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:
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.