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Recasting and Repositioning CVE as a Grand Strategic Response to Terrorism

The following is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.

The United States does not have a grand strategy with respect to terrorism. In the 16 years since the attacks of September 11, 2001, we have relied on our criminal justice and military communities, enabled by more and better intelligence, to disrupt terrorist adversaries and prevent another large-scale attack. In this we have succeeded. Along the way, however, global terrorism has reached historically high levels triggering reactionary violence and polarizing debates about immigration and refugees, nationalism and internationalism, security and liberty, and religion. Our traditional counterterrorism tools are necessary, but they appear to be insufficient in terms of mitigating terrorist violence and its deleterious political consequences over time.

To complement military and law enforcement efforts —what I refer to here as traditional counterterrorism — the United States and the international community entertained a different paradigm that sought to decrease the number of individuals mobilizing to violence in the first place by addressing the individual, communal and societal factors exploited by terrorists. This emergent paradigm, countering violent extremism (CVE), has been poorly resourced, sparsely staffed, and employed as a distant second priority to traditional counterterrorism. Since its inception, CVE has been beset by detractors who see it either as dangerously idealistic political correctness, or a euphemism for predatory counterterrorism.

I argue that these two problems, the insufficiency of traditional counterterrorism and CVE’s lack of traction, are directly related to our lack of appreciation for the essential nature of terrorism. Terrorism is primarily a form of violent politics. Therefore, our response to terrorism must be primarily a political one. Given CVE’s focus on contextual factors that enable terrorism at individual, community and societal levels, CVE has the potential to alter the political conditions that allow for violent mobilization. Traditional counterterrorism lacks this political dimension. The CVE paradigm, if focused by a guiding principle, could directly inform a new grand strategic response to terrorism with traditional counterterrorism serving as a necessary but subordinate role.

The Insufficiency of Military and Law Enforcement Paradigms

We have all been party to the debate over whether a law enforcement approach to counterterrorism or a military approach to counterterrorism is superior. The former risks under-reaction, and the latter over-reaction.  

Perhaps you have heard our battle-hardened veterans lament that they have fought and won multiple campaigns against the same adversaries with new names on the same terrain, only to see the lethality of the terrorist movement rise over time instead of wane.

You have also probably heard polarizing debates about the seemingly different standards of justice for domestic and international terrorists, which call into question the objectivity and legitimacy of the government’s response to terrorism. Even successful prosecutorial outcomes (e.g., a white supremacist goes to prison for life on a homicide charge, and a Muslim extremist receives a lengthy sentence when attempting to become a foreign fighter) can result in sub-optimal counterterrorism outcomes if communities do not understand why the government labels one perpetrator a murderer and the other a terrorist.

Think of the dozens of articles and speeches that contain some version of the phrase: “We cannot arrest or kill our way out of this problem.” And yet, our strategies (as defined by our allocation of resources) are military and law enforcement centric.

We should pay heed to our hard-fought experience and our civic debates. Neither a military nor a law enforcement paradigm provides a sufficient framework to mitigate terrorism.

The Politics of Terrorism

Terrorists use violence to achieve psychological effects on audiences beyond the physical target of their attacks. When coupled with propaganda, terrorism is communicative violence intended to convince these audiences that the status quo and those responsible for it are illegitimate, how society should be organized instead, and how the terrorist movement alone can deliver that political vision for the future. Military and law enforcement actions cannot answer those charges. Absent a political framework, they can create sub-optimal or even counterproductive outcomes.

Our response to terrorism must be understood primarily as part of a competition for legitimacy in the eyes of a constituency. Terrorism is politics. Our response to terrorism must be political.

Our Problematic Conception of the Relationship between CVE and Traditional Counterterrorism

When counterterrorism professionals think of the relationship between traditional counterterrorism and CVE, they think of traditional counterterrorism as “the main event,” and CVE as a lesser, supporting effort. When communities think about CVE, many also perceive it to be a lesser form of counterterrorism hiding in sheep’s clothing – a Trojan horse used to smuggle the counterterrorism apparatus into their schools and community centers. I would argue that even CVE professionals subconsciously hold CVE as a lesser tool with respect to traditional counterterrorism, while consciously going through great pains to separate CVE from counterterrorism in their programming and discourse.

While this conscientious effort to divorce CVE programs from traditional counterterrorism is well-intentioned, it can come across as disingenuous. Consider a community awareness campaign intended to empower communities to take a more active role in community-led interventions (CVE), and the “See Something Say Something” campaign, intended to empower citizens to take a more active role in disrupting a plot by notifying law enforcement of suspicious activity (CT). Some of the goals of CVE do overlap with the goals of traditional counterterrorism efforts, even if the programmatic mechanisms are different.

CVE programs should not be unfairly maligned because of any past failings of traditional counterterrorism efforts, and CVE and traditional counterterrorism are not synonymous, but they are interrelated and sometimes overlapping. The central problem is not internal to CVE, despite its challenges, but that we have failed to conceptualize the relationship between traditional counterterrorism and CVE properly due to a lack of appreciation for the political nature of this struggle.

Repositioning CVE with respect to Traditional Counterterrorism

If terrorism and our response to it occur in the political arena, traditional counterterrorism efforts must be subordinated to CVE. Community engagement and awareness raising, prevention and intervention programs, rehabilitation and reintegration efforts, and alternative and counter-narrative efforts — these are the main lines of effort. Traditional counterterrorism efforts, which utilize legal and military tools to disrupt the mobilization of violent attacks by individuals, networks or groups, are two narrowly applicable tools available under the intervention rubric.

Until we articulate this reversed understanding of CVE and traditional counterterrorism in our national strategy documents and internalize this political reality in our national consciousness, we will continue to misallocate resources to a set of solutions that are mismatched with the problem at-hand. 

How do we reset our strategies, policies, legal approaches, operations, and community-based programs?  It requires more than a cosmetic rebranding of CVE coupled with the inspiring dedication of a relatively small group of CVE professionals. It requires a grand strategy that privileges the programmatic elements of CVE, but recasts them so as to provide a set of guiding principles that will also inform our traditional counterterrorism efforts.

Marginalization as a Grand Strategic Response to Terrorism

Our collective grand strategy, inside and outside of government, must be to marginalize terrorism. Before crafting a strategy, articulating a policy, passing a law, conducting an operation, launching a community-based program, or even covering a terrorist attack on cable news, we should ask ourselves the following question: Will this effort help the majority community in question further marginalize the attractiveness and political/psychological impact of violent extremism in that community?

More specifically:

  • Does this effort marginalize the enabling factors that allow for recruitment?
  • Does this effort foster empowerment to marginalize the sense of victimhood among a community targeted for recruitment?
  • Does this effort marginalize community exposure to violent extremists and violent extremist propaganda?
  • Does this effort marginalize the psychological effects of extremist violence on audiences beyond the physical target of the attack?
  • Does this effort marginalize the polarizing effects of extremist violence?
  • Does this effort marginalize the frequency and lethality of attacks over time?
  • Does this effort marginalize recidivism among detained extremists?
  • Does this effort marginalize individual and communal trauma that has occurred as a result of violent extremism?
  • Does this effort marginalize the risk of aggrandizement of violent extremists in the media and public discourse?
  • Does this effort help our partner governments marginalize the salience of violent extremism in their country?

At first blush, a marginalization grand strategy may sound effete. Our emotional reaction is to take a “tough-on-terrorism” approach because we are held hostage by a popular misconception: as long as we do not appear terrorized by terrorism, we are overcoming it.[1]  This thinking may make us feel good, but provoking an angry response is often as productive for the terrorist movement in the long-term as a fearful response.  

“Tough-on-terrorism” rhetoric is often communicated through the establishment of impossible metrics of success (e.g., we will prevent every attack on U.S. soil, we will eradicate the enemy at home and abroad). These metrics incentivize U.S. Government over-reach domestically and internationally, to include building partner capacity programs (BPC) that focus heavily on extending military and para-military capabilities to partner nations. These responses feed terrorist propaganda and recruitment efforts. Moreover, when the inevitable terrorist attack occurs, the failure to achieve these standards undermines the public’s trust in our collective response to terrorism and makes the terrorist movement appear stronger.

By contrast, a marginalization grand strategy will help elected leaders avoid the political pressure to over-react, aggrandize the enemy and exacerbate the polarization of our societies. It acknowledges that terrorism exists and will continue to exist, but that it is a tactic of the weak, employed by marginal actors who can be further marginalized over time. It helps build resilience to violent attempts at polarization that do not come from our middle, but from the fringe.

A marginalization grand strategy recognizes a simple truth. Only the majority communities, whether those are white Protestant communities with respect to groups like the Ku Klux Klan, or Sunni Muslim communities with respect to groups like al-Qaida, are positioned to marginalize extremists who claim to represent and fight on behalf of that community.

As the questions above suggest, a marginalization grand strategy gives us a consistent guiding principle to mobilize resources from across the government and the whole of our communities, empowering the majority to marginalize the perceived legitimacy and the psychological effects of violent extremism, and to minimize the number of individuals engaged in and sympathetic to violent extremism.

A marginalization grand strategy minimizes the instances in which traditional military and law enforcement disruptions are necessary, and reminds us that the way in which we conduct these disruptions are as important over time as the fact that they occurred. Successful disruptions that minimize political push-back, as well as the frequency and lethality of attacks over time, will enhance the legitimacy of the traditional counterterrorism community and by extension, the government.

A marginalization grand strategy communicates that rehabilitation and reintegration programs are necessary and can be a source of strength, instead of an indication that our “Terrorism Prevention” efforts have failed.  Without rehabilitation and reintegration programs, law enforcement disruptions are delaying mechanisms, but may not mitigate threat over time.

A marginalization grand strategy provides many more opportunities for evaluation and assessment than both covert counterterrorism efforts and CVE efforts understood through the narrow lens of preventing radicalization or violent attacks. While it is difficult to study clandestine behavior or determine if a prevention program is responsible for stopping someone from radicalizing, it is possible to measure the salience of victimhood in a community over time, the polarizing effects of extremist violence on a community over time, and the amount of air time given to violent extremism in a 24-hour news cycle.

A marginalization grand strategy acknowledges transparently that traditional counterterrorism measures are related to CVE, but that they are subordinate efforts conducted by different actors and different tools in support of the objectives of the broader range of CVE programs.

Finally, a marginalization grand strategy will help to “right-size” traditional counterterrorism efforts. Establishing a grand strategy does not imply that terrorism should continue to be the highest priority on our homeland and national security agendas at the expense of other challenges. On the contrary, a marginalization paradigm recognizes that terrorism is not an existential threat to the United States, may be subordinated to other national security concerns in a given region, and allows us to provide more regionally contextualized support to partners for whom terrorism may or may not be a top priority.


[1] The author credits Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko for highlighting the unintended consequence of the word “terror” within the word terrorism, and the larger issue of government over-reaction, in their START Discussion Point article on Ju-jitsu politics, accessible here: http://www.start.umd.edu/news/another-look-jujitsu-politics