WORDE Specialists Contribute to “Countering Violent Extremism,” a White Paper for the US Department of Defense Strategic Multilayer Assessment Team

Articles from WORDE’s Contributing Authors:

  • Ziad Alahdad (Page 84)
  • Dr. Hedieh Mirahmadi, Mehreen Farooq (page 94)


Excerpts from the Executive Summary by Laurie Fenstermacher:

This paper collection, entitled, “Countering Violent Extremism: A Multi-disciplinary Perspective,” aims to provide new insights on the spectrum of solutions for countering violent extremism, drawing from current social science research as well as from expert knowledge on salient topics (e.g., development programs, cultivating community partners and leaders, conflict and deradicalization). So what is new? There is a large body of literature on terrorism and violent extremism, much of which focuses on developing a better understanding of the problem, including environmental and social/cultural factors and the role of ideology. This paper collection focuses less on root causes and more on solutions for risk management, disengagement (including delegitimization), and prevention of violent extremism. It also tackles the thorny issue of state terror, a subject that must enter any discussion of solutions for countering violent extremism. Ultimately, it is hoped that the paper collection can inform a better understanding of, and suggest sets of solutions for, motivating individuals and groups to desist from violence and preventing other individuals and groups from seeking involvement in movements/groups that seek to bring about change through violence.

Key Findings:

  • This collection of papers yielded several insights. It is best to seek a balance between reflexive (security based) and reflective (addressing grievances, motivations) actions. Right now, solutions are overly focused on reflexive actions and thus actually create more of the problem we are trying to solve.
  • Violent extremist organizations are effectively systems; thus, solution sets must contain tailored (kinetic and/or influence related) solutions for each system component (foot soldiers, instigators, leaders, supporters, logisticians, etc.) in ways that are appropriate for the culture, language, locality/region, and underlying motivations.
  • Decision makers should avoid missing the “forest for the trees” by overly focusing on ideology. Local grievances trump global issues and need to be understood and addressed.
  • Messengers are only effective when perceived as credible and knowledgeable; simply, if you are not credible, you should not be the messenger. Messages stick when they resonate with grievances, motivate behavior when they provoke affect, and persuade when the actions of the messenger match the words. Our adversaries understand this and employ this understanding in their messaging; thus, our counter messaging should take a “page from the same book.”
  • Partners, chosen wisely, are critical in countering violent extremism with, in many cases, our partners in the lead. Without ownership, solutions will not be as successful or lasting,
  • Many good things (messaging in Arab popular culture, music, grassroots deradicalization efforts), are already going on to counter violent extremism around the globe. Success, in many cases, will come from amplifying and supporting what is already working,
  • Focus on small, achievable wins over the long haul (e.g., disengagement or risk management versus deradicalization, delegitimization of strategic objectives or outcomes).
  • Delegitimization can be effective in exploiting vulnerabilities and inconsistencies (e.g., disconnects between the fantasy of violent extremism and the reality)

“Countering Violent Extremism: Shifting the Emphasis towards the Development Paradigm:

According to Ziad Alahdad, there are two responses to an act of violent extremism (e.g., 9/11): a reflexive response involving security measures and/or military intervention and a reflective response based on an understanding of the underlying causes and motivations behind the acts (education, economic opportunity, injustice, lack of voice, etc.) He maintains that the goal should be to balance these options, as the former is Orwellian and the latter Utopian. He contends that the balance is currently skewed towards security/military responses, shortchanging the development paradigm. Alahdad points out that this is counterproductive since any strategy to counter violent extremism must address the ideologically driven extremists (e.g., Al Qaeda) as well as “the disenfranchised.” The latter groups are the potential recruits for a violent extremist organization based on their socioeconomic grievances and frustration at not having a “voice” and, for them, socioeconomic advancement is an obvious answer. Thus, development is needed to eradicate poverty, promote inclusion and social justice, and bring the marginalized into the economic and global mainstream. However, he identifies issues in rebalancing towards development programs, including myopic time horizons of policy makers focused on immediate, visible measures of improvement and large deficits in overall development resources and efforts (on the order of $240-420 billion shortfall between now and 2015 to successfully address Millennium Development Goals related to poverty, education, gender equality, health, etc.). These pose key challenges to overcome in order to rebalance the response to violent extremism.

Beyond addressing the huge overall shortfall in development funding, he recommends several solutions for prevention of violent extremism including expanding humanitarian assistance due to its enormous impact in terms of winning “hearts and minds” through agile grass-roots programs targeted at vulnerable areas bolstered by messaging to restore confidence that the help is “for the long haul;” strengthening global partnerships to confront terrorism, crime, and money laundering; increasing foreign assistance; reducing trade barriers and targeting protectionism; and focusing development assistance on results, enhancing productivity and jobs. He cautions that, to counter extremism, it is important to choose partners wisely (e.g., ideologically “moderate”).

“Partnering with Muslim Communities to Counter Radicalization”

Mirahmadi and Farooq, provides insights on the into the ideological and financial roots of the Islamist threat in the United States, in which the deep pockets of the Saud family financed schools, scholarships, media development, preachers, mosques disseminating the Wahabbi version of Islam, and organizations that engage with U.S. policy makers and represent Muslim interests. They echo Ziad Alahdad’s statement about balancing the response to violent extremism, stating that there is a need to augment current largely law enforcement efforts.

The authors provide several solutions for preventing violent extremism and countering radicalization through systematic efforts to develop partnerships in communities in order to empower moderate Muslims (e.g., thought leaders, teachers, chaplains) based on an agreement on shared values (i.e., religious freedom, non-violent conflict resolution, consistency with rule of law). They recommend strengthening Muslim-led efforts to counter radical ideology by bolstering institutional capacity, investing in leadership and good governance training, and media and communications development. They suggest that a public affairs campaign would assist in educating by engaging a national dialogue to dispel the misperception that all Muslims are radical, creating an educational forum for briefing policy makers, and fostering discussion on and recognition of grass roots deradicalization efforts. Finally, Mirahmadi and Farooq recommend funding for social science research focused on radicalization factors and ideological influence, as well as factors underlying decisions to join, deradicalize, and disengage from violent extremist organizations.

Mirahmadi and Farooq state that mainstream Muslims condemn radical ideologies, thus a component of an overall plan to counter violent extremism needs to address those who are not currently radical along with those who support violent extremism either passively or actively.

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