Let us hope that in 2021, on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we can mark the end of the term ‘CVE’ (Countering Violent Extremism) and the conceptual confusion that has grown in its name. CVE (and its sister term, Preventing Violent Extremism ‘PVE’) represents a deeply problematic conflation of counterterrorism and broader community integration efforts, and those working under its banner risk compounding the very problems they are purportedly seeking to solve.
The term CVE itself lacks a clear definition despite being part of our vernacular for nearly two decades. What does ‘Violent Extremism’ even mean? It is a question I often ask in my lectures or training I am delivering, and I have yet to receive a compelling answer that clearly differentiates ‘Violent Extremism’ from ‘Terrorism’. It is all the more baffling in the U.K. context where many examples that are provided fit squarely within our approach to Hate Crime (for which the U.K. has one of the most developed legal, policy and practice frameworks in the world). And yet many seem to be using the term, without any understanding of what it means.
I can provide an insight into its origins of its use in the U.K. from my work in the mid-to-late noughties within community policing and counterterrorism in London. At the time the Government’s Prevent Strategy was being delivered at pace and the police and local authorities were ramping up engagement with Muslim communities. It was here that the criticism was levelled at the police service that “you’re only engaging with us because you think we’re terrorists” and there is a body of research highlighting perceptions of the ‘securitisation’ of the State’s engagement with Muslim communities over this period. Rather than responding robustly that the highest threat from terrorism emanated from the Islamist-inspired terrorism of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates and that increased engagement was to better understand these communities and to assist in identifying the drivers to individuals from within these communities progressing on trajectories towards terrorism, the language changed, and ‘Terrorism’ was replaced with the more palatable ‘Violent Extremism’. A similar journey had been experienced in the U.S. and Canada and was being replicated across Western Europe. And so, the term took root, and has been in use ever since, without anyone being able to explain coherently what it means.
Nowhere is this conceptual mess played out more clearly than in international development efforts and I have seen this first-hand too. International peace-building organisations have been working for decades in fragile environments to support the creation of stable, cohesive communities. They do not dress their work up as ‘CVE’, in fact many have been warning of the dangers of conflating state-building with counter-terrorism efforts. As long ago as 2014, Dr Heydemann highlighted that “despite its impressive growth, CVE has struggled to establish a clear and compelling definition as a field; has evolved into a catch-all category that lacks precision and focus; reflects problematic assumptions about the conditions that promote violent extremism; and has not been able to draw clear boundaries that distinguish CVE programs from those of other, well-established fields, such as development and poverty alleviation, governance and democratization, and education”. I have witnessed the conceptual gymnastics of organisations attempting to articulate how a programme to build inter-community dialogue contributes to a reduction in the terrorism risk as part of a ‘CVE’-funded effort. The leaps in causality are mid-boggling. As researchers have latterly focused their attention on these issues there have been calls for a better understanding of the terminology used and the dangers of various disciplinary approaches being conflated with one another in how we articulate impact, and measure the results of our efforts.
Of particular note within this growing ‘CVE Industry’, we must beware the snake-oil salesmen who claim to have affected behaviour change of those who may be ‘vulnerable’ to ‘Violent Extremism’ through online messaging utilising social media platforms. While I have been clear for some time that online methodologies have utility in the fight against terrorism, this is in so far as they are an effective means of engaging with an individual to channel them, with their consent, into offline interventions. Clicking on an advert and watching a video does not an intervention make.
But what about those community engagement programmes that COULD contribute to counter-terrorism? This is a nonsensical argument as you could draw links between absolutely anything and a notional counter-terrorism yield. The preventative aspects of counter-terrorism (for instance, the focused safeguarding interventions conducted within the Channel programme) have ballooned into an ever-expanding field. And this has clear implications for our work to counter the radical right in the U.K. If we are unable to differentiate between programmes designed to respond to poor community integration and those which are focussed on individuals who are vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism, then we risk repeating the mistakes of the past in securitising the way in which the state interacts with individuals and organisations. In my book, I make the case that not all problems need a fix from counter-terrorism, or indeed the poorly conceptualised versions of what a watered-down version of this looks like in the form of various interpretations of ‘CVE’. In fact, the policy area of first resort must be our Integration Strategy. This is where the battle for hearts and minds will be won. When we talk about ‘upstream measures’, the way we build integrated communities is as upstream as it gets.
I had thought the U.K. was largely immune from this conceptual mess, as our Prevent Strategy sits very clearly within our suite of responses known as the “4 P’s” within our counter-terrorism Contest Strategy. However, I have seen over the last few years not only the term ‘CVE’ creeping into our discourse and HMG documents, but another mutation in the form of ‘Counter Extremism’, which represents yet more muddled thinking in this area. It risks further plunging responses to terrorism into efforts to counter hate crime and work to promote community integration.
If you are a practitioner in this field and you cannot explain to a person in the street what you are doing, then you are not doing a good job. If you are working on an extreme right-wing-related Channel case in North East England, you are not working on CVE, PVE or CE, you are working to counter-terrorism. If you are holding a workshop to build relationships between community groups to support them becoming more integrated, then you are going to have to explain to me (simply) the causal link between what you are doing and the reduction in the terrorism threat you claim to be bringing about.
Let counter-terrorism be counter-terrorism. Let responses to hate crimes be responses to hate crimes. And let community integration be community integration. And let us move on from this conceptual chaos and consign ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ to history.
Dr Craig McCann is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at CARR and Director at S.P.E.C.T.R.U.M. Universal Ltd. See full profile here.
© Craig McCann. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).