Our Brand Is CVE: The Private Sector as an Untapped Resource in Countering Violent Extremism

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in the United States has had a problematic history since its inception in August 2011. The Obama presidency sought for it to be a community engagement- and intervention-based approach to rehabilitate those at-risk of engaging in violent extremism. At the domestic level, the DHS established a CVE Task Force along with the DoJ, and has sought to provide grant funding to NGOs and other community institutions as the first line of defense in their national security strategy. On the international level, the White House convened a summit in February 2015. Despite the noble intentions of the government, CVE has always been conflated with surveillance by the very communities it seeks to empower. This sentiment is most likely to intensify under the Trump presidency, especially following his recommendations to rebrand CVE as “countering radical Islamic extremism.”

In his defense, President Trump is right about one thing - CVE needs an overhaul, just not with its name. Theoretically, CVE is a great concept; however, it has several shortcomings. First, its definition of “at-risk” population needs to evolve to a more broad-based definition. Focusing CVE efforts on just Muslim communities is problematic, as former jihadi-sympathizer Mubin Shaikh posited at a panel discussion at Boston University. Targeting efforts within a specific community, however benign these intervention policies are, further stigmatizes the community and perpetuates the cycle of these communities feeling surveilled. It also turns a blind-eye to other strains of violent extremist activity, which is a national security concern. Second, there is a no empirical evidence that suggests that existing CVE policies have been effective in the US. If that holds true, it is imperative that DHS be open to adopting innovative policy ideas for its CVE repertoire.

That is where President Trump comes and his entrepreneurial success come in. Since terrorism is an issue that affects all of society, a “whole of society” solution should be adopted as a CVE approach. The government has partnered with NGOs, communities and civil society; however, the private sector remains relatively uninvolved.

Social media and technology companies have made headway into the realm of countering violent extremism, albeit out of public pressure. There is the argument that social media companies have a moral obligation to monitor content being posted, since propaganda available on these websites aid terrorist recruitment. Google, through its think tank Jigsaw, is collaborating on an approach known as the “redirect method,” which serves to counter ISIS recruitment online by “advertising” existing videos featuring “credible voices” such as journalists, imams and ISIS defectors to challenge the terrorist organization’s legitimacy. Twitter has been active in censoring content, while Facebook has looked into hiring terrorism experts. The government should foster public-private partnerships with technology companies, not just the giants. With such a large portion of counterterrorism online, tech companies can offer cybersecurity services such as digital forensics, advanced data analysis and blockchain for business registries. While admittedly, these ideas veer more towards the counterterrorism end of the spectrum rather than CVE, it does serve to emphasize the advantage of such cross-sector partnerships in the realm of national security. The only drawback is that CVE efforts from social media companies have focused on radical jihad; however, Jigsaw announced that the “phase two” of their project will target far-right extremism in North America. It is reassuring that Google does not prescribe to the short-sighted idea that CVE is limited to Muslim communities, unlike President Trump.

Public-private partnerships mustn’t be limited to social media and technology companies. However, for most companies CVE goes beyond a healthy dose of corporate social responsibility. For many in the private sector, CVE is a politically controversial topic and consequently, shareholders are cautious about getting involved. That is where the business case comes in. Companies around the world are impacted by violence - be it through the disruption of supply chains or reduced returns on investment in countries directly affected by violence. There is a vested interest for companies to make financial and technical contributions to CVE. For instance, the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF) has approximately $25 million in funding, with no donations from the private sector. The GCERF is supporting pilot CVE projects in Bangladesh, Mali and Nigeria by providing grants to NGOs and could benefit from funding for the continuity of such projects. The lack of private sector funding can be explained by the absence of real immediate returns in such projects. If that is the case, an alternative is for companies to establish corporate social responsibility projects in vulnerable communities, such as direct funding for educational and training programs that provide an alternative pathway to radicalization.

There is evidence to the benefit of public-private partnership in CVE efforts domestically and globally. Through financial and technical contributions, CVE efforts can be overhauled. For a President that is counting on private sector solutions to address American problems, engaging corporations in CVE should have already been a no-brainer.