The world’s major intelligence and law enforcement services are seeking to understand and ultimately ‘dispel’ the phenomenon of violent extremism through a complex and nebulous framework called Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). At its core, CVE is a state-sponsored technique that seeks to disrupt the path to extremism and build bridges between law enforcement and targeted communities, among other stated goals. In founding this practice, the Obama administration sought to pivot from the much-maligned “Global War on Terror” phrase. But replacing one ambiguous, open-ended program with another is not a fix. Just like the War on Drugs faithfully served the cause of drugs, and the War on Terror propelled global terror to unprecedented heights, CVE is at risk of suffering a similar fate.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, governments across the world ramped up their security infrastructure, often to exaggerated or illegal ends. The Snowden leaks revealed — confirming what many already suspected — that major intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency (USA) or the Government Communications Headquarters (UK) were developing electronic dragnets that surveilled entire populations, not just suspects in terror cases. As extremist groups proliferated and became more diffuse, agencies had to increasingly contend with the prospect that its own citizens, far removed from any battlefield, were becoming radicalized due to a host of factors — including (but not limited to) exposure to extremist online propaganda, perceived grievances, or social vulnerability. To better understand extremism as it relates to individual development, law enforcement agencies commissioned studies that sought to map out extremism in order to prevent an individual from reaching the final stage of violently acting on those beliefs. No longer just the enforcers, officials operating under this CVE framework took it upon themselves to become glorified community organizers.
But this has created profound tension between Muslim communities and Western governments. While ‘extremism’ is broadly defined in the CVE framework, the principal target has been Muslim communities — especially in Europe, where many societies struggle with integration. New York City’s Muslim population was subject to a spying operation by the NYPD (as revealed by the Associated Press), and the FBI has invested significant resources into ‘rooting out extremism’ in Minnesota’s Somali community. While the public posture of law enforcement officials is one of seeking to empower communities to drive out extremist elements from within, informants are increasingly being used as a mechanism to entrap certain individuals, driving a wedge within these communities between those genuinely keen on stamping out extremism and those wary of co-optation by federal agents — which could lead to a shunning of CVE outreach efforts altogether.
This ‘community development’ aspect is at the heart of the Obama administration’s CVE approach, which “aims to address the root causes of violent extremism by providing resources to communities to build and sustain local prevention efforts and promote the use of counter-narratives to confront violent extremist messaging online.” But in practice, CVE creates a trap for any targeted community: Their cooperation is expected to detect early warning signs of extremist development, even while being subject to enhanced surveillance and entrapment.
This approach to CVE has permeated throughout the world, and in the Balkans, one of the region’s primary goals was stated to be “strengthening legal, institutional, and operational frameworks and capacities to address counter terrorism and in particular the FTF [foreign terrorist fighter] challenges, while protecting civil rights and liberties.” Approximately 700 individuals from the Western Balkans region have joined extremist groups in either Iraq or Syria, and the U.S. in particular has thrown its weight by regional initiatives to combat extremism (the Balkans Regional CVE Initiative).
No country has received more attention in recent months for the presence of extremist elements than Kosovo, which once had the highest per capita rate of individuals departing the country to join the so-called Islamic State (IS) before a recent decline. The nature of the country’s Islam has come under particular scrutiny, as there has been a detectable shift from a once-moderate form of practice to one where radical, Saudi-inspired interpretations are beginning to take root. Indeed, extremist Saudi proselytizing — through training imams and constructing mosques on a global scale — has pushed Islam in many parts of the world toward an intolerant, radical strain.
The U.S.’ intense focus on prioritizing the CVE approach is exposed as hypocritical and fundamentally inconsistent with measures needed to actually root extremism. As one of the U.S.’ strongest allies, Saudi Arabia serves a critical regional function for the U.S. and relies on it for patronage (i.e. massive arms deals), while the Kingdom funds violent extremist groups and espouses a totalitarian ideology bent on controlling people. In ideology and practice, the Saudis have overlapping tendencies with IS, without question the most hated and reviled non-state actor in the world at the present moment. Though the U.S. has long worked with the Kingdom, the connections between IS and the Saudis only adds yet another disturbing layer to an already complex relationship. As such, any CVE effort, whether in the Balkans or elsewhere, is necessarily tainted so long as this key geostrategic relationship persists with impunity.
But is the threat of extremist proliferation in the Balkans grave enough to warrant full-scale intergovernmental counter-extremism measures? Endemic corruption, poor socioeconomic conditions and political cronyism outweigh the abstract threat of extremism, as these prevailing factors are tangible and devastating to significant portions of the population (in Kosovo, one in three live in relative poverty). While a causal link between poverty and extremism has been postulated, it is not conclusive — it is but one of many potential elements that could propel an otherwise ‘normal’ individual to extremism.
One potential way to curb some of the failings of current CVE efforts is taking a horizontal approach — having various civic groups cooperate jointly on solving the problem of extremism within their own communities, if there happens to be one in the first place. The current approach is attempting to bring the state closer to the people, but it has the potential to fail given the inherent inconsistencies outlined above. Rather, affected communities and their allies must take the leadership role, instead of being co-opted to both serve as community liaisons and unwitting abettors to entrapment. Government should play the role of the willing partner — always ready to hear and respond to grievances, but ultimately take second chair to communities who more often than not understand their own intricacies and what it might take to counter the extremist scourge.
Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.