Assisting practitioners to understand countering violent extremism

Over the past decade and a half, Western countries have spent vast sums of money on efforts aimed at combating terrorism, both at home and abroad. A significant percentage of these locally implemented counterterrorism initiatives have focused their efforts on combating what many governments now refer to as ‘radicalisation to violent extremism’. However, from its inception the concept of radicalisation to violent extremism, or ‘radicalisation’ as it is more commonly referred to, has been a source of ambiguity and confusion.
Rather than emerging from social science research, the term ‘radicalisation’ first appeared in a May 2004 EU document listing possible root causes conducive to the recruitment of individuals by foreign extremists. An expert group established by the European Commission shortly thereafter, noted that the notion was inherently problematic, and cautioned against the use of the term due to its ambiguity (Coolsaet, 2015, p. 5). However, attacks in Madrid and London thrust the concepts of ‘radicalisation’ and ‘counter radicalisation’ to the centre stage of European counterterrorism policy. The prominence of these UK and European efforts has subsequently seen the concept migrate and rise to prominence in other Western countries including Canada, Australia and eventually the USA.

To this day radicalisation remains a contested and misunderstood term, largely because the concept emphasises the individual (and to some extent the ideology) and ‘significantly de-emphasises the wider circumstances and the context in which it arises’ (Sedgwick, 2012, p. 480).

Given the difficulties in designing a solution for a problem which is ill defined, it is hardly surprising that the ambiguity associated with radicalisation has extended to the policy response, today largely referred to as countering violent extremism (CVE).
CVE has coevolved with the debate about radicalisation as a subfield of counterterrorism policy and practice (Holmer, 2013, p. 2). The term (CVE) likely emerged from a policy department which, after determining that concepts such as terrorism and radicalisation were too poorly defined and stigmatised to use, resolved to introduce into the discourse the best new poorly defined term a focus group could generate. The lack of a clear definition of CVE has unsurprisingly resulted in the concept evolving ‘into a catch-all category that lacks precision and focus’ (Heydemann, 2014) and seen many programmes conducted under the CVE banner unable to define the specifics of what they ‘are preventing, let alone knowing how or whether … [they] have prevented it’ (Horgan, 2014).

Although the resources allocated to CVE are modest compared to those dedicated to more traditional counterterrorism efforts, CVE represents the most significant development in counterterrorism in Western countries seen in the last 10 years (Romaniuk, 2015). However, many governments have thus far struggled to generate effective and practical projects (Ramalingam & Tuck, 2014) and one of the world’s leading terrorism experts has noted that ‘we have a rapidly diminishing opportunity to figure out what CVE can be’ (Horgan, 2014). The following special issue seeks to assist policy-makers and practitioners to understand what CVE is, and to design effective CVE policies and projects.

This special edition of Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression draws together research conducted by some of the world’s leading thinkers on the topic of CVE. All contributors hold extensive experience working closely with CVE policy-makers and practitioners, and the findings contained within the following publications highlight the potential for action-research to assist in the CVE work performed by governments. The first article presents a framework to help understand the concept of CVE, and a system to categorise the breadth of CVE programmes, while the second paper proposes a model which can be utilised to build a balanced and effective CVE strategy. The third examines findings from two studies looking at the difficulties associated with reaching those most in need of assistance, while the final paper analyses a specific CVE effort in detail and measures the impact the project has had on the ground. Below is an overview of the four papers which make up this edition.

Tags: Counterterrorism, CVE, Radicalisation