Assessing the State Department's Efforts to Counter Violent Extremism

Justin Siberell
Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism 
The Program on Extremism at George Washington University
Washington, DC
May 25, 2016

(As Prepared)

First of all, I’d like to thank Lorenzo Vidino, Seamus Hughes, Frank Cillufo, and George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security for the invitation to speak today. The work of this Center is and will remain absolutely vital to enhancing our understanding of the factors and underlying drivers contributing to radicalization and violent extremism. We appreciate the research you are engaged in that will help us and others develop innovative and effective strategies on CVE. Thank you also for providing today’s venue for this discussion.

On March 22, coordinated terrorist attacks in Brussels killed dozens and wounded hundreds more. These attacks followed other high profile attacks in Istanbul, Jakarta, Paris, Peshawar, San Bernardino, and Tunis. Unfortunately, the list goes on.

The United States and its allies and partners have mounted a robust response to the threat posed by ISIL or Da’esh, al-Qa’ida, and other transnational terrorist groups – we have hardened our own defenses in the United States, deployed our military, and expanded intelligence and law enforcement efforts that target operational planning, terrorist fund raising, travel, facilitation, and recruitment. These efforts have been hugely successful in disrupting plots, in removing terrorist leadership, in keeping us safe. But they’re not enough.

Even as we degrade terrorist groups’ ability to operate and extend their reach, they continue to attract new followers. Even as the groups themselves draw attention to their own depravity, recruits appear. The record of these groups in delivering a better life, meeting aspirations or solving problems is not spectacular, to say the least. It is not even a mixed record.

But they offer something – belonging or adventure or an ideology that resonates. So what is it that we can do – and more importantly encourage our partners to do – to disrupt those pathways to radicalization and recruitment to violence and terrorism?

Are there actions we and others can take to blunt their message in order to dissuade individuals or communities from being attracted to or aligning with violent extremist groups? Are there interventions that could stop and reverse a radicalization process that is already underway?

Are there effective policies governments might adopt to rehabilitate those who have turned away from violence and terrorism, and to reintegrate them back into society?

Are there actions we can take to prevent a person from getting on this pathway to violence in the first place?

Last year, President Obama convened the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, which brought together government, private sector, and civil society leaders from around the world, to raise awareness of the importance of an expanded effort to counter terrorism, and the radicalization to violence.

Leaders and community-based representatives from the United States and countries around the world came together at the Summit and at a series of follow-on meetings in Algiers, Astana, Nairobi, Nouakchott, Oslo, Sydney, and Tirana – in acknowledgement that our combined efforts – however successful in many respects – are not sufficient.

We found through that process that there is a strong desire around the world to broaden our approach to countering violent extremism – to develop more effective tools to identify and address the drivers and factors leading to radicalization and the recruitment to violent extremist groups and acts.

Indeed, informed by the work initiated through the CVE Summit process, the United Nations Secretary General developed and released in January a “Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism” that spells out a set of recommendations for governments to consider and implement in order to develop a more comprehensive and effective counterterrorism approach. This Plan of Action is currently being debated at the UN and, we hope, will be adopted as part of the ten-year review of the UN’s counterterrorism strategy this summer.

The importance of a more comprehensive approach to violent extremism was also identified in the State Department – USAID Quarterly Diplomacy and Development Review, also known as the QDDR, released in late 2015.

In order to take this work forward, we have made a number of changes at the State Department, and specifically in the Bureau that I currently lead, to better resource and support an expanded CVE effort. It is those changes and this new approach that I’d like to discuss with you today.

The State Department-USAID CVE Strategy

I’m pleased to announce that today we are releasing the first-ever joint USAID-State Department strategy on countering violent extremism. Carrying forth the work of the White House CVE Summit agenda, this strategy recognizes the need to foster and empower a broad-based coalition of government and non-governmental actors to address violent extremism.

This strategy provides a roadmap for mobilizing the full range of America’s diplomatic and development tools to meet this challenge. The strategy recognizes the need to be analytic, strategic, and integrated in our approach to CVE – especially as we seek to maximize finite resources.

Let me briefly discuss the core elements of the strategy.

The first objective is to expand international political will, partnerships, and expertise to better understand the drivers of violent extremism and mobilize effective interventions.

In a nutshell, we’re talking about research, at both the global and highly localized levels.

There will never be justification for acts of terrorism but we must continue to try to understand and address the factors that drive people to violent extremism. The conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism vary enormously, which explains how ISIL, for example, has drawn recruits from nearly every region and walk of life – from conflict-ridden provinces in western Iraq to working class neighborhoods in Brussels to cities and towns across the United States.

However, there are certain factors that appear to consistently help to accelerate the spread of violent extremism in communities, including exposure to terrorist propaganda and locally-influential recruiters, experiences with state-sanctioned violence and abuse, heavy-handed tactics by security services, the presence of inter-state or intra-state conflict, and the systematic denial of economic and political opportunity.

In line with this strategic goal, we have worked with the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations and the U.S. Institute of Peace to sponsor the establishment of the RESOLVE Network. That’s an acronym that stands for “Researching Solutions to Violent Extremism.” The Network was launched last fall, and aims to build a global network of researchers examining violent extremism dynamics in specific, local contexts.

Research conducted through the RESOLVE Network will provide policymakers and practitioners with a more comprehensive understanding of the drivers of violent extremism and therefore a firmer base upon which to develop effective CVE policies and interventions. We’re pleased that the GW Program on Extremism is already a member.

It’s worth noting here that USAID has been engaged in prevention-oriented CVE programming for a number of years now using an approach rooted in analytical tools that identify drivers of violent extremism. This approach is laid out in detail in USAID’s 2011 report, The Development Response to Violent Extremism and Insurgency.

The second objective of our strategy is to assist partner governments – at both the national and sub-national level – to adopt more effective policies and approaches to prevent the spread of violent extremism. Governments must take ownership and demonstrate commitment if CVE efforts are to be effective. As we all know, in some cases policies and practices of governments exacerbate drivers of violent extremism.

Through our diplomatic engagement, we will encourage governments to develop and adopt strategies, policies, and programs that reduce the appeal and spread of violent extremism. We will stress the inclusion of non-governmental voices – including those at risk, as a vital component of these efforts.

In addition, we will also encourage countries to counter the influence of individuals and institutions in their countries that may be involved in propagating violent extremism abroad.

We will certainly do this on a bilateral basis but will also do this on a multilateral basis working with the UN and the GCTF to achieve these goals. I noted the UN PVE Plan of Action earlier.

I’d recommend you also look at the GCTF website ( to see some of these Good Practices, such as the Ankara Memorandum or the Community Engagement and Community-Oriented Policing Good Practices.

The third objective of our strategy is to employ foreign assistance tools and approaches, including development, to reduce specific political, social, and economic factors that contribute to community support for violent extremism.

The key element is to prevent the spread of violent extremism before it starts. In line with this objective, we will increase our focus and resources to address drivers of violent extremism at the community level. This would include the work we are doing to engage law enforcement, judicial and corrections officials, who can play critical roles in countering violent extremism through more effective practices and work in communities.

For example, we currently fund programs in a number of countries to develop the capacity of local police officers to implement community policing programs, which help build a better relationship between the security sector and the communities that they are there to protect and serve.

As previously noted, USAID implements programs aimed at increasing access to opportunity, improving local and national governance, promoting dialogue and social cohesion, and mitigating conflict so as to improve the conditions and reduce the vulnerability of local communities to violent extremism. These programs are essential in addressing the environment that can breed a violent extremist.

The fourth objective of our strategy is to amplify local credible voices that can counter the messaging of violent extremists and provide positive alternatives. This includes the important work being done by the newly-established, interagency Global Engagement Center (GEC).

The GEC is coordinating interagency efforts aimed at undermining terrorist messaging. It is building a network of credible messengers around the world, those closer to and whose voices can resonate with target audiences. The GEC is also undertaking strategic campaigns to highlight the hypocrisy of ISIL’s messaging, for example, by amplifying the voices of disillusioned former fighters, family members, and victims of terrorist attacks.

We are also supporting the UAE’s new messaging hub – the Sawab Center – which is helping to expose ISIL for what it is – terrorists whose victims are overwhelmingly Muslim men, women, and children. The Sawab Center uses direct online engagement to counter terrorist propaganda rapidly and effectively. A recent Sawab campaign under the hashtag “Why They Left Da’esh” gave defectors a platform to dissuade potential recruits by exposing the brutality of life under ISIL. We are working to expand this network still further, to include a number of government and non-government communicators committed to challenging ISIL’s propaganda and recruitment efforts.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation is also working to set up its own messaging hub, to encourage scholars and clerics to stress the importance of multiculturalism and religious tolerance. We’re working to lift up the voices of ISIL defectors, religious scholars, clerics and others who courageously stand up to ISIL and its warped use of Islam to justify violence.

The fifth objective of our strategy is to strengthen the capabilities of government and non-governmental actors to isolate, intervene with, and promote the rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals caught in the cycle of radicalization to violence.

In line with this objective, countering prison radicalization and promoting rehabilitation and reintegration continues to be a primary area of focus for our CVE efforts.

Prisons, as I think everyone here would know, can be hotbeds for radicalization and recruitment to violence. Prisons are often overcrowded and poorly administered, with terrorist ideologues and leaders often housed together with non-extremist offenders, an environment where terrorist recruitment can flourish. This is a problem of growing concern to governments around the world.

Working with the Department of Justice, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, UN agencies and other governments, we led a project through the Global Counterterrorism Forum to define a set of good practices on mitigating the risk of prison radicalization. These guidelines have been incorporated into training programs that we have sponsored in a number of countries and critical regions to improve prison practices and to educate government officials on strategies for reintegration.

For example, the State Department has been sponsoring a Department of Justice and UN project at high-level security prisons in Southeast Asia, training correction officials on proper management of terrorist inmates. As part of this effort, State is also funding the creation of a risk assessment tool, which will help prison officials determine the relative threat posed by each of the inmates and whether a particular inmate is a suitable candidate to be included in a rehabilitation program.

To summarize, these are the five objectives of our strategy:

1. To build international political will, partnerships, and expertise to better understand the drivers of violent extremism and mobilize effective interventions.

2. To encourage and assist partner governments to adopt more effective policies and approaches to prevent and counter the spread of violent extremism, including changing unhelpful practices where necessary.

3. To employ foreign assistance tools and approaches, including development assistance, to reduce specific political or social and economic factors that contribute to community support for violent extremism.

4. To empower and amplify locally credible voices that can change the perception of violent extremist groups among key target audiences.

5. And, to strengthen the capabilities of government and non-governmental actors to isolate, intervene with, and promote the rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals caught in the cycle of radicalization to violence.

The CT/CVE Bureau

In order to implement this new strategy, and in line with the objectives laid out in the 2015 State-USAID QDDR, we are making some changes at the Department of State that I’d like to highlight.

To begin with, we are renaming the Bureau of Counterterrorism as the “Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism.” This reflects the elevated importance of CVE as an integral element of our comprehensive counterterrorism approach, and positions the CT and CVE Bureau to serve as a focal point for CVE coordination in the Department of State.

This, in turn, will enable us to have a more strategic, integrated, and ultimately accountable approach to CVE – and to work more effectively with USAID and other U.S. government agencies. As we coordinate within State and USAID, we will also work closely with the domestic CVE task force being led by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice.

I’ll emphasize that these changes will only complement our ongoing efforts on essential counterterrorism issues like aviation security, countering the financing of terrorism, working to staunch the flow of foreign terrorist fighters, designating terrorist individuals and organizations, and building civilian counterterrorism capacity. We will not let up on any of these efforts, but seek to integrate and elevate CVE policy and programming across the Department and the broader U.S. government.


I have to say that we’re at the beginning of this effort.

We know that successful CVE programs and initiatives will depend on capable partners – in both government and in civil society and the private sector.

We rely on research institutions, such as the one right here at George Washington University, to inform us on the ever-changing world of violent extremism. We need to understand who is “vulnerable,” how one gets recruited into violent extremist groups, and what programs work to prevent and counter this.

Having case studies, such as The Program on Extremism’s recent report, “ISIS in America: from Retweets to Raqqa” is essential to this learning process. We also need the help of think tanks and academics, civil society, and grassroots religious, societal, and community leaders to identify innovative practices that are already taking place that we can build upon.

Our best partners in protecting vulnerable people from succumbing to violent extremist ideologies are located within the communities themselves – parents, teachers, families, friends, neighbors, and faith leaders.

Governments, including local authorities, must develop partnerships with these community leaders to identify vulnerable youth and prevent the spread of violent extremism. They must understand the vulnerabilities and drivers of violent extremism within their societies.

So, you may ask, what might a CVE program look like?

We are helping to build a network to connect subnational and civil society leaders to counter violent extremism in all its forms. To do so, we helped launch the Strong Cities Network. The network has more than doubled since its launch last September on the margins of the UN General Assembly and includes cities of all shapes and sizes, from Aarhus to Yaounde.

The City of Antalya (Turkey) hosted the inaugural Strong Cities Network Global Summit a few weeks ago (May 11-12), with 209 municipal and civil society leaders from more than 39 countries attending.

In addition to the summit and future regional workshops, the network will pair practitioners from cities with complementary skill sets for two-way exchanges. These programs and the in-depth exchange the Government of Denmark has set up with the cities of Amman, Beirut, and Tunis provide an example of ways to help build capacity for CVE efforts in critical areas of the world.

Another component of the Strong Cities Network is an online hub and mobile app, which allows members to connect, share lessons learned, and access toolkits to develop their own CVE strategies.

We will deepen our ongoing support for women as family, community, and political actors in recognizing and preventing radicalization into violent extremism. We are expanding support for efforts to engage and empower youth who may be susceptible to violent extremist radicalization and recruitment, including by sustaining momentum generated by the first-ever global youth CVE summit in September 2015.

Youth can also play a critical role in mobilizing public support against violent extremism, including countering violent extremist messaging. In the past, we have funded NGOs in East Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia who are mobilizing youth –led media campaigns against violent extremism in their communities.

In the Lake Chad Basin region, we are supporting youth and community leaders who are resisting Boko Haram and working to strengthen partnerships with local government authorities. We are funding multimedia efforts to counter violent extremism and promote tolerance and mutual understanding.

In East Africa, we are supporting community and civil society-led efforts to counter al-Shabaab’s recruitment. We are partnering with NGOs on targeted education programs that help young people in vulnerable areas to engage in critical thinking and to counter violent extremist messaging.

We will need resources for these efforts. We look forward to working with Congress to secure the necessary funds to develop and implement the preventive work and interventions to counter violent extremism.


In conclusion, the terrorism challenges we face continue to evolve at a rapid pace and we must adapt quickly and stay one step ahead. We can best protect America’s interests and people over the long run by engaging in vigorous diplomacy; expanding our partnerships at the bilateral, multilateral, and local levels; and promoting a holistic approach to prevent and address violent extremism.

The new strategy and the changes I’ve announced today regarding the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism will allow us to do just that.

It will allow us to coordinate and strengthen our work to prevent individuals and communities from aligning with violent extremist movements. We’ll partner with a broader range of actors for a “whole of society” approach and we’ll see that our efforts focus on the most vulnerable communities. CVE is a crucial part of a well-rounded U.S. counterterrorism strategy and foreign policy.

I invite your questions.