Narrowing the Trust Gap: A Rights-Based Approach for CVE

Tom Malinowski
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Democracy and Counterterrorism Conference
Algiers, Algeria
September 7, 2016

As prepared for delivery

Thank you, Minister Messahel for inviting me to this conference and for this opportunity to speak to its participants. It’s good to see so many representatives of governments and law enforcement agencies, multilateral organizations like the African Union and the Arab League, and the many civil society members engaged in the vital work of building community resilience. On behalf of Secretary Kerry and President Obama, I’d like to thank you for your work and partnership in countering violent extremism. Thank you for organizing this conference around our shared conviction that democracy is the antidote to terrorism. I affirm the United States’ strong support for Algeria in your effort.

The United States has been confronting this threat at home and abroad for many years now, and we’ve learned some hard lessons along the way. Algeria faced it before we did. We have so much to learn from Algeria’s experience in overcoming its “dark decade” through its National Reconciliation process, and I very much look forward to the insights my Algerian counterparts will share.

The threat of violent extremism has evolved over the years. When I hear the stories that survivors of Daesh tell – stories of entire communities murdered or enslaved because of their faith; of young girls bought and sold; of families forced to turn in their loved ones for execution to prove their loyalty – it seems to me that this is not just a terrorist group in the sense that we once understood that term. It represents something more akin to Nazism. It is a nihilistic movement that offers absolute power to one group of people by dehumanizing and destroying others. It is dangerous because of what it does. It is also dangerous because of the reaction it sometimes produces in free societies, where populist demagogues propagate a message that is in some ways the mirror image of the ideology of Daesh – blaming minority groups and migrants for their nations’ problems, selling the illusion that a return to an imagined past of racial purity will bring safety, rejecting the liberal values that stand between them and power.

It is clear that those who join the violent struggle on behalf of extremist groups must be fought; there is no other way with them. What I hope we’ll talk about at this conference is the stage that comes before radicalization to violence. At this stage—we might call it pre-radicalization—there is still a contest for the allegiance of young people vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist groups.

The profiles and pathologies of these vulnerable people vary greatly. But organizations like Daesh, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, have learned how to offer them something that they want. Perhaps it is the thrill of breaking rules, of smashing things, of feeling power over others; maybe it is the comfort of belonging to and being respected by a group; it could be the glory of fighting and dying in a blaze of fire; it may even be something as mundane as money and a job. But however the bond is made, it can be hard to break, as those involved in de-radicalization can attest. It’s plain, then, that our biggest challenge is to win this contest before our enemies do, to deny violent extremist narratives safe haven in minds that are still open to persuasion.

There are many strategies for doing this. And here is the key point: All of them—whether they involve giving people education, employment, security, or a sense of purpose an in their lives—depend on maintaining trust between governments and the communities most vulnerable to radicalization. To do any of these things well, we must keep the trust of the community leaders and family members who are closest to the young people we are trying to reach, and ultimately we must win the trust of those young people themselves.

Let me give one example of what I mean.

A couple of years ago, I met a group of refugees who had fled a terror-ridden country in Africa on account of insecurity. They were trained professionals who had found work in their host country, but when I asked what their new life was like, they said that each one of them had at some point been arrested by the police in their new community. Each time, they’d be held until a relative or friend could pay a bribe to get them out. One joked that they called their local police station the “people market.” Seeing as how they had fled terrorism, I asked them if a scary terrorist moved into their neighborhood, would they call the police? They laughed, and one man replied: “Of course not. If we did that, either the police would arrest us again to get a bribe, or, if they arrested the terrorist, someone would bribe him out, and then he’d come to kill us.”

And I thought, there, in a nutshell, is our problem. If people who fear terrorists will not report them to the police, because they fear the police just as much, then we cannot even begin to do the things that are necessary to secure their communities.

So how do we, as governments, win and keep public trust?

First, we have to respect the rights of our citizens. This means no tolerance for official corruption. It also means no torture or secret detention. There is no use of these tactics that doesn’t play right into the extremists’ hands, undermining our moral advantage.

Second, we must maintain our citizens’ faith that it is possible to pursue change by peaceful means. That means allowing people to protest peacefully. It means letting journalists and bloggers write freely, and fighting back with arguments and facts when they criticize us, not with intimidation or imprisonment. It means letting citizens change us -- their leaders – in democratic elections, and encouraging young people to get involved in that process.

I recently met a young man who had been imprisoned in a Middle Eastern country for protesting against his government. In this prison, young, idealistic, peaceful activists who had believed they could get democracy in their country were locked up right beside hardcore members of Daesh, often treated even worse than the terrorists. And each day, the terrorists said to the activists: “You were fools to think you could change anything through politics; violence is the only weapon that works—that is why we are winning and you will be crushed.”

If people are cynical about politics, if they think nothing will ever change that way, they will be more open to arguments from extremist groups that are also cynical but at least offer them a sense of power, glory, or belonging.

Third, we must remember that governments can do very little alone. Terrorists offer their recruits a social network, and can only be defeated by a stronger social network—by the religious leaders, teachers, community workers, and NGO activists who live among, serve, and know how to reach those most vulnerable to the extremist narrative. When extremist organizations move in to a neighborhood, it is through civil society that citizens will organize against them. If we support and trust these groups, we will have partners who give young people alternatives to violence. If they trust us, then they will give us early warning when a grievance needs to be addressed or a problem solved. That’s why defunding and demoralizing NGOs is such a bad idea. They need a seat at the table when we decide our security policies, and the space to work independently, with the support of international donors when they choose.

Now I know that there are so-called charities that function like NGOs and fund terrorist groups. But we don’t need to limit freedoms for all of civil society to crack down on these criminal groups; all we need is good intelligence and application of criminal law.

Terrorists don’t need freedom of association to raise money through their underground networks or extortion and kidnapping rackets. They don’t need freedom of speech or assembly to walk into a public place and gun people down. They don’t need our generosity to refugees to find a way to slip across our borders, or to radicalize someone born within them. It is the people who keep our societies strong and resilient against terrorism who need rights and freedoms to survive—the champions of moderation whose only weapon is their pen and their voice, the journalists who force governments to be more honest and thus more legitimate, the youth groups, the NGOs and political parties through which young people find positive paths to a purposeful life, the people fleeing terror who one day will go home to take back their countries.

This brings me to my final point—on the so-called “balance” between rights and security. This is the subject of the panel I will chair this afternoon. And this question of “balance” is so critical to our ability to win the pre-radicalization phase, and to make sure that the terrorists lose in their contest for the allegiance of the young and vulnerable. At the risk of giving away all the detail of this afternoon’s discussion, I’d like to tell you my basic argument.

Of course there are times when we do sacrifice some degree of liberty for higher assurances of security—when we submit to airport searches and customs screenings, or with proper judicial supervision, to electronic surveillance. But these are rare and discrete examples. When we allow such compromises we must be prepared to justify them, not with abstract arguments about the balance between liberty and security, but by demonstrating why each is specifically necessary. And we must accept that the people subjected to such measures still have rights and dignity.

In a broader sense, the notion of a “balance” between rights and security sets up a false choice. It is the view of the United States that human rights and security must be protected together, indeed, can only be protected together.

Thank you again Minister Messahel, for this opportunity. I look forward to a lively and productive discussion over the next two days.