Countering Violent Extremism by Engaging Women

Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Rodi Said/Reuters

In many countries, women are well-positioned to detect early signs of radicalization because their rights and physical integrity are often the first targets of extremists. In addition, they are well-placed to challenge extremist narratives in homes, schools, and communities. This session will address strategies to counter violent extremism by capitalizing on the contributions of women.


John R. Allen, General, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.); Codirector, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, Brookings Institution

Jayne Huckerby, Clinical Professor of Law and Director, International Human Rights Clinic, Duke University School of Law

Adnan Kifayat, Head, Global Security Ventures, Gen Next Foundation; Co-Chair, U.S. Homeland Security Advisory Committee's Countering Violent Extremism Subcommittee; Former Director, U.S. Global Strategic Engagement Center


Jessica E. Stern, Research Professor, Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University

This symposium will convene experts on international security and U.S. foreign policy for an analysis of women's contributions to conflict prevention and resolution, including a focus on the global security threats posed by fragile states, violent extremism, and the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war and of terror.

STERN: It’s great to see you all here. I am really impressed by the enormous interest in this topic. We have here today General John Allen, who was a four-star general in the U.S. Marine Corps, now retired. He’s now the co-director of the Center for 21st Century Security Intelligence at Brookings. We have right next to me Adnan Kifayat. He’s the head of Global Security Ventures at Gen Next Foundation, and the co-chair of the U.S. Homeland Security Advisory Committee’s Countering Violent Extremism Subcommittee, and the former director of the U.S. Global Strategic Engagement Center. And finally, we have Jayne Huckerby, a professor—clinical professor of law and the director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Duke University School of Law.

Welcome to the third session of today’s Council on Foreign Relations Symposium on Women’s Participation in Conflict Prevention and Resolution. This session is titled: “Countering Violent Extremism by Engaging Women.” I need to let you know this session is on-the record. Everybody speaking should remember they’re on the record and everybody asking questions or commenting should remember the same.

Adnan, I’d like to start with you, if I could. In the last week, we’ve seen two big studies about the involvement of women as perpetrators in one manner or another, supporters or actually violent or travelers in the production of violent extremism. Can you tell us what you know about that?

KIFAYAT: Sure. Thank you, Jessica. And thank you, everyone, for your interest in this—in this important issue. We have seen a number of studies that have come out not just in the last couple of weeks but over the last year on this topic, and the reason is—

STERN: Well, over the last many years but—

KIFAYAT: And the reason—absolutely. And the reason is that the enemy, broadly speaking, has evolved in its recruitment and radicalization tactics, as well as its target audience. So what they’re doing is broadening the aperture for who they would like to attract to their worldview, and in this—in the case that I’m most familiar with, ISIS, to ISIS land. And so what we’re seeing is a very targeted effort, online and offline, to attract women in particular—not in the numbers yet that we have seen with men—but also younger women and also women with different backgrounds. And so this is actually part of the strategy that ISIS is utilizing in their recruitment. I think the reason we’re seeing these studies is people in our—in this space are waking up to it, quite frankly. You know, as the enemy has evolved, I think we have been a bit slow to evolve in the same way, but we are now starting to understand that it’s not just 40-year-old Muslim men of Arab descent who are the target audience. It is much broader. And it’s not just Muslims. It’s Christians. It’s not just men, obviously. It’s women. And there are different reasons for that I think we’ll get into a little bit later. But absolutely. This is a trend that is—that ISIS has gotten onto quite effectively.

STERN: General Allen, I know you’ve become quite interested in how empowering women can actually play a role in reducing the likelihood of conflict or ending conflict.

ALLEN: Well, Jessica, thanks very much for chairing this panel and to be—it’s wonderful for me to be on the stage with Jayne and Adnan as well. And I really want to thank Council on Foreign Relations for having this session today, this symposium. You know, as we transition from this administration to the next administration, I think we need to be very, very loud voices expressed in many fora on issues associated with women. And we need to be heard. We need to be loud on this subject, and we need to be unambiguous for the next administration. So I want to congratulate CFR for having put this thing together.

Empowering women is an extraordinarily important role not just obviously in this country, but as a commander who spent a lot of time overseas in a number of different places, helping the populations either in conflict-ridden environments or in developing societies to empower women. And I would respectfully like to suggest a change to the title, or at least to consider a change to the title for this panel in particular, because when you’re countering violent extremism, often it’s—you’re too late. And so I think that there is an extraordinarily important role for women in the worlds in which we’re going to be involved in the years to come whereby empowering them, we can make them a force to reduce the reality of radicalization, because it is radicalization that creates an unending reservoir of candidates who can then be beguiled and enticed into violent extremist organizations. And we do that—as a commander we did it in Afghanistan, and we did to a lesser extent in Iraq but we still did it, but supporting civil society. I can remember after a meeting one day the attorney general—the Afghan attorney general said to me, “I don’t understand and I don’t recall us asking ISAF to help us on women’s issues.” I said, “Well, I believe it’s part of my mission because if women are thoroughly engaged in the mainstream of Afghanistan, it has the effect of reducing the capacity of the Taliban ultimately to attack you and your home.”

We did a lot. For those of you who are out of development communities, you know that just about the best dollar spent in development is a dollar spent on education. So we did what we could to try to get as many young women into education as we possibly could, to mobilize as many female teachers as we could. But we also tried to monitor—and this is key, I think—monitor the downstream output, because it’s not just enough ultimately to arrange for the women of a society to be educated. If you’re going to be a participant in how that society’s going to emerge, you have to be on the downstream and to ensure that as women come out of the educational process, they’ve got a future. So we also carved out of money as best we could for microgrants and microloans specifically targeted to women and women owned businesses. And I think for those of you who’ve done this for a while, one of the things that you know is that the very best return on the repayment of microloans and the very best return on microgrants, in terms of accomplishment, have been those that have been given to women. So empowering civil society, giving them a voice, and providing them funding and support, and sometimes physically providing them security, ensuring that education has—is accessible to both genders, ensuring that we have a reservoir of teachers who can stand in front of the classes and speak and teach credibly, ultimately to ensure the downstream product has a place in society, and then finally, providing all that we can to empower the entrepreneurial instincts and talents of women in developing societies, because that’s how they can emerge as forces in societies, by being able to compete in that regard. And I can come back to more of that in a little bit.

STERN: Thank you.

Professor Huckerby, I know these are all topics that you know quite a bit about, but I’m really interested to hear what you know about the role of women in countering violent extremism, not just the production.

HUCKERBY: Thank you, Jessica. And to really echo, I would also propose a title change, you know, for the panel to really reflect that countering violent extremism is not just by engaging women. It’s not adding women and stirring, you know, and coming up with a different result in how we think about change in our communities. It’s mainstreaming gender, human rights, and engaging women. And that looks like a number of different things. Number one, we talked at the very beginning about looking at—thinking about women’s role as perpetrators. Number two, it involves looking at how to actually support the existing work women are doing in their communities in countering violent extremism. Women are already on the frontlines of countering all forms of violence in their communities, whether that be through negotiating ceasefires with prescribed groups, working with victims, and so forth. A much more difficult question is really how we can be supportive of those particular efforts in ways in which don’t instrumentalize, don’t securitize, don’t endanger those women actors. So, you know, when we think about the question of engaging women and mainstreaming gender, it’s recognizing actually are already engaged. And our role is to really think much more carefully about when is it dangerous, counterproductive, unprincipled, unhelpful to document something as CV or to even categorize something as CV. And so I think as you approach the topic of thinking about engagement, to look at it through the lens of women as perpetrators, look at the lens as women as agents of change, but also I would add another element, which is to look at the ways in which existing countering violent extremism policies, existing CT policies, have actually undermined women’s rights in various communities. We tend to approach the question of engaging women in CV in a bit of a vacuum, and to assume that existing national security measures have not left an adverse gender imprint. And there are many cases in which women feel very squeezed between terror on the one hand and counterterror on the other. And I can talk more about how to negotiate those kind of challenges, but I—

STERN: Actually, I’d love to hear that, because I don’t know exactly what you’re talking about. I imagine I’m not the only one.

HUCKERBY: Yeah, sure. So, I mean, particularly—so, as I mentioned, you know, part of the push to engage women in PV (ph), CV, you know, really in many contexts will involve them working much more closely with undemocratic, often unreformed security services. And we talked to women from various country contexts. They’ll say, look, and very frankly, you know, my work is combatting violence in my community. Security services don’t always help me with that, and actually, many times, they actually make things worse. And so this idea that, you know, engagement, you know, involves sort of close collaborative relationships can be very difficult in those particular contexts.

Let me give you another particular example. We work a lot with women’s groups here, again, grassroots organizations on the ground, in at-risk communities, in conflict and post-conflict communities doing this very hard work, day to day, in combatting all forms of violence. And we asked them how can we be supportive of these efforts. What are the impediments to you effectively doing human rights-based work, you know, in your communities in ways that make sense for you in your communities. One of the answers we hear all the time: counterterrorism financing rules. These are rules that make it very difficult to send money to areas under the control or where there is a high presence of terrorist activities, like Syria, for example, Iraq, and so forth. And so we have examples of grassroots women’s organizations which in their daily work of working with victims, working to provide alternate messaging in their communities, who cannot receive funding from Western countries or Western donors due to these regulations that make it very difficult and very risky for donors to send money in and for banks to enable accounts to remain open. So this is—squeezing effect is sort of how we really try and talk about it. But, inadvertently, security-based responses actually can end up making things much more difficult and much more dangerous for women’s organizations.

STERN: Adnan, I would love to learn something about the what looks like very exciting work that Gen Next is doing in this space. Can you tell us something about that?

KIFAYAT: Yes, absolutely. Just to—just to recap first though—

STERN: Sure.

KIFAYAT: —you know, women are—women and girls, we should—we should never forget as a guiding principle that even the men who are recruited were once boys, were once children, and were connected to a female figure. And one of the—one of the very effective strategies that ISIS and other groups have used to radicalize and recruit women is to say this is your duty. This is your duty to raise the next generation in support of this ideology, in support of what they are trying to do in the so-called caliphate. And so the tactics that are used, a lot of them online, social media, are designed to lure women. They’re designed to attract them to the—to the idea that there is a safe haven, that there is a prospect of—I don’t want to say Valhalla, but sort of a caliphate and—a golden caliphate in their—in their minds. And this is a very attractive vision that is presented. It’s similar to the way identities are played off of for men, where it becomes sexy or attractive or really cool to be part of ISIS. They’re doing exactly the same thing with women. The messaging is slightly different. The packaging is slightly different. But the underlying play on identity is exactly the same.

The programs that Gen Next is involved in with groups like Google, Jigsaw, which is the tech incubator for Google, we recently launched a venture called the Redirect Method, in September. The Redirect Method is a YouTube-based approach to essentially redirecting searchers, people who are looking for deep information about ISIS. So if you are looking for basic information of ISIS, the method does not impact. But if you’re looking for deep information, for example, how to join, how to travel to, how to behead—very specific forms—there are approximately 2,000 search terms that Google has developed over its—by studying the behavior of people looking for ISIS information. Based on those search terms, the eyeballs that are looking for this information are redirected to—they find the information that they’re looking for, but they’re also redirected to information that is slightly critical, or might offer alternatives, or might offer different pathways to whatever it is they’re looking for. It’s modulated, so you don’t immediately find anti-ISIS information when the redirect method is employed. It’s perhaps critical information. It’s perhaps—has nothing to do with ISIS in most cases. It’s just alternative information that’s already out there. And it basically broadens the aperture for your search results.

That methodology is—it’s a year-long project that we’ve launched. It’s also studying how women are utilizing the internet. Women have a slightly different approach to searching for information. They do search for information that’s more socially relevant. So they’ll search for children. They’ll search for information about how to take care of children, education, social services, healthcare. They’re much more interested, we have found—and this is just in the initial stages—but they’re much more interested in the on-the-ground network in the caliphate, of what is available as far as raising a family, the home life. They are often, you know, the people who—they’re often the ones who actually teach children what is right from wrong. And so once you can lure them into this is right, the rest of it is pretty self-propelling towards ISIS. So that’s one project. Of course, there are other projects that we’re involved in which just deter the most violent information that is out there, whether it’s on Twitter or YouTube, the beheadings, and so forth.

STERN: What do you mean deter?

KIFAYAT: Just take them off of the search results.

STERN: Oh, remove them.

KIFAYAT: Remove them.

STERN: Can you give us a concrete example of what it would look like if I were to search how to behead someone? Where—can you give us a concrete example of what I would see if I were—if this program were fully up and running?

KIFAYAT: You would—so until it’s fully up and running, you will of course see it—you probably will not know that you’re seeing it.

STERN: Yeah.

KIFAYAT: But, look, today if you were to search for a beheading video, chances are, depending on how you search for it, you will find a beheading video. And to be clear, the redirect method does not take off the—no pun intended—it does not eliminate the beheading video. What it does is it adds additional videos to that playlist. So they would be videos, for example, about medical procedures, or there would be videos about things that might say this is not—this is not religiously acceptable. This is not—this is not the kind of pathway that is sanctioned. This is not—so it’s more—it’s approaching these issues from other angles that, hopefully, make people become less interested and move on to other platforms—or, I’m sorry, not other platforms, but other kinds of videos, other information. So we make beheading a nonattractive or nonviable option, if you look at it that way.

STERN: General Allen, I can see that you’re very worried about how the incoming administration will deal with national security affairs and that they may not understand the role of women. What would you say if you were asked to brief the incoming president about what you’ve learned about the importance of empowering women? Is there a specific message you would have for this particular incoming president?

ALLEN: Well, I would say there were several things. The first is that what I frequently said to Hamid Karzai, in fact, and that is that no society has ever successfully transitioned from being a conflict-ridden society to a developing society or better unless women were a part of the mainstream of that society, first and foremost. And it goes back to a point I made a few minutes ago about radicalization versus extremism. You’re never born an extremist. You go through a process of radicalization, which sets you up ultimately to be recruited into the ranks of extremism. And I would say that as we seek, in terms of our security policy, to set the conditions for success in countries with fragile or failing systems of government, or in occasions where the social fabric is beginning to disintegrate, the more that we can do to stabilize the role of women and to empower women and to educate women in the society, the greater the likelihood will be that they will become role models for other women within society, that they will influence the male members of their families and communities, and will seek—and will help to walk back the forces of radicalization.

As Adnan said, I think the doctor will say it as well, that one of the reasons that women get recruited—I think we have a pretty good feel for why the men get recruited—but there is a—there’s a lot of mythology about why women get recruited. And in fact, the recruitment is successful if generally it’s able to leverage the radicalization that’s going on at home, or going on in the community, or going on in that—in that woman’s segment of society. And so understanding what the forces are that either individually or in accumulated manner that can create an environment where someone shifts from being a young aspiring son or a daughter to someone who was radicalized by those circumstances and then is susceptible to extremist recruiting, understanding those forces as we begin to create a security environment or create security policies where at the very leading edge of that policy we seek to help those countries deal with the underlying social, economic, political, educational environments that ultimately contribute either individually or en masse to radicalization. Until you do that, then you’re dealing with the extremists—the violent extremists—and it’s frankly too late. I mean, now it’s—the fight is on, and you’re dealing with suicide bombers, you’re dealing with shooters, you’re dealing with an environment that is almost too late.

That’s why my point about if we can empower civil society, if we can in the course of developing our security policy and helping fragile or failing states to bring women into the security sector—now that’s counterintuitive in some respects, but the investment pays off in virtually every occasion where I’ve had the opportunity to see it. The very first class of Afghan women police that I saw, as they were graduating—and it was the proudest day for them and their families I had ever seen—arrayed along the back of the room, standing there in their uniforms as proud, as we were watching them were the women Royal Jordanian Police trainers. So here we had a well-established Muslim country who contributed their female trainers to help another country to improve the security environment in which women would participate. So the bottom line of my advice to the next administration, or any administration, would be security policy has to seek to have effect at the ground level that can deal with or defeat the circumstances that can change a young man or woman’s views, to radicalize them and make them ultimately susceptible to extremist recruitment.

Now each country is going to be different—different faiths, different histories, different geographic location. Each is going to be different. And so you just can’t barrel into the environment with a cookie cutter approach. You’ve got to have the kinds of academic support, the kinds of academic research, the kinds of individuals who understand the cultures and the languages and the faiths, who have to help you to build this strategy so that as the policy begins to take shape, it doesn’t start from the pointed end down, it starts from the ground level up. And if you’ve done that, then you can reduce that set of forces that will create your own enemy for you. Because if you don’t, you’re going to find, when you deploy, or when we engage in security assistance or engage in the security environment, we may well think that we’re making a difference in the security environment, when, in fact, the reality may well be we’re creating to the problems of the security environment. It’s really important that we think in those terms.

STERN: Oh, in fact, you’re agreeing with what we heard on the previous panel, that Zainab was telling us, that in her view, these problems are not solved by military interventions even—that’s part of it but—

ALLEN: Absolutely not. In fact, it is a combination of many factors. And I think your average military commander would say that the more we’re able to put attention to the front end of this, which is at the human level, at the social, political, economic level, the more we’re able to invest in that up front, the much less investment will be required at the military end.


HUCKERBY: Can I—can I jump on to that?

STERN: Oh, please, yeah.

HUCKERBY: Yeah, I mean, I think there are three points that you made that I wanted to add to. Number one, you know, the idea of the empowerment of women, you know, as part of national security policy, and I—you know, to echo the importance of ensuring that women’s empowerment and women’s rights are promoted as ends in of themselves, that it’s not just a means to securing a national security outcome.

STERN: Right.

TUCKEBY: You know, that particular framing has been quite dominant in some countries and has been very—apart from being antithetical to a rights perspective, it really puts women off from engaging with, you know, entities around that as a feeling of—risk of being used by governments or feeling a commitment to women’s rights is very superficial.

ALLEN: Sure.

HUCKERBY: That rights will be bartered with terrorist groups when its suits governments. If you set women’s rights up as a means to an end, you make them amenable to bartering.

A second point that you made that I also really want to echo: A lot of the effort to mainstream gender and to encourage women’s engagement in CV has very much been clustered at the informal or the community level. It’s often been based on stereotypes around women as mothers, women as peaceful, women as victims. And the need to kick it up to a security institution level, to kick it up to an intergovernmental level, to really sort of take it outside that very localized—to build upon grassroots but not to leave it there, is very important. I would really echo that. And to also build on the third point, and particularly around what you were talking about, the—thinking much more in a data-driven and a much more concrete way about what are the factors that lead women and girls to engage to support violent groups, violent extremists, terrorists, and whatever terminology you want to apply to that.

You know, very often there’s a jump to want to go to the stage of easy solutions around counternarrative work, for example, or other sort of work that really doesn’t get to an underlying root cause. What’s the terminology we heard in a prior panel? I will say grievances, you know, taking a much more just aggregated approach. We have people like me and Bloom (sp), you know, who have been doing and talking through, actually, these are not new patterns. You know, we have actually seen the phenomenon of women being engaging in violence for a very long time. The manifestation may look different. But when we talk about these particular roles, we do have things that we can draw upon and look at. And we can look at, for example—there are differences in why a young girl from London might travel to Iraq and/or Syria, compared to a young one from Tunisia might travel, and to really think through that in a much more evidence-based way and to address those grievances head on. And also I would add—which we can have another conversation about—to have a much more effective off ramps and reintegration approaches that can actually recognize the need, you know, for not a zero-sum game on people who travel to Iraq and Syria.

ALLEN: Great point.

STERN: So we have a tremendous amount of expertise in this room. I see so many people who really know a lot about these topics here. I’d like to invite the participants to ask any questions they have. Once again, I want to remind you this meeting is on the record. When you have a question to pose, please wait for the microphone and speak directly into the microphone. Please stand and state your name and affiliation. Please limit yourself to one question and keep it concise to as—allow as many participants to speak as possible. And finally, I would like to note that General Allen unfortunately will have to leave the panel 10 minutes early—not because he isn’t totally engaged but because he has another engagement.

ALLEN: It also doesn’t suggest that we pile on at the front end with all the questions. (Laughter.)

STERN: I think I see someone right here.

Q: Thank you very much. My name is Cornelia Weiss. I’m a colonel in the U.S. military, but I’m here today in my personal capacity. And I think we limit ourselves when we look only at countering violent extremism. We also need to look at countering terrorism, countering insurgency. You know, the names keep changing, but the reality is violence.

And, Professor Huckerby, I appreciate that you say that we need to look at the factors that lead women to join. And so I encourage you all to—or the academic community here to actually explore that. And perhaps as a framework, like Doug Porch, formally of the Naval Postgraduate School, he looked at the—at the FARC. The FARC is composed 30 to 40 percent women. I would submit that there’s a reason that they were effective for over half a century and that the female fighters were the fiercest fighters. Part of it was glamor. Part of it was adventure. We keep on saying, oh, well, you know, there’s bad things. Well, what are—what actually is the attractive part, right? Because they don’t have that in their lives.

And then part of it too, again, other—among other factors were governmental and societal discrimination against women. So—and yet if within their own militaries, their own societies, if those things aren’t addressed—and then, again, I’m speaking in my personal capacity, but if we as the U.S. military and other agencies go in and we can continue to perpetuate that, for example, by having only the chauffeurs at the embassy be males and only the people who clean the toilets be the females, there is something there. So I ask that we continue to actually really dig into these things, and also see how we are contributing to perpetuating those norms. Thank you.

STERN: That’s a really great comment. Did you have any—

ALLEN: That’s a really important point you made. I would say two things. For those of us who are going to find ourselves—for those of you who are going to find yourself in the future deployed into an environment—security environment, I think you have to have a bit of two sides of this process. One is, we deserve the right to condition the aid that we provide to these countries. The bottom line is, if we come rolling in an environment where we have been invited, situation—the environment is very fragile or it’s failing, my own view is, if we’re coming in and the blood of our young men and women and the treasure of our country is going to be spent on this, we get a say on what the outcome is going to be. And if the—if the incoming environment is one that has been one characterized by systematic cultural discrimination against women, you’re going to have to change. That’s the bottom line. Because if we’re here to fight for you and die for you, we’re going to have a say in what this outcome looks like. So that’s the first thing. We should be conditioning our security assistance to do this.

And in—I never went to bed satisfied with where I was in Afghanistan, not once. But we made a difference. The question isn’t whether you can make the difference and feel good about it that day. The question is can you make the difference and have it be sustained. And that comes from long-term education. It comes from changing institutions and ensuring that people who are appointed as senior leaders within institutions, ministers of—pick the interior or ministers of defense—whether they’re going to support us or not. Because if they’re not going to support us in this, then we’re going to ratchet back on our security assistance. You’re not going to get the kind of support from the West that you deserve or you want if you’re not prepared to make those kinds of changes. And I think we made a difference in that regard. So part of it is, I think, conditioning the support that we’re willing to give to countries.

And the other part of it is setting the example, setting the example. You know, we ought to be all very, very proud of where women are in our military today. They’re doing an awful lot. The environment in which they can serve is changing dramatically. And we ought to be showcasing this when we deploy our forces overseas.

Now, I discovered that I didn’t have any women who were general officers in my headquarters at ISAF. And what I wanted is I wanted to be able to show the Afghans that we had a female general officer who actually was a credible leader, who was leading combined male and female forces, et cetera. So I reached out to NATO, and thankfully, because this country’s always been very supportive of us, Croatia found a very highly qualified colonel, promoted her to general, and said pack your things. And off she went to the headquarters, and she really set an incredible example for the Afghans of what a woman general officer in the forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization looks like and can accomplish. And she was spectacular. So I think it’s two-fold. Your question—or your comment is really important. If we’re coming in to try to make a difference in that country because we’re invited, then there’s a payment they’re going to have to give us on this thing, and part of it is changing the way the environment has discriminated against or oppressed women; and the other part of it is, we’ve got to set the example when we come in as well.

STERN: I would like to meet your mother. (Laugher.) She must be formidable.

The next question—sure.

Q: Zainab Salbi. I have two questions.

One is, my observation is they are actually lots of young people in the region who are doing amazing work and are perhaps the most effective in deterring people from being recruited to ISIS—a digital show in Iraq who gets emails, a young woman in Libya going from village to village to advocate for nonviolence as a form of expression. And yet, they are not supported financially, they are left alone, and they don’t earn any money, and they’re constantly on the verge of stopping because they’re okay with taking the risk of the security on their lives. They are not—but they’re also not okay not to be stable. And it’s not money that drives them, but they—it’s their passion, but they’re not being supported. So who is supporting it? Who’s looking for those people? They are young. They’re new voices. They’re not mainstream. They’re not institutions, but they are the most effective. Who is supporting them, one?

Second is, I feel—I spend half of my time in the Middle East, mostly, and half of my time here, and these conversations can be actually almost mirrors of each other. If that conversation is in the Middle East, they will think the—I promise you, it’s all about America. America is doing ISIS. America is financing ISIS. America is doing all of this. Now I’m telling you, mainstream conversation. And then when President-Elect Trump goes and says President Obama founded—all of us and all the Middle East says, uh-huh, voila, we told you. We’ve been telling you. So the point is—and then we’re doing here, it’s all the Middle East. It’s all—

ALLEN: Don’t get me—please don’t get me started. (Laughter.)

Q: It’s all—but it’s actually—I don’t want to make it about—it’s—the point is, in there, they think it’s all about here; and in here, we think it’s all about there. Who is having and where are we having the uncomfortable conversation of the root cause that is leading to the increased radicalization of young men and women and joining ISIS and the likes? Because today ISIS is in the news, tomorrow I fear others, to be honest, you know? So where are we having the conversation? Can we have it? Because—and we’re all, I think, part of that cause, and we need to have this conversation. And where is it happening?

KIFAYAT: What a great point—points. And I’ll just take one piece of that, and I’m sure General Allen and the doctor have additional comments. But I—the conversation is happening, as you rightly point out, everywhere. It’s not just in the Middle East. It’s in Europe. It’s right here in the U.S. You know, just really very quickly, you might have seen the story a couple of years ago of Alex the 25-year-old Christian Sunday school teacher in Washington state who was on the path of radicalization and on the path of traveling to Syria till her grandmother intervened. There are unfortunately lots of stories like that in our—in our own country, because something like 250—these are dated numbers—but almost 250 young boys and girls have tried to travel to Syria over the last three years—most of them unsuccessfully, thank goodness. But you’re right. The conversations are happening right here. We don’t have to look too far.

What are we doing about it? Yes, what are we—what are we doing about it, I think, is extremely important. There are two organizations, I do want to point out, that I think need to be grown, to your point about the young people in the Middle East who are doing this out of a need to want to push back, but are not being supported. There is the Against Violence Extremism Network, which is based out of London, and then there’s the Sisters Against Violent Extremism, SAVE, network out of Vienna. Now these are big—they’ve grown quite a bit since they were created. Gen Next helped create the AVE network. The State Department here helped spur the SAVE network. But these organizations need more resources. Quite—I mean, they’re not doing it out of—for money, the young people, but these organizations do need money. They do need resources. They do need networks to grow and to expand into the communities where it matters.

So your point about grassroots—grassroots empowerment, getting people—not just religious leaders and not necessarily government people, but genuine—I would say genuine—authentic community leaders, the teachers, the doctors, the people who are role models in these communities—getting them to talk to each other, getting them—giving them a platform to really speak to each other and learn from each other. These are—this is really, I think, where the programmatic side is starting to move and really needs to move in a big aggressive way. Some of it may be government money, but really private resources are essential to this fight.

HUCKERBY: I want to echo your point about financing, and particularly young people, women’s organizations, groups that are a divergent voice in their community, that may be experiencing restrictions on funding from their own local government under anti-foreign funding laws and so forth, are reliant upon other funding sources. But the funding environment in which we currently operate creates a prejudice in favor of large well-known organizations that have a track record that often, frankly, are based in Western capitals and then do subgranting through various other capacities. And they subgrant to gatekeeper organizations in the countries. There are a variety of reasons for that happening.

My clinic and—(inaudible)—at Duke, in conjunction with the Women Peacemakers Program (that we made ?) in The Hague, have launched a study looking at exactly how the ways in which counterterrorism financing rules in particular are impeding access of funding to women’s rights organization, women’s right organizing, and gender equality. And that particular work has involved many different components: a survey of 60 grassroots women’s organizations, also interviews with, you know, over—scores of USG, other governments, donors, and so forth, asking have these rules that have been in place now, essentially been in a revamped version since 9/11—are they inhibiting your grantmaking activities—two new organizations who don’t have a public record, you know, in a way, because they’re doing work that’s very dangerous, that they can’t put on a beautiful website saying their board of directors. They can’t open a bank account in many countries.

And the answer from every actor is yes: These rules are inhabiting our—the very work that is being acknowledged is actually what is key to countering violence—again, whatever manifestation of violence that, you know, that might look like. So I think we have to have a very, very honest conversation about the current push to engage grassroots, to support grassroots, but our other structures under the CT rubric are actually inhibiting that very support. We have examples of over 50 percent of organizations that we surveyed having to resort to cash carrying through conflict/terrorist-controlled areas because they can’t bank, because donors will not—there are not safe channels for donors—the money. That is not a tenable situation for supporting the security and sustainability of women’s groups, of youth, of LGBTI communities—again, the very communities that are trying to be changing and promoting human rights in their local context, they’re cutting up the funding. And there has to be a very honest conversation around how we address that.

So I couldn’t agree with you more on the financing and the funding piece. And I’m particularly worried about in the current push to engage women in CVE, that we have a lot of groups that are rebranding themselves as, you know, sort of grassroots gatekeeper—they’re gatekeeper groups branding themselves as authentic grassroots organizations in ways that actually may be depriving funding to the very people who need it the most and are doing the most effective work.

ALLEN: And I’ll just add. Your points are really important, and I think we’ve seen a glimmer in the last year of a really important conversation that I think either we were just successful in the legislation or may be on the verge of it, where a military combatant commander—and I’m going to then back up and give you a little bit more on this—a military combatant commander, if that commander sees an opportunity where we have a grassroots opportunity, where it’s not—it doesn’t look like a military requirement, but by putting resources against a deradicalization effort, whether it’s that young woman moving from village to village who needs some gasoline for a bike, or whatever it might be, the command—we’ve created or want to create the environment where some part of that military budget can be forwarded into the State Department through the embassy, ultimately to be applied on the ground. Now that’s revolutionary thinking, but it gets—and it gives us an opportunity so that it isn’t a military solution. It is the solution that fits the need. But the money initially to do this was earmarked as military money. It’s passed from the commander to the embassy, and ultimately to those organizations that can make a difference. I think that legislation has just been passed, but I could be wrong. Stavridis and I—Jim Stavridis and I wrote an op-ed on that last year.

But the bigger issue is this, and this is, we have too much segmentation between and among the groups ultimately that can make a difference. The segmentation between the humanitarian community, the segmentation with—between the development community, the segmentation between the folks who are experts at governance and then the security community—getting them together to understand what combination of resources they can bring together in what—not just combination of colors of money, but also in the sequencing of application, gives us a grand strategy to get this done. Your question really implies there is no grand strategy, and the answer is there isn’t a grand strategy, because we can’t get those groups into the room. Many of the NGOs won’t even walk into a room with somebody in uniform in it. Look, we’ve got to change how we think here, because the world is not getting better. It’s getting worse. Until we’re able to bring those groups together to get to the left of radicalization, to solve those very issues you talk about, by having a singular grand strategy that can first identify what those factors are that radicalize a young woman or a man, and begin systemically in those countries to apply resources, regardless of where they need to come from, to make a difference there, we’re going to be fighting forever.

So if the Trump administration wants to know what it can do to get after this, stop vilifying an entire faith and stop vilifying certain segments of an entire faith and look to create a grand strategy. The United States does a couple of things really well. We can convene the community of nations, and if we have to, we can reach around the world and touch somebody at a moment’s notice. Let’s use number one. Let’s convene the community of nations and those elements that can have a difference, and let that be the legacy of the man who was just elected to be president of the United States and just named by Time magazine as the Man of the Year. Let’s get after this, because vilifying the people instead of solving the problems isn’t going to do it. And solving the problems by military means is never going to do it. We’re going to be fighting forever. It means getting the money and the resources to the ground level and doing it in a constructive way where we have NGOs with humanitarian elements, development, and the military as necessary cooperating. And until we do that, that young lady’s going to be at risk and is going to be in trouble—serious trouble trying to get from village to village in Libya.

STERN: Thank you. (Applause.)

I think we have a question here.

Q: Hello. I’m Naylar Knotts (ph) with National Defense University, and thank you all for a really interesting discussion.

It’s been mostly about focusing on the causes of radicalization, and I’ve often wondered if we were to change the question a bit and look at if everything were equal, there are so many people on a daily basis who choose not to be radicalized. And I was wondering if the professor, Adnan, through your work, you’ve looked at the question from that lens and if any of the answers or insights that are observed there might inform the broader discussion. So instead of focusing on the causes, what about focusing on the people who on a daily basis are exposed to the same things, are in the same conditions, but choose not to be radicalized. Why do they choose not to be radicalized? Thank you.

KIFAYAT: It’s good to see you again. I—so short answer, we don’t know. I’ll just be blunt. We don’t know. The report that the general and I helped write for the Department of Homeland Security is very clear about calling this issue out specifically, saying that we can’t—we cannot just look at this as a security issue or a law enforcement issue. It must be looked at in a much more holistic manner. We need to involve mental health researchers and officials to look at the social work side. We need to look at the community within which people exist. And this really goes to your earlier point. The causes are so closely related to the non-causes, and both of those have ramifications for the kinds of programs my foundation does, the kinds of programs that government—we’re asking government to get more involved in. So short answer, Naylar (ph) and the audience, is we don’t know for certain what those causes and non-causes are, but I think that in our—the first point I made about the evolving—our evolving understanding, this is central to it. We can’t—I think the next iteration is we can’t capture and kill our way through this and we can’t just make it up as we go along. We have to know—we have to know where we’re going and those triggers. So I’ll leave it at that. I don’t know if there’s—

STERN: Over here.

Q: Mia Bloom, Georgia State University.

Mr. Kifayat, I was curious about one thing. Looking for the beheading videos, if you’re on YouTube, those get taken down very quickly. Are any of the initiatives now to be able to do searches on the other platforms? Because where I find them is now Telegram. And so is there any kind of interface, whether it’s in Objective-C or Python and DOS or something that’s being written that will allow people to search on the other platforms? Because we’ve seen ISIS propaganda move from let’s say Facebook to Twitter, now because of the accounts being closed, they’ve moved to more encrypted platforms. And so it seems that that’s where the danger is. Because of the encryption, people who are on it are not easily observable. They can’t take down the videos. And what they’re doing is they’re archiving in, which is also not easily searchable. So I was curious if you could talk about the technological side of things.

MR. KIFAYAT: I can’t. I’m not a technology person. But I will tell you this. Just in the last very near past, the big social media companies—Google, Facebook, Twitter—just announced a co-hashtagging agreement between them. This is outside government, outside sort of regulatory authorities. And the way it’s described and the way I read it is exactly what you were just describing. It’s a way to cross tag content that does migrate between platforms, as a way to be able to detect and then eventually pull down that content. So I think that there are efforts. I will always say that more needs to be done and more of our technology and our innovative technologies needs to be utilized to do exactly what you were saying.

STERN: Over here.

Q: Mariam Safi at the State Department.

I’m asking, actually, this question is my personal capacity. In our efforts to engage in countering extremism, how do we broaden the conversation beyond ISIS and beyond engaging Muslim communities? Just two weeks ago, my parents and I were walking to the farmer’s market in Dupont Circle, and a man rolled down his window and told my parents and I to pack up and go home. So, you know, as someone who’s dedicated my career to public service, the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, I served in Baghdad, I never felt more scared than I do today in this country from extremism, white nationalist elements. In the spirit of inclusivity and introspection, what are the efforts—I’d like the panelists to describe, to sort of rethink our definition around extremism to be more inclusive and to address the issue both here at home domestically as well as globally.

KIFAYAT: Quick comment on that. The platform that I—and I fully agree with you. I think what we’re seeing in the bigger sense is a much—a very—a broadening of the scope of violent extremism. It’s not just Muslim violent extremism or Islamic violent extremism. It’s violent extremism. The Against Violent Extremism platform that I mentioned earlier has been doing a lot of this in the European context, so connecting, you know, knife gangs with neo-Nazi movements with al-Qaida recruitment and ISIS recruitment, but learning across—if you would, across platforms for violent extremism how they recruit, how they radicalize.

Q: You mean learning how to counter, not learning how to do it.

KIFAYAT: Absolutely. Not how to do it, but how—what tactics are used to radicalize across these platforms, because they do watch each other and they do learn from each other. So they are very good at learning from each other, sort of tactics, where to go, how to engage. I believe—and we’re actually in the process now of expanding the Against Violent Extremism platform to North America, to the U.S. specifically. I believe that that model is essential in our context given political realities and the social trends here. So I—

STERN: In Boston we have a new NGO called Parents for Peace, and this unites parents of kids who have been stolen by a radical—a violent extremist organization, whether domestically or abroad. And my students are going to be helping them find parents of neo-Nazis, in particular. So I think people are really thinking about this. And I also just want to say I am really sorry about what happened to you.

HUCKERBY: Mariam, thank you for sharing that perfect question. I think the—there—a short answer to a much larger conversation is, first of all, to actually have some clarity around our terminology, right. There are slippages between extremism, violent extremism, fundamentalism, terrorism. They’re used interchangeably. No one actually knows the content of those terms. They’re often avoided as—from being defined, first of all.

Secondly, to actually be consistent in how we apply terminology, right? And thirdly, to think about what terms we use. And I—you know, I think particularly greater media attention to what is connoted by the term alt-right, you know, and actually sort of think through what gets legitimized by certain terms that we apply in some contexts and not others. So I think just much more clarity around that and much more consistency in calling out particular actions as terrorism and as potentially violent extremism and potentially as extremism. But that requires a really hard look at how the terms have been employed and what danger they have been—have done and what damage they have done to date in how they’ve been employed, and to move forward in a much more consistent approach.

ALLEN: I’ll just add, first, I also am very sorry you had to go through that. My guess would be if that character had decided to go home, that country would have deported him straight back here. So a loser is a loser no matter where they come from.

The other problem is there are definitional issues. But the other problem is, if our elected representatives, if their un—or ill-disciplined rhetoric creates differences between and among who we are by virtue of our faith or our color or our gender, then we are the problem, not the people. And we’re going to have to—and there’s lot of social work that can be done, lots of definitional work that can be done. But first and foremost, if our political leadership is creating or exacerbating or stoking this problem by the public rhetoric, then that is the beginning of the problem. They can also, by the way, stop that problem. Now we ought to be watching things, like who’s going to be appointed to the Civil Rights Division within the Department of Justice, and those kinds—we’re going to learn a lot about where we’re going in this country by those kinds of appointments over the next couple years. But I’m sorry you had to go through that.

Q: Sherri Goodman. Thank you all for your leadership and commitment on this issue.

Jesse, I know you’ve been in this for the long haul. And, General Allen, I know you’ve devoted much of your career to these issues, and thank you. And I also express my empathy with your situation. As the daughter of Holocaust refugees, it is deeply troubling to me that we are now experiencing a whole new generation of widespread discrimination against a whole class of people for absolutely no reason.

My question to the panelists is, the uncomfortable conversation about how to right-size U.S. investment in countering violent extremism or whatever is the right term, Professor, but we know is that our own balance of investment as between defense, diplomacy and development has always skewed towards defense. And I say that with—you know, having served as a defense official, I love the military, but we know in this area if education is what’s really needed, that’s not what the Defense Department is intended to do. And development is historically underfunded. And you’ve led some important efforts with Admiral Stavridis and others to allow funding to be transferred, but that’s not a wholesale right-sizing of investment accounts in those areas. And do you think that we can take on that conversation in this administration, and how would you go about it?

ALLEN: I think we should. As I said a few minutes ago, this is an opportunity for the Trump administration to really make a difference, if we bring the right kinds of people into the conversation. And it shouldn’t just be an American conversation, either. It needs to be a conversation to the community of nations, to try to get the kind of definitional clarity on what these factors are, and then attempt to identity the kinds of resources that can be applied as necessary to get at the solution to these problems.

But we—we’re not having the big conversation. That’s the problem. So we have lots of very well-meaning, very insightful smaller conversations, but the accumulation of those and to take a grand strategic approach—and I use that not in a military sense; I’m talking about the whole-of-government approach with our partners—because the solution can’t be a U.S. solution, it’s got to be an international solution, where in some places certain countries’ role on the ground will be applauded, will be sought. And the United States will have a very quiet role. The United States may be in the lead in other places. But, you know, when I helped President Obama put together the coalition to fight ISIL, we discovered very quickly that the U.S. can lead by forming the coalition, but the actual application of actions, whether it’s in stabilization or information operations or counter-finance, there are other countries with huge capabilities in this regard. They don’t—they’re not big countries, but their capabilities are huge in relative size to what they can bring or what they do. So we’ve got to have the large conversation and then we’ve got to be able to create the strategy necessary to deal with this broadly. Until we do that, we’re going to be doing this in the piecemealed manner, and we’ll never get to the broader outcome that we’re seeking.

KIFAYAT: Just to add to General Allen’s point, the government piece is critically important. There were two recent examples. A CSIS—CSIS just released a report a couple of weeks ago, “Turning Point,” where they call for a billion dollars to be devoted to, quote, “CVE programs,” and they base that off of what you were just describing: the amount of money we spent on defense and military, law enforcement, versus development and then this—and then this issue. Another example is, again, over the summer the Department of Homeland Security released $10 million for countering violent extremism programs. The number of grants or the number of projects that came back to DHS, they were all to be funded, was a quarter of a billion dollars, so $250 million. So it’s just—it gives you an idea of the kinds of—I guess the demands, supply and demand that’s out there.

But let me set that aside for a second, because the bigger issue in my view here is private money: foundations, corporations, philanthropy—outside of government. This is not just a government fight or a government challenge. This is—as the general was saying earlier, you know, society has to be—we have to empower society to take this on, because it is—a critical factor here is identity. What we’re looking at are people playing off of very bad groups, not just Islamic or Muslim but across the spectrum, playing off of identities and creating this sense of hatred and intolerance and exclusion, social exclusion. And these are not necessarily things that government is going to be able to resolve or fix. It can certainly give guidance. It can certainly hopefully not make the problem worse, as the general noted earlier, but it really is ultimately, I believe, society that needs to—all the elements of national power that needs to stand up. And in that respect, we are abysmal. Certainly in this country we’re abysmal, the private money being put on this issue.

HUCKERBY: I’ll add one more—could I add one more point? (Inaudible.)

ALLEN: When you’re done, I’m going to walk off.

HUCKERBY: OK, I’ll be quick.

I think we have to be very careful about thinking about what constitutes a project for CV funding, in that there are a number of groups who will not take money that has a CV nexus. You know, you gave the example of, you know, doing peace work in your community. There are women’s organizations who for reasons related to principled objections, related to safety concerns, will not take funding that has a CV earmark. And I think we have to be very, very careful about that, you know, and ensuring there is a space to fund a non-securitized civil society activity. And so, you know, again, sort of one of the comments at the very beginning, thinking very, very carefully that it may be too dangerous, counterproductive and unprincipled to call something CVE and to document it as CVE. It may contribute upstream in the ways in which we think about building resilient communities, in ways of combatting violence and so forth, but I get a little bit wary about sort of the pulling of funds out of private or government, that people end up reworking what are essentially human rights projects, you know, peacebuilding projects and calling it something different and then having to report on CV indicators, being further seen as being spies in their communities working for the USG, working for Australian governments. I think we have to be very, very careful about in that funding discussion to not only have the pool available be a CV vehicle.


Q: I’m Kim Field. I’m from the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations at the State Department.

Last year—I guess it was last year, January 2015, when President Obama launched the CVE—the CVE summit, we helped to co-launch a Resolving Solutions to Violent Extremism. It’s a network of local—a global network of local researchers that is helping to take on issues of gender in CVE, as well as what’s—who has resilient—resiliencies, really—why are some radicalized, why are some not. Another one that strikes me would be a good question is this issue that you just raised, Dr. Huckerby. My question to you is, do you have any suggestions, any advice for this new network given its intent to take this research and make it available to policymakers and practitioners? How do you get these very local bits of knowledge into the right hands? Advice would be welcome. Thank you.

HUCKERBY: A huge question. So as a starting point, during a proper mapping of understanding with whom you’re engaging and from where you’re getting your information. And I think there can be, like, at a very basic level, if when you’re doing outreach and getting information that’s coming from gatekeeper groups, if there are certain groups that—you’re always looking to see who’s not in the room and who’s not talking to you, and they’re often going to be with the groups. And think of what barriers they have to sharing information. So, number one, making sure that the research on which you’re drawing is actually representative, particularly of marginalized groups, or groups who may not feel comfortable interacting with certain government actors, for example. So just doing a real (stop take ?) on that. And that sounds like a very basic recommendation, but it strikes me very often when you ask governments, well, who you’ve been talking to on these issues, it doesn’t tend to be, like, local credible groups. It tends to be folks who are able to access certain power centers, and speak in English, and so forth. So I think just having a mapping and really figuring out who’s actually engaging this space; and if they’re not engaging, asking why that isn’t happening.

Also, you know, what I have found particularly in talking to women’s—particularly women’s groups about how they would, you know, want to think about contributing to change in our security policy, what work they’re already doing, what barriers they have—there is a lot of mistrust, you know, and a lot of concern about not wanting to share openly some of the concerns they may have, particularly because the funding landscape, and I think sort of creating channels where people are able to share their perspectives without ramifications from either a government perspective or a funding perspective is really important. So if that involves having also third-party interlocutors, like not having governments be the ones that convene these information sessions, and that’s very important.

So things that will be told to us as researchers, you know, behind a door are going to be very different from what that same organization might say to a government or to a donor, for example—so I think creating opportunities for a more free-flowing exchange. And then working with those groups to sort of make their findings and make their experiences translatable to policymakers. And that was something that we were speaking about earlier can be very, very difficult, and that can be everything from very basic stuff around, like, training on how to do PowerPoint, you know, or training on how to sort of present materials—and so really thinking through, like, what that channel of communication might look like. But number one, making sure you’ve got a diverse group—if you haven’t got the right folks there, figuring out how to over that; number two, making sure it’s an open environment and you can actually share the true reflections on what’s happening; and then, three, thinking about the modalities and training on modalities, too.

KIFAYAT: And just to add, we were just talking about this before this panel, is not bringing your own biases to the table when designing programs. I mean, I—this space is littered with all kinds of assumptions and anecdotal, quote, “evidence,” of what causes and what—you know, what leads to radicalization. And one of the things we can learn from the question earlier about the tech sector is, they’re incredibly—what my experience with the tech industry has been, they’re incredibly evidence-based. And it’s not perfect, but it is—it is much more evidence-based than a lot of the conversations that are currently taking place in the policy world, in this—whatever we call it, CVE or whatever the phrase is. But—so just to add to that. Absolutely.

STERN: So, unfortunately, we are out of time. Thank you all so much for coming and thank you so much to the panelists from whom we’ve learned quite a bit. (Applause.)


Top Stories on CFR


Outright seizure of the Russian Central Bank’s hundreds of billions in frozen assets is currently off the table, but it is still possible to obtain large sums for Ukraine from the interest income on these assets.


NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of instability in Europe. Countering Russia’s efforts will require a stronger, more coordinated NATO.