Countering violent extremism – the ‘soft power’ approach
31 Jan 2013|

The new National Security Strategy points to the Commonwealth’s Countering Violent Extremism Strategy as a key feature of its approach to countering terrorism, espionage and foreign interference. Community programs designed to counter violent extremism—so-called ‘soft power’ counter-terrorism programs—are being increasingly adopted by governments worldwide, including Australia. They are part of an evolving response to the threat posed by groups and individuals seeking to perpetrate or support violence in pursuit of ideological, political or religious goals.

The prevalence of ‘home-grown terrorism’—defined by the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department as ‘locally-cultivated violent extremism by individuals born, raised or currently living in Australia’—has prompted a re-design of the solely ‘hard power’ approach to counterterrorism that was the hallmark of the immediate response to the 9/11 attacks.

The threat of violent extremism is now more complex and is becoming increasingly difficult to detect, with violent extremists frequently operating in small independent groups or as ‘lone actors’. Under significant organisational pressure, Al-Qaeda inspired affiliates have used online channels such as its Yemeni affiliate AQAP’s Inspire magazine to campaign for local solo attacks. This campaign seems to be paying off for them, and has coincided with a marked increase in the number of such attacks since 2008. And the threat isn’t just from violent jihadism—the attack by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway in 2011 demonstrates the possible presence and lethality of violent extremists across the ideological spectrum (jihadist, right wing, left wing or ethno-nationalist).

While security agencies will continue to use intelligence and law enforcement to prevent or disrupt acts of terrorism, those traditional tools are now being complemented by early prevention policies under the banner ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ (CVE). It’s a broad-brush approach that encapsulates a range of non-coercive tools and programs developed by community organisations and government partners. It aims to collectively:

  • increase community cohesion and trust by fostering interactions and networks between a range of communities, government, police and social service providers
  • dissuade individuals from using violence by supporting non-violent forms of expression
  • reintegrate groups and individuals who have become involved in violent extremism by facilitating their disengagement from the networks and behaviours that promote violence or criminal behaviour.

One such program is the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department’s ‘Building Community Resilience’ grants program. Having adopted some of the promising practices associated with previous CVE programs (eg the UK’s ‘Prevent’ strategy), the Attorney-General’s grants program funds self-nominated community organisations (eg universities, religious NGOs and sports associations) to identify local needs and implement local projects. Projects range from broad community cohesion and youth mentoring programs for vulnerable groups and individuals to leadership and media training for individuals seeking to contribute to community cohesion efforts. Collectively, the dozens of projects funded each year aim to contribute to the Commonwealth Government’s countering violent extremism strategy (PDF).

So how can we determine whether this form of counter-terrorism is effective? A recent ABC report cited community concerns that Australian CVE projects may be missing their target by focusing on community empowerment rather than trying to counter extremism in the community. This mirrors past critiques of the UK’s Prevent program.

However CVE not only involves efforts to counter the influence of violent extremism in vulnerable communities, but also attempts to locate individuals who have the credibility and willingness in their community to do so. CVE is as much a network- and trust-building exercise between government and community partners as it is a countering of violence strategy. Likewise, some of the best solutions will likely come from those groups and individuals who are in close contact with radicalising influences but who reject their message and wish to work against them.

The recent violence during protests in Sydney and raids by police in Melbourne reminds us that there are potential violent extremist elements present in our communities. But we must also be reminded that Australia, to date, has been able to mitigate these nascent threats with the assistance of sound working relationships developed between the community and relevant authorities. Maintaining, developing and promoting these relationships should remain an integral part of the strategy to combat violent extremism now and in the future.

Andrew Smith is a researcher at the Global Terrorism Research Centre (GTReC), Monash University.