A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Aligning research and CVE

U.S. efforts to counter violent extremism domestically have made significant advances in the three pilot cities of Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Boston. Although there are some promising examples, CVE research currently lags behind the implementation of CVE policies.

Both these advances and gaps were on display at the February 2015 White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.  Each of the three pilot cities presented their CVE achievements, frameworks, and future plans. All reported major steps forward in engagement and partnership between law enforcement, mental health practitioners, educators and communities.  All shared preliminary plans to develop more targeted prevention and intervention components of multilevel CVE programs.  At the summit, the overall impression given was that the pilot cities were now approaching the starting line with respect to implementing CVE policies. 

On the other hand, the summit made it clear that CVE research has not yet made it that far. Many of the new CVE programs being developed and piloted by federal, state and local government are not being consistently monitored and evaluated, as is a common practice in other fields such as public health. Also of concern is that the current discourse among policymakers and practitioners focuses more on sharing best practices and less on formulating comprehensive prevention and intervention models based upon sound theory and empirical evidence. 

At the White House Summit William Braniff, the executive director of the START Consortium, spoke out on behalf of the further contributions that research could make to CVE.  He said that, “research can also help us develop evidenced-based approaches to counter violent extremism – to understand what works, what doesn’t work, and how we can keep our American communities safe from all forms of violent extremism.” 

Nonetheless, it is encouraging that the pilot cities solicited researchers’ input into their frameworks, and there are broader research efforts underway to advance our understanding of CVE more generally. In the United States, the National Institute of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security have funded several research projects investigating CVE practices including studies of community policing, the U.S. Attorneys’ CVE activities (being conducted by David Schanzer of Duke), and an evaluation of the Montgomery County Model. DHS is funding projects on counternarratives, on foreign fighters, and on developing CVE primers for educators and mental health practitioners. NIJ is funding a suite of projects on radicalization. Globally, it is also encouraging that there are several reports that offer guidance on evaluating CVE programs (see this and this), that Canada’s Kanishka project has sponsored CVE research, and that Hedayah held a major CVE research conference.

Additional CVE research in the U.S. is needed because it can help to address several key challenges that were raised at the summit. The first key challenge is the need to promote the development of community-led CVE initiatives, which most summit participants said was necessary. The second key challenge is to build empirical knowledge that supports comprehensive prevention initiatives that can both target those most at risk, and also strengthen community, family, and institutional resilience, as called for in the SIP.  The third key challenge is to develop CVE strategies that are generalizable beyond a particular community and beyond even CVE, minimizing other hazards and fostering healthy communities.

To address each of these three key challenges, we suggest using community based research (CBR) strategies (also known as participatory research or community based participatory research). CBR has the potential to reduce mistrust at the grassroots level that CVE initiatives are currently trying to overcome. There is still significant pushback from broad swaths of the community on CVE programs and those community members engaged in CVE initiatives. CBR allows for truly co-constructing research in a way that honors the community and is owned by the community. Mistrust is the greatest obstacle CVE programs face throughout the country, and building trust is generally believed to be an essential first step for successful awareness raising, intervention and rehabilition programming.

CBR involves the community as equal partners to academic experts in the research enterprise. Key CBR principles include:  1) building on cultural and community strengths (e.g. family values); 2) co-learning among all community and research partners; 3) shared decision-making; 4) commitment to projects with the goal of taking action, including social change.   

CBR is important given the obstacles to implementing CVE policies which include: 1) mutual distrust between communities and law enforce/government; 2) myths/beliefs/rumors regarding radicalization and law enforcement; 3) discrimination, social exclusion, and inaccurate or inflammatory media stories, and; 4) lack of evidence based upon local conditions for tailoring prevention and intervention programs. CBR approaches have been successfully used in HIV prevention and breast cancer prevention.

CBR could be organized in the following way.  In key communities, collaborative teams of community advocates and community-based researchers with expertise in prevention, intervention, and CVE would be formed. The collaborative would work together to choose the projects that will best advance CVE programs in their locality.  It could be an assessment of risk factors and protective factors, assessment of engagement and partnership efforts, strategies for focusing on communities without stigmatizing them, or development and evaluation of a focused prevention or intervention program. Together they choose the research questions, aims, underlying theory, methods, and reporting practices. 

Importantly, the community collaborative is not government or law enforcement centered; the community collaborative decides in what ways to those entities. This collaborative can be seen as an ombudsman for communities that serves as a mediating structure between communities and government-heavy CVE initiatives. Community-based researchers will bring authenticity and relevance to this collaborative in a way that enfranchises community voice and ethos in the research and in CVE initiatives.

The primary aim of CBR here is to build knowledge that advances local CVE programs. The secondary aim is to build the capacity of the local CVE community collaborative to conduct CVE research.  The third aim is to build knowledge that is generalizable, such as empirically based prevention or intervention models or assessment tools and strategies.                                 

If research is going to contribute to CVE, another key challenge is getting research findings into the hands of homeland security policymakers and practitioners in a timely way.   Like other researchers, we have had the frustrating experience of waiting for manuscripts on CVE research to go through lengthy peer review process, as events on the ground marched ahead.  In the effort to find more rapid mechanisms to put research to use, my colleagues and I authored and compiled several concise research briefs.  At 2:08 p.m. on February 17th a new email arrived from the START Consortium entitled “START Special Edition: White House CVE Summit.”  As the summit dialogue continued, I got nods from key policymakers and practitioners who just received the same email.   Our research became part of the conversation and also drew media attention.  The next day I was interviewed about our research on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”  To be effective in a rapidly shifting CVE landscape, CVE researchers need to find more such mechanisms.

In conclusion, research has the potential to strengthen CVE initiatives and community based research offers an especially good fit with the challenges of implementing CVE policies and programs. Now that the White House CVE Summit has given a boost to CVE implementation efforts, it is time for the CVE research to catch up.

Stevan Weine is professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Ahmed Younis is an Adjunct Assistant Professor and PhD student in the College of Educational Studies at Chapman University.