The role of civil society in supporting victims of terrorism

by Mohamud Ahmed Ali

Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist-Consultant, Executive Office of the President, Kenya – Department for Strategic Initiatives and Development of Arid/Semi-Arid Regions

Civil society is best understood as a diverse body of civil actors, communities, and formal or informal associations with a wide range of roles, who engage in public life seeking to advance shared values and objectives. Civil society plays a crucial role in a whole-of-society approach to supporting victims of terrorism. Civil society actors are often well positioned, credible and experienced in working with specific groups to help identify and address the grievances that make individuals more vulnerable to the influence of violent extremist groups. Youth, women and community leaders are key civil society actors in CVE efforts because of their influence and ability to foster social change. Other stakeholders of civil society such as the media, law enforcement, educators, researchers and the private sector can also make significant contributions to preventing violent extremism.

West Africa: Challenges to conflict prevention and resolution

Instability and extremism in Mali is quickly becoming a focus of regional and global concern. Following the several military coup, rebels have taken over much of the northern part of the country and imposed an extremist version of sharia law. Reports claim that international jihadists are arriving in the region. Mali’s location as a gateway between North and Sub-Saharan Africa makes it a likely and dangerous hub for terrorist and narcotic networks. Over the past decade, the West African Network for Peace building (WANEP) in partnership with government and regional bodies has developed a regional conflict prevention and response infrastructure with the purpose of building a culture of peaceful democratic transitions in the region.

West African NGOs have helped develop a regional legal regime, processes to assess root drivers and mitigators of conflict, and an early warning and response network to respond to emerging crises. Official mechanisms integrate civil society voices into regional Report Global Event. Addressing Violent Extremism requires policymaking and giving NGOs a platform to engage the African Union on peace building. Successful collaboration has created a conflict resolution infrastructure that was used successfully to persuade the president of the Ivory Coast to respect election results and step down from power. Peace building groups such as WANEP stress the importance of addressing root causes and regional sources of the conflict in Mali so that instability does not spill over into neighbouring fragile states such as Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone.

UN intervention is needed to shore up the Malian government so that it can engage in dialogue without ceding further territory. Regional experience has shown that understanding and addressing root causes, and acting regionally have been essential principles for effective action. Yet this approach is proscribed by the international practice of listing designated terrorist groups which criminalizes even constructive engagement. Humanitarian access in the rebel-controlled north of Mali is also curtailed, despite a growing number of internally displaced persons and growing humanitarian need.

International actors should partner with West African governments and civil society groups such as WANEP to develop a conflict prevention and resolution-based response to extremism in Mali. Regional experience with ending armed conflict advocates for analysing root causes, developing a regional response, and cautiously engaging with armed groups. This approach should be enhanced, not undermined, by international counterterrorism policies. Addressing conditions conducive to terrorism is the first pillar of the four pillars of UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. In Muslim majority societies, civil society is an essential partner in preventing radicalization.

Youth Empowerment

Youth are a key constituency at risk for radicalization. Forty per cent of the world’s population is under 24. Youth often are not engaged in local or national politics and do not feel that established channels are responsive to their situation. Civil society facilitates youth groups to address conditions conducive to extremist violence.

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the South Pacific, civil society organizations such as Search for Common Ground and the Permanent Peace Movement in Lebanon have developed innovative youth programs that promote nonviolent political empowerment. Some initiatives in Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen, and Lebanon connect polarized youth and train them in advocacy skills to become politically active through legitimate, nonviolent channels. Through youth councils, civil society groups train future leaders to bring community concerns to local municipal governments, and teach young people to be active democratic citizens. Youth councils develop positions and share these at national assemblies to bring youth voices into the political discourse. In Indonesia, civil society has developed youth programs that enable young people to participate in local government programs on issues of political reform, which promote tolerance and ‘unity in diversity’.

The MENA region has one of the highest circulations of small arms. Civil society groups raise awareness amongst youth of the importance of arms control and train young people in advocacy for legal reforms and the promotion of a Nuclear Arms Free Zone. Civil society works to connect armed youth with leaders in their communities who have renounced violence. These leaders are able to share their own experiences with violence and give the message that armed violence is not acceptable and does not work.

“Acceptance of violence + available arms + youth vulnerability = armed conflict. To address violence, you can’t just say ‘no’. You have to give alternatives.”
– Fadi Abi Allam, Director of the Permanent Peace Movement Report Global Event.

By addressing Violent Extremism through peer-to-peer work, civil society groups provide spaces of dialogue and opportunities for bridge-building among previously polarized groups, including conservative Islamist communities and secularists. By raising awareness of nonviolent conflict resolution skills and developing opportunities for diverse youth to work together for common purposes, civil society programs help lay the groundwork for more tolerant societies and future leaders. Civil society organizations also create innovative media programming that introduces youth role models and promotes coexistence between ethnic groups to thousands of viewers.

Prevention of Religious Radicalism

Civil society groups such as the Foundation for Tolerance International in Kyrgystan work to build constructive relationships between religious leaders at risk for radicalization and local police. Such work is especially important in post-Communist states, where the weakness of orthodox Islam and a long history of religious repression make local populations potentially vulnerable to radical Islam. However, civil society groups can come under suspicion for working with religious leaders. Central Asian Governments use the threat of terrorism to restrict civil liberties and repress opposition movements.

The role that civil society can play in preventing and countering violent extremism and radicalization that lead to terrorism, and the ways in which government stakeholders can support this role

1. Effective civil society-led PCVE initiatives require an environment in which civil society groups and actors can perform their work without interference and in line with the fundamental human rights of freedom of expression, assembly and association. This requires public and political recognition of the important roles that a diverse and broad civil society can play in the prevention of VE.

2. Government stakeholders should facilitate the involvement of civil society in the full spectrum of PCVE programming and policy development. By establishing partnerships and platforms for collaboration, governments can facilitate trust-building with civil society and better integrate their involvement in PCVE efforts.

3. Regular engagement with CSOs can be established through agreed upon, flexible and responsible multi-agency co-ordination mechanisms, such as: a. civil society advisory committees to better incorporate input from different actors (including valuable early warning details and community concerns and grievances) into PCVE strategy and policy, and donor planning; b. PCVE-focused centres that support and foster international research, information exchange and sharing of good practices; c. periodic roundtable discussions and other platforms for dialogue and trust-building exercises between government and civil society actors, to include, when possible and as appropriate, law enforcement representatives.

4. Government actors should enable credible civil society actors and organizations to engage in prevention by assessing and removing legal, political and logistical barriers to their operation, particularly by: a. actively facilitating their work and ensuring their physical safety (especially when civil society work in spaces contested or populated by violent extremist organizations), protection from harassment and intimidation, data security, their ability to organize, freedom of travel and to participate in international conferences/workshops (including by streamlining visa processes) and independence from government interference.

5. Partnerships between government actors and civil society can be strengthened and codified by: a. clarifying and delineating roles and responsibilities among governmental and non-governmental/civil society stakeholders, with specific expectations and deliverables for all participating institutions and actors; b. training front-line government officials to work in collaboration with non-governmental actors in PCVE-relevant capacities; c. recognizing the components of PCVE programming that are best left to civil society actors, and ceding responsibility for such initiatives to these stakeholders without governmental interference or manipulation.

6. Government actors and well-established non-governmental actors should strive to engage, build capacity, and amplify the voices of smaller, lesser known, local civil society actors with demonstrated relevant expertise, credibility and efficacy, particularly those working in key geographic locations and with demographics of demonstrated vulnerability. Recognize that potentially effective, local, non-violent civil society partners may lack visibility and demonstrated experience in working alongside government, and indeed may disagree with aspects of official government positions on security and other issues, yet may still serve as valuable partners. Government stakeholders should strive to locate and engage such actors/ organizations as opposed to those that simply appear “government-friendly


  • To protect innocent civilians and civil society from getting caught in the middle of violent conflict between states and armed extremists by: a) Adopting a human security framework that makes the first goal of counterterrorism policy the protection of communities, individual life and human rights; b) Holding states to their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect innocent civilians in armed conflict.
  • To uphold the rule of law, human rights, and protect human rights defenders in counterterrorism measures by: a. Assisting and protecting local human rights defenders who document state violations and abuses of power; and b. Building legitimate state security institutions that do not abuse power, are under civilian control, and are held accountable for human rights violations. c. Ensuring that domestic law and policy makers get familiar with applicable law.
  • To protect democratic, nonviolent civil society from being challenged by militarized counterterrorism measures by: a. Allowing political space for nonviolent opposition and dialogue through respecting rights of free expression and assembly; and b. Recognising and protecting nonviolent civil society groups as essential partners in creating democratic societies to prevent further radicalization by alternatives to militarization in counterterrorism measures and using a conflict resolution approach through: c. Investing in prevention measures, including youth empowerment programming, dialogue with religious leaders, and supporting women’s groups; d. Protecting space for Track II diplomacy and humanitarian aid by reforming listing practices to allow civil society engagement with armed actors; e. Engaging in negotiation and conflict mitigation that addresses regional concerns and root causes of conflict; and f. Distinguishing between terrorism, organized crime, insurgencies, and armed self-determination groups in order to develop appropriate strategies that address genuine sources of the conflict and protect local populations.

Note: The views expressed in this article is solely that of the author’s and does not represent that of and its entire staff.

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