Why I support CVE

For some it might seem a bit odd that a person who spent three decades in intelligence, and half of that  in counter terrorism especially, might think that there is a solution other than investigation and incarceration for terrorists.  After all, terrorism is a real threat and we cannot be naive about it.  How can it be that someone who has seen the worst of the worst now believes that we have to search for another way?

Well, I am that someone.

Don’t get me wrong.  I truly accept that we need to take the hardest measures a state can leverage against its citizens in some cases.  For 15 years I saw how deeply a handful of Canadian Islamist extremists hate our country: who we are, what we stand for and what we have built.  These terrorists would have killed us had they had the opportunity and capability.  Make no mistake, these are very dangerous people.  I also firmly believe that in some instances these terrorists are irredeemable.  We should not waste resources on these.  I know that this will disgust and offend many, but for a tiny few the only solution is a bullet in the back of the head.

And yet as an intelligence professional of many years’ standing I agree wholeheartedly with those who have said that we cannot “arrest our way” out of this.  I just had lunch with a Dutch kindred spirit whose background is very similar to mine and he used the metaphor of water draining out of a bathtub – except that the water never stops (I hope I got the Dutch idiom right).  We must indeed ensure that those whose job it is to keep us safe – security intelligence and law enforcement agencies – have both our support and the necessary resources so that they can do their very important work.  But the hard way is not the only way and we need a complementary plan.

That other way is CVE – countering violent extremism.  The term means different things to different people and it comprises a whole gamut of programmes but the overarching idea is that you take action to divert individuals from the path of violent radicalisation and extremism before your spies and cops need to get involved.  The right plan will vary from country to country, city to city and even neighbourhood to neighbourhood, and it is important to get local actors who know local realities involved.  The theory is in a state of flux but there are already some interesting applications in several countries.

I support CVE as a concept for several reasons:

  • it is relatively cheap.  Counter terrorism is VERY expensive, on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars: CVE is orders of magnitude less expensive
  • it is an easy sell to communities.  If the only interaction between the state and its citizens is through a security lens cooperation is hard to accept.  CVE provides a more nuanced view
  • it can help in other areas of society like cohesion, resilience, democratic participation, acceptance of difference and overall societal balance
  • if it works we have saved a lot of money and avoided unnecessary death and family tragedy.  If not we always have the option to involve the security services and law enforcement agencies

I am not prone to Pollyannish thinking.  I am a realist and I know that CVE is not the simple solution to all of our terrorism issues.  But it is worth doing (in fact as I noted it is already being done). We need to do more and to have our governments sponsor more, with the required caveats of course (pick the right partners to deal with, have some way to measure effectiveness, etc.).  We also need some more research but we cannot afford to wait until further study may possibly give us some partial answers.  Violent radicalisation and extremism are a fact and in some areas of the world they are getting worse.  We must act now.

Just as a doctor pushes preventative medicine as well as surgery when needed so an old spy can push CVE as well as investigation when so needed.  I have been privy to some very dedicated and passionate people doing amazing work on the ground here in the Netherlands and back home in Canada.  This is not an either-or issue.  We can implement harder responses as well as CVE simultaneously on a case by case basis.  While the two approaches may be mutually exclusive in a given circumstance they are not so in a general way.

Besides, do we really have a choice?  Can we choose not to do CVE and expect to see some gains in our fight against intolerance and religious hate?  I think not.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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