The Quest To Deradicalize Extremists Before They Strike

The field of “Countering Violent Extremism” is designed to identify and stop home-grown terrorists. But does it work?

The Quest To Deradicalize Extremists Before They Strike
[Top Photo: Pacific Press/Getty Images]

Following the Paris attacks, many people naturally wanted to, in the words of Ted Cruz, “bomb ISIS back to the Stone Age.” Bombing seemed logical, necessary, and emotionally satisfying–and it’s just what France did. But the real source of the terror in Paris wasn’t just in Syria or Iraq. It was just as much in the minds of Salah Abdeslam, Bilal Hadfi, and Ahmad Almohamad, who carried out the atrocities in France–just like it was in the minds of Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik (the San Bernardino shooters).


Since 9/11, there’s been a gradual realization that military and intelligence efforts, while important, won’t defeat terrorism on their own. In fact, in some cases, militarizing the conflict could actually worsen the problem. Though it seems counter-intuitive, ISIS actually wants us to invade the Middle East again, because it proves that the “final battle” between Islam and Christianity has arrived. Our overt violence there helps ISIS recruit fighters and is worth a lot in terms of propaganda.

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So, while finding ways to destabilize ISIS’s so-called state, there must be an effort to concentrate our resources on the hundreds, if not thousands, of Western citizens who have sympathy with ISIS’s aims, or at least are prepared to look the other way when friends and family have sympathy for ISIS.

To that end, there are now dozens of anti-radicalization programs around the world, from Britain’s Prevent initiative to Denmark’s rehab project (Hayat in Germany is another example). “Countering Violent Extremism” has become a major field, with its own acronym (C.V.E.), and its own jargon, conferences, consultants, think-tanks, and quasi-government groups. Just this February, the Obama Administration convened a major conference in Washington, where 60 government ministers “reaffirmed that intelligence gathering, military force, and law enforcement alone will not solve—and when misused can in fact exacerbate—the problem of violent extremism.”

But it’s not clear that these initiatives are doing much good. As one recent report puts it, C.V.E. is “a field that has risen to prominence in a manner disproportional to its achievements.” Muslim groups frequently complain about being targeted (even as white extremists aren’t), about racial profiling and discrimination, and that resources go only to “good Muslims”–that is, people with mainstream views. Government money for the British Prevent program, for example, was distributed based on how many Muslims lived in particular areas, not on the basis on how big a threat the people in an area might pose to society.

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Saif Inam, a policy analyst with the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), in Washington, D.C., thinks government-led programs are doomed to fail because they’re necessarily seen as coercive and top-down. “MPAC believes in community-led countering violent extremism programs because we feel the government doesn’t have the constitutional authority to get involved in ideological and religious issues, nor does it have the capabilities to do so,” he says.

“When religion is used, we need to address that. If verses in the Koran are misinterpreted, it needs to be Muslim leaders who say ‘no, Islam actually preaches forgiveness and only justifies self-defense.’ The government isn’t a religious entity and we have a division between church and state. The government doesn’t have the right to go to a mosque and start promoting particular ideologies,” he says.


MPAC is developing a new program called Safe Spaces, which has three pillars: prevention, intervention and ejection. Prevention involves mosques or other community centers offering sports, Sunday schools, marital counseling and mental health counseling, so that problems in people’s lives don’t become magnified. The idea is that healthy communities promote public health and stop people from being radicalized. Often, as in the case of the Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the Boston Marathon bombings, ordinary life troubles can become triggers for extremist thinking. Well-adjusted, happy people generally don’t turn to religious-inspired violence, just as they don’t turn to crime of other kinds.

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“You see that with a lot of people who have gone to the extreme side, there were mental health issues or they broke up with a girlfriend, something like that. If we have structures in place to provide counseling, we firmly believe we won’t have these problems to the extent that we do currently,” Inam says.

If people do turn to the “dark side,” MPAC suggests mosques form an intervention team with a mix of abilities, including someone with religious credibility, a social worker and a legal counsel. The team interviews friends, family, teachers and then decides what to do. MPAC was recently contacted by a mosque in Boston that was worried about a young man. The intervention team found out that he hadn’t been taking his medicine.

If community-led approaches work best, that creates a dilemma, as counter-terrorism has traditionally been led by secret services and law enforcement, and they’re the ones with most of the resources. Writing this year in Foreign Affairs, Humera Khan, a leading figure in the C.V.E. field, explained how such programs are currently under-funded:

The biggest problem is a lack of funding for the programs that focus on prevention and intervention. Although U.S. federal government funding is available for law enforcement training and countering violent extremism research, there are no grants available for community-led programs. State and local governments have some funds for prevention programs, but they are very limited. Foundations are loath to step outside their missions and support countering violent extremism programs since they traditionally fall under the purview of counterterrorism.

Rather than giving endless resources to the military and intelligence agencies, perhaps we should direct more to the slow-grind work of building up vulnerable communities, so they’re more resilient to extremism. That means money for programs like MPAC’s as well as investment in jobs, education, and opportunities–all the things that help anyone, anywhere, to live a productive life. This work may not have the emotional reward of bombing ISIS. But, in the long-run, it may be more effective at protecting us from danger.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.