Event ReportsPublished on Jun 29, 2020
Preventing Violent Extremism: Building Capacities and Engaging Communities

The menace of radicalism and extremist ideology is not unknown to us. While terrorism and violent extremism itself are not new, analysts argue that the spread of ideological violence in the last decade has been aided significantly by the emergence of large and widely accessible online platforms. These, while acting as universal and democratic mediums of expression, have also been exploited as incubators for ideological violence globally—from rural hinterlands to densely populated cities—a weak link that extremist organisations have often tried  to use to their advantage. Even as online platforms use artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to combat the spread of extremist propaganda and dangerous speech, recruiters have the space to radicalise and influence young men and women to espouse violent causes and, possibly, even take up arms in the real world, in the hope that the volume of traffic on such platforms becomes a cover for their activities. To counter the viral spread of dangerous narratives—whether Jihadi violence propagated by groups like the Islamic State and its franchisees/affiliates, or more recently violence by white supremacists like the world has witnessed in New Zealand, Germany and the United States—there is a dire need for law enforcement, grassroots organizations, stakeholders from civil society and social media platforms to collaborate and redouble their efforts in order to engage with communities and create an agile, adaptable framework that can be used across regions, incidents, and capabilities.

Given this context, the roundtable session was aimed at focusing on some of the key issues that make tackling and preventing violent extremism in India a challenging prospect. The roundtable brought together law enforcement agencies, civil sector organisations, and private corporations, who are at the forefront of the fight against radicalism and extremism in the 21st century. It engaged the perspectives and opinions of various stakeholders who play a major role in the way we comprehend and counter extremist and radical behavior. 

Defining the problem

One of the pressing issues that needs to be addressed while discussing extremism is the need to coherently define it and other terminology related to it and, more explicitly, the need for a clear distinction between ‘extremism’ and ‘violent extremism’. Law enforcement agencies in India have been working with various understandings of extremism and have largely adopted a ‘post-hoc’ approach to radicalisation, tackling and attempting to reverse extremist ideology only after it has been identified. Instead, some participants from law enforcement and the military suggested a more holistic approach which aims to counter extremist ideology before it influences a significant number of people, especially in the case of younger minds.

Educating the young

Over the past decade, the Islamic State has managed to recruit many youths from Europe—however, pushed back from that frontier, they have set their sights on South Asia. Several participants emphasised on educating youth or other impressionable minds as a counter to the influence of extreme ideologies. Civil society actors argued for the need to reframe the notion of ‘counter-narratives’ especially in the context of violence in Kashmir, in order for them to build trust while working with at risk youth, rather than be seen as ‘collaborators’ with law enforcement. It is also equally important to enable those working in countering violent extremism on the field with the agency to take preventive and corrective action, in order to reduce the allure of radicalism to those vulnerable to espousing violence.

Civil society organisations also asserted that proactive interventions need to be made from a very early stage to effectively tackle extremist ideologies and its spillover effects. Special emphasis was given to the youth, in particular their susceptibility to such narratives and consequent policy interventions in terms of mentoring them, helping at-risk youth reintegrate with society, and developing proactive mechanisms to effectively engage with them. An initiative by a Jammu & Kashmir-based grassroots organisation was also elaborated as an exemplar in this regard. Other grassroots organisations also stressed the necessity of adopting new terminology; the vulnerable groups they work with on the ground are not always receptive to the connotations that are attached to the problematic narrative of ‘victim versus perpetrator’.

A collaborative effort

The stakeholders at the roundtable presented unique viewpoints to counter extremism through building capacities, offering several ways of approaching the problem. The dialogue offered various solutions that ranged from engaging in reliable information dissemination to greater transparency between government agencies and the common man. Effectively countering extremism and radical ideology necessitates  engagement with all, which includes non-state actors who may not be seen as conventional stakeholders but whose local expertise is crucial to addressing this issue. This can only be possible with an environment of trust and transparency prevailing between the government and other stakeholders on the ground.

However, this also comes with its problems: due to the genesis of radicalisation and its viral spread (not dissimilar to the spread of COVID-19 in 2020), it is difficult to attribute the root of radicalism to any particular platform, organisation, or individual, and therefore enact proactive measures to prevent its spread. The emergence of online platforms also presents an issue of quantity—their large user bases become fertile grounds for propaganda and hate speech to flourish. The current environment of inter-community conflict also adds fuel to the burning fire of radicalisation in India today. Counter terrorism scholars present at the round table pointed out the need for Indian law enforcement to confront and address what one called ‘the elephant in the room’—right-wing Hindu extremism—both as violent extremism in and of itself, and as a driver of Jihadi radicalisation. The attempt to leverage images from the Delhi riots for an India specific ISIS propaganda online publication was an alarm bell earlier this year.

Deradicalisation programmes already in effect in places like Kerala and Maharashtra are a step towards addressing violent extremism more effectively. However, the fact that they are run by Anti-Terror Squads and placed squarely under the national security and counter terrorism umbrella have made them both inefficient and opaque in their functioning. Such frameworks will be better served by dedicated police officers. This issue must be resolved to facilitate dialogue,  information transparency, and community engagement.

The Road Ahead

The multi-stakeholder roundtable also brought forth various lines of thought and actionable objectives that could be implemented to counter violent extremism and build capabilities across all constituent groups. Radicalisation, the trigger of extremism, was discussed at great length. There was unanimous agreement that misinformation is an inseparable accessory to extremism. One serving police officer referred to the two problems as ‘siamese twins.’ Recognizing the relative lack of coordination among stakeholders that dogs the fight against violent extremism,   the need for a synchronised approach was stressed by all participants. It was also acknowledged that countering falsehoods, misinformation, and extremism with credible and affirmative narratives were most effective, with public participation being imperative to its success. The need for credible messengers and channels was highlighted as an essential part of the counter-speech process by all stakeholders in this regard.

The panel also looked at the larger issues of online action, accountability, and a possible pivot from reaction to proaction. With this context, representatives from Facebook, that facilitated this round-table, elucidated their approach to countering extremist content and amplifying counter-speech efforts. Efforts in actualising a trustworthy and safe digital environment, powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning, were described in great detail. Further, they told participants, these measures are complemented by human intervention, in order to better understand socio-cultural nuances while detecting bad actors and flagging suspicious activity. In terms of bolstering counter-speech actions at the grassroots level, programs piloted by social media platforms implemented in conjunction with civil society were also outlined. Such initiatives worked towards imparting digital literacy and awareness and increasing public access to counter-speech tools. A collaborative, consensus-driven framework, keeping privacy, security, and expression imperatives in mind, was agreed by all as the need of the hour.

This report was written by Rutvi Zamre and Siddhant Chatterjee, Research Interns at ORF
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