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CSS Analyses in Security Policy CSS

ETH Zurich
N0. 183, December 2015, Editor: Christian Nünlist

The Concept of Countering

Violent Extremism
After the terrorist attacks in Paris, Europe is stepping up repressive
measures to combat terrorism. Yet, prevention and the “soft” aspects
of counterterrorism measures must also be kept in mind. The concept
of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), in conjunction with peace and
development policies, has developed as part of a modern approach to
counterterrorism. This creates opportunities for Swiss foreign policy.

By Owen Frazer & Christian Nünlist

Since 2001, there has been a constant in-

crease in the number of victims of violent
extremist movements. Groups such as al-
Qaida, the so-called “Islamic State” (IS),
Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Shabaab in
Somalia and Kenya have managed to hold
their ground despite international counter-
terrorism efforts. In 2015, terrorist attacks
in Europe further demonstrated the threat
that violent extremists pose. The notion of
Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)
gained increasing traction in 2015 among
state actors around the globe and has come
to be perceived as a crucial component of a
sustainable counterterrorism strategy in re-
sponding to IS and the phenomenon of so-
called Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF).
Because violent extremism is no longer as-
sociated only with individual terrorist at- Los Angeles County sheriffs attend Friday prayers at the Islamic Center of San Gabriel Valley in Rowland
tacks, but also with conflicts that have Heights, California, engaging with the local Muslim community. David McNew / Reuters
caused tens of thousands of deaths and in-
juries, CVE fosters closer cooperation and
exchange between the security services and
actors in the fields of conflict management ticipation of 100 governments and 120 tolerance, government failure, and political,
and prevention. representatives of civil society and the busi- economic, and social marginalization. As
ness sector. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki UN Secretary-General Ban recently re-
In 2015, the concept of CVE succeeded in Moon has announced a “UN Plan of Ac- marked: “Missiles may kill terrorists. But I
establishing itself in official political jargon. tion to Prevent Violent Extremism”, to be am convinced that good governance is
In February, a three-day “CVE summit” presented at the beginning of 2016. what will kill terrorism.” With the promo-
took place in the White House, chaired by tion of the concept of CVE, US counter-
US President Barack Obama and attended The idea underpinning CVE is that violent terrorism policy has shifted closer to the
by ministers from nearly 70 countries. This extremists should not be fought exclusively approach of the UN, which has long laid
was followed up at the end of September with intelligence, police, and military strong emphasis on preventive measures
by a high-level meeting on the sidelines of means. The structural causes of violent ex- and thus prefers the abbreviation PVE
the UN General Assembly with the par- tremism must also be tackled, including in- (Preventing Violent Extremism).

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CSS Analyses in Security Policy  No. 183, December 2015

CVE: Origins and Evolution The challenge for political decision-makers as the motives and ideas that turn individu-
There is nothing new about the idea that and practitioners stems from the fact that als into violent extremists are multifaceted
suppression of terrorism must encompass there are no internationally accepted defi- and extremely complex.
both hard and soft measures. Even though nitions for either “terrorism” or “violent ex-
the abbreviation “CVE” (and its alternative, tremism”. Critics regard the two terms as The concept of CVE/PVE aims to engage
“PVE”) is only now finding its way into being synonymous, with “violent extrem- with these personal, individual causes at
political and diplomatic discourse, the con- ism” as a cosmetic replacement for the the micro-level. At-risk individuals are
cept has some interesting precursors. As highly politicized term “terrorism”. In July identified by family members, religious au-
early as December 2001, the Organization 2005, the US government under then pres- thorities, social workers, or sports coaches.
for Security and Co-operation in Europe ident George W. Bush introduced the term Telephone helplines like the “Hayat” hot-
(OSCE) at its Ministerial Council Meet- “violent extremism” as an alternative to the line in Germany have proven particularly
ing had demanded that global terrorism be much-criticized concept of the “war on ter- effective in this regard, and are currently
countered not only with military and intel- rorism”. The advocates of the concept, how- being instituted in many European coun-
ligence means, but also by tackling the root ever, argue that “violent extremism” refers tries. It is hoped that through such meas-
causes of terrorism. to something different than terrorism. ures, violence-prone extremists continue to
Both terms describe efforts to achieve po- receive emotional support from their fam-
The concept of CVE was introduced in litical goals by violent means. A possible ily members as an important alternative
Europe after the attacks in Madrid (2004) distinction between the two could hinge on reference group, even, if, for example, they
and London (2005) in response to the fear the idea that terrorism involves violence happen to be fighting in Syria. This re-
of homegrown Islamist terrorism. The UK aimed at spreading fear and terror. quires that the families are supported with
government’s Prevent program is regarded professional counseling.
as the first practical example of CVE. From The term “radicalization” is often used to
2005 to 2011, GBP80 million was spent describe the process by which an individual At the meso-level, focused on the hitherto
under this program on local projects for the becomes a terrorist or a violent extremist. less studied social milieu of a violent ex-
prevention of jihadist radicalization. However, this implies a direct link between tremist, many programs address the ques-
radicalism or extremism and violence, tion of how societies can respond with
The EU’s counterterrorism strategy of which risks the stigmatization of non-vio- positive alternative voices to narratives and
2005 relied on four pillars: To prevent, pro- lent groups. Radicalism should not be ideas espoused by violent extremists. In
tect, pursue, and respond. The “prevent” ele- viewed as a problem per se: Although radi- this context, disillusioned former violent
ment related to the societal conditions that cal ideas and ideologies sometimes inspire extremists can play an important and cred-
led to individual radicalization. The UN’s the worst kinds of atrocities, they can also ible role.
global anti-terrorism approach in 2006 also be positive catalysts of societal change (e.g.,
called for a holistic strategy that encom- the abolition of slavery in the US). On the similarly under-studied macro-lev-
passed the conditions conducive to terror- el, government actions both at home and
ism. Causes and Countermeasures overseas play an important role. Such struc-
Up until now, the focus, both in public dis- tural drivers of violent extremism include
Australia, Canada, and the US all adopted course and in the academic study of politi- chronically unresolved political conflicts;
national CVE strategies of their own in cal violence, has been on the personal tra- the “collateral damage” to civilian lives and
2011. France, Finland, Holland, infrastructure caused by military responses
Nigeria, Norway, Spain, and Even though the abbreviation to terrorism; human rights violations; eth-
Switzerland have since also
drafted national strategies to
«CVE» is only now finding its nic, national, and religious discrimination;
the political exclusion of ethnic or religious
combat terrorism with a par- way into political discourse, the groups; socioeconomic marginalization;
ticular focus on the prevention
of violent extremism and the
concept has some interesting lack of good governance; and a failure to
integrate diaspora communities of immi-
resilience of their societies in precursors. grants who move between cultures.
the face of terrorism. The influ-
ence of CVE/PVE is also growing in the jectories of terrorists. The attention given These causes must be as resolutely tackled
field of development aid and international to personal motives and convictions as well as those at the individual and local levels.
cooperation, particularly in US policy. as negative experiences of exclusion, rejec- Governments must reflect on the role their
tion, humiliation, injustice, or frustration foreign policies play. Many measures that
was a distraction from structural factors serve to eliminate breeding grounds for vi-
Many Terms, No Definition that can lead to violent extremism. Since olent extremism are also worthy aims for
CVE or PVE refers to the “soft” side of 2005, there has been a deluge of research peace and development policy in their own
counterterrorism strategies that tackle the on “radicalization”, centering on the ques- right, independently of counterterrorism
drivers which lead people to engage in po- tion of why and how individuals turn into efforts. These include respect for human
litically- or ideologically-motivated vio- violent extremists and how this can be rights, good governance, strengthening the
lence. In practice, the current focus is on avoided at an early stage. However, these rights of women, and inclusion in the po-
violent Islamist movements, but the term studies, focused on the micro-level, were litical, economic, and social spheres.
can also be applied to other violent groups, unable to identify a typical profile or deci-
ranging from right-wing or left-wing ex- sive individual factors. It was found impos- Areas of Tension
tremists and environmental activists to sible to extrapolate generalizations from CVE/PVE’s concern with the structural
Buddhist or Hindu nationalists. the case studies and individual life stories drivers of violent extremism brings it into

© 2015 Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich 2

CSS Analyses in Security Policy  No. 183, December 2015

posing government-defined objectives,

Swiss Foreign Fighters (N = 66, as of May 2015)
rather than engaging with them to design
programs which take into account the con-
cerns and priorities of their communities.

What Next?
These challenges have been identified over
the course of the “first wave” of CVE pro-
grams implemented in the last decade, ex-
emplified by the abovementioned UK Pre-
vent strategy of 2005. Four important
conclusions can be drawn for future CVE/
PVE approaches. These lessons are likely to
be integrated into the announced UN Ac-
tion Plan to Prevent Violent Extremism, a
document which will probably become an
important reference point in the develop-
ment of future action plans at the national

First of all, it is important to ensure that

strategies are not limited to programs at
the individual or community level, but also
take into account the structural causes of
violent extremism. Secondly, it is vital that
programs be tailored to the specific local
context. Programs cannot simply be copy-

from one context to another. Third, initia-

tives with too much government involve-
contact with what has traditionally been the experiencing violent political conflict, par- ment may be counterproductive. A new
realm of those working on human rights, ticipation in CVE/PVE initiatives may ef- buzzword in CVE/PVE circles is the
development, and peacebuilding. Although fectively mean siding with the government “Whole of Society Approach” which in-
this linkage is in principle to be welcomed, in an internal conflict. For development or cludes all relevant actors in CVE/PVE ef-
the concept of CVE/PVE continues to peacebuilding organizations, civil society forts. However, space must be left for com-
make many active in these fields nervous. groups, religious leaders, or local actors, munities and civil society actors to develop
There are five main reasons for this: this may be problematic. initiatives of their own and to determine if,
and when, state involvement is appropriate,
Firstly, the counterterrorism discourse has Fourth, CVE/PVE programs have largely and to what extent. This is particularly im-
long been prone to manipulation by gov- refrained from reaching out to local actors portant in the case of initiatives aiming to
ernments that wish to suppress domestic who may espouse radical views outside of mobilize actors outside of the mainstream.
opposition, ignore human rights obliga- the “moderate” mainstream, but who are Credible counter-narratives necessarily re-
tions, limit the space for civil society and anti-violence. Among at-risk individuals, quire a perceptible distance from the gov-
curb media freedoms – all in the name of such people may have more credibility than ernment. Fourth, a conceptual distinction is
national security. Such policies can them- moderate voices offering value-based required between programs that are “CVE-
selves become drivers of violent extremism. “counter-narratives”, particularly when the specific”, i.e., whose primary aim is to pre-
latter are perceived as backed by the gov- vent violent extremism, and those that are
Secondly, CVE and PVE programs may ernment. “CVE-relevant”, i.e., which may have posi-
lead to the stigmatization of communities. tive side-effects in the sphere of CVE. Not
Members of Muslim communities in par- Fifth, the current hype surrounding CVE/ everything that is CVE-relevant needs to
ticular often feel unfairly treated as poten- PVE, and the associated availability of be labeled as a CVE program.
tial terrorists and fear that these programs funding, means that traditional peacebuild-
are used as pretexts for surveillance and in- ing and development programs are in dan- PVE in Swiss Politics
telligence operations. ger of being subsumed to CVE/PVE con- In 2015, the phenomenon of so-called
cerns. There is a worry that instead of “foreign fighters” as well as the CVE sum-
Third, CVE/PVE programs risk contradic- assessing whether they have achieved their mits in the US raised the question of
tions with conflict-sensitive approaches original goals, programs will be evaluated whether Switzerland should develop a na-
that emphasize values such as impartiality. in terms of their contribution to CVE/ tional CVE strategy of its own. The Fed-
Just like “counterterrorism”, CVE/PVE is a PVE. Similar concerns have been voiced by eral Council’s “Counterterrorism Strategy
state-driven concept which casts those who leaders in local communities targeted by for Switzerland”, published on 18 Septem-
oppose the state using violent means as the CVE/PVE policies. They accuse the gov- ber 2015, contains numerous elements that
main problem. This means that in countries ernment of instrumentalizing them by im- evoke the spirit of CVE/PVE. The focus is

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CSS Analyses in Security Policy  No. 183, December 2015

mended. Such efforts to foster good rela- vate partnership fosters local initiatives on
Extremist Violence in Switzerland
tions and create awareness of CVE/PVE the community level around the globe in
In Switzerland, violent extremism has largely must not stigmatize nor discriminate order to strengthen resilience to violent ex-
been associated with right-wing. left-wing, against Muslim communities. tremist agendas.
and animal rights extremism, although the
the threat has diminished in recent years.
According to a CSS study of November 2013, In 2015, the “Terrorist Travellers Task Switzerland is an active participant in the
Switzerland is noticeably less affected by Force” (TETRA), created by the Swiss au- international political debate on CVE/
jihadist radicalization than other European thorities for the purpose of dealing with PVE. At the CVE summit in New York in
states due to four reasons: First of all, there the phenomenon of foreign fighters, laid September 2015, Federal Councillor Didi-
are no breeding grounds for violent jihadism out its position on CVE/PVE in two re- er Burkhalter emphasized the importance
in Switzerland (e.g., jihadist preachers in
mosques); secondly, most Muslims in ports: The working group emphasized that of a comprehensive and holistic approach
Switzerland are comparatively well existing structures at the municipal, can- to preventing violent extremism that takes
integrated; third, 90 per cent of Swiss tonal, and national levels are essentially into account the spheres of peace and secu-
Muslims have their roots in the Balkans or sufficient for confronting violent extrem- rity, development, and human rights. He
Turkey, where Islam is generally interpreted in ism as a society-wide challenge. Thanks to has announced Switzerland’s willingness to
a tolerant and apolitical fashion; and fourth,
neutral Switzerland is much less exposed on strong social and educational structures host the first international conference on
the world stage than other countries. and good opportunities for integration the implementation of the UN Action Plan
(Lorenzo Vidino, Jihadist Radicalization in Switzerland is considered more resilient on PVE in Geneva in the spring of 2016.
Switzerland, November 2013, CSS/ETH) towards jihadist radicalization than other Against the backdrop of heated emotions
small countries in Europe (cf. info box). following the Paris attacks on 13 Novem-
ber 2015 and the knee-jerk response of
Internationally, Switzerland’s counterter- “tough” security measures, Switzerland
rorism efforts are conducted in the frame- should reinforce its efforts in international
work of the respective UN strategy and in- debates to promote open dialog between
squarely on prevention, which is why Swiss ternational treaties. Switzerland’s engage- the advocates of both “soft” and “tough” re-
government representatives prefer the term ment is guided by three principles, the sponses in combating terrorism. This is the
“PVE” over “CVE”. Swiss efforts for pre- so-called “Three Rs”: Reliable, rights-based, only way to maintain a focus on the root
venting violent extremism can be subdivid- and responsive. First of all, Switzerland causes of violent extremism and on the les-
ed into international and national efforts. guarantees compliance with international sons of the past decade’s CVE debates.
standards and agreements – for instance, to
Domestically, Switzerland is engaged in prevent terrorism financing in Switzerland.
four strategic fields of action – prevention, Secondly, in multilateral fora, Switzerland Owen Frazer is a research assistant in the
repression, protection, and crisis prepared- promotes the observance of international “Culture and Religion in Mediation” (CARIM)
ness. In the field of prevention, Switzerland law and human rights in global counterter- program at the Center for Security Studies (CSS)
undertakes concrete measures for violent rorism efforts. Third, Switzerland seeks to at ETH Zurich. Among other things, he is the
extremism in the areas of education and eliminate the structural drivers of violent co-author of “Approaching Religion in Conflict
(youth) unemployment, integration, reli- extremism through PVE-relevant develop- Transformation” (2015).
gions, social welfare, and protection of both ment, conflict prevention, and peacebuild-
youths and adults. In prisons, youth cent- ing efforts. Switzerland supports the Glob- Dr. Christian Nünlist is the head of the Think Tank
ers, and places of worship, de-radicalization al Community Engagement and Resilience team on “Swiss and Euro-Atlantic Security” and
programs as well as sensitization and vio- Fund (GCERF). Founded in 2014 and the author of numerous publications, including
lence prevention campaigns are recom- headquartered in Geneva, this public-pri- Swiss Security Policy After 2014 (2015).

CSS Analyses is edited by the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich. Most recent issues:
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