Regulation scares many. Despite this, we will ask the question: is there a need for a watchdog when it comes to documents on preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE)?
The question is of much importance. After all, something positive can in many cases be turned to something negative. Specifically, research output on P/CVE is often technical in nature. The findings, in the wrong hands, can be used in a multitude of ways, for good and for worse.
Luckily enough, extremists are a minority. While it is surmisable that information extracted from P/CVE research reports goes viral, possibly undetected or hardly recognized, we must come to the realization that content is socially produced, and this plays to our advantage. Let me state two hypotheses, in this context:
1) terrorist cells and organizations lack manpower and expertise in comparison with official and semi-official institutions.
2) C/PVE documents can influence and corrode the morale and ideas of terrorists and terrorist organizations.
While some of the publications and videos of extremists and terrorists are suprisingly professional and bear a certain appeal with reference to their evil following, extremists and terrorists are not in a position to stage a counter-operation rivaling the abilities of civilised institutions such as states or supranatinoal organisations, in scale, scope or quality.
How best to ensure that the terrorists are not empowered but their morale and ideas are contested? First, there is no reason to embargo P/CVE material in general. A plentitude of documents is is out in the open, has been for years and has proven valuable for researchers and practitioners. The downsides of this practice of publication are minor, according to all appearance. Were the material to be classified or censored, terrorists could, instead of consulting P/CVE documents, take university lessons and learn from literary studies or marketing textbooks to enhance their propaganda efforts, just to name a few examples.
But how to achieve that the second hypothesis stated above proves to be correct? One ought to always contextualize and position oneself as a researcher. One might, then, ask: why am I to justify myself? The answer is simple: because information and communication is a contested terrain, particularly when it comes to counter-extremism. In recent years, we have seen communication bubbles popping up, with groups of terrorists consuming only or mainly information which has been rewritten with radical notions in mind, be it technical information or religious texts.
With respect to P/CVE documents, we need to try and create dissonance in the mind of the extremists who read our texts (at the same time confirming the world view of readers with good and peaceful intentions). We can then expect the benefit of the doubt to persist, to a certain degree, and hope to shatter the deviance within the minds of the extremists. While this does not mean that we can destroy whole organizations, we can do our share in weakening them by targeting their chains of textual consumption.
Hence, P/CVE documents, scientific as they are, should become more opinionated and persuasive overall. It might be a start to include generic referrals and emotive designations opposing terrorism, however, even manuals can and should be value-based, originally crafted narratives instead of impartial, relativist science.
With a proper sense of responsibility and fulfilling the role of gate-keepers, there may be no need to instore watchdogs for P/CVE material after all. In any event, P/CVE researchers and practitioners should take care to let their anti-terrorist positions shine through while drafting papers and other research documents, in a sophisticated manner, in order to guarantee that their texts bring about the desired and necessary result, not just in application, but already during the reception and exposure phase of their texts: to counter terrorism.
Thorsten Koch, MA, PgDip