From Countering to Preventing Violent Extremism

By Prof. Dr. Hamed El-Said | INTERVENTIONEN – Zeitschrift für Verantwortungspädagogik | Ausgabe 7/2016

Few can argue today that whatever we have been doing since 9/11 has actually made things better in terms of either reducing the level of radicalization in our societies, preventing violent extremism, or even answering the long-standing question of ‘what leads an individual to become a terrorist.’ This frustration has been most felt by academics, whose lack of access to necessary data under- mined their analytical potential and tools to improve our understanding for the phenomenon and to help promote more comprehensive theoretical, conceptual and operational programs to prevent violent extremism (PVE).

This frustration has recently been blatantly expressed by one of the leading academics in the field, namely, Professor Marc Sageman, the former CIA Operations Officer and psychologist in Pakistan and Afghanistan, who stated:

Despite over a decade of government funding and thousands of newcomers to the field of terrorist research, we are no closer to answering the simple question of ‘What leads a person to turn to political violence?1

The available statistical evidence is also supportive of our failure. As the Institute for Economics and Peace in its latest 2015 report on Global Terror Index concluded;

Terrorism continues to rise… While terrorism is highly concentrated in a small number of countries, the number of countries which have had a terrorist attack is also increasing. In 2014 terrorism impacted more countries than ever before. Attacks were recorded in 93 countries, up from 88 in 2013. This continues the trend from 2011 with more countries experiencing terrorist attacks and deaths each year.2

There are several explanations behind our weak ability to deal with terrorism and to achieve major breakthroughs in the field. State security apparatuses’ reluctance to strongly collaborate with academics and independent researchers is one of them. Almost everywhere, with rare exceptions, states showed strong disinclination not only to share with academics and independent researchers primary information, but they have also been unwilling to provide them with access to necessary data, or to facilitate their empirical field- work, which required access to radicals, violent extremists, prisons, and first line prison officials. These were necessary to improve our understanding for the conditions conducive to the kind of radicalization and extremism that could lead to terrorism, as well as to provide academics and independent researchers with the opportunity to evaluate and assess the vitality and effectiveness of policies and programs being implemented to counter violent extremism (CVE). The upshot has been “an unbridgeable gap between academia and the intelligence community,” a gap that has been translated into “an explosion of speculations with little empirical grounding in academia, which has the methodological skills but lacks data for a major breakthrough.”3

In the West in general, secondly, a ‘militarization’ approach was favoured over ‘soft’ and arguably more effective approaches to prevent radicalization in the first place. Such an approach relied on drone attacks by unpiloted fighters in foreign countries and locations where terrorist groups are present, military campaigns and aerial bombardment in countries or parts of countries controlled by such groups, and assassination of senior leaders of terrorist organizations. At home, almost all states, Western or otherwise, ramped up security and repressive measures sometimes with little regard for human rights and the rule of law. They also strengthened intelligence services, expanded legal procedures, and “increasingly adopt[ed] administrative measures, even if these measures do not specifically target [violent extremists]… incitement to and/or glorification of terrorism” have also been criminalized by most states4 in ways that were too open, so that human rights organizations worried that such procedures might, and have actually ended up in many instances violating human rights, undermining democracies and freedoms of expressions. Instead of undermining radicalization, such measures ended up increasing radicalization and extremism.

Prevention, which is better than cure, received little attention from state security officials and politicians in most cases. Worse, “Even though Member States of- ten refer to the issues of prevention, law enforcement and security measures are still dominant issues.“5 A recent survey of the 28 European Union Member States, just before the British Brexit Referendum, by the ICCT in the Hague “Asked about whether Member States [MS] have a rehabilitation and/or reintegration programme in place for convicted and/or returning FF [foreign fighters], a few MS responded affirmatively.”6

Outside the Western Hemisphere, the effects of terrorism were felt most in countries with weak “respect for human rights,” widespread corruption, weak governance and bad policies, spread of political violence, and weakened “safety and security environments,” all of which are strongly theoretically and empirically “correlated with terrorism.”7

There are limits to the military-security-administrative approaches when it comes to PVE. Arresting an  individual, or even assassinating him or her, might stop them from joining a terrorist group, travel to a war-zone, or even carry out   a violent act. But it does not stop others from doing the same thing. Nor does it improve our understanding for why he/ she was radicalized in the first place. Drone attacking a group with the aim of killing one senior terrorist leader standing amongst innocent citizens ends up radicalizing more individuals than the ones we kill. A bullet, a rocket and a missile can kill a terrorist or two but does not kill or prevent terrorism. Education, integration, peaceful coexistence, prosperity for all, respect of human rights and the application of the rule of law can do and guarantee a better outcome. And a better under- standing for the conditions conducive to the kind of radicalization and extremism that could lead to terrorism remains the key to developing successful policies and programs to PVE. This cannot be achieved by solely militaristic and security approaches, the kind of approaches most, but not all, states have been relying on since the 9/11 attacks with the obvious outcome: “terrorist attacks are happening more and more often… they [truly] are.”8 The recent attacks in Paris, Brussels, Florida, Jordan, Lebanon and Istanbul re- inforce and confirm this statement, reveal globalised nature and reach of terror, and act yet as a further, painful example on the increased sophistication, brutality and human and physical costs of terrorism.

The United Nations have acknowledged these flaws in our approach to deal with terrorism. Early this year (2016), it launched a new Prevention of Violent Extremism Action Plan. It comes ten years after the United Nations Global Counter Terrorism Strategy was enacted in 2006. The new Action Plan calls for a new paradigm shift, one that would at least brink a more acceptable balance between countering and prevention.

The new Action Plan establishes four pillars as both causes and consequences of terrorism. Acknowledging and improving them would go a long way towards undermining the conditions conducive to the kind of radicalization and extremism that could lead to terrorism. Theses four pillars are:9

  • Achieving sustainable development, including the creation of economic opportunities and decent employment for youth, the main target of terrorist organizations.
  • Promotion of good governance and good policies that can maximize growth, prosperity, and hope for all, particularly for the youth, the fodder for terrorist organizations who are most attracted to radical ideologies and practices.
  • Respect for human rights and dignity, as well as freedom of expression and choice, seen as necessary to promote critical thinking and creative and innovative processes to challenge the selected and simplistic terrorist narrative.
  • Finally, resolving long-standing and unresolved conflicts, that create a safe haven for terrorist organisations who exploit weak or falling states to create a base for their nihilistic organizations, attract youth, establish centre points and training camps to graduate global terrorists. This is all done in a language camouflaged in appealing and selective religious arguments devoid of any legitimacy concern for the lives of the youth they pretend to care about and provide hope for.

One of the major recommendations of the new UN Plan of Action is the need for every country to design and implement a ‘national’ PVE Plan, the aim of which is to rely more on preventing, rather than simply the reactive approach of totally relying on countering VE. While there is no one size fits all, the national plan will be designed by the national and local authorities, and will take into consideration each country’s priorities, level of threat, capabilities and resources. Realising the important role of civil society in PVE, the plan also calls for ‘an all of society’ approach, one that brings all stakeholders together to PVE. The Plan also recognizes the complementary and indivisible role of the state in this process, and thus also calls for an ‘all of government’ approach to nip the kind of radicalization and extremism that could lead to terrorism in the pod.

There is no quick fix and there is no silver bullet. But the new United Nations PVE Action Plan provides not only the legal obligation (through Security Council Resolution 2178), but also the larger framework necessary to guide member State’s officials and practitioners in their efforts to design and implement effective national PVE strategies. It is up to member States to make a difference now.


1 Sageman, Marc. (2014). The Stagnation in Terrorism Research, in Terrorism and Political Violence, 26/4. Pp. 565-580. 6553.2014.895649?redirect=1.

2 Institute of Economics and peace, Global Terrorism Index: Measuring and Understanding the Impact of Terrorism, 2015. P. 9. loads/2015/11/Global-Terrorism-Index-2015.pdf.

3 Sageman, Op cit, 2014, p 565.

4 All quotations from ICCT, (2016). The Foreign Fighters Phenomenon in the European Union Profiles, Threats & Policies, April, The Hague, P. 6.

5  Ibid, p. 6.

6  Ibid, p. 9.

7 Institute for Economics and Peace, op cit, p. 5.

8 Melissa Clarks (2015). Globally, terrorism is on the rise – but little of it occurs in Western countries, in ABC News, 17 November. terrorism-index-increase/6947200.

9 United Nations Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force,

The Author
Professor Hamed El-Said is a Chair and Professor of International Business and Political Economy at the Manchester Metropolitan University. He is also currently a senior advisor to the United Nations Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force (UNCTITF) in New York. He has published extensively on terrorism and radicalisation programmes. However, the opinions expressed in this article reflect those of the author alone.