Countering Violent Extremism: How Human Rights and Good Governance Help Prevent Terrorism

Source: U.S. Department of State


Sarah Sewall Under Secretaryfor Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights

Washington, DC

February 29, 2016


Hello everyone, and thank you Deborah for the kind introduction. And thanks to the Josef Korbel School of International Studies for inviting me to speak with you all today and for honoring me with this award. I am very grateful.

This school has produced more than its fair share of “Engaged Policymakers,” and I have no doubt that many of you students will go on to continue that tradition.

But look, being a policymaker is a real burden. Now that I'm at the State Department I have to deliver tough messages every day. Right now, for example, I have to swallow my New England pride and congratulate Denver on its big win at the Super Bowl.

But there are also big pluses. One of them is being able to speak with bright young people like you all -- the next generation of policymakers -- about some of the greatest challenges we face.

And that's what brings me from here today: to describe one of those challenges in particular -- the scourge of violent extremism.

Violent extremists are not a new threat; they have raged against civilization as long as we have tried to build it. What is new is how the United States and our partners around the world are pushing them back — with a more comprehensive, preventive, and civilian-centered approach we call Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE.

How did we come to embrace this new approach? The answer is simple: learning.

Learning from more than a decade since the searing experience of 9/11. Following those horrific attacks, the U.S. arrayed a range of counterterrorism tools to keep Americans safe: from airport security and intelligence collection, to military operations, and security assistance.

Yet as the U.S. targeted al-Qa'ida, its remnants dispersed and adapted. They and other terrorist groups exploited local grievances about insecurity, unemployment, sectarianism, or marginalization to merge with militias, criminal networks, and insurgencies. In doing so, they created affiliates and inspired savage new groups like Boko Haram and the so-called Islamic State, or Daesh.

The rise of these groups revealed that while traditional, “hard” approaches to counterterrorism remained critical for protecting us from immediate threats, they were ill-equipped at preventing new ones from emerging. That called for a broader approach, one that not only took the fight to violent extremists around the world, but prevented people from taking up violent extremism in the first place. That is the rationale for CVE.

CVE begins with understanding what motivates individuals and communities to align with violent extremist groups. And as you can imagine, there is no simple answer. The motives are complex, overlapping, and context-specific.

To untangle them, I've found it useful to think about psychologist Abraham Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs. At the bottom are needs like physical security, food, and shelter. Further up are more abstract needs for community, identity, and purpose. When these go unmet, they can act like “push” factors that make people vulnerable to the “pull” of violent ideologies.

Each case of radicalization to violence results from a complex and context-specific interaction between these “push” and “pull” factors, helping to explain how violent extremists have been able to draw recruits from such diverse backgrounds. This complexity necessitates a longer-term approach that is at once broader and more creative, but also more targeted and contextual.

CVE attempts to strike that balance in three important ways by expanding the “who, what, and where” of our counterterrorism approach.

Concerning “the what” — CVE broadens the focus to address the “push” and “pull” dynamics that can fuel violent extremism. In doing so, CVE seeks to both reverse the growth of active violent extremist groups and better prevent the next generation of threat.

Dealing with “push” factors essentially means addressing the underlying grievances that violent extremists exploit. President Obama explained that when “people — especially young people — feel entirely trapped in impoverished communities, where there is no order and no path for advancement, where there are no educational opportunities, where there are no ways to support families, and no escape from injustice and the humiliations of corruption — that feeds instability and disorder, and makes those communities ripe for extremist recruitment.”

Addressing the “pull” factors means challenging the twisted narratives and recruitment tactics violent extremists wield to influence communities and target vulnerable individuals.

But if you think about the tools we typically associate with counterterrorism — drones, soldiers, spies — it's clear that, as important as they are to keeping us safe, they are ill-equipped to address these push and pull factors. After all, you can't wiretap a grievance, or bomb away a hateful ideology.

Which brings me to the “who” — CVE calls for an integrated and holistic approach to address the “push” and “pull” factors that can fuel violent extremism. While governments have a critical role in this work by ensuring security, respect for human rights, and the rule of law, they cannot effectively address these complex factors on their own.

That requires a broader set of actors, including civil society, business, religious leaders, women, youth, international bodies and former violent extremists. This is what we are calling a “whole of society” approach.

At the same time, an integrated CVE approach depends on coordination among these various stakeholders. That often requires building trust and repairing fraught relationships between the government and actors in civil society or marginalized communities, as well as safeguarding space for these actors to operate and peacefully express their views.

And finally, concerning “the where” — CVE calls for broadening our focus to upstream risks by supporting communities actively targeted by terrorist groups. These places are often on the periphery of conflict and terrorist operations, where individuals are highly vulnerable to large-scale radicalization and recruitment.

For example, we've seen how Daesh, from its base of operations in Iraq and Syria, has targeted communities in countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. By broadening the focus to these at-risk but largely peaceful communities, CVE seeks to prevent the expansion of terrorist networks by proactively addressing the grievances they try to exploit and keep vulnerable communities on a path to stability.

Obviously, we cannot fully address all grievances or structural inequities, so the success of CVE efforts depends on getting the “who, what, and where” right — determining which communities are most vulnerable, what underlying forces are most prominent in fueling violent extremism, and which interventions or local actors are best positioned to help.

We still have much to learn, but we are making progress. In just the past year, the Department of State established an in-house unit to analyze the underlying drivers of violent extremism in different global contexts. We're also experimenting with a new approach to programming using pooled funds to incentivize collaborative problem diagnosis and integrated program design.

Using this approach, the Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) analyzed communities across East Africa to better understand al-Shabaab's efforts to recruit and expand in areas beyond its control.

Now, teams in the field are identifying the most at-risk communities to distill key factors that contribute to both their vulnerability and resilience to violent extremism. The team will then design programs tailored to address those factors and provide funding to actors in government best suited for the job.

This approach is a pilot project for what we hope will be a growing element of U.S. foreign assistance through a new Global Counterterrorism Partnership Fund.

Governments, communities, and international organizations are also looking to independent actors, like the Korbel School and the broader University of Denver community, for contributions to research and analysis in the burgeoning field of countering violent extremism. We all have a responsibility to bridge research and policy, to ensure that what we know is reflected what we do -- much in this spirit of today's Denver Dialogue.

So we welcome new ideas from outside government and look to support cutting-edge analysis and scholarship to strengthen how we tackle violent extremism and a host of other complex challenges before us.

Last September, I attended the launch of RESOLVE, a new network for researchers, especially at the local level, to share their findings and resources as they work to uncover both what can drive and what can prevent violent extremism in communities around the world. This is a new platform to engage and assist non-governmental actors, and I encourage the Institute to support its development, for example by contributing scholarship or mentoring local researchers.

The RESOLVE network is part of a broader global movement behind CVE, catalyzed last February by the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. That summit launched a comprehensive CVE effort that now encompasses over 100 countries, 20 multilateral bodies, and 400 civil society organizations across the globe.

As a result of this effort, foreign governments are developing national CVE strategies that provide meaningful roles for those outside government. Many of those actors — like young people, mayors, and women — have launched their own global networks to learn from each other's experience countering violent extremism in their communities.

And last month, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon released a Plan of Action for Preventing Violent Extremism, which provided a framework for how all member states and bodies like UNESCO and the U.N. Development Program can contribute to this common effort.

As Under Secretary of State responsible for both fighting terrorism and promoting human rights, I have been intimately involved in this effort to encourage a proactive and affirmative approach to reducing the threat of violent extremism. And I have been able to see firsthand how countries around the world have benefited — or could benefit — from embracing a broader approach to violent extremism in the spirit of CVE.

In countries as diverse as Nigeria, Egypt, Burma, and Kenya, I have seen similar forces combine to create fertile soil for violent extremism to take root.

When police abuse communities, or when security forces harass or detain entire neighborhoods on mere suspicion, they leave a trail of grievance and mistrust that violent extremists eagerly exploit.

When prisons mix petty criminals with hardcore terrorists, governments literally create captive audiences for hateful ideologies -- needlessly expanding the threat. Additionally, instances of government abuse and torture push prisoners further down the path of radicalization.

When corruption goes unaddressed, citizens may conclude that government exists not to serve but to exploit. Secretary Kerry called corruption a “radicalizer,” because it “destroys faith in legitimate authority.” In such a vacuum, violent extremists that portray themselves as pious and untainted can offer a seemingly seductive alternative.

When there are no jobs and prospects for a better future, when people struggle to feed and house their families, feelings of hopelessness and indignity can be openings for violent extremists peddling false promises of a better deal.

And finally, when governments respond to terrorist propaganda by strangling freedoms of speech and assembly, they risk silencing the voices most needed to fight violence and hatred. Clamping down on political opposition under the guise of fighting terrorism has become all too common, yet it can backfire spectacularly by radicalizing the non-violent individual and confirming violence as the only route to political change.

Time and again, nations around the world — including ours — relearn the harsh lessons of framing security as a zero-sum tradeoff with fundamental human freedoms. A comprehensive CVE approach recognizes this as a false dichotomy and highlights the importance of good governance and human rights protections in preventing the next generation of violent extremism.

But even in places with a strong history of democracy and human rights, like Western Europe, the United States, and India, violent extremism remains a real issue. Take India for example, which has proven quite resistant to recruitment attempts by terrorist groups like Daesh — in large part thanks to its tradition of religious tolerance, which has been a powerful antidote to its poisonous perversion of Islam.

But recent events, like the religious conversions coerced by Hindu extremists, or open speculation by some public officials about the loyalty of Indian Muslims, fuel bigotry and open the gateways to violence. In their wake, speaking out for religious freedom is critical — not just as a universal value, but as a source of resilience against extremism.

That's also true here in the United States, where we struggle with our own issues of intolerance. What matters, though, is how citizens and leaders respond. When a teacher mistook a Muslim student's science project for a bomb and sent him to the police, President Obama welcomed him to the White House. And in a time of heightened anxiety following the attacks in San Bernardino, he reminded the country that Muslim-Americans are our neighbors, co-workers, and soldiers on our front lines.

But when citizens do fall prey to violent ideologies, governments increasingly face tough questions about how to respond. Countries like Denmark have found creative ways to answer that question by pioneering efforts to de-radicalize and rehabilitate violent extremists.

In Denmark, if violent extremists renounce their ideology, they are given a chance to receive mental counseling and learn vocational skills. These programs reduce the risk that they return to violence. Equally important, the rehabilitated extremist can become a powerful voice against radicalization to violence.

By contrast, when there is no possible path to reintegrate back in society, the violent extremist may perceive no choice but to keep fighting. For all of these reasons, de-radicalization and rehabilitation efforts are proliferating around the world.

The multiple dimensions of countering violent extremism — protecting rights, providing economic opportunity, mentoring youth, holding security forces accountable, supporting families — go beyond a military response to take a citizen-centered approach to the threat.

This is not the work of soldiers and spies, but of mayors and moms, of communities and faith leaders. This is not altruism. Investing in this approach is essential in order to defeat and contain the current terror threat.

And let's be clear: CVE is a long-term effort. Jobs and bright futures won't appear overnight; trust between communities and security forces can take years to build; and local leaders and citizens must find their own routes to reach youth and vulnerable individuals and confront violent extremist propaganda. This work will likely continue across generations.

At the same time, we can look to the future more confident that we have the right approach. Instead of being reactive and destructive, CVE is fundamentally positive and proactive; it empowers new states and actors, emphasizes preventive action, and advances our collective security while championing universal values. And most importantly, it shows us how to make sustained progress against this threat and increase the odds that you all will see the shadow of violent extremism recede in your lives.

Thank you.