The term “countering violent extremism” (CVE) has become common currency this year.

It was the focus for the speech by the US Secretary of State to the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in January. President Obama subsequently hosted two Leaders’ Summits on the subject; the UN will launch its Action Plan on CVE in December; and numerous states are currently developing national CVE strategies. Recent terrorist attacks provide a grim reminder of how pressing this work is.

But fundamental issues remain unclear: what exactly is violent extremism, what causes it, how it is countered, who is responsible for countering it, and how will we know when they’ve succeeded?

What is violent extremism?

There is no single definition. However, broadly speaking, it refers to supporting or committing ideologically motivated violence to further social, economic or political objectives. Definitions in particular differ on whether the violence is intended to further political goals only, or a wider set of objectives. Any definition acknowledges that it is broader than terrorism alone, as it incorporates advocating, preparing and supporting violence, in addition to perpetrating it. Another important distinction is between violent and nonviolent extremists – the former promote violence, the latter may sympathize with extremist beliefs but not enact them.

global terrorism index

Source: Global Terrorism Index 2015, Institute for Economics & Peace

What are the causes?

The process by which individuals become extremists is known as radicalization. There is no single answer to what causes radicalization, and the reasons may vary between individuals and communities, and over time. Research indicates that one of the most important reasons is a perception of grievance, which makes some people susceptible to extremist ideas. Importantly, poverty may be associated with these grievances, but it is not thought to be a driver for radicalization in isolation. Just as important is the presence of an extremist narrative that speaks to the grievances and offers a solution. The role of social media is especially important in this regard. Extremist ideas have been found to resonate in particular where they are articulated by a charismatic leader.

How can we counter it?

There is a growing range of programmes and initiatives dedicated to countering violent extremism, which are very broad. One of the conceptual challenges is to distinguish initiatives that are CVE-relevant, for example job creation, education, and women’s empowerment; from those that are CVE-specific, for example countering extremist narratives, and rehabilitating former violent extremists. Whereas counterterrorism pursues violent extremists, countering violent extremism focuses more on preventing people becoming violent extremists in the first place. Indeed the term “preventing and countering violent extremism” (P/CVE) is now commonly used.

Who should lead the charge?

Both security and development organizations are relevant. P/CVE in particular focuses on building resilience at the local community level, placing the emphasis on empowering mothers, religious leaders, school teachers and others to identify and support individuals at risk, and develop community responses to violent extremist agendas and advocates. Many governments are also developing national plans of action, and P/CVE is becoming mainstream across the UN system. There is also a role for the private sector, in particular to support job creation. For sectors such as the extractive industry, there is a clear business case for addressing the causes of violent extremism, which drains talent pools, disrupts supply chains, and heightens the risk on capital investments.

What does success look like?

Measuring impact is by definition difficult. First, prevention is a long-term policy goal. Second, there is a challenge to prove the counter-factual – that something did not take place. Third, while outputs such as more education or jobs may be relatively easy to measure, the intended outcome of reducing radicalization leading to violent extremism is not. Amid the rush to design and implement CVE policies, it will be important to clearly define evaluation and impact assessment methods. Otherwise even the limited resources that have been made available to this promising approach may dry up, and momentum generated during 2015 will quickly dissipate.

Preventing and countering violent extremism are critical aspects of a comprehensive approach to the most pressing policy challenge in the world today.

Have you read?
How economic inclusion can prevent violent extremism
How can we stop young people joining extremist groups?
Why we shouldn’t confuse refugees with terrorists

Author: Khalid Koser, Executive Director, Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF)

Image: Members of the Iraqi military train at the Counter Terrorism Service training location, as observed by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, July 23, 2015. REUTERS/Carolyn Kaster/Pool