People, Power, and Preventing Violent Extremism: What Is Working?

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“Too often efforts to solve the problem of violent extremism rely only on classic security measures, but experience has shown that such strategies are inadequate and can actually fuel further extremism,” said IPI President Terje Rød-Larsen, opening a September 27th IPI policy forum on finding effective ways of  preventing violent extremism. Cohosting the event with IPI were the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

Mr. Rød-Larsen said that research that IPI had done with local stakeholders in the Sahara-Sahel region in collaboration with Switzerland had shown that effective measures had to have “both a hard and a soft dimension. Classic security strategies have been paired with softer measures focused on prevention through education and information, through peacebuilding and sustainable development.”

The findings underlined the importance of dialogue, said Dominique Favre, Deputy Chief of Mission of the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations. “We believe in dialogue to address the root cause of violence because dialogue offers inclusion, belonging, self-esteem, and contributes to putting into place policies and actions which have a lasting impact because they become a collective good.”

USIP President Nancy Lindborg said a USIP task force project on preventing violent extremism underlined “the way in which social contracts between a government and its people are critical for peace and stability and for enabling citizens to be resilient to the siren call of violent extremism.” She added, “We are not going to bomb our way out of this problem. There’s no military solution. It requires rethinking how we do this work.”

Abdul-Aziz Alhamza is a Syrian journalist who is a co-founder of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a non-partisan organization that exposes atrocities committed by ISIS and the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria. He talked about the challenges he and his colleagues faced in besieged Raqqa where more than 1600 people died and 80 percent of the city was destroyed. “The main thing I had known was that governments, after destroying things… would leave those cities alone,” he said. “So my team, when they worked on the ground, so many kids would ask them, ‘Where’s ISIS, we miss ISIS’. So we need to work with those kids. They haven’t been to school in four or five years, and right now, there’s no schools, so we tried to do more education. In order to fight against extremism and against violence, we need to fight against the ideology, which can’t be solved with bombs or air strikes.”

Elaborating on that, Jake Sherman, Director of IPI’s Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations, referenced a study from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) that found that seven of ten people in extremist groups in Africa became radicalized after having had contact with state security forces. “It’s often military action that has the unintended result of furthering the very thing it’s meant to address,” Mr. Sherman said. “It’s important to think about how to break that cycle. Leaving issues of exclusion and marginalization untouched starts the cycle all over again.”

Sudanese-American human rights advocate Azaz Elshami described the inclusive neighborhood-based process in Sudan that proceeded slowly but ended up emboldening large numbers of people beaten down by decades of harsh dictatorship to take to the streets in protest. “Nonviolent resistance is not something that you can force on people,” she said. “It’s something very organic, and it’s very incremental, it takes its time to grow.”

Essential, she said, was altering the group identity that motivated them. “For you to have a thousand people on the street meant that you talked to them, meant that you convinced them, meant that you built trust, meant that you had a goal. A lot of people calculated that their risk, that the benefit of them joining this cause was higher than the risk they could [otherwise] face. That’s very important, and that takes a lot.”

Leanne Erdberg, Director of Countering Violent Extremism Interim Executive Director of the RESOLVE Network at USIP, said that group identity was such a powerful motivator because “we do things in groups that we are unwilling to do alone, regardless of whether we have a basis for what we are doing.”

She said her thinking on how to combat extremism took inspiration from American psychologist Abraham Maslow who believed that humans have a “hierarchy of needs. At the bottom, it’s your psychological needs like food and water, then moving to your safety needs. After that, you’ve moved to your needs for love and belonging, eventually self-esteem, and at the highest level, self-actualization.

“What I was realizing was that violent extremism and terrorist groups were opportunistic, that whatever your need was, from the very bottom to the very top, they were going to be able of find that and tailor that. Their radical change was the answer to whatever your deficiency in needs was. It was adaptive, it was flexible, and it was able to take people from all walks of life, in so many different contexts and bring them into this radical narrative that basically said, ‘There is an illegitimate status quo, and my way is the best way to get you to a better life.’”

Jesse Morton, an American onetime jihadist propagandist, told the story of his passage out of radicalism after being arrested in Morocco and how it took shape while he was teaching young students there at the time the Arab Spring was beginning. “I’m interacting with these invigorated and emboldened and hopeful youth, and the energy just starts to affect me,” he said. “The very first seed and cast of doubt was in the context of hope for democracy, and I think that when we think in terms of networks and we heard a narrative, that was returning me to that moment where there was hope and where there was a cultivation of an ability to have hope for the future.” Mr. Morton now runs LightUponLight, a US-based online ecosystem that combats violent extremism by providing participants with the same sense of identity and camaraderie that extremists do for their recruits.

Christian Pout, President, Centre Africain d’Etudes Internationales, Diplomatiques, Economiques et Stratégiques, discussed a four-nation initiative in the Chad Basin, where Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad, frustrated at the failure of military actions to curb Boko Haram, joined together to try a different approach. “We started our work with analyzing the situation, understanding the push factors and pull factors.” Next, he said, came setting up a “preventive mechanism, which is to fight exclusion because the area where Boko Haram operates is in a remote area… where you don’t feel the presence of a state.” He claimed “very important results” with almost 1000 people in two regions now organized in regional, sub-regional, and national levels. As a result, he said, they are “feeling less isolated and looking for ideas to build resilient communities.”

Mr. Sherman moderated the discussion.