Countering Violent Extremism: One-Size-Fits-None

So how can feminism contribute to countering violent Extremism?

In a number of recent Catalystas projects alongside various clients, we have examined the nuances of the stages of radical recruitment and the roles of gender in particular, dividing approaches to countering violent extremism to meet vulnerable, at-risk, and radicalized parties where we believe they would be most receptive. In diving into the process of radicalization, we have investigated root causes, analyzed various organizational tactics, studied existing approaches, developed a project designed to address these differences and distinct stages in order to more effectively support international CVE efforts, and continue to support our clients across these efforts and more. Now we’re doubling down on these efforts and developing a new Catalystas CVE approach.

Despite being one of the most dangerous threats in today’s world, there remains no single, universally accepted definition of terrorism. At Catalystas, we define an act of violence as terrorism if it fills the following criteria:

    • The objective of creating widespread fear, panic, death, or destruction;
    • The use or threat of violence with political or ideological motivation; and/or
    • Targeted, symbolic destructive actions, often including civilian casualties.

However, the concept of terrorism itself remains a monolith, often conflating every act involving a non-state actor striking fear into the hearts of the general public. Often, the categories of terrorism, extremism, violent extremism, insurgency, and radical groups are used interchangeably, in general for any instance of non-state actors working against existing powers, but occasionally for states as well.

With no universal definition, it seems a herculean task to define the actors and organizations committing ‘terrorist activities’ with one broad stroke. However, this is often what occurs, with governments, in particular, demonstrating a tendency to lump both activities and actors associated with terrorism altogether. This generally results in the creation of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ umbrella approach to combatting these threats. Usually rooted in a military perspective, these approaches often miss out on nuanced differences across evolving stages of radicalization and recruitment, motivation and root causes, and ideal tactics for countering – and reversing – the effects of extremist messaging.
In order to effectively combat the umbrella of terrorism, these nuances must not only be understood but addressed separately through countering methodologies. Radicalization is not an instant process; on the contrary, those vulnerable to radical messaging are often recruited very slowly, through a process of normalization of extreme ideologies combined with the development of friendships or feelings of inclusion and family amongst other members of extremist organizations. This cultivation of community and comfort is often a crucial stage in ensuring loyalty, even more so than embedding ideological ideas in the minds of budding recruits. When these processes of radicalization are addressed in CVE approaches, often CVE programs jump immediately to deradicalization as an all-encompassing term applied to prevention, protection, de-escalation, and retaliation.

Syrian Freedom Fighters

Freedom fighter or terrorists? North Syria 2019

However, radicalization is a term for an entire process: the shifting of the mindset of an individual in a complex and nonlinear progression which alters significantly one’s world view, perception of external events, and internal understanding. As such, this progression can be broken down into a series of stages in which individuals experience and express different thought patterns, behaviours, and tendencies towards violent actions. Therefore, deradicalization must also be a process with stages that correspond to the steps of radicalization. This understanding can be applied to any extremist ideology, from ISIS or Al Qaeda to the KKK, IRA, or Baader-Meinhof Group (a.k.a. Red Army Faction).

As elaborated upon by Dr. Lindsay Cluttlebuck, one such method of differentiating the process of radicalization in order to identify appropriate countermeasures splits the progression into three categories of CVE approaches along a spectrum, namely: 
1. Anti-radicalization, which addresses the earliest stage, in which people are vulnerable to extremist ideologies but have not yet begun to join radical groups or use violent extremist tactics;

2. Counter-radicalization, the second stage, which targets vulnerable individuals who have been exposed to extremist ideologies and have begun to join these groups, but have not yet turned to violence, with the hope of preventing violence and inspiring a return to regular society; and

3. Deradicalization, addressing the final stage of radicalization, in which the goal is the cessation of violence being carried out by members who have already committed to extremist ideologies and are already using violent strategies.

Catalystas Graphic CVE

The ideal stage to reverse the machinations of extremist organizations is anti-radicalization, when preventative measures are still possible and individuals can be brought back from the brink of a mentality shift. However, signs of radicalization do not always present themselves immediately, and CVE measures must take into account the sliding scale nature of this spectrum. The lines between stages are often blurred, and therefore a combination of approaches will often be necessary. In determining the best approach(es), using such a spectrum of differentiation can enable perspectives or measures that may otherwise be seen as too soft, too multi-faceted, or too flexible.

Informed by this multi-step understanding of radicalization, approaches to CVE should encompass a multipronged, holistic methodology that takes into account the interconnectivity of the social, political, and economic spheres of life. Alongside these sectors, additional factors such as history, gender roles, religious and cultural influences, digital space, and education must all be taken into consideration in the creation of effective and sustainable CVE measures. Traditional CVE approaches often fail to consider seemingly external factors which influence the development of key vulnerabilities or susceptibilities to extremist ideologies. For example, the role of mothers who have lost loved ones to drone attacks by Western countries in imparting implicit biases to young children; or the need for emotional support and friendship for young adults who face challenges in social, professional, or academic settings and resent those who have rejected them and the role of online forums which prey on these resentments and exploit feelings of entitlement and loneliness.

War Zones and None State Actors

Women in particular have key influencing power when it comes to radicalization. Though often overlooked as innocent victims or survivors with no will of their own, women have taken on important roles across the spectrum of radicalization throughout history. From mothers or teachers who nurture radical ideas in the minds of their children or students, to female extremist organization members who actively support recruitment efforts by reaching out to communities of vulnerable young men and women, to female terrorists who actually take part in committing acts of violent extremism; women are not always bystanders or victims. When not active participants, women may also play a role – willingly or unwillingly – as legitimizers or justification in the face of violent extremism, as is often seen in the case of young men who blame romantic rejection for causing them to turn to radical groups and behaviors. 

Using this breakdown of the radicalization process alongside an exploration of the role of women in extremism, gendered approaches to recruitment and retention, micro and macrocosms of toxic masculinity and femininity, and communicative echo chambers, governments, NGOs, UN agencies, and other international and local organizations can begin to create a tiered approach to CVE that focuses on root causes and alterable vulnerabilities, rather than addressing symptoms and end results after the fact. While there should be no one-size-fits-all approach to terrorism, through better understanding the progression that ultimately violent extremists go through, new approaches can be developed for every level of radicalization, with the aim of resolving the root causes that fuel extremist transitions and supporting at-risk and vulnerable populations before they turn to community-based violence as a last resort.

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