, in the post-9/11 era, “war on terror” rhetoric and action dominated, but later came claims of more nuanced approaches to tackling the problem, seeking to understand and prevent the phenomenon at its source. Such efforts are necessarily global, because from extremist Islamism to white supremacism, networks of extremists now cross borders and span the globe, facilitated by endlessly proliferating social media platforms.
International attention to the problem has in turn spawned a global industry with wily entrepreneurs. One NGO in Jordan was awarded $500,000 by a European government to build the capacity of 15 community-based organizations to design programs and apply for funding. The circularity is obvious, the waste criminal. What could that money have done for the work the grassroots organizations are doing in their communities?
Not only has expertise been invented to snag funding, but existing development work has been molded into the shape of “CVE,” stigmatizing entire communities as terrorist-producing.
After the rise of the Islamic State, I was part of this race for cash, working on CVE projects from media messaging to radicalization research, and it slowly dawned on me how flawed the industry is. Not only has expertise been invented to snag funding, but existing development work has been molded into the shape of “CVE,” stigmatizing entire communities as terrorist-producing. Age-old structural problems with policy work are also at play: the short-term nature of funding, which discourages thorough research; and the hurried implementation of programs in order to be seen to be doing something. When research or programming fails, there are cover-ups to rationalize the waste, ensuring that the mistakes are repeated. And on top of all this, there are political obstacles. Our understanding of violent extremism has been growing and improving, but governments around the world are reluctant to apply this knowledge because it would require admitting fundamental problems with their societies.
Back at the Amman hotel, the peanut butter debate was followed by a coffee break, and we all moved on. The basic problem with the research was left unacknowledged and unaddressed.
A few months later, a different country office of the same U.N. agency put out a call for proposals for a similar project. People who attended the incoherent talk in Amman assessed the applications and still awarded money to the peanut butter entrepreneurs. Because even when donors have stark evidence of incompetence, they repeat funding because they don’t want to admit past mistakes. It’s a vicious cycle.
“Why did you join ISIS?” As any researcher knows, such direct questions are doomed — unless you want to know how subjects oblige researchers’ expectations. “Social desirability” — the unconscious habit to provide the answer you think the questioner is looking for — is a species-wide habit, and interviewing vulnerable populations compounds this problem, given the stark power imbalance. Ex-Islamic State fighters are often in detention and wary of incriminating themselves or others; they know that their interviewers are anti-Islamic State and thus might want to distance themselves from the group; they might think a researcher has the power to put in a good word for them. All these factors mean that the answer to “why did you join ISIS?” is colored by self-interest. In a research project I witnessed, which was conducted among jailed children, 52% immediately told the interviewer that they hadn’t in fact joined the Islamic State at all and had falsely confessed.
There is a similar issue with focus groups, which are good for eliciting how people behave in front of each other, invaluable for market research, but not so good for understanding underlying human values and motivations, especially with sensitive topics. With violent extremism, the main lesson you can draw from focus groups is what is socially acceptable to say in focus groups.
CVE methodologies also include “key informant interviews”—i.e., in-depth interviews with people with some expertise in the subject. This can be valuable if accompanied by proper analysis, but all too often quotes are turned into bullet points and facts generated from unchecked opinion. This is how soundbites get fed into the CVE machine as factoids resistant to scrutiny.
But most crucial of all for such sensitive research is gaining access to the right populations: those who have actually been tempted by the message of extremists. I spent months working on a CVE project in Tunisia, brought in as an academic consultant to explore the reasons why Tunisia was the country that saw the highest proportion of its citizens join the Islamic State. To understand the appeal, and also why Tunisians had started flocking home despite the lengthy prison sentences awaiting them, we developed a research project with in-depth interviews in prisons with the returnees, using a survey I have honed over a decade of interviewing fighters. But I never set foot inside a prison.
I spent one week per month in the country. Every trip I was promised research participants to interview, and every month we were promised a report by researchers who had already had access in the prisons. In the five months I worked on the project, I obtained neither. I did speak to one of the researchers who had been in the prisons, but he stressed that I couldn’t quote him until the report was out. The report was classified and has since been published in a truncated form (and too late for my work).
My disappointment compelled me to write a “gap analysis,” pointing out all the holes in our existing knowledge and underlining how we can never fill them without unfettered research. I wasn’t going to produce another meaningless report masquerading as fact. I heard nothing more, not even an email acknowledgement, and I doubt the organization would want me working for it again. The waste of resources was shameful. I had some lovely trips to Tunisia but with no usable outcome. The money could have been spent on grassroots organizations in country or on humanitarian aid elsewhere.
This obstruction to interviewing returning Islamic State members has been repeated in my research all over the world and stems from the risk to governments in having extremists’ views in the public domain, which would force admissions of mismanagement on the part of governments, from corruption to foreign policy disasters. No government wants to hear criticism of their policies from people locked up in their jails; not least because of the fear that some on the outside might find themselves agreeing.
This is galling because it is precisely the work being done in prisons, in painstaking one-to-one deradicalization programs, that have been most effective. One colleague cannot share his years of experience and his promising evaluations because he is constrained by the U.K.’s Official Secrets Act. He keeps in touch with many of the ex-radicals he has worked with, as friend and mentor. Not all CVE work is meaningless, but with all the secrecy and denials of mistakes, it is hard to distinguish between the valuable, the speculative and the outright damaging.
“I can’t tell my government this,” an attendee interrupts me during my presentation on “What works in CVE.” I have quickly sketched what we know about the drivers of violent extremism, arguing that there’s nothing special about it; the very same factors of social marginalization and humiliation, a sense of grievance and injustice, and a lack of hope in the future all feed many other social and personal ills from petty crime to alcoholism to suicide. I suggested that we quit the disastrous CVE approach to focus on making our societies more inclusive and hopeful, thereby addressing many social problems at once, and simultaneously avoiding the stigma of accusing communities of potential terrorism.
This didn’t go down well as policy advice. “Do you disagree with anything I’ve yet said?” I ask my interlocutor. And he repeats: “I cannot go back and tell my government this.” I widen the question to the room: “Does anyone disagree with anything I’ve yet said?” There is silence, some head shakes, some rueful smiles: This is a conversation I’ve had with some of them before. Before the meeting, one of them even encouraged me to go all the way. “How will things change if people like you don’t push us?” he said.
Many shared my reservations, but there was nothing they could do against the political realities of the countries they represented. Violent extremism is special in its own right, another civil servant explained, because the public think it is. Governments have to be seen to be doing something in the face of terror attacks. To say that it is like gang membership or drug addiction is not a message that governments can absorb.
I’m reminded of an early meeting with the U.K. task force against the Islamic State in 2014, a few months after their “caliphate” was declared. I was told by an adviser to then-Prime Minister David Cameron that he would never say publicly that radicalization had anything to do with the U.K.’s foreign policy. She forestalled my outrage. “I know,” she said, “but to save time in this meeting, you need to know that I won’t be passing that on, so let’s not go into it.”
The rhetoric of a “war against Muslims” that I was hearing in my interviews and reading online was not to be acknowledged by authorities, even though the Islamic State was successfully leveraging this perception. Whether mentioning the Israeli-Palestine conflict, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, drone strikes in Pakistan, the lack of intervention in Syria or arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Western foreign policy was essential in creating an “us and them” narrative by the Islamic State: You are either a Muslim or you can live in the West, their propaganda argued, but not both. But politicians cannot admit that the lives lost and the money spent in the wars they started were wasted — or worse, may have contributed to the problem in the first place — nor can they offend staunch allies who host military bases or detention centers on our behalf. Our team was hamstrung by this political reality before we’d even begun to design policy and programs to combat the message.
Leaders in the Arab world have no need to deny that the West has played its part in radicalization in their region; in fact, they welcome such an explanation as it places some of the blame elsewhere. But they have their own sensitivities, and reports showing the domestic sociopolitical drivers that lead their youth to place their hope in alternative systems are quietly shelved. When the inability to get a job without wasta, or social capital, was included in a story combating the messages from the Islamic State and al Qaeda, authorities intervened, telling me that nothing they had seen suggested it was a factor in radicalization, despite my research to the contrary. Addressing corruption that is society-wide was not a palatable recommendation, and so it was cut from the messaging entirely. And Western donors are unwilling to offend allies by pushing for this more honest storyline, despite admitting the truth of the grievance. They are even less likely to put pressure on allied countries to clean up their corruption, as seen only too shockingly in Afghanistan over the past two decades.
This, then, is one of the fundamental problems in addressing the issue of violent extremism: Governments around the world do not want many of the drivers known and broadcast because that would require changing their own policy and behavior. The West cannot admit to mistakes in policy; other governments can neither acknowledge nor address the endemic corruption. Political realities shrink the space CVE practitioners can work in, meaning we can never really address the roots of the problem.
Given these political realities, donors have to tread a careful line in what programs they fund. The manager of an imam training program in Jordan was frank with me. “This was cheap, and easy, and isn’t going to do any harm,” he told me. It was a palatable offering of aid to the Jordanian government because it didn’t come with anything close to political, economic or social reform. So palatable, in fact, that this imam training is now a major plank of their strategy to combat extremism.
But there’s another reason training and educational programs are so popular. On some level, it’s intuitive: If imams preach moderate Islam and are equipped with arguments to address extremist ideas in their own congregation, it is less likely that the extremists’ messages will take root, the thinking goes. It’s the same intuition that leads people to claim that teaching critical thinking will “inoculate” youth against such messages, based on an assumption that more information and better analytical skills mean people will make better informed decisions. There is zero evidence that this assumption is correct, and it raises many questions, not least what “better informed decisions” look like or how critical thinking protects against certain messages and not others.
Most of all, you need to listen to only a few extremists—whether from an Islamist, far right, nationalist, ethnic or political persuasion—to suspect that lack of critical thinking is not the issue. Islamists all over the world have explained to me in great detail how there is a war being waged against Muslims, and they have put the pieces together with an excess of critical thinking, sometimes verging into conspiracy. Both Marxist-Leninists (from the Kurdish separatist group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and Islamists have explained to me how neoliberalism is failing the most vulnerable in my own society, while relying on these very same people to provide care and other basic services. Many of the arguments are straight from well-known critical theorists, including feminists. They differ from us not in their diagnosis but in their prescriptions—either an Islamic or communist state.
Indeed, the focus on critical thinking devoid of political reasoning may have the paradoxical effect of giving extremists more sophisticated ways to rationalize their prescriptions.
So why the faith in education? To some extent, it’s an old enlightenment ideal, pervasive in our societies: Through mass literacy and learning, human rights, rooted in the notion of equality, will, inevitably, spread around the world. As former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair told the U.N. in 2013: “In the 21st century education is a security issue.” With this attitude, it is no wonder that extremist ideals that do not involve equality or human rights are so bewildering to so many in the West. There is no space in this enlightenment picture to understand personal frustrations of those looking for a better future for them and their children. The belief that education is a panacea means legitimate grievances go unacknowledged, adding insult to injury. It is often the loss of any alternative for hope that leads many to turn to the promises of extremist organizations, and there is no amount of education that will make up for such a lack of hope.
It is this faith in education, coupled with a perhaps more justifiable faith in advertising, that has led to a large investment in strategic communications (or “stratcomms”) to combat extremist messaging. Money was thrown at the problem in the wake of the Islamic State, one of the most formidable of opponents in the realm of propaganda. The coalition fighting the group set up a cell specifically for countering their messaging. Millions were spent, but to little effect.
“Stratcomms? There’s no strong evidence about it,” an employee at the U.K.’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office said to me. I added that I’ve seen an evaluation of a program that apparently amplified the extremists’ own message; awareness of the group went up after the program was implemented. I ask why it still goes on. “People like it because it’s high profile, and you’re shown to be doing something,” she said. “If you’re not doing anything against prolific propaganda from groups, it’s seen as bad.”
Civil servants like this cannot push back against policy beyond feeding back evaluations, but these evaluations are often done badly and sanitized by the implementing organizations to avoid them being penalized in the future. The negatives are excised. And governments themselves do not wish to admit mistakes, fearing retribution at the ballot box.
Just as research is often flawed for unavoidable reasons (as well as government obstructions), mistakes will be made in policy and programming; this is part of life. The problem comes when honest evaluation is rejected in preference for a claim of success. If governments and U.N. agencies can’t acknowledge failure, then we are doomed to repeat mistakes. Research reports are out there, sometimes branded and thus legitimized with U.N. and government logos, that are known to contain errors. High-profile programs are continued when they are known to have zero or even negative effects. Most dangerous of all, the entire field of CVE appears misguided.
“I don’t know what CVE is,” said a counterterrorism practitioner from a European country at an event on violent extremism. “It’s unhelpful as a term and usually means security done badly or general development work which shouldn’t be attached to a concept like violent extremism.” She was right: When women’s empowerment, literacy or youth leadership programs come under the banner of CVE, you risk stigmatizing an entire community and thereby alienating the very populations you are trying to reach. “We fit in with any concept that gets us funding,” the head of one U.N. agency said to me. “But I know it’s wrong-headed. You are literally branding an entire community as one who produces terrorists.”
So, what can be done about violent extremism? The drivers are now well known, but addressing them requires governments admitting reality, seemingly impossible in authoritarian and democratic regimes alike. Once the political concerns are taken into account, there is a tiny space left to maneuver in. Perhaps this space left for communications campaigns and education can do some good, but we need to stop pretending about how much. Abandoning CVE for the more hopeful task of improving the lot of youth seems a more sensible way to go. But for all its waste, by being “seen to be doing something,” the CVE industry endures.