How Governments Can Still Win the Ideological War

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

How Governments Can Still Win the Ideological War

Commentary
Posted on: 29th March 2021
Farah Pandith
Author of How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat

    The world has never had a shared, measurable strategy to counter violent extremism; now is the time for one. Governments have been outpaced and outmoded by the extremist threat. Two years after publishing How We Win and 20 years on from 9/11, Farah Pandith presents a way forward with a focus on effective multilateral cooperation and whole-of-society approaches.

    The Extremist Threat 20 Years on

    The Extremist Threat 20 Years on

    Twenty years on from the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 (9/11), the world faces a more dangerous reality, once unimaginable, because of unprecedented challenges and threats: foreign and domestic, visible and invisible. On a human level, 12 months of pandemic uncertainty, worry, isolation and death have left global citizens in a fragile state emotionally and physically. Internal realities of depression, anger and fear mirror external causes: Covid-19, economic despair and food shortages. On both geopolitical and community levels, global systems of standards, governance, alliances and cooperation have frayed. Democracy has been tested. Populism and nativism have gathered strength. Citizens have taken to the streets for justice over race, gender, sexual orientation, heritage and other issues. From Charlottesville, US, to Christchurch, New Zealand, the ideology of ‘us vs them’ has split communities and turned quiet hate into vocal hate.

    On an environmental level, the climate crisis is destroying the planet’s air, land and seas, making human sustainability complicated and dangerous. On a cultural level, while the world is connected like never before, social media has transformed the human experience. Connectivity is enabling movements of like-minded thinkers – some for good, some for evil – but disinformation is thriving and pulling people apart.

    All of this has created a complex set of realities. Each one alone – a pandemic, a climate crisis, a financial crisis – is a daunting policy load to bear. But as combined forces, they present a challenge no one country can manage alone. The solutions to all of these issues and more depend on interconnected, respectful and workable relationships and actions by nations, multilateral organisations, companies and individuals.

    Making contemporary challenges even worse is a virus of hate and extremist ideology that permeates too many societies in ways that cannot always be quantified. This virus affects the safety and security of nations and their communities, the way humans are treated – and, thus, their emotional well-being – and the cultural landscape that erodes any effort to achieve unity.

    The year 2021 offers an opportunity to recognise the impact of the overall threat in fresh and innovative ways and adapt the responses in a contemporary, global cultural context and security environment. There are no vaccinations to safeguard against susceptibility to radicalisation, no antibody tests to determine exposure to extremist ideology. As a result, analysts, planners and strategists only connect the dots on what they can see. This reality is not new. Two years on from the release of my book How We Win, many of my arguments remain valid. With the threat of violent extremism more serious than before and operating on many fronts, the need for better global cooperation and collaboration is as important as ever. Specifically, governments must understand that defeating the appeal of extremist ideology is essential to thwarting violence and devise a comprehensive strategy that reflects the integrated nature of the threat.

    A Review of Government Mindsets on the Terrorist Threat

    A Review of Government Mindsets on the Terrorist Threat

    The al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11 were diabolical in design and delivery. They were planned, financed and inconceivable. The world is still feeling their impact beyond the loss of nearly 3,000 lives from more than 90 countries. As a terrorist organisation, al-Qaeda was considered a global threat – and after 9/11, nations came together to confront it. Through military cooperation, tracking of financial assets and attention to the appeal of ideology, governments and citizens urgently tried to protect communities throughout the world. Some politicians used the attacks – and still do – to unleash a wide range of dangerous assumptions about Muslims and Islam, creating havoc and danger for communities of faith, minorities and entire regions of the world.

    Before 9/11, Western nations recognised that al-Qaeda posed a global threat, but it still came as a shock that the group could successfully hit a US target like the World Trade Center in 1993. The even larger magnitude of a 9/11-style attack was unimaginable. Moreover, the violence of such groups was often regionally focused. From a Western perspective, terrorists were ‘over there’, and few policy planners and terrorism watchers contemplated a future in which terrorism at home could be as dangerous as terrorism abroad. Even as terrorist attacks in the West were inspired by groups abroad, the main organisational structures remained overseas. And, for the most part, during the last 20 years, counterterrorism officials have focused on discrete regional groups that use Islam as a rallying force.

    That began to change with the emergence of ISIS, also known as the so-called Islamic State. With its videos designed for maximum impact, staged and professionally curated, ISIS was a different kind of terrorist organisation. It displayed its power differently. Its carefully produced beheading videos were made public; the group sold branded clothing, created its own flag, had memes and developed glossy magazines. ISIS took terrorism to a new level: it became a marketing force. The group was organised, efficient and youth-friendly. Citizens of more than 85 countries1 Les Picker, ‘Where are ISIS’s Foreign Fighters Coming From?’, National Bureau of Economic Research, Issue 6, June 2016, https://www.nber.org/digest/jun16/where-are-isiss-foreign-fighters-coming#:~:text=Many%20come%20to%20the%20Middle,Iraq%20and%20Syria%20(ISIS). left their home nations to join ISIS, making the fight against it global and frightening. ISIS inspired action not just in the Middle East but all over the world – from the US to Indonesia. The group still inspires violence today, and the appeal of its ideology has not diminished.

    In the years after 9/11, security policies against al-Qaeda, ISIS and other groups that recruited and operated in the name of Islam generally meant neutralising these groups as a threat through military action, financial disruption and intelligence gathering. Few resources went into the ideological war, despite vocal calls for policy coordination, leadership, personnel and funding from educators, community leaders, former extremists and grassroots organisations deploying innovative programmes on the front lines.

    As the global political landscape changed and new technological tools became easy to access, security threats metastasised in the last decade. Far-right groups like neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-government conspiracy adherents, many of them violent, were animated by their own grievances and searching for belonging. They, too, began to organise themselves differently, including in the ways they marketed themselves. Like ISIS, they saw the power of building a connected identity. By 2016, dangerous levels of threats were emerging in the US and Europe. Far from one-off events like the targeting of a synagogue, the rise of racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-Semitism – online and offline – was reaching a different level of intensity, and it was going mainstream. Technology has an authority of its own. The virtual world gave legitimacy and power to all kinds of ideologies.

    Violent far-right groups were learning from each other, organising and applying a new focused effort to achieve their goals. Western-made, bespoke violent extremists in America adopted tactics used by terrorist organisations overseas. Some such extremists, inspired by former US President Donald Trump, were mobilising in new ways, making 2019 the deadliest year for domestic violent extremism in the US since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. In early 2021 came the first siege of the US Capitol since the British attacked in 1814. A leaked draft of the US Department of Homeland Security’s threat assessment in 2020 stated that “we assess that white supremacist extremists – who increasingly are networking with like-minded persons abroad – will pose the most persistent and lethal threat”.2 Betsy Woodruff Swan, ‘DHS Draft Document: White Supremacists Are Greatest Terror Threat’, Politico, 4 September 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/09/04/white-supremacists-terror-threat-dhs-409236. Many American-made violent extremists present their communities, communication styles, interests and appearance like elements of a lifestyle brand. This is also true of groups like ISIS.

    Simplistic answers to why a malicious ideology thrives do not always reach the heart of the matter: the most critical component of the power of ideology is a sense of identity and belonging. Unfortunately, this often eludes many policymakers and analysts.

    There is a system underlying extremism that allows its ideologies to thrive. Until now, governments have largely ignored or missed this system. Simplistic answers to why a malicious ideology thrives do not always reach the heart of the matter: the most critical component of the power of ideology is a sense of identity and belonging. Unfortunately, this often eludes many policymakers and analysts.

    To eradicate the appeal of any extremist ideology, including those whose followers preach ‘us vs them’ narratives, governments have to dismantle the intellectual, technological, demographic, economic and cultural machinery that keeps it working. For example, for many Muslim youth seeking understanding about their religion, Saudi Arabia plays a vital role. The Saudi establishment define what they consider to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims, and over decades have used this dichotomy to promote a monolithic, puritanical Islam. The country’s global impact is a plank underlying the system (for an ideology that uses Islam to recruit). In the case of the violent far right and white supremacists who have taken hold of the US extremism landscape in recent years, a major plank underlying the system is disinformation. Ultimately governments have not been attentive to these planks and the entire system that allows extremist ideology to thrive and reshape our lives. By not adequately addressing the systems underlying extremism over the years, the architecture for hate and extremism has become even stronger.  This is one of the main reasons why governments have failed to win the ideological war.

    By not adequately addressing the systems underlying extremism over the years, the architecture for hate and extremism has become even stronger.

    What Is Coming: Money, Movements and 21st-Century Might

    What Is Coming: Money, Movements and 21st-Century Might

    The terrorist threats now facing humanity are more vast and connected than in the previous two decades. Extremists of all stripes are embracing new tactical and technological tools, making the future more dangerous for all. There are multiple simultaneous threats from larger movements that are known about and activated cells in unexpected locations that are harder to detect. This reality means that national security teams will need to track increased numbers of risk areas and demographics. Daily life will include new safety protocols, online and offline.

    The biggest global enemies of the last two decades – al-Qaeda and ISIS – as well as other groups that use Islam to recruit soldiers have not conceded defeat. Their narratives continue to inspire, recruit and radicalise. While the so-called caliphate is gone and ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been killed, the group remains a lethal threat. With purpose, energy, money and soldiers, ISIS is rebuilding and reorganising, further complicating the landscape. In addition, violent far-right groups have come together either to fulfil a shared purpose, like the US Capitol attackers, or to achieve their own pernicious goals, like the Detroit militia group intent on kidnapping and killing the governor of Michigan in 2020.

    The years to come are likely to bring an increase in violence from more groups with a wider diversity of participants, including radicalised women. Their impact is yet to be determined, but already, their power of conviction is daunting: think QAnon supporters elected to the US Congress and ISIS mothers and teachers. In addition, the full effect of physical isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic on children and teenagers will not be known for some time. Given how much time young people spend online, the way they feel about themselves and the degree of connectedness they feel to others are causes for concern. Moreover, as young people become increasingly dependent on the virtual community, there is a danger that their likelihood of exposure to extreme ideas and engagement with malevolent actors only increases. Indeed, violent far-right groups such as the Atomwaffen Division have publicly declared their focus on recruiting children as soldiers. Thus, recruitment from under-represented or understudied groups like women and Gen Alpha will be something to contend with in the future.

    It is high time to acknowledge that the concepts of belonging and identity are central to the reasons why someone begins the journey to an extreme ideology.

    The power of the next wave of terrorism will be measured by its multidimensional and hyperlocal threat capability. While the evolving shape of extremism will reflect a wider diversity of recruits, geography and policy aims, policymakers have to recognise that domestic and international terrorism can no longer be viewed through separate lenses. To do so is dangerous, as it leaves authorities stuck in bureaucratic silos that do not allow for seeing the whole picture. It is high time to acknowledge that the concepts of belonging and identity are central to the reasons why someone begins the journey to an extreme ideology. Aggrieved humans are seeking out an emotional balm and violence is too often viewed as a means to achieve it.

    No one has a crystal ball, but bad actors, whether foreign or domestic, have demonstrated their ability to think creatively, which strongly suggests the West could become a more frequent target of terrorist acts. For example, American-born conspiracy theories have taken a foothold in Europe and vice versa, as seen in the mind-melding and platform-sharing of neo-Nazi groups on both continents. With a fertile war front growing in the West, uncertainty and fear are inevitable. As evidenced by foreign fighters and hyperlocal attacks, the West has witnessed a growing acceptance among those with extreme views that violence is the only solution to all grievances and achieving their ideological aims.

    Online radicalisers are using video games and social media platforms to link their emotional responses, providing a basis for organising, funding and tactical planning. Often, the tactics used by different ideological groups are observably similar because they attract a similar demographic – the digital natives of millennials, Gen Z and Gen Alpha – because there is a shared understanding of what drives media attention. For example, both ISIS and right-wing terrorists like Brenton Tarrant have used livestreams to showcase violence, without which they would not have received the airtime on their terms. But extremists have also learned to tailor their attacks to fit the locale for a maximum emotional response, such as the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon. In addition, extremism has entered the era of deepfakes, which bend the truth by manipulating words or images to achieve a certain mindset. It is impossible to predict the impact that this tool will have on radicalisation and mobilisation to violence.

    Lessons From Experiences of Countering Violent Extremism

    Lessons From Experiences of Countering Violent Extremism

    The next generation of policy has to not only reflect on lessons learned from the last 20 years but also predict the new ideological, financial, technological and physical terrains of the terrorists’ world. Soft-power solutions – efforts that stop humans from finding the ideology of extremism appealing – are critical to defeating violent extremism, but only if they interrupt the mobilisation of large numbers of people.

    The biggest lesson from two decades of the ideological fight is recognising that nations have not collectively invested in rolling out a comprehensive global strategic effort. This has been a huge oversight. Governments have relied on the kinetic war to stop the most immediate threat. They also believed, wrongly, that violence in one part of the world would not spawn a threat at home. Ideology has no borders; the millennials, Gen Z and now Gen Alpha who would cause others harm are all digital natives with fluid peer-to-peer online networks.

    Killing the leader of an organisation is a huge political win and can denote some short-term success, but it does not get governments off the hook.

    Western governments also defined the war in a way that sent false expectations to the public. Killing the leader of an organisation is a huge political win and can denote some short-term success, but it does not get governments off the hook. Nor does it deter followers; terrorist groups fill their leadership vacuums.

    Defining acceptable goals – and deciding how much governments are willing to invest in achieving them – is hard. But whether it is ISIS adherents overseas or white supremacists in the West, nation-states must take a more enlightened approach to fighting the influences that make violence so attractive to so many groups.

    In developing this approach, policymakers can look to the US experience of countering violent extremism, which offers several instructive lessons.

    Violent Extremism Poses an Integrated Threat

    For too long, US policymakers and analysts have underestimated the complex, interconnected nature of the extremist threat. Some blamed 9/11 on the failure of  intelligence analysts to imagine a coordinated attack on the homeland. The US – and others – dismissed ISIS as lightweights, never imagining the group was capable of gaining land and building a working ‘government’ with taxes, schools and laws – awful as they may have been. Similarly, QAnon was dismissed as a source of crazy conspiracy theories with an implausible ideological appeal. Yet, adherents of the movement now serve in the US House of Representatives.

    Violent extremists are watching and learning from each other and building their movements accordingly. They have adapted the ways they raise money, use branding through clothes (the shoes of choice for Taliban leaders are white high-top trainers3 Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Fahim Abed, ‘In Afghanistan, Follow the White High-Tops and You’ll Find the Taliban’, New York Times, 28 January 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/28/world/asia/taliban-sneakers-cheetahs.html.), flags, symbols and weapons, and harness technology for maximum impact. Extremists have also figured out the best ways and the value of promoting their actions through media reporting.                    

    In a demonstration that the extremist threat extends to the manipulation of values, terrorists at home and abroad have used Americans’ freedoms – free speech, loose gun laws and easily accessible media – against them. And the ubiquitous nature of the problem is highlighted by the fact that radicalisation in America’s prisons, police forces and military has increased without proper attention or action. That must not continue.

    By failing to acknowledge the integrated nature of extremism, US policymakers have been slow to deal with hard questions like: Are laws in America fit for purpose in the new threat landscape? Does the US Congress need to rethink definitions of domestic terrorism and the criminal codes that might apply? Governments across the world would do well to ask similar searching questions of their own legislative frameworks.

    Many Assumptions and Predictions Have Been Flawed

    In the fight against violent extremism, governments have made many faulty assumptions about the nature of the threat. Policymakers assumed that nonstate actors are disorganised, but they are coordinated. This was said of the Taliban, ISIS and, most recently, the vast array of costumed characters who attacked the US Capitol in January 2021.

    Cultural biases have made societies less safe. Western governments believed that Muslims were uniquely capable of radicalising to violence in vast movements, even though the data indicated the increased threat from violent white supremacy was growing and dangerous. At the same time, many in the West incorrectly assumed that Muslim-majority states would have sway over their Muslim youth.

    With the benefit of hindsight many predictions were wrong too. Policymakers may have missed things because they were not seeing cultural cues: how human societies were changing in terms of emotion, feelings of belonging, identity and community. It was assumed that ‘this kind of Muslim’ from ‘that part of the world’ was the threat. Policy planners did not think broadly about global appeal and impact. Many in the US believed the country’s military prowess could win quickly and easily. In doing so, they missed the power of a nascent group – ISIS – and then did not plan for its reach or sustainability.

    A Multifaceted Global Response Is Lacking

    Despite the magnitude of the threat, there is still no coordinated, systematic global effort to fight violent extremism. A good parallel is Covid-19. If all countries are not working together to reduce the spread of the virus, it will remain active and dangerous for everyone. It is not enough that the World Health Organisation tells people what should be done; someone has to oversee the global response and the trickle-down local response. Accountability is key.

    Despite the magnitude of the threat, there is still no coordinated, systematic global effort to fight violent extremism.

    When it comes to violent extremism, analysts need to examine the relevant intelligence, but they must connect the dots on what is happening in one part of the world to what is going on in another. No longer can policies isolate regions; this approach will miss the larger trends. That is how analysts missed rising recruitment levels in Trinidad and Tobago and the Maldives; some of the highest numbers of ISIS foreign fighters came from these two nations.4 Richard Florida, ‘The Geography of Foreign ISIS Fighters’, Bloomberg, 10 August 2016, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-08-10/the-geography-of-foreign-isis-fighters.

    In pursuing a multidimensional approach, policymakers must always be aware of unintended consequences. While focusing efforts on one particular type of threat, they may exacerbate others. Most obviously, while US minds were concentrated on extremists that manipulated Islam to recruit, white supremacist movements of all kinds were not being taken seriously.

    What is more, going after violent extremists is more complicated than it appears, including in terms of its impact on citizens. For some groups, they felt they were being targeted by the police due to either their race or religion and many felt that their rights were violated. Too many felt like they were systemically ostracised leading to discrimination and hate crimes. In attempts to build community relations, the US government overpromised and underdelivered, which undermined public trust.

    Soft Power Is a Critical Tool

    The US experience of countering violent extremism has shown that sharper, smarter discussions are needed about which department or agency is responsible for what. Policymakers wasted years discussing the organisational structure of the ideological war and who was in charge of it. Still today, there is no one person, department or agency in charge of the ideological fight.

    The US legislative and executive branches did not succeed in organising a properly scaled programme of soft power. Initiatives to counter violent extremism were ad hoc, small, asymmetric and often shaped by politics. Efforts among countries already active in this area were not thoughtfully coordinated among like-minded partners, and information sharing was slow and cautious.

    Governments are not winning today in the fight against violent extremism because they rely more heavily on military solutions than on soft power. Policymakers were locked into their thinking of what success looked like – and built a response accordingly. They had no example of a contemporary ideological battle plan to follow and failed to create one based on the demographics of potential recruits. 

    Grassroots Initiatives Outside the Government Need Greater Support

    Finally, ignoring the system that underlies extremism has allowed the ideology to flourish. Solutions have been primarily top down, but answers in the ideological domain must come from the bottom up. Local solutions from civil society are insightful, credible and trusted by communities.

    Solutions have been primarily top down, but answers in the ideological domain must come from the bottom up.

    In the US, though tiny grants were allocated sporadically, it was controversial to provide even minimal support to grassroots efforts to stop radicalisation. Policymakers did not give nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) adequate financial support – or their staff the physical protection – to allow them to do what they know best. As a result, the government asked them to punch above their weight, working from grant to grant, often spending valuable time on fundraising and competing with like-minded NGOs for funds. The same is true of support from private-sector grants. Backing nongovernmental initiatives was done on the cheap, and it shows. Governments alone cannot fight malevolent ideology; they need implementers on the ground, and they need to give NGOs what they need.

    The US approach to countering violent extremism did not appropriately attend to technological issues. The government gave social media companies huge leeway, including on arguments about the freedom of speech, and allowed algorithms to move people into rabbit holes of extremism. Policymakers kicked the ball down the field, not taking into account the impact of social media platforms on giant segments of humanity. The spread of online disinformation – alongside the ability of extremists to organise, raise money and radicalise online – was a powerful tool. The legislative and executive branches were slow to see the impact of lies, conspiracy theories and viral videos on human behaviour. It was a colossal error for the government to stay on the sidelines.

    Authentic, credible peers matter. The government missed the cultural indicators of belonging and identity; and it did not organise a global effort to use the power of influencers like athletes, musicians and former extremists, online and offline, to interrupt the appeal of violent ideologies through alternative narratives, first-hand accounts or socialisation to different peer groups.

    With this array of lessons in mind, policymakers can turn their attention to the task of updating security policies to make them fit for purpose in the 21st-century extremist landscape.

    How Can Governments Update Security Policy?

    How Can Governments Update Security Policy?

    To start with, national security policymakers must understand that defeating the appeal of extremist ideology is essential to thwarting violent acts. Stopping violent extremism across the world is impossible. But winning means drastically reducing the number of recruits and thus depriving terrorist armies of soldiers with whom to fight.

    To bring about sustainable change, a political willingness to alter existing strategies needs to evolve. This is not going to be easy, and it will mean upending traditional systems of organisation. However, it is vital because no one country has all the resources required including the financial capacity or bandwidth to deliver the necessary research, CVE initiatives and programmes at scale.

    Radically changing the way nations work together is essential to see the fluid appeal of ideology across borders. Governments must change the way they work together on countering violent extremism so that they mirror what they do militarily by sharing skills, absorbing costs and creating a coordinated plan of action. While there has been joined-up cooperation for physical war, the same is not true for ideological war.

    Radically changing the way nations work together is essential to see the fluid appeal of ideology across borders.

    Going forward, governments must be comfortable talking about the reasons why people join violent movements and terrorist organisations. Many in the West have been lazy in addressing issues of hate and have too often looked the other way. It was easy for governments to point to the violence wrought by al-Qaeda and ISIS, but as white supremacists and militias in America and Europe have gained power, governments have not given them the attention they demand.

    Governments therefore need to talk about violent extremism consistently and call it out regardless of what skin colour or political persuasion the extremists have. And governments must be held accountable by their own citizens and other governments; either they are going to deal with this threat or they will let it work itself out. Targeted military actions alone, as Western governments have launched for 20 years, will not be enough to protect communities from violent extremism.

    Governments should take three immediate measures to revamp their efforts to counter violent extremism: build a policy consensus, adopt new approaches to policymaking and embrace a coordinating role in support of nongovernmental initiatives.

    A shift in strategy demands new thinking, which in turn requires a new visualisation and collective action. To that end, governments should take three immediate measures to revamp their efforts to counter violent extremism: build a policy consensus, adopt new approaches to policymaking and embrace a coordinating role in support of nongovernmental initiatives.

    Build a Policy Consensus

    Governments should set aside past approaches and integrate lessons learned about the complex nature of extremism. They should prepare for a new threat landscape that includes dangerous, violent extremism in Western nations, other 9/11-era terrorist organisations like ISIS and widespread ideologies based on purity, such as white supremacy, and on religious discipline. Whether you define CVE broadly or narrowly, the discipline focuses on strengthening the fabrics of local communities to resist extremist ideas and exposing youth to alternative ideas about identity and belonging, and putting a social, mental and cultural system in place to support these efforts. Connecting each of these elements towards a common goal beyond stopping violence is essential.

    Governments also need a refreshed and inspired alliance. Bringing partners together in this way is important and necessary because the ideological dimension of the counterterrorism effort is still on the sidelines – it does not get enough of a front row seat. While existing security-focused multilateral efforts have helped reshape the approach to traditional counterterrorism, there has been limited success in the broad coordination of the ideological landscape. Therefore, soft power efforts to date have not been sufficient.

    While existing security-focused multilateral efforts have helped reshape the approach to traditional counterterrorism, there has been limited success in the broad coordination of the ideological landscape.

    What current alliances do is focus primarily on hard power – diplomacy is applied through the lens of counterterrorism which ultimately means coordinating missions, joint training and sharing intelligence. While at present CVE is nested within the overall counterterrorism effort, alliances have not fully utilised all the different tools available to enhance effective cooperation. A combined common approach can get answers, help coordinate and scale shared efforts. Not all countries have to take on the same responsibilities. We need to look at a new kind of agreement – one similar in style to the Paris Agreement on climate. 

    Since the release of How We Win, American mayors, congressmen and others have been shaken by what seems so straightforward – a scaled full range approach to stopping radicalisation and recruitment. A chorus of “why haven't we done more” is frequent yet there is no bipartisan refrain to build a soft power machine to address the system underlying extremism. I have been asked what it will take for local, state, national and international leaders to come together to create common metrics and goals. 

    A ministerial on combating violent extremism could work towards this objective. To underscore the global nature of the extremist threat, the meeting should be cohosted by the United States and five other nations representing Europe, South America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

    The purpose of the CVE ministerial would be to consolidate a novel, shared global strategy on countering violent extremism. That strategy would represent a vast change in government attitudes and would apply the careful, strategic and systematic precision of a physical war to the ideological domain. By retraining personnel, hiring new kinds of professionals and defining common goals, the machinery of countering violent extremism can refresh current approaches online and offline. Governments have never had a truly global strategy to counter violent extremism; now is the time for one.

    Adopt New Approaches to Policymaking

    I mention earlier that by addressing the types of grievances extremists look to exploit and forging key alliances with local actors on the ground, used properly soft power can be a valuable tool in disrupting the spread of extremism. As I outline in my book How We Win,5 Farah Pandith, How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2019), 396–400. like others involved in the post 9/11 foreign policy space I had become accustomed to using hard and soft power as dichotomic labels to define strategies and tactics designed to counter terrorism. However, by 2005–06 when I was serving on the National Security Council and extremism was continuing to spread, I began to realise that the prevailing ways that government officials were thinking about hard and soft power weren’t adequate to the particular challenges posed by extremist ideology. Washington was (and is) built around hard power; at the time I could see the impact this was having on our soft power efforts. That is, from the way soft power was being applied, I could not see us building the necessary infrastructure including relationships with local actors on the ground to support our fight against extremist ideology. It is at that point I arrived at the concept of open power.6 Ibid.

    When I was serving on the National Security Council and extremism was continuing to spread, I realised that the prevailing ways government officials were thinking about hard and soft power weren’t adequate to the challenges posed by extremist ideology.

    A derivative of traditional soft power, open power is a more flexible, peer-to-peer, experimental and entrepreneurial approach to policymaking, one that is designed to transform and improve government by rendering it more progressive, dynamic and responsive to today's challenges. It would allow policymakers to abandon siloed thinking and create multidimensional approaches through ideas and solutions from the community. Because open power is open-ended, it keeps changing and moving as global issues evolve. It is based not on power over others but on power with others.7 Ibid.  As governments seek to build a policy consensus, open power represents exactly the type of fresh thinking of which governments should be taking advantage.

    A derivative of traditional soft power, open power is a more flexible, peer-to-peer, experimental and entrepreneurial approach to policymaking.

    Likewise, policymakers must use novel thinking from culturally aware, diversely trained, multilingual professionals from fields that include communications, science, marketing, human development, psychology, anthropology and advertising, among others.

    At the same time, governments should evaluate existing toolkits and increase the numbers of planners, strategists, practitioners and researchers involved in understanding the nuanced dimensions of the system underlying extremism, such as gender differences and the adolescent identity experience. As another example, ‘cultural listening’ remains an under-utilised tool, which by tracking the cultural and demographic trends in communities worldwide would allow governments to better understand, forecast and focus on the potential drivers of the threat. Doing so would achieve a comprehensive and detailed review of the threat landscape and allow governments to finally get ahead of the ideological dimension of extremism.

    Embrace a Coordinating Role in Support of Nongovernmental Initiatives

    Governments still have a part to play, but it needs to change. They should act as conveners, facilitators and intellectual partners, but the work of inoculating communities should move to the local level. That will create holistic and organic solutions, in their full complexity. There should be no more rigid top-down control.

    To complement this new convening role, policymakers should champion two specific initiatives outside government: a business-led forum and a philanthropic call to action.

    Business leaders – and not just those from the technology sector – need to take the initiative and pioneer collective action on countering violent extremism. Global businesses committed to creating diverse and equitable communities are likely companies that can take the step to work on issues of respect, inclusion and belonging.

    Business leaders – and not just those from the technology sector – need to take the initiative and pioneer collective action on countering violent extremism.

    Business action for purpose is not new: it has been building for the last decades, gaining even more momentum since the murder of Black American George Floyd in May 2020. Now, more than ever, public standards and transparency, as well as measurable action, have become essential for customers – especially millennials and Gen Z.

    But businesses need to do more. It is time to mobilise the corporate sector into collaborative action. Developing a global set of standards and actions is one way to hold businesses accountable for helping humanity combat the extremist threat.

    Similar to the business-led forum, philanthropies – especially those that promote cohesion and belonging – should create a common plan of action to invest in NGOs that are doing frontline ideological work at the community level. This would allow NGOs to scale what works and remove themselves from daily fundraising to concentrate their efforts on education and training programmes to intercept extremism in their midst.

    After the January 2021 attack on the US Capitol, 400 philanthropies came together to call out political violence.8 ‘Philanthropies Condemn Political Violence, Call on Leaders to Protect Democracy and Get Back to the People’s Business’, Democracy Letter (blog), 8 January 2021, https://democracyletter.medium.com/philanthropies-condemn-political-violence-call-on-leaders-to-protect-democracy-and-get-back-to-242aaf86f253. Similar collaborations can support the work needed to make communities more resilient to violent extremist ideology.

    Do Governments Have What It Takes?

    Do Governments Have What It Takes?

    It is easy to imagine a future in which the splintering of groups into a vast array of dangerous violent actions across the globe will change the human experience. In America, for the first time ever, the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning about the threat of “domestic terrorists” rallying in the wake of the US Capitol attack. The violent far right was “never really made to look dangerous” – and this in itself is dangerous.9 Laura Smith, ‘Lone Wolves Connected Online: A History of Modern White Supremacy’, New York Times, 26 January 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/26/us/louis-beam-white-supremacy-internet.html. Missing the connectedness of ‘us vs them’ ideologies is a tremendous setback. Because “the evolution of the American far right is similar to that of other such movements, both in the past and elsewhere in the world”, as Laura Smith wrote in the New York Times in January 2021, governments can no longer afford to delay radical changes to their approaches.10 Ibid.

    While governments are struggling with multiple unprecedented worries – the pandemic, the economy and more – violent extremism at home and abroad is ballooning in strength. Puncturing this power is possible with the lessons of 20 years of trial and error, vast amounts of research about how humans are radicalised and an understanding of the pernicious impact of social media platforms. Solutions are available right now. If governments apply what they know at scale, as they would wage a traditional war, they can disrupt the spread of violent extremist ideology.

    A global effort – connected, coordinated and valued – is required. The question is: are governments committed to doing what is necessary to win?

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