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Evidence against Extremism: Measuring Matters

Programs in high-risk security environments thrive when payoffs can be better articulated.

The global security landscape has shifted substantially in the two decades since the attacks of September 11, 2001. While key tactical gains have weakened some violent extremist organizations (VEOs), the overarching threat they represent has become more diversified, dispersed, and complex. As such, professionals involved in contemporary counterterrorism or countering violent extremism (CT/CVE) interventions must contend with an astonishing array of contextual issues when designing and measuring the effectiveness of their projects, including socioeconomic, cultural, psychological, historical, and environmental factors.

The U.S. Institute of Peace recognizes this challenge, stating, “There is no defined set of practices, methods, or approaches used to evaluate the impact of programs that have the goal of preventing or countering violent extremism.” However, while linear causation is nearly impossible under given constraints, proving correlation is possible, albeit challenging. As security players attempt to attribute which of their actions contributed to change—if at all—there are ways to bring systematic learning into play.

For example, Dexis’ work with the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Bureau resulted in bringing methodological rigor and new frameworks to CT/CVE work in a complicated operating environment. The starting point was when State’s Bureau of African Affairs Office of Regional Peace and Security (AF/RPS) asked the Dexis team to track, monitor, and measure the impact of historical, ongoing, and new CT/CVE projects across the continent. Working in conjunction with AF/RPS, we were able to apply standards and lessons learned to monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of CT/CVE projects, including counter-messaging.

The Dexis team evaluated a specific AF/RPS-funded project in West Africa that involved strengthening a military’s counter-messaging capabilities. The intervention trained partner nation military personnel on communications equipment, as well as how to engage regionally isolated and socio-politically marginalized populations, build rapport, understand citizens’ concerns regarding VEOs, and ultimately craft messaging to combat VEO narratives.

In the case of the project in West Africa, we examined counter-messaging and CVE best practices, which included striving for inclusivity (e.g., men, women, and cross-generational perspectives) so that messaging resonates with wider audiences. The counter-messaging efforts worked on two fronts: to counter VEOs’ narratives and to strengthen the presence and populations’ orientation to national government and security forces.

The evaluation offered a couple of key methodological insights, including:

  1. Apply Complexity-Aware Practices: An essential starting point is to compile country- and local-level histories to understand existing tensions and social divisions. This context provides the baseline to further investigate the experiences of similar efforts and helps when revisiting risks and assumptions in programming and data collection. We used intervention, interaction, and context indicators as well as regularly incorporating external research and academic sources to compare/contrast with findings. We benefited from applying key methods to gathering such context including using principles of Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) to add depth and nuance to our understanding of the social and historical complexities at play.
  2. Take a Conflict-Sensitivity Approach: Conflict-sensitivity requires adaptive approaches, specialized staff, and tailored policies to build social cohesion and trust and prevent inadvertently worsening local dynamics. Conducting a detailed conflict analysis at the start informs programming by outlining major areas of social division, identifying opportunities for building social connections, and proposing risk mitigation measures if needed along the way. In the case of the counter-messaging project, we conducted a historical socio-cultural analysis of the threat environment with detailed primary data collection, aligned analyses to project implementation activities, and correlated findings with project outputs and outcomes.
  3. Assemble a Multidisciplinary Team: A foundational element of evaluating CT/CVE programming involves engaging a multidisciplinary team combining not only deep knowledge of interagency M&E policies but also extensive regional expertise and academic rigor (e.g., in conducting intensive long-term qualitative and quantitative research in complex environments and adapting to fluid contexts). Collectively, the team must be able to speak different technical languages—military, policy, academic, etc.—with authority. Being able to navigate cultural differences and remaining sensitized to different stakeholders’ perspectives allowed our team to navigate the existing lack of systematic approaches to work through the key issues, helping both M&E and project design to be more effective.

Terrorism and violent extremism represent a complex problem set, not only of VEOs and their tactics but of international CT/CVE efforts as well. To make headway in analyzing and affecting relevant dynamics requires skilled personnel capable of creating or adapting tools and approaches, such as counter-messaging, rather than following a prescriptive formula for building a framework and collecting data. When coupled with a deep understanding of constantly shifting environments and a willingness to explore the intricate socio-cultural histories of the regions, approaches can help lay the groundwork to advance partner nations’ security and stabilization plans and U.S. foreign policy interests.

Porter Bourie, PhD contributed to this blog. Porter is a Senior Technical Advisor at Dexis, where he leads M&E programming on U.S. Department of State contracts.