Small Wars Journal

Lessons Learned from Countering Violent Extremism Development Interventions

Tue, 04/25/2017 - 8:06am

A Small Wars Journal and Military Writers Guild Writing Contest Finalist Article

Lessons Learned from Countering Violent Extremism Development Interventions

Steph Schmitt

The development and military communities hold fundamentally different mandates to address terrorism and insurgency. The development community’s role is largely preventative, whereas the military frequently serves in a reactionary role to a well-established terrorist or insurgent force. Counterterrorism and counterinsurgency are not new challenges for the military, but in the development community Countering Violent Extremism (CVE, the preferred terminology) is a relatively new goal. The most obvious difference is also the defining one: development workers are unarmed and serve no kinetic function in counterterrorism strategy. Although the tactics and operations employed by each community differ drastically, the lessons that Dr. David Kilcullen posits for company-level commanders embarking on a counterinsurgency are still vital considerations for a development worker standing up a CVE project. Both groups need to consider the importance and limitations of diagnosing the problem, engaging the women, and seeking early victories.

In this essay I identify parallels between three lessons posited in Kilcullen’s “28 Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency” and key principles that have been validated through trial and error in the CVE development community. Drawing on academic research, case studies, government policies, and occasionally personal experience I address the following questions:

What are the practical lessons learned in the development community (with particular focus on the United States Agency for International Development, USAID) on implementing successful Countering Violent Extremism interventions? How do these lessons mirror, conflict with, or expand on the military-centric principles identified in Kilcullen’s 28 Articles?

By answering these questions through the prism of Kilcullen’s message to company-level commanders, my goal is to address a serious problem facing CVE: although predicated on a whole of government approach, efforts are often stove piped and certain activities are not understood or embraced by many outside the development community. Additionally, both development experts and their military counterparts are being asked to work outside their comfort zones, making it particularly important that lessons learned are shared effectively. On the development side, CVE is an unorthodox, sometimes controversial, activity and its inherently political nature may risk jeopardizing other humanitarian missions. For the military, programs such as the Provincial Reconstruction Teams - which promote aid distribution, public diplomacy, and economic development - force warfighters from their traditional domains into “soft” counterterrorism approaches. Other initiatives, such as CERP funds (Commander’s Emergency Response Program) - which use a small, flexible grant-making mechanism that allows teams on the ground to rapidly respond to the needs of local communities - closely mirror USAID tactics. Because “soft” counterterrorism approaches pose both a new challenge and there are increasing areas of overlap, the lessons learned in the development community can expand and inform those in the military community, and vice versa.

Background: CVE in the International Development Context

CVE is a non-kinetic facet of the U.S. Government’s broader counterterrorism strategy that generally refers to preventative actions and interventions to undermine the appeal of Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) and ideologies that seek to promote violence.[1] CVE can be used to disrupt recruitment; prevent radicalization; build community resilience to violence; and offer alternative narratives, livelihoods, or capabilities to individuals and groups at risk of being influenced by VEOs.[2]

Development CVE interventions focus on addressing a variety of political, economic, or socioeconomic drivers that either “push” or “pull” individuals towards extremism. Pull factors, such as a sense of belonging, respect, or material resources are benefits individuals gain from joining a VEO. Push factors, including perceptions of government repression, social exclusion, or economic marginalization often create feelings of disassociation between individuals and their communities, making them more vulnerable recruitment targets. The range of development interventions available are as varied as the driving factors they seek to address. Community theater programs to peacefully explore social grievances, radio programming championing dispute resolution techniques, book clubs that promote broader access to ideas, and government capacity building to bolster rule of law while addressing social grievances are all examples of CVE programs implemented in recent years.

CVE is in many ways new to the development community (although activities are often similar those in traditional stabilization and conflict resolution initiatives). For example, USAID only began explicitly programming for CVE in West Africa, arguably one of the regions most direly in need of support, in 2006.[3] Many in the community today still hesitate to embrace CVE programming for fear that it will result in USAID being seen as a quasi-security agency, a classification that could impede its humanitarian mission. 

Lessons Learned: Development Intervention and Kilcullen’s 28 Articles

Below I discuss three key lessons learned that Kilcullen outlined in his 28 Articles of Counterinsurgency: diagnosing the problem, engage women, and seek early victories. I analyze how these lessons learned in the context of development interventions either reflect, differ, or expand on what Kilcullen has identified in the realm of military counterterrorism efforts.

Diagnose the Problem

Kilcullen writes: “So you must understand what motivates the people and how to mobilize them. You need to know why and how the insurgents are getting followers. This means you need to know your real enemy, not a cardboard cut-out.”[4] The development community fully embraces this principle, but has come to learn (sometimes painfully) that this is easier said than done. USAID, which prides itself on being research driven, academic, and reflective lists diagnosing the problem as the first step in CVE programming. In 2009, the Agency published a “Guide to the Drivers of Violent Extremism” manual. This meticulously researched document accompanied a programming guide for practitioners seeking to engage in CVE work, which outlined six essential steps for starting an activity. The first step is to determine the overarching characteristics of the phenomenon, such as social, economic, or political grievances that drive recruitment cycles. There is wide agreement that understanding the underlying causes in a violent extremism movement is key to successfully designing interventions and ensuring that activities ‘do no harm.’ The process of accurately diagnosing the problem, however, offers many lessons learned. 

One of the clearest examples of how the development community incorrectly diagnosed a violent extremism problem was by making the initial assumption that people were joining insurgencies due to economic destitution, lack of alternative livelihoods, or a promise of material gains. As a result, they designed interventions that promoted job growth, offered cash-for-work, or provided vocational training as a remedy to terrorist recruitment. There are many instances of programs that have integrated vocational training or other job-related incentives into CVE programming. For example, in 2010 USAID highlighted cash-for-work activities in Afghanistan, boldly claiming that they were providing alternative livelihoods to “would-be insurgents.”[5] While promoting economic development is itself an admirable goal, it had little effect on CVE objectives: these interventions diagnosed the wrong problem.

In 2015, Mercy Corps published a report titled “Youth and Consequences” that challenged the causal relationship between youth unemployment and their decisions to join a VEO. Drawing on research from Afghanistan, Colombia, and Somalia, researchers rejected the commonly held theory that helping youth find jobs mitigated a financial motivation for terrorism and prevented “idleness,” which was thought to open the door to recruitment. Multiple other studies have affirmed that rate of employment is not correlated to susceptibility to terrorism recruitment, despite the widely-held belief that economic motivators for recruitment are undeniable.[6]

The assumption that more employable youth will prevent extremist recruitment turned out to not only be factually incorrect, but in some cases reversed:

“Supply-side vocational training projects, not linked to meaningful employment in the marketplace, risk raising expectations that cannot be satisfied. And where programs fail to target the most marginalized – as many do – or have been manipulated by local elites, they may aggravate perceptions of unfairness.”[7]

As practitioners are coming to realize the joblessness hypothesis does not hold water, the development community has been forced to develop a more nuanced approach to initially diagnosing a violent extremism problem. Today, the focus is much more on identity, isolation, and exploited grievances as a motivating factor towards violent extremism.

The important lesson learned here is that the methodology of diagnosing the problem is vitally important. It is understandable why so many reached the conclusion about joblessness: recruits are often poor and insurgent groups do offer significant financial incentives. Last year I had the pleasure of traveling to Bamako and Motpi, Mali to conduct research on the drivers of the country’s violent extremism problem, as well as meet with local organizations that work to provide solutions. Everywhere I went I asked the same question: why do you think Malian youth are compelled to turn to violent extremist groups? Without fail everyone gave the same answer: because they lack jobs and extremist organizations will offer them quick cash. It took significant effort to dig deeper and get to answers that reflected a more nuanced understanding of the problem. Distrust in government intentions, perceived discrimination, and a weakening of traditionally stabilizing social structures are more important driving factors to violent extremist movements in Mali that could have easily been overlooked by focusing predominantly on economic problems.

How you go about diagnosing the problem is paramount and it is rarely sufficient to rely only on the opinions of government officials or other elites. It is important to always challenge assumptions and ask the critical questions when diagnosing a violent extremism problem. Social science researcher experts, who fully understand the nuances of designing surveys and interviews, need to be brought into the fold. As a community, we need to challenge conventional assumptions about violent extremism and continue to emphasize the importance of rigorously testing hypotheses. Kilcullen says “Work this problem collectively with your platoon and squad leaders. Discuss ideas, explore the problem, understand what you are facing, and seek a consensus.”[8] This lesson can be expanded to include not just those platoon and squad leaders, but also academics, community members, civil society leaders, and CVE experts to avoid a superficial diagnosis of the problem.

Engage the Women

Until recently gender has been an often overlooked and oversimplified component of proposed CVE solutions and sometimes completely ignored when diagnosing recruitment motivations. Kilcullen identifies the important role that women can play in placating conflict and winning over the family unity. He further notes that, just as they have been in development solutions, women are often ignored as agents of change. (In this point Kilcullen also notes a need for wariness towards children in conflict, which I do not discuss.) Both assuming women have no role in a solution and failing to recognize them as part of the problem are incorrect.

Frequently, women are seen exclusively as victims of violent extremism, as such, proposed interventions only address their needs in this context. In one assessment of CVE programming, a USAID official wrote: “Traditional assistance in governance, education or economic empowerment have served a mostly male beneficiary base – for the purpose of overcoming diagnosed inequalities for an entire society. In some cases we have missed half the picture.”[9] Further, because the statistical majority of recruits are male, when identifying target beneficiaries projects often exclude women as potential targets for recruitment. Increasingly, however, VEOs are recruiting women:

“Most, if not all, VEOs have female members who were recruited to engage in a wide range of roles; second, the frequency and visibility of female members within these groups are on the rise... Daesh appears to have attracted the largest number of female members. Although figures are disputed, it appears that as many as 3,000 of its 20,000 foreign fighters are women.”[10]

VEOs are increasingly exploiting the assumptions that women will neither be targeted for recruitment nor commit violent acts. Groups are tailoring their recruitment tactics to grievances unique to women, such as perceived gender discrimination or political subordination of women.[11] Boko Haram, for example, is exploiting gendered stereotypes such as the belief that a woman or girl who has “married” a fighter will never be able to be reintegrated into communities, even if she was kidnapped, raped, and forced into that marriage. CVE activities need to address these cultural perceptions about gender and activities should increasingly focus on messages of equality and respect. If CVE policy continues to shy away from addressing gender inequality - either because it is not seen as important or due to a fear that it could conflict with other objectives, such as building ties with traditional leaders - VEOs will continue to exploit women and girls as recruits. Failure to address these grievances will have real results. Because they are an ignored demographic, it is often easier for women and girls to commit terrorist attacks, as is tragically illustrated by the dramatic uptick in the use of female suicide bombers in Cameroon and Nigeria.[12]

Instead, practitioners of CVE need to seek out the unique ways in which women are engaged in the power structures of society to discover how to best engage them. As Kilcullen writes when urging the military to engage the women “Win the women, and you own the family unit. Own the family, and you take a big step forward in mobilizing the population.”[13] One innovative idea that has been employed successfully in countries such as Indonesia to stem the rise of Islamic State radicalization has been the use of “mother groups.” These forums provide female members of society with information about recruitment warning signs in their community and practical tools for how address them. 

Our understanding of how women are recruited must be nuanced: we need to recognize that it is frequently different than how men are recruited, reintegration can often come with a unique set of problems and stigmas, and thus, CVE solutions need to be gender-sensitive. CVE interventions that address perceived inequities in society need to make gender equity a priority, even in societies that may not traditionally embrace this goal.

Seek Early Victories

Kilcullen writes that it is important to “Stamp your dominance in your sector. Do this by seeking an early victory.”[14] He goes on to qualify that this victory will likely be small, but vital to building momentum. Many facets of development programming also embrace this principle: projects are encouraged to publicize early victories to win additional funding, gain the support of host-governments, and prove their worth to the community early. While this is an alluring goal, it is easier said than done in CVE programming. In fact, focusing too much on early victories may ultimately undermine real progress. It is important to balance a desire for quick wins with the realization that counterterrorism takes time: successes, and thus investments, should be measured in years and maybe even decades. Further, for CVE projects to be successful, they must rely on local actors, a mandate which often goes hand in hand with setbacks in timing due to frequently lower capacity in host governments, local NGOs, and other leaders unfamiliar with CVE work. Because of the precedent that success needs to be established rapidly, activities are often performed through international experts or firms. As a result, developing the skills of locals, who have long-term interests in the resolution of the conflict, is deprioritized.

Instead of a focus on early victories, CVE programming needs to emphasize setting up capacity building initiatives, even if it means lengthening the timeframe for CVE activities and objectives. Thankfully, this lesson learned is becoming increasingly embraced by the community. The 2016 Department of State and USAID Joint CVE Strategy listed government capacity building as one of its key strategic objectives, and noted that providing training and resources on CVE objectives and tactics must be extended to partner governments, civil society, police, justice officials, and others. Working through local partners has long been a key principle of USAID programming and is the cornerstone of the (relatively) new USAID Forward Initiative. USAID Forward recognizes that “in order to achieve long-term sustainable development, we have to support the institutions, private sector partners and civil society organizations that serve as engines of growth and progress for their own nations.”[15]

Despite this, a criticism of previous CVE projects has been that when they close they do not sufficiently prepare local actors to fill their place.[16] There are many reasons for this, one of which is the fact that capacity is often so low to begin with that projects cannot achieve their goals and meet stringent USAID standards while working predominantly through local actors. Another issue might be that there is distrust about working collectively on CVE issues, required for effective capacity building and long-term success:

“Participants suggested that governments take the first step in promoting cross-sectoral collaboration by convening dialogues between public institutions and NGOs, religious groups, businesses, community associations, recreational clubs, sports teams, and other civil society groups. Government officials admitted that they are occasionally suspicious of the motives and goals of civil society organizations. Similarly, civil society organizations expressed hesitation about partnering with government officials, fearing that their neutrality and independence might be compromised should local communities view their organizations as extensions of the state."[17]

Moving forward, CVE projects need to continue to prioritize local actors, bridge capacity gaps, overcome obstacles to cooperation, in order to foster a successful approach to long-term goals.

Additionally, the community should reduce structural barriers of entry to funding, operational support, and grant-making to local actors. Local actors working in the CVE realm find issues with obtaining and securing funding; difficulty meeting the stringent and unique requirements of international donors; and often lack the contacts within donor networks to make funding feasible. Because of these challenges local organizations and municipal governments, who are often in the best positions to be change agents in CVE initiatives, struggle to find support.[18] There are good reasons these barriers exist: there are many challenges with providing U.S. government funding to local actors in conflict zones, including screening of organizations’ backgrounds and preventing fraud, waste, and abuse. As a community, we need to continue to recognize the importance of providing local funding and capacity building, and allocate enough resources to provide the necessary training and vetting to make that possible. Initiatives such as the Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience, a public-private grass-roots grant making fund that seeks to marry local anti-extremism organizations with resources while adhering to strict vetting standards, is an important model to learn from.

Much of CVE programming examines how to identify and amplify effective counter narratives that will dissuade people from joining VEOs. Reliance on local actors is not only important to ensure the longevity of a project or its continued success, but also to ensure that messaging is genuine and believable. Local voices need to be amplified, they cannot be created. For this reason, it is vital that any CVE strategy invests in the capacity of local institutions, including civil society and community leaders. Where possible, quick wins are nice to have, but placing undue importance on difficult to attain early victories risks ignoring the larger objective of CVE programming.

Conclusion: The Importance of Future Study

Without question, the three lessons learned discussed in this article only begin to scrape the surface of what we know and must continue to discover about CVE. As a community, we need to embrace the value of learning from mistakes, and key to this practice is obtaining, analyzing, and disseminating results. In general, there is very little empirical data that can be used to form qualitative measurements of the success of CVE. A National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START) report published in 2016 found “only twenty-four studies provided data that could be broadly categorized as correlational findings of program effectiveness.”[19] This is likely in part due to the newness of the field and also because it is inherently difficult to measure results: success takes the form of a negative action, someone was prevented from becoming an extremist. Moving forward, learning from mistakes would be much easier if there is a continued emphasis placed on monitoring and evaluation, something that is often overlooked and underfunded.

Virtually any student of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency will tell you that defeating a movement requires addressing a diverse set of political, social, cultural, and historic grievances and cannot be done through kinetic means alone. During a White House Summit on CVE, participants noted that “intelligence gathering, military force, and law enforcement alone will not solve - and when misused can in fact exacerbate - the problem of violent extremism.”[20] Kilcullen expresses a similar sentiment when offering advice for company-level commanders: “In this battlefield popular perceptions and rumor are more influential than the facts and more powerful than a hundred tanks.”[21] The lessons learned analyzed in this article - diagnose the problem, engage the women, and seek early victories - are applicable beyond the development community context. CVE must take on a whole of government approach for it to be effective, and these principles should be integrated into activities implemented by the military and beyond.

End Notes

[1] The White House. Office of the Press Secretary. FACT SHEET: The White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. 18 February, 2015. Web. <>.

[2] Department of State & USAID. Joint Strategy on Countering Violent Extremism. May 2016.

[3] USAID. News and Information. Countering Violent Extremism in West Africa. October 25, 2016. Web. <>

[4] Kilcullen, David. “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency.” March, 2008.

[5] Karez, Loy. “Cash for Work - An Alternative to War.”11 October, 2010. Web. <>

[6] Berrebi, Claude. “Evidence About the Link Between Education, Poverty and Terrorism Among Palestinians.” Princeton University, Department of Economics, Industrial Relations Section, Working Paper No. 477. 2003.

[7] Proctor, Keith. “Youth & Consequences: Unemployment, Injustice and Violence.” Mercy Corps.

[8] Kilcullen, David. “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency.” March, 2008.

[9] Porter, Russell and Kristen Cordell. “3 Myths about Women and Violent Extremism.” USAID Impact Blog. 20 July, 2015. Web. <>

[10] Sjoberg, Laura and Reed Wood. “People, not Pawns: Women’s Participation in Violent Extremism Across MENA.” USAID. September, 2015.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Boko Haram crisis: ‘Huge rise’ in child suicide bombers.” BBC News Africa. 12 April, 2016. Web. <>

[13] Kilcullen, David. “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency.” March, 2008.

[14] Ibid.

[15] USAID Forward. USAID, 2 August, 2016. Web. <>

[16] Swedberg, Jeffery and Lainie Reisman. “Mid-term Evaluation of Three Countering Violent Extremism Projects.” USAID, 22 February, 2013.

[17]Preventing Youth Radicalization in East Africa.” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University. 27 January, 2012.

[18] United Nations Office for West Africa. Youth Unemployment and Regional Insecurity in West Africa. United Nations, 2005.

[19] Mastroe, Caitlin and Susan Szmania. “Surveying CVE Metrics in Prevention, Disengagement and Deraicalization Programs.” National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. March, 2016.

[20] The White House. Office of the Press Secretary. FACT SHEET: The White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. 18 February, 2015. Web. <>.

[21] Kilcullen, David. “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency.” March, 2008.


About the Author(s)

Steph Schmitt holds a M.A. in Security Studies from Georgetown University and a B.A. in International Studies from American University. She spent the past five years working for a major USAID contractor, where she became passionate about development interventions in Countering Violent Extremism. Steph resides in Kansas City, Missouri.


Bill C.

Tue, 04/25/2017 - 11:18am

Note that -- in earlier times -- one does not find luminaries such as C.E. Callwell, Rudyard Kipling and/or Joseph Schumpeter blaming the negative reactions (for example: terrorism) of indigenous peoples on their own native circumstances.

Rather, these such folks (Callwell, Kipling, Schumpeter, etc) -- uniformly it would seem -- blamed such matters on (a) the enhanced commerce, trade, investment and economic "growth" ambitions of the "expansionist"-oriented Western powers and on (b) the associated state and societal "change" demands being made on the native populations. (For example: as per "colonization" back then, and as per "westernization" today.)


Callwell would tell us that "small wars" were the "heritage of extended empire, a certain epilogue to encroachments into lands beyond the confines of existing civilization;" wherein, "the trader heralds almost as a matter of course the coming of the soldier and the commercial enterprise in the end generally leads to conquest."

Schumpeter would describe the matter in these terms: "Where cultural backwardness of a region makes normal economic intercourse dependent on colonization, it does not matter, assuming free trade, which of the civilized nations undertakes the task of colonization."

Kipling, in his "White Man's Burden," would describe the situation in much these same ways.

In this same vein, it is also instructive to note Senator Benjamin Tillman's address to the U.S. Senate on February 7, 1899; wherein, he would read aloud three stanzas of “The White Man’s Burden” and suggest that U.S should renounce its claim of authority over the Philippine Islands.

To that effect, Senator Tillman asked:

"Why are we bent on forcing upon them a civilization not suited to them, and which only means, in their view, degradation and a loss of self-respect, which to them is worse than the loss of life itself? ... Nobody answers and nobody can. The commercial instinct which seeks to furnish a market and places for the growth of commerce or the investment of capital for the money making of the few is pressing this country madly to the final and ultimate annexation of these people -- regardless of their own wishes."

(Tillman, being a senator from South Carolina, understood well that which he was discussing; this, given that -- cir. 1861 -- the populations of his own region [and for similar enhanced commerce/trade/ investment/growth reasons?] had forced upon them -- "regardless of their own wishes" -- a "civilization not suited to them," and were, thus and accordingly, forced to experience a similar "degradation and loss of self-respect," which, indeed, for many of his recent ancestors, was "far worse than the loss of life itself?")

Bottom Line Thought:

Thus to disagree with this author's contention in her first paragraph above that "the development and military communities hold fundamentally different mandates to address terrorism and insurgencies" and that "the development community's role is largely preventative, whereas the military serves in a reactionary role ..."

Herein to suggest, in stark contrast, that:

a. Both such entities (the West's development and its military communities) have a common mandate -- yesterday as today -- which is: to alter the political, economic, social and value landscape of the socio-economic "South;" this, so as to better accommodate the wants, needs and desires of the socio-economic "North." And that, accordingly,

b. The activities of these such entities (again, the West's development and its military communities) -- while they certainly can be seen as being opportunistic -- cannot be seen, in the context that I offer above, as being either preventative or reactionary.