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Soft Security: Local East African Approaches to CVE
Elizabeth Linsenmayer | feb 20, 2023

East Africa’s deep entrenchment in a battle against extremist violence and terrorism has long captivated the minds, time, and money of international and regional actors. Despite the copious amounts of assistance poured into the region each year, the proliferation of terror and sub-state groups that seek to further undermine weak federal governance structures remains relatively unmoved. With a history of failed interventions from the international community and local governments, the role of civil society, non-governmental organizations, and educational bodies has become paramount in countering violent extremism (CVE) in the region. 

CVE takes a variety of different forms, but is defined by the United States Institute of Peace as “a realm of policy, programs, and interventions designed to prevent individuals from engaging in violence associated with radical political, social, cultural, and religious ideologies and groups.” The discipline, still new in practice to many agencies, highlights the importance of the nexus between security and development. In regions such as East Africa where citizens are often weary of traditional militarized approaches to counterterrorism due to the painful legacy of harmful military operations, CVE can be a more productive alternative that brings local populations into the problem-solving process.  

Field research from Kenyan secondary schools reveals the successful work employed by school leaders to promote CVE measures that prevent radicalization or sympathy for extremist ideas within the young student body. Considering the religious angle that al-Shabaab frequently employs to pull young recruits in, one school teacher highlighted the school’s morning assembly schedule that involved rotating days between Christian and Muslim assemblies. In a class on Islam, the same teacher discussed the targeting of Muslims by al-Shabaab to highlight that Muslims are not to blame for the group’s violence: “It is important not to associate Muslims/Somalis with Al-Shabaab…Have you ever heard the statement, ‘we can agree to disagree?’ We can have different opinions, but at the end of the day we can still be friends.” This research found that emphasizing positive narratives inside the classroom provides a necessary foundation that could prevent students from subscribing to extremist narratives outside of the classroom. 

In Somalia, a lack of structured governance and federal services in many areas of the country forces many communities to look for alternative means of protection in the face of violence and extortion from al-Shabaab, especially in the southernmost portion of the country. With help from NGOs such as Saferworld, local community group organizing can bridge gaps in government oversight and grant autonomy back to communities facing direct threats from al-Shabaab. In the words of one community member: “We know the [leaders] we chose. We are one community.” In the southern city of Kismayo, community groups led by local leaders participated in advocacy programs aimed at repairing community-police relationships through routine discussions between community members and police departments. A resident of an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Kismayo remarked that the groups were “connecting [the community] to the police and re-building the broken relationship. The groups understand and know the community, they are trusted.” These groups, although by no means a panacea for extremism, provide a necessary avenue for communities stricken with cycles of conflict to organize solutions to local afflictions. 

So long as al-Shabaab continues to hold large swathes of East Africa hostage, local organizing will remain paramount to providing protections and support otherwise unseen from government structures. Funding for civil society organizations and NGOs from regional and international governments should remain prioritized in approaches to development and security. USAID, for example, ought to allocate funding for programs that capitalize on the aforementioned successes found in Kenyan schools and Somali community groups. USAID’s current portfolio presently includes a significant level of funding for youth-focused programs, but could benefit from substantiated expansion in school-administered programs and groups catered to specific communities. Partnering with local educational CSOs, NGOs, and educational institutions would be the most helpful first step in promoting this manner of counter-messaging.

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