THOUGHTS AND COFFEE #14: Assessing counter-radicalization? Some notes

This post is a note on how we could formulate a proper assessment on counter-radicalization efforts.

How can we measure the effectiveness and success of counter-radicalization efforts?

I had the opportunity to chat with Mr Suaib Tahir, an expert staff from the Indonesian National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT). We talked about his work at the BNPT, which involved counter-radicalization. Here are some interesting points of our swift and informal discussion.

But first, some background. The BNPT was established in 2010 as part of a larger government effort in addressing terrorism. Previously, counterterrorism was the exclusive realm of the police (with the military being involved on occasion). However, after realizing that “hard” methods had limited utility, the government then created the BNPT as a sort of “hub” or coordinator for all things related to counterterrorism. The BNPT mostly deals with counter-radicalization and deradicalization: the former concerns countering the spread of radical ideology, while the latter concerns efforts to “normalize” an already-radical individual.

I was already quite familiar with the BNPT’s work. Currently, the BNPT is working on a National Action Plan on Counterterrorism (NAPCT), an ambitious long-term plan that involves many government and non-government agencies. The details of this plan, however, remain classified, with only fragments of information being revealed (see, for example, Sumpter [open access]). But on the ground, the BNPT has already been implementing many programs. One example is the “Peace Ambassador” program (Duta Damai), where the BNPT selects a bunch of young people to help fight the spread of radicalization online. Another is the formation of small counter-terrorism coordination forums (FKPT) that act as BNPT partners at the district level.

These activities fall under the umbrella of counter-radicalization, where the BNPT attempts to establish a counter-narrative against radical ideology. The initiative is likely rooted in the “marketplace of ideas”, the assumption that the strongest narrative would win. However, the “marketplace” itself has been challenged, especially with the rise of individualized feeds (‘filter bubbles’) and social media echo chambers (see, for example, Ramakrishna’s op-ed of the extremist monk, Wirathu, in Myanmar).

Mr Tahir candidly said (and I paraphrase) that the government starts these programs without thinking of a long-term goal. Moreover, there are few assessments to ensure that these programs are indeed on track. In other words, we have no idea if these things work, yet they are continued based on faith alone.

The issue now is: what would such an assessment look like? This is a fundamental issue to address in creating a rubric to assess counter-radicalization.

It is difficult to determine the impact of the BNPT’s counter-radicalization efforts. We would first need to establish a solid correlation (or even causation); that the BNPT’s efforts have indeed contributed to the individual not choosing radical ideology. This is difficult to establish because there may be a dozen reasons why someone resists radical propaganda. We need to be sure that “being exposed to BNPT materials” is either a main or a significant contributing factor to an individual’s choice to not accept radical propaganda.

A small-scale study could be done, structured as follows. Participants (selected from various backgrounds) are asked to answer a questionnaire designed to measure their propensity towards radical ideas. Questions could include their perceptions of extremist groups, the national ideology, and values of tolerance. This would establish an individual “baseline” which could then be used to gauge whether BNPT counter-radicalization material is effective or not. Next, participants are shown a selected curation of BNPT counter-radicalization materials. Afterward, participants would answer the same questionnaire. Deviations in their answers may hint at whether the materials worked or not.

Of course, this small study would only tell us the immediate (often temporary) impact of BNPT’s materials. This study would then need to be extended (6 months at the very least) and be conducted with variations in content, frequency, mode of delivery, and/or even aesthetics. Even with these conditions, we would still face limitations because the participants may cheat in answering the questionnaires, or there may be other confounding variables involved.

Now, whether or not the BNPT has already thought of this is beyond me. However, I do believe that such an assessment ought to be done. It provides further legitimization of the BNPT’s efforts and at the same time, it would provide precious data for further studies on counter-radicalization.

Header image: Middle East Institute

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