The major focus of the policy against extremism ought to be on structural causes like lack of religious tolerance, government failures and political, economic, and social marginalisation
By Farooq Yousaf
Counter-terror and military operations have remained a major part of Pakistan’s security policy since 2004. Yet, even with such a heavy-handed focus on security, Pakistan still lacks a comprehensive policy on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE); with only a generic National Action Plan (with 20 broad points) as the only referred document on such matters.
Even though the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), under its Directorate of Countering Violent Extremism, has formulated a National Counter Extremism Policy (NECP), very little information is available on it for the general public. Ironically, NACTA’s national international security policy (NISP) only gives a passing reference to violent extremism a couple of time in its 94 page document, along with a clichéd overemphasis on madaris as a source of radicalisation and terror recruitment.
Countering Violent Extremism — also referred to as Preventing Violent Extremism — has remained a major topic of focus among policy makers since the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks in USA and the UK respectively. It was in 2015 that the concept took the centre-stage in global counter-terror policymaking with a three day conference in the White House, chaired by President Obama and attended by ministers from almost 70 countries, followed by a side-line session at the United Nations General Assembly. This also led to a major CVE policy announced by the Obama administration focusing on early signs and intervention of extremism.
One of the major focuses of any CVE is its focus on structural causes of extremism such as lack of religious tolerance, government/administrative failure, and political, economic, and social marginalisation. By focusing on such factors, policy makers aimed at prevention and early intervention in conjunction with traditional measures. CVE, thus, helps prevent potentially extremist individuals from a crossing a line and becoming terrorists.
Since its inception and focus, most governments in the West — even with a lower security threat compared to Pakistan — have taken major initiatives towards CVE. The Australian government has spent over $50 million on various CVE initiatives that were aimed at focusing on various aspects of radicalisation that made the youth vulnerable to violent extremism, along with promoting social cohesion.
The United Kingdom, following the 7/7 London attacks, also introduced the much debated and infamous PREVENT (Preventing Violent Extremism programme) model. The programme, with more than 40 million GBP of annual allocation is a part of Britain’s four pronged CONTEST counter terror strategy. Even though the British government initially had high hopes from the programme, PREVENT’s major loophole was the stigmatising of the Muslim community making wary of the home ministry and the British government, thus leading to certain failures in the policy’s implementation.
It is also worth noting that dynamics of extremism/counter-extremism have changed in the past few years. We have come a long way from the times of signature operations/policies — where a certain attire and look was attributed to a militant or an extremist (such as beards and turbans). Ideologies are not expressed through physical attributes anymore. Profiles of a number of terrorists — including recent London attacker holding a Business diploma, terrorist involved in 7/7 attacks having formal education, and a Pakistani terror suspect studying at an elite business school in Karachi — suggests that modern education institutes have also presented with a new dilemma for policy makers. Such complications have also resulted in the need for redefining the area of CVE and creating policies based on specificity and contextual analyses.
These complications, thus, warrant a number of considerations and recommendations;
Fighting thoughts is a bigger challenge than fighting actions. Filtering and surveillance of social media activity can though be a good measure, it still presents limitations. It can sometimes take a short video or a propaganda documentary, a ‘western invasion on Muslim countries’ video on YouTube, or a completely rational talk criticising western interventions, to radicalise someone. Therefore, any policy made should be enforced beyond the stereotyped notion of the ‘threat only coming from devout Muslims’.
The government should also ensure that policymaking circles are diverse, without stressing on inclusion on experts from a certain class/profession of intelligentsia. It goes without saying that academics can contribute towards formulating effective frameworks, yet lack of inclusion of practitioners on ground and community leaders would always undermine an effective policy.
Also, there is a major difference between a terrorist and a radical. A terrorist is already radicalised and thus resorts to using violence, whereas a radical might only be ‘thinking’ of using violence in the future. Policies should be targeted towards preventing (or converting) radicals, and educate them on integration, rule of law and peaceful way of life.
In terms of financial resources, there is a huge disparity between fund allocation for traditional counter-terror and security initiatives and CVE initiatives. Formulation of effective security policies could only be achieved if this gap is bridged and CVE is taken as seriously as traditional security measures.
Finally, the current socio-political climate in the country, coupled with rise of ultra-right groups (such as Milli Muslim League and Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan) in the political mainstreams, an effective CVE policy, its implementation and exposure to the general public requires urgent attention.
The writer is a PhD (Politics) Candidate studying at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. He also consults Islamabad based Center for Research and Security Studies. He tweets @faruqyusaf