By Nicole (Bailey) Sbitani Staff Writer November 29, 2015

The West is coming to realize that the threat of non-state, violent extremism will be inescapable in the foreseeable future. Neither traditional military victories nor diplomatic negotiations are entirely effective in ending conflicts relating to terrorism. Countering violent extremism (CVE), the latest evolution of Western counterterrorism efforts, must therefore contain a preventive component to stop would-be terrorists before they act. CVE prevention should work towards two goals: (1) reducing underlying, systemic causes of grievances and (2) exploring creative ways to develop intervention and recovery programs for known aspiring terrorists.

Moving towards the types of efforts outlined above would be a marked change from current approaches to preventing violent extremism. These early efforts target and reach out to “at-risk” individuals: mainly young Muslim men who are economically disadvantaged and socially marginalized, and who express increasingly conservative behaviors or negative attitudes against the West. This widespread approach may do more harm than good by increasing potential grievances. Many individuals who are not interested in supporting or participating in terrorism may feel isolated or attacked by inherently discriminatory accusations that are attached to this kind of CVE programming. Even if they are not questioned or imprisoned, a simple referral by a concerned teacher, colleague, or family member can leave a targeted individual feeling misunderstood and violated – the exact type of perceived marginalization terrorists rely on to vindicate their message, garner support, and draw new recruits. Moreover, individual targeting can never be a long-term strategy because of how easily it is circumvented. Anyone can look up the CVE target “triggers” published by the U.S., Britain, and France distinguishing individuals at-risk for terrorism and intentionally refrain from expressing them.

The first objective will require global partners – including governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations – to coordinate their independent efforts and to learn from each other’s successes and failures. Ideally, they will collaborate throughout their planning and implementation processes to develop more innovative and scalable solutions. Coordinated, macro-level grievance reduction is a tool for preventing terrorist recruitment in the earliest and most fundamental stages of an individual’s radicalization. There are multitudes of ways in which such systematic grievance reduction can be approached.

Western governments can open public fora for clarification, discussion, and respectful critique of their foreign, economic and social policies in order to counter misconceptions promulgated by terrorist propaganda. They could also support existing programs such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Safe Spaces initiative.

These fora could undercut criticisms that political dissent is not tolerated in the West. Western civil society institutions have largely failed to perform this function independently. The mainstream Western media continues to frame terrorism in predictable ways that focus on racial and religious tropes at the exclusion of more nuanced analysis. Think tanks have also struggled to challenge allegations that dissent is silenced in the West. They are often accessible to only the highly educated elite, producing lengthy, technical reports and lectures more relevant to academia and high-level policymakers than a marginalized public.

Moreover, public-private partnerships or government-supported NGOs can support individuals facing private discrimination with services ranging from providing pro bono legal assistance to facilitating a repository of well-moderated, crowd-sourced resources for victims and community leaders. Governments can invest in increased entrepreneurship and other career-oriented training for domestic, marginalized groups to help reduce long-term economic grievances. The U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the European Union, and other Western states are already implementing this sort of educational programming abroad. The public, private, and nonprofit sectors can prioritize existing social responsibility efforts and incentivize community service, which responds to experienced social isolation and lack of purpose by increasing local ties and empowering individuals.

Interfaith exchanges are an additional tool for grievance reduction. Such initiatives offer an opportunity for parties to intentionally build a culture of mutual respect and understanding that diminishes the appeal of radical ideologies. Through the process of building understanding between religious groups, minorities become less likely to see members of other faiths as oppressors. At the same time, fellow community members learn about the religious minorities. They are therefore less likely to treat them in a prejudiced or discriminatory way.

Programming to reduce systematic grievances must be accompanied by the development of innovative solutions for intervention, rehabilitation, and the eventual reintegration of the world’s ‘would-be-terrorists.’ There should be a clear answer to the question, “What happens to someone planning on joining a terrorist group who is caught before he or she joins?” Being a “pre-terrorist” is not a crime, and cannot be treated as such without evoking a dystopia where the government unjustly jails innocents. The stakes are higher than in other intervention cases, as the threat of relapse harms not only the individual and his or her loved ones but many innocents. Although research is increasingly evaluating various categories of CVE initiatives, there is no consensus on precisely how individuals are pushed to or from violent extremism or even what factors are key to the process. Some CVE funding should therefore be allocated to the empirical study of aspiring terrorist rehabilitation. Until this research is more thoroughly developed, CVE intervention and recovery programs will be no better than applied guesswork.

Efforts to disrupt the process of radicalization and to prevent violent extremists from acting must go beyond the reactive, micro-level tactics that have become the mainstays of modern counterterrorism. Reducing systemic grievances and developing sophisticated intervention and recovery methods grounded in research will continue to be crucial components in a digital age where terrorists can easily find platforms for their propaganda and recruiting. By shifting the CVE prevention focus to these two priorities, the West will be one step closer to a truly long-term strategy.

Nicole (Bailey) Sbitani is a second-year student in the Global Communication program concentrating in Information Technology and Middle East Studies. She can be reached via Twitter @nsbitani.

Photo of White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism taken by U.S. State Department, is licensed under CC-BY-2.5.