Over three days, from 8-10 October 2019, 180 leading researchers and academics specialists met at the Sixth International Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Research Conference, organized by Hedaya, the international excellence center for countering violent extremism, in collaboration with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Deakin University in Australia. Some 45 papers were discussed and various ideas were presented by leading experts in the field from around the world. The conference relied on the Chatham House rules, meaning that the content and ideas discussed can be disclosed but they cannot be attributed, in order to protect academic freedom.
The papers discussed at the conference were various. One major aim was to discover the most significant developments that directly or indirectly affect violent extremism, including advances in communications and communication technologies, which extremist groups use to recruit and direct their activities. The conference also aimed to discuss some country-specific case studies, as well as programs implemented by international organizations in relation to CVE.
The phenomenon of violent extremism is multifaceted and presents in various ideologies, so there is a continuous need for studies and research on emerging trends. Some of these were focused on at the conference, including: analyzing violent extremism, the various narratives offered by extremist groups, the hate speech they may use, the extremist and recruitment techniques used by violent extremist groups, the effectiveness of confrontation and preventive measures against them, and rehabilitation and reintegration programs for former extremists.
The conference took note of how these issues intersect with other issues, such as the role of gender in violent extremism, issues of empowerment of youth and women, and the role played by different forms of extremism in feeding each other.
The Conference attempted to respond to such continuing challenges.
While the details may not be wholly new, there were some new analytical angles and ideas expressed about several case studies and experiences that took place on the ground, which added value to the presentations made at this conference. Countries and regions such as Bangladesh, the West Balkans, and East Africa have emerged examples of areas affected by waves of violent extremism.
One crucial aspect for countries in Western Balkans, which include Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania, is the need for them to be studied based on local sources in their own language. Studying these examples depending in English or French will lead to huge gaps in knowledge.
Nigeria is a very complicated issue in this context: there is Boko Haram, there are ISIS fighters, and there are ISIS returnees. This situation raises many questions, especially as this country did not get the attention it deserves, even when women and children became pillars of extremism there. One of the papers discussed and reviewed the experience of rehabilitation programs in Nigeria, dealing with those who want to renounce extremism. It was found that women are strongly present in these programs, many of them former wives of ISIS fighters who have left conflict zones.
Switzerland is considered a unique case. Although it has not been hit by terrorism on its territory, Switzerland has taken some proactive steps and adopted an integrated strategy to counter violent extremism, which relies on cooperation between the various institutions in the country, and is supported by research from universities and think tanks. The government has helped those organizations by providing data and intelligence, allowing these researchers to come up with the best integrated, data-driven analysis of the problem.
The case of Thailand is also an important. Extremism in this society can be attributed primarily to the struggle over resources and their distribution between a Buddhist majority and a Muslim minority that has practiced violent extremism against Buddhist temples. The lack of just allocation of resources between Thai cities and the countryside helps create hotbeds of extremism.
Another theme that can be drawn from the conference is the idea of “Uniqueness”, meaning that every case has its own factors that the others do not share. This is a very important premise. Local thought about the problem of extremism is important and should not be overlooked, because the different contexts surrounding each phenomenon determine the most appropriate solutions (tolerated solutions). Even where common programs are adopted, their application will differ according to local circumstance.
One of the thorniest issues in counter-extremism is the funding of programs implemented in countries experiencing violent extremism by external institutions and organizations. By reviewing a number of cases, it was shown that some externally-funded programs suffer various challenges, including limited knowledge of the society in which they stage their intervention, which means their impact is weak. Another challenge is the sustainability of funding, as some programs may be short-lived and fail to achieve the desired results. The main recommendation in this regard is the need for external funding programs to reach local partners who can work to create local sources of funding. Some programs also face the problem of corruption in the communities they are trying to access, such as in Pakistan and some African countries, which means that much of the funds for rehabilitation programs are not spent on the intended target(s).
Social media appears to have been a safe haven for violent extremist groups. Even though it was first used by Islamic extremist groups, which relied on Telegram, white Right-wing extremists, in particular in the English-speaking countries, have benefited from the experience of the Islamists. Extremist content on social media and the Internet, including dark net and confidential networks, remains an important threat factor.
Some programs contribute to increasing the resilience of communities against extremism, terrorism, and violent extremism. Educational programs play an important role in this regard. Some experiences, such as Pakistan, show the important role that women can play in local awareness-raising efforts. The experience of a country such as Kyrgyzstan also shows the prominent role of women in a different group, the “preacher”, who has great influence in her society, and how advocates who have been involved in training programs to combat intellectual extremism have positively contributed to educating large segments of their communities and helping them reject extreme ideas.
The case of New Zealand is one of the important cases in the context of the resilience of communities facing serious trauma, namely the Christchurch mosque attack, the first attack of its kind in the country. Only two papers dealt with these issues there, yet the efficiency, flexibility, and competence of government and non-government institutions like the media allowed New Zealand to respond in a way that greatly reduced the negative effects of the incident. Indeed, the government was able to pass arms embargo legislation, set up a committee to look into the issue in depth, and criminalize hate speech with a week.
Ethical engagement on violent extremism issues might seem abstract but it bears directly on the day-to-day fight against violent extremism. This was brought out at the conference. The questions confronted: Does the ethics of scientific research in social sciences differ from those of violent extremism? Is there any additional system or ethical values required to work in this area? How should we act in dealing with communities that have been traumatized by terrorism? Is communication with a society targeted by terrorism ethical if every question risks bringing back painful memories? Does external funding affect research ethics in this area? Can it have a compressive effect in a particular direction? And is the researcher entitled to share private data obtained from extremists, for example with state agencies?
The need for conceptual control of the terminology used was also raised, because there remains some dissent on the meaning of basic concepts, such as “violent extremism” and a “terrorist act”.
The conference was very important and the topics raised required serious study. The experiences and approaches of the presenters shed light on all aspects of the phenomenon of violent extremism, providing a way forward to create more complete and sophisticated programs to address them.