Alessandro Boncio, OR9 Italian Carabinieri Corps, Counter Terrorism Analyst & Lecturer
On November 8-9, the second international conference on the prevention of violence and extremism was held in Eschborn, near Frankfurt. It was hosted by the GCOCP-i Institute for Applied Prevention Research in collaboration with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH.
The participants, a diverse group by professional background and nationality, presented and discussed new methods and approaches to preventing and combating violent extremism. Their work is important – the phenomenon is considered one of the greatest current threats to our societies and requires the implementation of various measures to prevent the mobilization to violence. Above all, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have realized that countering violent extremism and terrorism at the sharp end isn’t enough – prevention is fundamental if we are to reduce the impacts on society.
An important factor is extremist groups justifying the use of violence by exploiting existing societal problems such as poverty, inequality, and the lack of opportunities. We need to address these grievances to limit alienation, polarization and destabilization of our societies.
The introductory speeches pointed out the necessity of raising awareness and sharing knowledge on these complex issues. Multifaceted approaches and diversified strategies are required to tackle extremist discourse and prevent individuals at-risk from embracing violence as their preferred tool to promote change.
First Conference Day
The first working panel dealt with the crucial issue of terminology. Concepts and terms such as violent extremism and radicalization and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) are often used as synonyms while homogeneous definitions are required in the international context in order to exchange information and speak a common language in an already blurred and complex situation.
Dr. Daniela Pisoiu of the Austrian Institute for International Affairs and the European Radicalization Awareness Network confirmed that the understanding of PVE is inextricably linked to unique political, cultural and legal elements in each country and this often means a successful PVE program in one country will not be successful in other countries and contexts.
However, some principles are widely recognized as all-encompassing and can be included in general PVE strategies. Likewise, some national experiences have highlighted the challenges and risks related to approaching the prevention of violence and extremism. An incorrect approach can sometimes result in dangerous outcomes for governments.  Countering an assimilated ideology, in fact, seems to have negative results, as Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory has shown. Individuals tend to reject the new and countering information that is provided, preferring to maintain established relationships and bonds. 
From a broader viewpoint, the panel proceeded to analyze how P/CVE can be integrated into the contexts of international cooperation for the development of nations. Lilah el Sayed of Hedayah UAE presented the “Undermining violent extremist narratives in the Middle East and North Africa” project, which adopts an alternative narrative aimed at undermining propaganda and extremist discourse both in the real world and online. The publication of How-To-Guides on implementing these strategies, therefore, provides practitioners on the ground with concrete examples, adjustable to local realities, of alternative narratives that do usefully limit the effects of extremist propaganda on individuals who are at risk.
The second panel of the day focused on different experiences in the field and on the multiple approaches to PVE at the local level, depending on the actors and the social fabric involved. The basic idea of the panel was to verify what is effective in real life and, once again, it was highlighted that the effectiveness of “one-fits-all” approaches to diversified contexts is highly controversial. By contrast, some mechanisms of violence prevention, capacity building, inter-religious dialogue, rehabilitation and disengagement have proved to be very effective in various PVE programs.
Dr. Malika Bouziane of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit confirmed the wide variety of factors and the complexity of the phenomenon of violent extremism and then focused on the need for a multifaceted approach of the whole society for holistic treatment and cross-sectorial intervention.
By way of example, Dr. Bouziane presented the case-study of international cooperation between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and a GIZ PVE program funded by the European Union. The project saw knowledge management combined with the organizational development of a CVE unit in the field. Capacity building for government employees, rehabilitative work and artistic approaches were mixed in a flexible program that could be adapted to the environmental and social changes in the country. The program was implemented in the country but Dr. Bouziane stated that it was not possible to evaluate its effectiveness afterwards as this requirement was not requested by the Jordanian government, which is now managing the program on its own.
Cristina Foerch of Fighters for Peace Association – Lebanon presented another case-study of P/CVE, focusing on Lebanon. After highlighting the most recent periods of interreligious and social conflict within the country, Foerch stressed the usefulness of “formers” (former extremists) who have renounced violence as an instrument to pursue change. They can engage with young extremists in a constructive dialogue to help them restructure their beliefs.
“Formers” have key strengths. Since they come from similar backgrounds and share socio-cultural grievances, they can build up relationships of trust and respect, speaking the language of the extremists in a context of openness and searching for common ground for dialogue between conflicting parties. Drama sessions and story-telling about violence are at the base of the program, alongside the process of “dealing with the past” in order to raise awareness of the violence that has been perpetrated and attempt to avoid repeating the mistakes that have been made.
The third panel of the first day focused on the thorniest topic in every PVE conference: the need for objective and empirical evaluations of the effectiveness of programs implemented to counter and prevent violent extremism.
Inga Nehlsen of the National Center for Crime Prevention in Germany focused his speech on identifiable risk indicators in radicalization pathways towards violent extremism. Nehlsen illustrated how a National Center for Crime Prevention project is developing a list of Islamist radicalization indicators as evaluation criteria for PVE projects. These indicators concern objectively observable behaviors which are usually associated with individuals who set out on a path towards violent extremism. Within a PVE program, these behaviors can be assessed pre-and-post intervention to understand if it has been possible to interrupt the individual’s trajectory and prevent him or her from drifting further into extremism.
Dr. Scott Kleinmann of Jane’s IHS in the USA presented his empirical research on VE indicators, statistically frequent in large research samples, which can better shape P/CVE programs. In his research, Dr. Kleinmann interviewed a number of US inmates convicted of being associated with al-Qaeda, obtaining some statistically relevant indicators of their violent radicalization paths. Among them, he highlighted pre-existing relationships with other jihadist group members (family, friends, or peers) and psychological stress as a result of traumatizing life experiences (loss of a family member, divorce, or serious illness).
From this base, two dependent variable scales that measure intent to participate in illegal or violent political actions  and jihadist beliefs  have been applied to a large sample of Muslims residing in the USA. This quantitative analysis helped to identify three key indicators that can predict willingness to participate in violent extremism in a substantial number of cases: psychological traumas, personal acquaintances with people associated to jihadist organizations, and frequent social interactions with a jihadist group.
Second Conference Day
On the second day of work, three different workshops were held. They focused on needs, skills, services and support in the context of PVE and local authorities; how to prevent recidivism and radicalization in prison, after release and on probation; and the potential and challenges when religion has a role in PVE.
The conclusions of the first workshop confirmed the pre-eminent role played by local actors in programs to prevent violent extremism. Due to their knowledge of the social fabric and interactions, local authorities are key contributors to efficient PVE strategies and initiatives. However, all efforts must be coordinated in an inclusive multi-agency approach in order not to disperse assets and resources and to avoid confusing “targeted” individuals by presenting conflicting messages and initiatives.
The second workshop highlighted how prisons should not be considered as a possibly fertile ground for violent radicalization alone. They should also be seen as a “controlled” and therefore privileged environment where governments can apply PVE strategies and verify their effectiveness. Different stakeholders are present at all stages of the process, starting with the crime itself and moving on to pre-trial conditions, internment in prison, release, and probation. Consequently, a multiagency approach is required to enhance the chances of being effective and preventing violent extremism during this prolonged and complex process.
Finally, the third workshop highlighted the fundamental role of religion in influencing the thoughts and behavior of the majority of individuals in our societies. This means religious actors could have a significant role in preventing and fighting violent extremism because of their presence in local communities and their ability to reach an extensive network with their messages. Improving community resilience through a constant presence and balanced religious messaging is one of the winning factors of many PVE programs.
Takeaways and Conclusions
The different perspectives and approaches in P/CVE were highlighted once more by this conference. Despite the lack of consensus on basic definitions of concepts such as extremism and radicalization – or perhaps precisely because of the wide range of views – various strategies are implemented in diverse societal and cultural contexts.
Homogeneity in terminology will always be difficult to achieve. Nonetheless, extensive experience gained by practitioners and in research has highlighted a few basic pillars which should support PVE programs in many different situations and locations.
First of all, the local dimension is fundamental and should always be preferred to a top-down approach. Small differences at the national level can widen at the local level and only practitioners with deep knowledge of the local social fabric will know the most important grievances to address and the risk indicators to look for when shaping a PVE intervention.
Consequentially, there is no single program that could prove to be effective in various contexts. Every situation requires an ad-hoc evaluation and a personalized strategy, even if national coordination can deliver rational organization of scarce resources.
We need to break the vicious circle of isolation, helplessness and alienation by helping individuals to create their own sense of family, understanding and belonging. Only by addressing the root causes leading to violence and extremism can we give every person the critical instruments he or she needs to deconstruct extremist narratives and ideology.
Moreover, programs should be long term and flexible, adaptable to societal and communal changes, and ready to counter new extremist messages and narratives. To achieve this, governments must provide prolonged financial support and it should be permanently linked to wider welfare and development strategies.
Finally, an empirical evaluation of PVE strategies and programs is not simply advisable, but absolutely necessary. Tailoring of interventions at the local level should be followed by an objective evaluation to prevent nonprofessional actors from benefitting from funding and resources that could have been used in more systematic approaches. Risk indicators should be solidly grounded in the real-world situation, so only experts with extensive practical experience can develop them. Furthermore, ex-post evaluation of strategies and programs should follow an empirical approach, employing the existing academic scales to compare individuals at risk with broader social samples and developing new and more detailed assessment tools, using shared terminology and acknowledged indicators.
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 M. Crowell, What went wrong with France’s deradicalization program?”, The Atlantic, September 28, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/09/france-jihad-deradicalization-macron/540699/.
 Leon Festinger, “Teoria della dissonanza cognitiva”, Franco Angeli Editore, 1973.
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