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Current Priorities in Counterterrorism and Prevention: Results of the CENS Online Expert Survey

Current Priorities in Counterterrorism and Prevention: Results of the CENS Online Expert Survey
4th August 2021 Cameron Sumpter
In Insights

The Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) in Singapore designed a survey to assess the pandemic’s impact on violent extremist networks, as well as counterterrorism priorities in different regions. Between January and March 2021, CENS received 65 responses from some of the world’s leading experts in terrorism studies and practitioners active in the field.

This Insight is the second of two result summaries: The first focused on current and emerging threats, while the present analysis looks at perceptions of initiatives aimed to counter and prevent terrorism and violent extremism. For questions related to the associated policy and practice, respondents were asked to indicate the relative importance of several areas and approaches. Categories ranged from border security and intelligence collection to prisoner management and prevention in school settings.

A key takeaway was that greater priority should be given to in-person prevention initiatives, such as those aiming to reduce recidivism among prisoners, and community-based intervention programmes with effective stakeholder coordination.

Online counter-messaging strategies received comparatively little endorsement. Respondents indicated that initiatives such as social media campaigns were less of a priority than offline engagements. This sentiment emerged despite an evident majority who considered the ‘online information space’ to be the key area which violent extremists had attempted to exploit during the pandemic.

While the Internet is clearly a crucial arena for disruption, recruitment and propaganda among violent extremists, experts appear unconvinced that advertising more constructive perspectives and debates can be an effective counterpunch. Perhaps this suggests it is more important to scrutinise the online tools and processes themselves rather than attempting to win a war of ideas through content creation.

Given CENS’ location in Singapore and our primary research links, just over half of those who completed the survey were based in Southeast Asia, and the majority of the rest were in Europe and North America. Comparing and contrasting views from our region and ‘the West’ produced some notable parallels and divergence.

The most pressing counterterrorism priorities according to respondents from the West were prison-based strategies to rehabilitate inmates convicted of terrorism offences and reintegration initiatives following their release. Over 96% of respondents from Europe and North America signalled a need to give greater priority to prison programmes in their respective areas of focus, and 89% thought the same for post-release reintegration management.

For those based in Southeast Asia, roughly 95% stated that community-based preventing/countering violent extremism (P/CVE) programmes and effective coordination among stakeholders were areas demanding greater emphasis.

Notably, the repatriation and reintegration of nationals involved in terrorist activity abroad was considered less pressing, with 73% of respondents in Southeast Asia and just 59% of those in the West stating that such efforts deserved to be more of a priority.

Only around a quarter of respondents in Europe and North America saw border controls as a current counterterrorism concern, but this figure rose to almost 60% for those in Southeast Asia.

International movement may now be viewed less urgently with the demise of the so-called caliphate and the prevailing COVID-19 travel restrictions. But the issue still carries more weight in Southeast Asia, as the tri-border areas around the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas continue to attract militant activity.

A major difference between the two sets of respondents was the importance of assisting the families of both convicted violent extremists and the victims of terrorist violence. Among those in Southeast Asia, 88% stated that helping the families of victims should be given greater priority, while only 68% of respondents focused on the West believed it should.

Support for the families of prisoners produced an even starker distinction, with 95% of those working on Southeast Asia calling for more priority given to this assistance, compared to only 67% of those focused on the West. Building trust and goodwill among convicted terrorists by helping their families is a key disengagement strategy in Indonesia, for example. Varying conceptions of risk and political concerns may hinder this approach in other nations.

A greater disparity still was seen in the relative importance of former violent extremists as interlocutors in P/CVE programmes. Two-thirds of respondents in Southeast Asia deemed formers to be key stakeholders in prevention and disengagement initiatives, compared with only a quarter of those in the West.

Another point of comparison and contrast observed in the survey results was between researchers and practitioners primarily concerned with Salafi-Jihadi extremism and others focused more on a loosely defined spectrum of ‘far-right’ extremists.

Perceived counterterrorism priorities were mostly similar, with intervention programmes largely favoured – particularly in prison settings, for those focused on the far-right. Again, online counter-messaging initiatives received limited support compared with in-person programmes, for both sets of specialists.

One substantial difference was the importance currently placed on intelligence collection among far-right researchers and practitioners, with over 90% calling for greater relative priority, compared with just 72% of those working on Salafi-Jihadism.

These statistical results come with fairly clear caveats. The project was not intended to be a robust quantitative study, but rather a snapshot of current perspectives among experts who have covered these issues and their evolutions over the past several years.

P/CVE programmes in and out of prison are difficult to evaluate, and enthusiasm among policy makers and donors may waver with fluctuations in the perceived threat of terrorism. For expert researchers and practitioners, there appears to be significant ongoing confidence in such in-person prevention efforts as a counterterrorism priority, but much less so for those conducted online.

A more thorough presentation of the results can be found here.