How should the world respond to the extending reach of radical movements like Islamic State, al Qaeda and Boko Haram across today’s battlefields?
Reactions have included ground offensives, air strikes, targeted killings and sanctions. But another approach is the “countering violent extremism,” or CVE, agenda, which has emerged as a soft counterweight to the military responses against al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks. Its latest addition is United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s action plan to “prevent violent extremism” (the secretary-general uses PVE rather than CVE but the thinking is much the same). He called for “a new global partnership to confront this menace,” as he unveiled it last month.
There are, however, problems with his plan — both in what it does and doesn’t do.
Much, of course, makes sense. Any remedy to the wars, renditions, torture and drone strikes that have played into extremists’ hands over the past decade and a half is welcome. So, too, is the plan’s acknowledgement of the grievances, particularly human-rights violations, injustice and repressive governance, that facilitate extremists’ recruitment, and its warning to world leaders that terrorist attacks often aim to provoke overreaction.
Though the plan stops short of explicitly linking extremists’ gains to major and regional powers’ war-making in the Middle East, Ban was about as bold as he could have been about member-states’ responsibility for the mess. “Short-sighted policies, failed leadership, heavy-handed approaches, a single-minded focus only on security measures,” he said, “and an utter disregard for human rights have often made things worse.”
But there are dangers in the way Ban has framed the problem.
The first lies in a failure to define terms, as a smart piece by Naz Modirzadeh, founding director of the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict, points out. There is barely a hint on whether “violent extremism” relates to tactics, motives, ideology, message or aspiration.
So the term obscures more than it illuminates by potentially lumping together diverse forms of protest, insurrection and radicalism. Confusing the Taliban and al Qaeda was a mistake a decade and a half ago, for example. Creating a category that could conceivably include Islamic State, Hamas, Colombian rebels and the Ku Klux Klan is not only analytically faulty but also risks pushing policy in a disturbing direction.
True, for the United Nations, whose members disagree on what makes a “terrorist,” any attempt to define the even more amorphous term “violent extremism” would court controversy. The secretary-general explicitly left the definition to member-states, while warning leaders against misusing the label on their rivals. Yet, by ducking a definition — and, more important, failing to tease out what differentiates a violent extremist from a terrorist — he risks letting them do just that.
The second danger relates to the drivers of extremism that the plan identifies. Diverse regional politics and patterns of radicalization that vary from country to country, village to village and individual to individual mean that drawing generic conclusions about underlying drivers is a mammoth task.
That said, the principal catalyst for the rise of the most powerful of these movements over recent years is clear. It lies in the Middle East’s convulsions: the Iraq invasion; Syria’s savage civil war; Sunni suffering in both places; an unnecessary and foolish escalation in Yemen; Libya’s chaos and the weapons spilling south after Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster, and mounting enmity between states, particularly the bitter sectarian Saudi-Iranian rivalry. All have opened up enormous opportunities for extremists.
Extremist movements have gathered force as crises fester, money, weapons and fighters flow in and violence escalates — often profiting from fighting between their enemies. (Boko Haram is perhaps an outlier here, in that it emerged in northern Nigeria outside an existing warzone. Even there, though, state security forces’ extrajudicial killings and other heavy-handed tactics stoked its insurgency.) Overall, extremists’ increasing reach is more a product of instability than its primary driver, more due to the bloody genesis of crises than to radicalization beforehand.
The secretary-general’s plan rightly calls for redoubled efforts to end the conflicts that extremists feed off. It then, however, muddles the underlying causes of those wars with the dynamics that enable extremists to gain force within them. This makes for a confusing mix in which almost any source of instability can lead to extremism.
Indirectly, of course, this might be true: Fragility leads to conflict that opens doors for extremists. But it makes for an agenda so expansive that it risks offering everything but nothing.
This leads to the third problem: the action points that the secretary-general’s plan lays out for member-states. Unsurprisingly, it’s a long list. If almost anything can cause extremism, almost anything can prevent it. His list includes: giving adolescents jobs; helping marginalized communities; educating children; promoting gender equality; respecting humanitarian law; improving prison conditions, and nudging leaders toward inclusion and reform — to name some of the 70-odd ideas.
Implementing all these measures would clearly make the world a better place. But citing them here seems nonsensical. It might even prove counterproductive, by, for example, politicizing governments’ service delivery, endangering aid workers or distorting diplomacy. Rather than help define the contours of the plan, its catch-all, upstream approach throws more mud into already murky waters.
Perhaps the gravest danger, though, lies in the United Nations buying into the assumptions underpinning the agenda in the first place. The plan implicitly frames much contemporary conflict as struggles between governments and violent extremists.
Despite its calls for dialogue with “opposing parties and regional actors,” the plan appears to rest on the belief that violent extremists are beyond the pale. It pairs sympathy for those at risk of radicalization with disgust for those that have succumbed. If states can’t prevent militants from radicalizing, it implies, the only option is to crush them or force their surrender.
This divorces policy from politics, which leaves a largely empty middle ground between the mostly development- and de-radicalization-oriented policies the plan promotes, on one end, and the counterterrorism or counter-insurgency approach it laments, on the other. It risks reinforcing the mind-set that justifies precisely the hard security measures Ban warns against.
Worse still, it might tempt regimes to deliberately radicalize opposition movements as a survival strategy, as President Bashar al-Assad has done in Syria, locking their countries into never-ending wars against them.
For the United Nations, more valuable than recasting international peace and security as the prevent-violent-extremism agenda would be genuine interrogation of what these groups mean for the wars they now wage. Why is the threat posed by groups like Islamic State or al Qaeda new?
Here, however, the plan is silent.
Extremists’ violence is, for example, horrific, but not unique in its scale. Even Islamic State’s theatrical displays pale alongside the brutality of the Assad regime and its Iran-backed militia allies in terms of terror inflicted and civilians killed or displaced. Al Qaeda’s repressive but pragmatic rule over parts of southeastern Yemen is hardly more violent and extreme than the Saudi-led aerial bombardment.
Indeed, most of these movements fight in wars in which all sides have thrown the rule book out the window. As the U.N. plan points out, this is one key reason for their success.
Nor is their funding through criminal enterprise exceptional. Many armed forces, both state and non-state, profit today from easier access to transnational networks. Often government allies have their fingers deeper in the pie, a point the plan and other recent U.N. documents overlook.
Their leaders’ espousal, in some cases, of goals incompatible with the nation-state system, and thus hard to accommodate in a negotiated settlement, presents a graver challenge. Their rejection of political and religious pluralism, while not unique to them, also poses difficulties, given that both are likely prerequisites for ending the conflicts they fight in. So, too, does their austere vision for society, which often enjoys little popular support, and their rejection of the concept of the modern state. For many, the United Nations is an enemy.
They certainly present fresh challenges for U.N. missions and mediation. If the Security Council can’t deploy blue helmets amid suicide bombers or remains wary of mediators engaging with groups it designates as terrorist, the United Nations will soon have few places left to go and few militants left to talk to.
The increasing potency of groups like Islamic State and al Qaeda — often as large insurgent movements, with ties to communities, whose military defeat appears remote but which show scant interest in political processes – is altering the conflict landscape. The U.N.’s operational departments should adapt in response.
Nor can the Security Council leave monitoring of these groups to sanctions committees or counterterrorism experts, which are often unable to explore questions the United Nations needs to ask. How can peacekeepers, for example, protect themselves and civilians from asymmetric tactics? Which movements or factions within them can potentially be engaged? How, by whom, what for and with what cost? How committed are leaders or the rank and file to transnational goals? Can the majority of fighters, usually motivated by diverse and local concerns – and for whom the “violent extremist” label is especially inapt — be pried away from hard-liners? Which movements are more like those in Mali, with shallow social roots and unable to face a serious force, and which like the Afghan Taliban, mostly nationalist, with deeper roots, foreign backing and capable of withstanding U.S. troop numbers in the hundreds of thousands?
For their part, member-states now considering the U.N. plan need to think carefully about what they label the prevent-violent-extremism agenda. Some leaders will likely misuse it to mask rotten politics. But those genuinely committed might be better off adopting a narrower vision that focuses mostly on “pull” factors and includes a handful of context-specific, targeted measures against Islamic State’s recruitment of foreign fighters, for example, increased radicalization in prisons or to reach out to especially vulnerable youth.
States should, of course, redouble efforts against “push” factors, such as marginalization, underdevelopment and joblessness, part of their efforts to achieve sustainable development goals. Sometimes these measures will help prevent extremism, too.
Just don’t call them PVE.
Richard Atwood is the International Crisis Group’s New York director and a lead author of its new report on Islamic State and the evolving jihadist landscape, due to be published soon.