Understanding violent extremism by Wahid Foundation

Reports that the Australian government is considering consolidating the leadership of the nation’s key counter-terrorism agencies into a super portfolio modelled on the UK’s Home Office and the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) point to the recognition that the greatly increased threat of terrorism that followed the emergence of the Islamic State group in mid-2014 represents ‘the new normal’. This resilient, long term threat affecting Australia and its Southeast Asian neighbours is demanding a transformation in the way that we deal with the challenges of radicalisation and recruitment to violent extremism.

Consolidating agencies might be part of the answer but the focus can’t just be on stopping attack plots in their final stages. Working upstream to prevent and reverse radicalisation, as well as working downstream on rehabilitation – a non-coercive, holistic, approach known as countering violent extremism (CVE) is essential to dealing with the threat of terrorism at a strategic level rather than just reacting tactically.

CVE is not without its critics, and there is much to learn in this area of preventative intervention. Nonetheless, together with North America most nations in Europe are coming around to the need to engage with CVE initiatives, as are many nations in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

The United States Department of Homeland Security has announced $10 million funding for its Countering Violent Extremism Grants program which intends to fund projects that ‘prevent recruitment or radicalization to violence by interrupting those efforts’ and ‘building community-level resilience’, including other specifications. In Australia, the Attorney-General’s Department Living Safe Together Grants Programme provided $1.9 million of funding. The European Commission stated it would provide 20 million EUR towards establishing ‘prevent-related’ and ‘exit programmes in Member States’.

CVE interventions are typically thought of in terms of the stages at which they occur as follows:

  • Primary: which concerns initiatives addressed to the general population that aim to build social cohesion and resilience so as to diminish factors conducive to the emergence of violent extremism.
  • Secondary: which concerns initiatives targeted at individuals and groups who are thought to be at immediate risk of being caught up in political violence through being recruited or drawn into extremist groups or networks.
  • Tertiary: which concerns initiatives directed at the disengagement, and possible eventual deradicalization, of individuals who already committed acts of violent extremism or whom have been caught up in plot that required police intervention.