Laying the foundations

Defining preventing violent extremism (PVE)

Terminology around violent extremism is confusing and problematic. Terms are politicised, used interchangeably and often without a clear definition, resulting in the same terms being used to describe different approaches and interventions with different objectives.

Because of the risks inherent in the terminology of violent extremism, it is important to be able to work to clear and agreed-upon definitions when programming around this issue, even if this can only be achieved at a programmatic level.

This toolkit does not attempt to offer a definitive set of definitions, but sets out examples of working definitions for key terminology. It is strongly recommended that this is developed further with terms being defined and agreed at least at a programming level. This should take place at the outset of a programme to set clear objectives and place boundaries around what violent extremism is and whom it involves in any given context.

Violent extremism – a problematic premise?

In Mali focusing efforts around preventing and countering violent extremism and counterterrorism have glossed over pre-existing conflicts, divisions between and within communities and between state and citizens, identity and ethnic divisions, and justified aggressive tactics of security forces that have exacerbated the feelings of grievance and exclusion.

Source: International Alert, They treat us all like jihadis, London: International Alert, 2016

The 2015 United Nations Plan of Action on Preventing Violent Extremism states, “Violent extremism is a diverse phenomenon, without clear definition. It is neither new nor exclusive to any region, nationality or system of belief." This has left the definition of VE open to be contextualised. In Tunisia, the UN Country Team recognised the need to agree on a shared definition and drafted the following definition relevant for the Tunisian context: “VE is [t]he activity of individuals and groups which advocate or justify violence for economic, social or political reasons and reject the universal values of democracy, a State of Law and human rights by disseminating a message of religious, cultural and social intolerance."

Other definitions include the targeting of civilians “as a means of rectifying grievances, real or perceived, which form the basis of increasingly strong exclusive identities” (UK Department for International Development); as well as characteristics that have been defined as “simplistic views of the world and ‘the enemy’ in which groups or aspects of society are seen as a threat, intolerance and lack of respect for other people’s views, freedom and rights” (Danida). Another definition includes a violent disregard for civic discourse, culture, scientific or rational thought and a reference to symbols, whether religious (Sharia law, the Bible) or other (e.g. the Swastika).

Countering violent extremism (CVE) “has evolved in response to an understanding that while conventional militarised and repressive counter-terrorism strategies may be necessary, they are insufficient to end terrorism when employed alone." CVE is a realm of policy, programmes and interventions designed to reduce the terrorist threat through non-coercive approaches that directly address its root causes. CVE focuses mainly on countering the activities of existing violent extremists.
Preventing violent extremism is broader than CVE, focusing on preventative approaches allowing for programming to take a broader approach to the underlying drivers that create vulnerabilities to VE. The Swiss Government describes PVE as “depriving violent extremism of its breeding ground by enhancing the capacity of individuals and communities to resist it."
It is important to highlight that radicalisation in itself is not necessarily a problem. It can be a force for good when the urge for social change is done without violence and has positive, peaceful and constructive outlets. However, danger arises when radical movements start to use fear, violence and terrorist activities to achieve their ideological, political, economic or social aims.
There is no universally agreed definition of terrorism either. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1566 (2004) defines terrorism as: “Criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organisation to do or to abstain from doing any act.”
The response mechanism of a state to the threat of politically or ideologically motivated violence. This includes offensive measures taken to prevent, pursue and protect and respond to terrorism. Counterterrorism programmes are designed to counter terrorist actors and methods, and build the capacity of security forces to support this.