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A Model For Countering Violent Extremism And
Promoting Disengagement From Terrorism

By Dr. Joshua Sinai

The objective of counterterrorism is to resolve and terminate terrorist insurgencies. This is accomplished through the “hard component” of military, law enforcement, and intelligence measures to defeat the insurgents on the ground, as well as the “soft component” to counter the radicalization of susceptible individuals into the type of violent extremism that sustains terrorist groups and, instead, promotes the disengagement of its members and adherents from terrorism. In this “soft component” it is crucial to identify the factors that would prove effective in persuading such individuals and, if possible, their groups, activists, and sympathizers, as well, to de-radicalize from violent extremism and promote their disengagement from terrorism towards more constructive and non-violent means to achieve their objectives.

Since terrorist groups and their adherents operate in different types of political environments, ranging from authoritarian, failed states, to democratic systems, where the underlying conditions that give rise to terrorism differ (although they may cross over from one specific type of environment to another, for instance, in having a conflict in an authoritarian environment such as the Middle East influence adherents in a democratic country), this approach focuses on countering violent extremism (CVE) in democratic societies, where constructive alternatives to engaging in violence are feasible, for example, through freedom of expression, assembly, and voting. In repressive authoritarian or failed states, the model presented in this article would need to be reconfigured to address the specific challenges presented by terrorist insurgencies that operate in such environments.

Countering Radicalization into Violent Extremism

Countering violent extremism in democratic societies involves persuading such susceptible individuals that more effective and useful non-violent alternatives to express themselves politically, religiously, or on other issues, are feasible. The first measure in countering violent extremism is to identify the components of the pyramid of radicalization that need to be countered (see Figure 1, below). In this approach, the process of radicalization into violent extremism is comparable to ascending an increasingly narrow pyramid, where the majority nonviolent sympathizers are located at its base and violent extremists (i.e., those who become terrorists) are at the smaller apex. Most individuals holding strong political beliefs, who can be characterized as sympathizers of extremist movements, are located at the bottom of the pyramid. They provide the pool for a minority of individuals who will ascend to become activists at the middle of the pyramid. The activists are non-violent extremists who are active on behalf of their extremist cause, for example, by participating in street demonstrations, handing out pamplets, or managing extremist websites. In Islamist movements, such individuals would be active in extremist, yet largely non-violent organizations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir or the Muslim Brotherhood, both of which are outlawed in some countries. In far-right movements, they would be active in organizations such as the English Defence League (EDL). Within such extremist movements, a smaller minority might turn to terrorism, whether as members of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) or as lone wolf adherents of such groups. At the apex will be two types of violent extremists. The first type are those who support violent extremists in a direct way by providing them with financial, logistical, weapons, and other means of operational assistance. The second type are the violent extremists who engage in terrorist operations.

Figure 1. The Pyramid of Radicalization into Terrorism

The second measure, countering violent extremism, involves focusing a CVE campaign on individuals who have become violent at the apex of the pyramid, but also those who become activists for their cause in the middle of the pyramid who could potentially further ascend the radicalization pyramid into terrorism. The larger sub-culture of sympathizers at the bottom of the pyramid also need to be focused on in a countering violent extremism campaign because terrorists and activists depend on them for their support base.

An important point about countering violent extremism is that in a democratic and pluralistic society it is legitimate for sympathizers, at the bottom of the radicalization pyramid, to hold “radical” views as long as they are not expressed through violent means. Thus, expressing extremist ideas would not make one subject to arrest, but once an extremist sympathizer begins to explore the possibility of acquiring weapons and ammunition, then they would begin to cross the threshold into violence, making them liable for potential arrest. The objective in countering violent extremism campaigns, therefore, is to facilitate the disengagement of such extremist individuals from terrorist violence into peaceful activities, while recognizing that they might continue to harbor strong beliefs about their objectives that those holding moderate views may not necessarily agree with, but, most importantly, that they will remain non-violent in nature. When such possibilities for disengagement from terrorism exist, government and community programs need to find ways to rehabilitate and integrate such formerly extremist individuals into mainstream society so that they can pursue their objectives within a competitive, pluralist and democratic framework – while accepting the will of the majority for policies they may not necessarily agree with, but that can be contested through democratic means.

In countering extremism it is crucial, therefore, to determine the degree of political, religious or other forms of extremism that is acceptable in a democratic society and the threshold where individuals and groups cross along the radicalization pyramid toward violent extremism, in order to identify the intervention points to mitigate any upward progression toward violent extremism and maximize the downward changes away from violence. As discussed earlier, countering violent extremism campaigns do not necessarily mean that extremist individuals will return to their pre-radicalized state. Rather, the goal of such programs programs is to facilitate the disengagement of extremist individuals from terrorist violence into peaceful activities.

Seven measures are involved in effective countering extremism campaigns. These measures need to be addressed comprehensively and in an integrated manner, with different measures used to intervene throughout the base, middle and top levels of the radicalization pyramid.

First, the underlying conditions that give rise to radicalization into extremism need to be identified and addressed. The radicalization processes that may give rise to violent extremism do not emerge in a vacuum, but are the product of a confluence or coalescence of multiple interrelated drivers, whether in the societies where terrorist uprisings originate or their targeted adversaries. The causes vary and change dynamically over time. In the case of the Islamic State, for example, a major driver is an ultra-puritanical interpretation of Islam that rejects tolerance and acceptance other religions, including any secular beliefs and practices, with all of these declared enemies to be destroyed. Other drivers may include the alienation of such individuals from their societies, due to a variety of factors, including social and professional failures, with such ideologies promising to transform them into heroes for their cause. Thus, in the case of individuals who become violent jihadist, it is important to understand the effect of such genocidal ideologies in producing individuals who decide to implement them through violence.

Second, as with the underlying causal drivers, it is crucial to identify the ideological center of gravity within a radicalized social movement and its violently extremist offshoot (in the form of a terrorist group). Extremist political and religious ideologies mobilize individuals and groups to commit acts of terrorism, and provide them with a guide for action to redress their grievances (whether these are justified or not).

A social movement’s narrative constitutes an important ideological center of gravity. Such narratives generally consist of a perception that a movement’s members have a great role to play in society yet are marginalized by that society, that they are divinely ordained by a supreme being to impose their ideology and way of life on their society, that its adversary society and government are unjust and hypocritical, and other grievances.

Certain documents or tracts provide such extremist social movements with their ideological underpinning. For example, the 1980s Jewish Terrorist Underground and its Greater Land of Israel members were influenced by the ultra-nationalist and messianic writings of Rabbi Abraham Kook; William Luther Pierce’s 1978 racist novel, The Turner Diaries inspires white supremacist groups; and Islamist extremists are influenced by Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones, and other extremist publications.

Thus, an effective counter-narrative program needs to understand how to persuade extremists to turn away from such extremist ideological tracts towards more moderate and constructive ways of thinking about how to achieve objectives that fall within a society’s legal boundaries.

Third, the radicalization process into extremism needs to be countered within a social movement’s individual level at the earliest possible phase in the radicalization pyramid. For example, according to Arie Kruglanski, extremist ideologies appeal to individuals experiencing psychological uncertainty because such ideologies are “formulated in clear-cut, definitive terms” and provide “cognitive closure.” (1) It is such extremist ideologies that provide the fertile ground for support of, and recruitment into, terrorist organizations.

Early intervention at the pyramid’s three levels is more effective than having to react against an array of more mature extremist manifestations later on in the radicalization process.

About the Author

Dr. Joshua Sinai is a senior analyst at Kiernan Group Holdings (KGH), a homeland security and counterterrorism consulting and research firm, in Alexandria. VA.


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