Governments must reorganise themselves to address Muslim millennial and generation Z youth, a task that so far has proven daunting, writes Farah Pandith.
Since 9/11, we’ve done much to undermine major terrorist organisations like Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State. Governments have exercised critical global leadership, relying on kinetic strategies to craft their military responses while also disrupting terrorist financing. Nations have also looked beyond traditional counterterrorism tools and abandoned “hearts and minds” public diplomacy campaigns, devising more authentic and localised “soft power” approaches to help protect communities against extremist ideologies.
Despite these efforts, the extremist threat has grown increasingly ominous. Extremist groups now deftly navigate a complicated digital space, cementing alliances and spreading an “Us versus Them” ideology. Their goal: recruit legions of young people to their cause. Whether terrorist threats take the form of false caliphates or lone operatives devastating our athletic events, holiday celebrations, concerts, or train stations, they all rely on youth. As the extremists know, the pool of potential recruits is growing fast. Today, Muslims under thirty number nearly one billion. By 2030, this demographic group will more than double to 2.2 billion. Governments must reorganise themselves to address Muslim millennial and generation Z youth, a task that so far has proven daunting.
“Governments’ failure to undermine the ideology’s appeal to youth stems from its failure to mount a serious and sustained CVE strategy.”
Governments’ failure to undermine the ideology’s appeal to youth stems from its failure to mount a serious and sustained CVE strategy. In the United States, CVE has been administratively bloated and largely ineffectual, siloed throughout Washington’s departments and agencies, riddled with incoherent terminology, and massively underfunded. Since 9/11, the US government has allocated a mere one-tenth of one per cent of its annual budget to CVE. With inadequate resources, government can’t lead in the effort to diminish recruitment and radicalisation, nor can it prepare for future extremist threats now coalescing. Extensive research conducted after 9/11, for example, has revealed the many dynamics surrounding global youth recruitment, but America and other nations have failed to ignite multi-dimensional anti-recruitment efforts. We’re even less prepared to address a central cause underlying successful recruitment: the worrisome and pervasive identity crisis that afflicts Muslim youth throughout the globe.
There is reason for hope: we possess the knowledge and infrastructure necessary to confront the extremist threat. We just need the will. As I argue in this essay, government must go all in on CVE, not merely funding and developing it at scale, but improving its execution and coordinating better with other actors. If we reorient governmental priorities and policies in these ways, we can make significant headway in reducing recruitment.
Governments now understand that winning the war of ideas means collaborating with grassroots organisations, NGOs, civil society, and the private sector, actors that are uniquely familiar with local landscapes and capable of responding with real-time interventions. Serving as conveners, facilitators, and intellectual partners, governments have sponsored a wide array of partnerships with other nations, multinational organisations, private industries, NGOs, and foundations to create CVE initiatives over the past decade. Such experimentation has led to a diversity of promising programming both online and off, including peer-to-peer interaction, counter-speech programming, training and intervention initiatives, as well as influencer networks and idea laboratories. Unfortunately, these initiatives remain small, and many are “pilot” projects. They will have only local and modest impact until they are scaled.
Consider the Connecting European Dynamic Achievers and Role Models (CEDAR) network, which the State Department seeded in 2008 through a partnership with London-based counter-extremism NGO Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD). The US Department of State took a deliberately light touch when sponsoring this first-of-its-kind platform, which united Muslim professionals and changemakers from across Europe to promote leadership, entrepreneurship, and positivity. Embassies, NGO partners, and civil society members scouted the initial talent and curated the network, leaving it to local actors to build out needed projects, like mosque-based mentoring initiatives.
More recently, Norway took a similar approach to talent scouting and network curating when it partnered with ISD to support the Youth Civil Activism Network (YouthCAN). After serving as convener and facilitator, the Norwegian government exercised a similarly light and modest touch, allowing YouthCAN the necessary support and autonomy to develop organically, scale, and effect change. Since its founding in 2015, YouthCAN has emerged as the world’s leading, youth-driven CVE organisation. Understanding technology’s role in the lives of youth, YouthCAN has engaged tech entrepreneurs to host innovation labs, which train people in counter-speech campaigns and anti-recruitment efforts in a compelling, grassroots fashion.
“We must devise a better global system for countering extremist ideology, one in which nations engage distinct strengths and share responsibility in new ways.”
Carefully curated and tested networks like CEDAR and YouthCAN are just two examples of promising CVE programming. Many more such programmes exist, and they employ a broad range of techniques including counter-speech interventions, education, trainings, and peer-to-peer networks. These programmes benefit from initial government sponsorship and assistance in attracting new partners and attention, but they also draw on the credibility and skills of non-government actors. With their legitimacy, skills, and cultural acumen, civil society and NGOs can develop programmes for youth that account for a range of nuances such as gender differences, behavioural habits, and regional trends. Youth remain suspicious of government programmes, but in their minds, programmes devised by these local actors feel credible and authentic.
Unfortunately, such initiatives remain one-off, pilot programmes without the necessary support and scale to make a vital impact. To respond to the next generation of extremist threats, our governments must move beyond the experimental phase of CVE and commit to replicating and scaling such programmes so they can achieve global saturation.
IMPROVING CVE EXECUTION
To understand which CVE programmes should be developed, let alone scaled, our governments themselves must also be reconfigured so as to adopt and coordinate a united set of CVE programmes at the local, national, and international levels. But even the US government, whose national security strategy expressly prioritises the ideological fight against extremism, has not redesigned the government to properly execute CVE initiatives.
At present, different parts of the US government enact CVE in overlapping and inefficient ways. We lack a centralised place to coordinate and deploy our entire arsenal of tools, skillsets, and expertise (and other countries suffer from the same problem). For a more disciplined, streamlined and effective approach, one high-level government official must bear responsibility for responding quickly, appropriately, and in real time to events throughout the globe. This official would enable our CVE strategy to blossom domestically, allowing for better coordination among governors, mayors, and other elected officials. He or she would also ensure that CVE is coordinated throughout the interagency and onward to our embassies. With responsibility over the entire CVE “battle plan,” this official would help to restore balance to counterterrorism operations, which now heavily favor kinetic approaches. It’s time that we rebalance the resources and respect we afford to kinetic and non-kinetic approaches, recognising them as equally indispensable in the fight and allowing them to work alongside one another to achieve maximal impact.
Governments understand the need for such high-level leadership in other kinds of warfare, but they don’t recognise the same imperative when it comes to the war of ideas. Imagine if the army, navy, air force, and marines were all undertaking their own independent initiatives, with no central principal overseeing everything. That’s what’s happening with CVE, and it’s not nearly sufficient.
STRATEGICALLY COORDINATING CVE EFFORTS
Even with such strong leadership, scaling and systematising CVE strategies and organisations seems expensive and logistically burdensome. That’s where coordination between governments comes in. We must devise a better global system for countering extremist ideology, one in which nations engage distinct strengths and share responsibility in new ways. Unfortunately, international coordination today typically takes the form of summits, convened throughout the globe to discuss best practices. This is a great first step, but inadequate on its own. With each government independently implementing an array of national and international programmes, CVE efforts remain uneven, uncoordinated, and redundant. Lacking a comprehensive view of the battlefield, we collectively fail to mobilise vital tactics in the fight, such as accurate global mapping of micro and macro CVE efforts, including their reach and principle practitioners.
Governments should reassess how they might build novel collaborations based on distinct national capacities and shared goals. In 2015, the United States, Denmark, and Norway partnered with ISD to launch the Strong Cities Network (SCN) at the United Nations. SCN represents the first network of municipal policy-makers and mayors dedicated to keeping cities on the global vanguard of this ideological fight. SCN is especially promising because instead of merely sharing best practices at global summits, SCN showcases them among its 120-member cities. If an education programme in Louisville, Kentucky (USA) helped successfully counter online extremist recruitment, mayors across the globe will now know about it, with similar programmes popping up in Melbourne, Australia or Amman, Jordan. The same goes for basic internet hygiene programmes, youth-oriented hotlines, the use of former extremists in film, and programmes fostering compassion.
“Governments should reassess how they might build novel collaborations based on distinct national capacities and shared goals.”
Global collaborations like SCN affirm the value of systematising CVE. The basic idea is this: we all have a common goal and a common enemy, so we should all collaborate on programme innovation and design, sharing details of efforts that have succeeded or failed. Such collaborations should take place across different industries—media, education, social services, and entrepreneurship—and intellectual disciplines. The private sector is indispensable, and to date governments have inadequately mobilised such actors to implement CVE globally. We need companies to help NGOs design programmes, and we need government alliances fighting the ideological war. That way, we’ll be able to determine “who can do what” best and mobilise resources accordingly.
What if we could harness an international and interdisciplinary collaboration to address how mental health, adolescent development, and behavioural psychology affect youth’s susceptibility to extremism? Many governments face the challenge of reintegrating into their societies youth who fought in Syria and Lebanon, and all nations struggle to educate parents and young children about extremist ideology’s appeal. What if we drew on the considerable talents of our leading NGOs and our private sectors to devise new interdisciplinary approaches to cultural listening, mental health, and rehabilitation? We could, for example, create a cutting-edge institution to which the world’s returning foreign fighters would go before reentering their countries of origin—a Mayo Clinic-type facility, but dedicated to rehabilitation and offering best-practice interventions. Such global cooperation and coordination vis-à-vis CVE would also allow each country to best identify where to focus attention and deploy resources accordingly. It’s a winning strategy.
“There is reason for hope: we possess the knowledge and infrastructure necessary to confront the extremist threat. We just need the will.”
WIN OR LOSE
Governments can no longer content themselves with existing approaches to fighting extremism. Terrorism continues to drain our economies, costing nations around the world a staggering $90 billion in 2015. Meanwhile, the “Us versus Them” ideology has become normalised and pervasive. Extreme-right groups, including white supremacist, Alt-right, and neo-Nazi organisations, are on the rise in Europe, and they are even infiltrating North American law enforcement offices. As the Anti-Defamation League reported, far-right groups and individuals accounted for nearly 60 per cent of extremist-related American deaths in 2017.
In the near future, more nimble, adept, and dangerous groups than the so-called Islamic State, or the US white nationalist organisation Unite the Right will likely arise. What if such groups acquire human data and weaponise it to disrupt hospitals? What if they organise themselves to dramatically increase their appeal to women, who in turn raise ideologically sympathetic children? And what if they acquire chemical and biological agents and bomb densely populated urban centers, or a major global logistics hub like the Straight of Hurmuz? Let’s not find out. Let’s do what it takes to win the war, recalibrating how governments engage with CVE, and applying CVE methods to deal with white nationalist ideology as well. The three government actions I’ve described here represent a powerful start.
This article originally appeared in the Global Terrorism Index 2018, also available for download.