Stamping out Violent Extremism: What can the U.S. Government Do?

February 12, 2015

Since the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, brutal massacres by Boko Haram, and the campaign of terror by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), leaders in the United States and far beyond have grown increasingly concerned about the rise of violent extremism. Recent U.S. policy debate has coalesced around how the U.S. government can counter and prevent violent extremism at home and abroad, as well as set the right conditions in place for stability in some of the most volatile and conflict prone areas. In 2011, the White House released a strategy titled Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States. This strategy focused on using a community-based approach for preventing and countering violent extremism that focused on

  • Enhancing U.S. government engagement and support to local communities that are targeted by violent extremists;
  • Building government and law enforcement expertise;
  • And countering violent extremism propaganda.

In his remarks to the World Economic Forum, Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized that violent extremism is a global problem and characterized U.S. efforts to develop a long-term strategy to prevent and counter violent extremism (PVE and CVE) through whole-of-government and international coalition efforts, starting with the U.S.-led coalition to counter ISIL.

Efforts to counter and prevent violent extremism are not new. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the United States has led efforts to defeat and disrupt terrorists and their supporters, develop counter-radicalization strategies, address the “root causes” of violent extremism, and provide strategic narratives to counter terrorist propaganda. While terrorist groups like Boko Haram, ISIL, and Al-Shabaab have elevated their attacks, recruitment efforts, and tactics, U.S. government efforts to develop PVE and CVE strategies have fallen behind and lack an actionable whole-of-government implementation plan and strategy.

CVE is one of nine lines of effort in the current U.S. counterterrorism strategy. To counter and prevent violent extremism, Secretary Kerry painted a broad picture and offered an exhaustive list of initiatives that the U.S. needs to focus on in order to provide “alternatives that are credible, as visible, as empowering, as broadly available as we can make them.” These include everything from defeating terrorists and their supporters, seeking ways to address the root causes and grievances that may breed violent extremism in disenfranchised populations, enhancing women’s rights, developing better education and employment opportunities for those susceptible to radicalization and recruitment by violent extremism, among other initiatives. While it is commendable to pursue a broad long-term strategy, the U.S. government will need to focus on developing an implementation plan with specific recommended actions for PVE/CVE. Otherwise, U.S. agencies may be biting off more than they can chew, given budget constraints and the need to continuously assess the impact of PVE and CVE programs.

Nevertheless, Secretary Kerry was right to point out that prevention is an extremely important tool in the fight against violent extremism. The 2015 U.S. National Security Strategy states, “In the long-term, our efforts to work with other countries to counter the ideology and root causes of violent extremism will be more important than our capacity to remove terrorists from the battlefield.” Prevention can mean many different things, including promoting moderate voices that counter violent extremism, governance, education, and employment programs, and enhancing local and civil society institutions to prevent vulnerable populations from being susceptible to extremist recruitment and radicalization. Yet, we cannot assume that if we set the right civil society and governance conditions, we will be able to prevent and eradicate violent extremism. To this end, the United States needs to develop a tailored implementation plan that focuses on concrete and tightly scoped PVE priorities that takes into consideration these assumptions, and includes achievable and measurable objectives. Further, it must contain implementable actions that can withstand interagency stovepipes and bureaucratic hurdles.

So, What can we do? Four Actions for the White House Summit to Prevent Violent Extremism

Building on the 2011 strategy on empowering local partners to prevent violent extremism, on February 18th, the White House will be hosting a Summit to Counter Violent Extremism that will highlight international and domestic PVE/CVE programs. So, how should the White House scope the PVE/CVE conversation? In preparation for this summit, the White House and the broader U.S. government should consider four immediate actions in developing USG PVE/CVE strategy.

A Common Lexicon and Understanding

The White House should lead the development of a strategy and implementation plan that establishes a common lexicon of PVE and CVE and a thorough understanding of interagency and partner authorities and capabilities. The challenges with developing a whole-of-government approach for PVE and CVE are rooted in ill-defined terms and misunderstandings about what PVE and CVE actually mean. How can we begin to address the root causes of extremism and begin to develop actionable solutions when we have multiple, conflicting definitions that shift based on political pressures or priorities of the day? Once a common lexicon is established, the White House should push to develop a thorough understanding of delegated and supporting agency authorities and capabilities for developing and implementing PVE and CVE programs. While an original implementation plan that is based on the 2011 White House strategy on empowering local communities may exist, the White House will need to revise it to include actionable and measurable prevention tools that focus on the root causes that make individuals or groups susceptible to violent extremism. Further, the White House will need to ensure that an updated implementation plan on violent extremism links strategic objectives to measurable actions in order to observe long term success and impact of our efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism, withstand interagency battles, Congressional scrutiny, and international pressures.

Start Small

Initial efforts should focus on a few PVE and CVE tailored programs that have specific achievable and measurable objectives. As Secretary Kerry pointed out, countering and preventing violent extremism demands a broad approach that encompasses military and development actions, and requires support from international state and non-state partners. Yet, such an approach can lead to failure without a tightly scoped implementation plan that identifies a few critical lines of effort and priorities. Strengthening and partnering with relevant local non-government institutions, elevating moderate voices within disenfranchised communities in U.S. and abroad, information and intelligence sharing, and targeted counterterrorism operations are examples of some of the initiatives. To succeed, these priorities should have clearly defined strategic objectives and actions that can be easily implemented and measured for progress and long-term impact against the defined objectives.

Plan to Operate in Dangerous Places

For PVE and CVE to have the impact we need, the U.S. government must develop an implementation plan for operating in semi and non-permissive environments. It is difficult for the U.S. government to be respected and provide alternative voice to violent extremism in ungoverned, semi-governed, and enemy-governed spaces, but it is not impossible. Given the desire for minimal U.S. footprint and budget constraints, it will be critical to know how to engage persistently to prevent and counter violent extremism. Our international partners, nongovernment and industry organizations, subnational, and local religious, community, and educational institutions often have a more powerful voice in preventing and countering violent extremism than any government representative or agency. Thus, understanding their capabilities, authorities, and willingness to operate in semi and non-permissive environments will be critical. As part of this implementation plan, the United States should develop a clear path and an action plan for partnering with these organizations in these types of environments.

Know Where You Stand and Measure Where You’re Going

The U.S. Congress should request an independent assessment report that focuses on monitoring and evaluation of existing PVE and CVE programs. In the FY16 Budget Request, the White House has asked Congress to allocate robust resources for counterterrorism and PVE and CVE efforts, including

  • $2.5 billion for Counterterrorism Partnership Fund
  • $2.1 billion for the Department of Defense to enhance their counterterrorism missions and build partner capacity in partner nations’ ability to thwart terrorism;
  • $390 million for the Department of State for PVE initiatives;
  • And $15 million for the Department of Justice community-led efforts, including understanding extremism, development of flexible and local CVE models, training, and enhancing law enforcement CVE capabilities.

To ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and effectively, emphasis should be placed on robust monitoring and evaluation to assess PVE and CVE that includes a mix of quantitative and qualitative metrics to measure the progress being made against clearly defined objectives and measurable actions for preventing and countering violent extremism. Pulling it all together, an independent assessment can allow Congress to assess if tangible progress is being made systemically across the PVE and CVE effort. Without a vigorous monitoring and evaluation ability and an independent assessment, we will never know whether we are succeeding and having a lasting impact on preventing and countering violent extremism.

Secretary Kerry was correct in highlighting that countering and preventing violent extremism is one of the biggest transnational challenges of our time, one that will require a robust, partnership focused strategy. However, without a properly scoped and actionable implementation plan, monitoring and evaluation, and assessment mechanism, this strategy will contain aspirational ideas about how to counter and prevent violent extremism. It is time for us to turn our PVE and CVE ideas into action.


Vera Zakem focuses on international development, stability, and counterterrorism at Center for Stability and Development, CNA Corporation. She also teaches at the Elliot School for International Affairs, George Washington University on alternative futures, conflict analysis, and red teaming. The views in this commentary are her own and do not represent CNA, Department of the Navy, or George Washington University.