This piece appeared in The Hill Times on July 8, 2019
If there is one buzzword that has gained a lot of ground in Canada and elsewhere in the post 9/11 period it is CVE (which stands for Countering Violent Extremism; sometimes it is also called PCVE – Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism). This field of work is the purview of those who claim to be able to prevent people from radicalising to violence and eventually becoming terrorists or undermine the messages coming from groups such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State so that those exposed to the propaganda do not succumb to it. There is a further industry which covers ‘deradicalisation’, i.e. undoing the terrorist recruitment and belonging processes, but this will not be discussed here.
In Canada CVE is big business. Public Safety Canada (PSC) (NB I worked there on secondment from CSIS from 2013 to 2015) has spent tens of millions on it since the early 2010s. The original focus was on research to see what makes terrorism tick – this was called the Kanishka Project, a five-year $10 million program that came out of the Air India Inquiry recommendations – and a few years ago the department announced a further five year $35 million effort, part of which is to fund initiatives across the country.
Who can argue with trying to prevent terrorism? Even if the threat in Canada is small, as I have repeatedly stated, it is still worth stopping (although there are many much larger societal problems like gangs and drugs that kill orders of magnitude more Canadians each year terrorism does have a hold on our imaginations and must be confronted). So kudos to PSC (I rarely find occasion to say that!)!
In what should come as a surprise to no one, the dangling of $35 million in public funds has attracted a lot of interest. I believe that many who applied for money have good ideas and probably all have good intentions but there is one problem that neither PSC nor anyone else for that matter has been able to resolve when it comes to CVE: what works and how would we know it if it did?
A US State Department audit recently found that the agency could not affirm that “CVE grants and cooperative agreements awarded to counter violent extremism were achieving desired results.” The reasons for this lack of assessment ability are complex but they do provide a real world answer to the above questions. In other words, we are throwing money at a problem without being able to determine whether those who get the money are actually countering or preventing terrorism (I will assume that at a minimum those efforts are not making matters worse in a sort of primum non nocere – do no harm).
The fact is that it is really hard to determine whether efforts to stem radicalisation to violence work. In part, this is because the reasons why terrorists are made are multiple and complicated and each person goes through an individualised transformation. This complexity requires individualised attention. Furthermore, how long do you monitor someone to conclude that s/he will not end up killing in the name of an ideology? Six months? A year? Two years? Who has the resources to do that kind of follow-up?
On the other hand, we know that counter terrorism, the kinds of actions taken by CSIS and the RCMP, work when plots are foiled and terrorists are tried, convicted and thrown in jail. That is an easy measurement to make. CVE is nothing like this.
For the record I support CVE even if I find some of the suggestions shallow and little tied to violent radicalisation prevention (i.e. I find way too much attention paid to ‘marginalisation’ as the root cause of vulnerability). At the same time we need to develop effectiveness measurement tools. I know that this is the #1 challenge for many countries involved in CVE initiatives so I cannot chastise Canada and PSC too much. Still, would it not be important to know how the money spent is going to make a difference before it is allocated? I am guessing that taxpayers want to know how and why their money is being doled out.
Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting and has helped deliver CVE programs across Canada.