A Shared Vision and Common Actions for a Cross Border Multilateral Humanitarian Diplomacy to Counter Online Violent Extremism (CVE)  

14 April 2017 

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) tackles various root causes of online radicalization of Internet users. It is important to understand in the context of Tunisia, why democratic hopes of the Tunisian uprising for more (dignity, freedom, and social justice) generated so many shattered dreams, manifested by an angry generation of Tunisian youth, who actively use the Internet space to rebel, fight, and express their frustration, anger, and deception. This phenomenon has become an existential threat to the economic, social, political, cultural, and diplomatic relationship between Europe and Tunisia. 

Tunisia has been on the forefront of the democratic transition after the Arab Spring and remains to this day the freest Arab democracy. However, Tunisia also remains by far the largest source of foreign fighters heading to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This complex contradiction is very important to study, not only to understand the implications for the political, economic and social security situation in the country, but also for the cross- border security of the Mediterranean region and Europe. Between 6,000 and 7,000 Tunisians have left their country to fight for the self-proclaimed caliphate, several times more than from Tunisia’s much more populous neighbors, Algeria and Egypt. As many as 15,000 others have been barred from international travel.

The Tunisian case is remarkable because it defies the conventional wisdom that seeks to explain online violent extremism by evoking “root causes” such as political repression by dictatorial regimes, or the frustrations of poverty. This article will investigate the policy implications and policy recommendations for the Union for the Mediterranean (UFM) countries, including common actions and a shared vision of multilateral human rights diplomacy, particularly in Geneva, where governments should work together on formulating a more robust, consistent cyber-security strategy to counter online violent extremism. This short paper examines how Tunisia can elaborate policy recommendations that effectively tackle the necessity to use multilateral diplomatic skills to better govern Internet policies on countering online violent extremism (CVE).

Exploring the Sources of Radicalization and Online Violent Extremism

The European Commission defines radicalization as: “The phenomenon of people embracing opinions, views, and ideas which could lead to acts of terrorism” (2013).Another definition of radicalization is “The process of an individual or a group adopting an extremist belief system inspired by philosophical, religious, political or ideological notions, including the willingness to use, support, or facilitates violence or undemocratic means, as a method to effect drastic societal change.”

The process of radicalization can take many forms. In Tunisia, this could be directly linked to neglect, outrage, lost hope, poverty, and desire for revenge against the state that since its independence in 1956, hopes for more societal freedoms in 1987, and the deception manifested after the ‘uprising‘ that began on January 14, 2011, didn’t deliver on the economic, social, and political aspirations of manyTunisian youth.

This pattern of political history generated 3,000 radicalized youth who joined the camp of ISIS. Some joined because of economic reasons, others pointed to ideology, and some others in the search for glory and heroic achievements. But while factual, there are counter examples for most of the explanations given. Economists say that the chief cause is unemployment, but many have left comfortable houses and decent jobs to join the extremist sect. Orientalist scholars contend that is about religion and only hard-core Islamists join the organization (Cherif, 2014). However, most recruits barely practiced Islam before joining ISIS.

The regions that are the richest in terms of resources in Tunisia are the poorest in term of population income. These regions have been exposed to the highest index of radicalization, including the northern town of Bizerte 15.2%, the capital Tunis 10.7%, and the southern town of Ben Guerdane 10.7% 

Youth represent 37% of the Tunisian population. They are still suffering from 30% unemployment and economic marginalization, even though Tunisia has a high penetration of the Internet and other technology. In 2016, there were 5,472,618 Internet users in Tunisia, or 48.1% penetration of the total population of 11,375,220. The share of world Internet users is 0.2%.However; the socioeconomic situation has worsened since the revolution, which has led to the disenchantment of the lower and middle classes and the youth in particular. The Tunisian interior ministry says that it has stopped around 12,500 young people trying to leave for foreign battlefields and arrested more than 2,500.

Countering Violent Extremism CVE: Evolution of Approaches

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) is about reducing the number of terrorist supporters through non-coercive means.While traditional counterterrorism actions use reactive measures by finding and capturing terrorists and by involving actors such as intelligence forces, law enforcement, and the military, CVE actions are proactive and intervene before someone uses terrorism or violence. CVE actors are multidisciplinary and involve civilian participatory approach. 

The old approach to counterterrorism (Millar, 2010) is based on the use of deadly force, power of deterrence, ideology, and unilateralism. An unintended consequence was that it created more terrorists that it eliminated. However, the new approach to CVE is ‘soft’. It counters terrorism through multilateral cooperation, rehabilitation, non-violent and non-ideological means. 

On January 2011, the first Arab spring uprising led by Tunisian youth in marginalized areas collapsed one of the most rigid and authoritarian regimes of the MENA region. As a consequence, a power vacuum was created and the country witnessed the return of a number of Tunisian combatants from Iraq and Afghanistan and loss of border control. Approximately 1,000 of the 5,300 Tunisia’s mosques slipped from the government's control. 200 new mosques were built without a license, which also became centers of radicalization. 

About 550 charities associated with political Islamist groups or Salafist organizations were founded. Some of the associations also set up kindergartens and schools to teach radical interpretations of Islam as well as establishing training camps in western Tunisia, on Mount Chaambi, close to the border with Algeria. During this period, these organizations were able to establish an infrastructure for jihadism in Tunisia. The government did not intervene until a group of protesters, including Salafists, stormed the US Embassy in Tunis on September 2012.

Government Policy Response and Strategic Communication

The government’s responses to the radicalization threats in Tunisia have so far been ineffective and militarized. These responses elicit mixed reactions from Tunisian society, who are fearful of extremism, but also concerned about the government overstepping and infringing on the space for a vibrant civil life and online freedoms.

On March 25, 2015, the Tunisian government approved draft law n°2014-9 concerning the fight against terrorism. The approved law contains many flaws, such as broad and ambiguous language, namely, the definition of terrorist activities. As a result, many fear the law can be construed to repress the online human rights of journalists, activists, bloggers, and dissident academics. There is also a fundamental need to create a commission dedicated to elaborating how to address terrorism, as well as judicial supervision of surveillance and intelligence services, including the infiltration, monitoring, and interception of groups associated with terrorism. 

According to Mrs. Wafa Dahmani, Senior Engineer and ccTLD  manager at the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI),“The persistence of the terrorist threat, its evolution, and its upsurge pushed the authorities to begin to develop a 'National Commission' to fight against online extremism and terrorism, within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The government of Tunisia has proposed this national commission within the UFM countries. It was accepted and Tunisia will take the lead on that. This commission, chaired by the Minister is in charge of the elaboration of a National (CVE) Strategy in collaboration with the United Nations Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee”

There is another call to reform Article 25 of the Tunisian constitution to prohibit the withdrawal of the Tunisian nationality of the terrorists. Human rights critics claim that the removal of nationality will make it possible to keep terrorist elements outside Tunisia’s territory and prevent them from threatening national security. 

Seeding New Platforms and Multilateral Strategic Actions on CVE

Diplomatic efforts between Tunisia and UFM countries can seek new platforms for multilateral strategic actions on CVE prevention through four pillars. First, prevention to address root causes of CVE and the role of education in promoting a culture of peace, dialogue, tolerance, and respect for different cultures and beliefs. Second, protection to fight against terrorism through the development of ICT protection plans, where cooperation between intelligence agencies and communication systems should set up border control mechanisms on the financing of terrorism. Third, prosecution to strengthen national capacities in fighting terrorism through using of legal measures and enhancing international legal cooperation. Fourth, response globally and regionally through an aligned crisis response and management mechanism of victims of terrorism, the role of protected witnesses and rights of detainees. 

Mr. Hafeth Yahmadi, an ICT expert and civil society activist in Tunisia, writes that“ Keeping an open,inclusive and accessible Internet with freedom of expression, is a bit controversial with an efficient CVE legal approach, the issue is fundamentally legal and may affect at some extend online human rights, therefore, legislators are urgently called to introduce a new vision in conceptualizing the new policies for the CVE legal reforms, a vision that protect ordinary citizen online rights and tackle the radicalized online movements. Based on pillar two of protection, intelligence agencies of UFM can collaborate to develop a strong database of information on the different active jihadists’ online movements”

Preventing violent extremism is a commitment and obligation of all UN member states to the principles and values enshrined in the charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other international human rights instruments. To be effective, sustainable and in line with member states’ obligations under international law, all legislation, policies, strategies, and practices adopted to prevent violent extremism must be firmly grounded in the respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Enhanced Cooperation in Multilateral Diplomacy for the Advancement of Human Rights in Internal Affairs

On the first pillar of Prevention: The promotion of a culture of peace and dialogue and the role of education is fundamental especially for youth. It should become an intrinsic part of the culture of the family and education curriculum. There is a need to change religious discourses to analyze the fundamental causes of extremism. Mass media plays a role in promoting a counter-narrative of a culture of peace and dialogue that could counter the incitement to terrorism.Legislation that criminalizes ‘incitement to terrorism’ should be clear on the scope to define what uncivil or violent online extremism entails.

On the second pillar of Protection: Investigate the root causes of violent extremism, this can be more effective through the development of a strategy of CVE that uses a multi-level strategy in poor regions. Public-private partnerships need to be developed by Internet companies to control the discourse on the Internet. 

On the third pillar of Prosecution: Counter-narratives and communication strategy, the mass media could play a role by launching a sensitization campaign. Web sites could be created for anti-extremist propaganda. These interpretations of religious identity are missing on a national level with a need to reinforce a communication strategy. 

On the fourth pillar of Response: Rehabilitation and reintegration of former fighters and detainees, this can be made effective through the identification of who they are and how they have passed the borders, recognizing that returnees are still human beings. As well as create deradicalisation programs that can go hand in hand with rehabilitation centers including psychological and economic support. 

Multilateral Diplomacy Strategy, Good Practices, Policy Recommendations, and Lessons Learned 

Based on the principle of national ownership and in accordance with international law, UN member states should consider these policy recommendations while establishing effective multilateral diplomacy strategies that are in line with theUN Sustainable Development Goals. 

1-Develop multidisciplinary CVE measures with the input of families, a range of government actors, law enforcement, social services, ministries of foreign affairs, the ministry of education, youth and religious affairs, woman, and cultural sectors to better identify the root causes of CVE. 

2-Fortify society against the impact of violent extremism by promoting respect for the principle of equality before the law and equal protection under the law in all government-citizen relations and develop the guiding principle on stemming the flow of foreign fighters in Resolution 1371 (2001) concerning counter-terrorism held in Madrid on 28 July. 

3-Address drivers of violent extremism in line with the objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) on poverty alleviation (Goal1). 

4-Ensure a legal system that prosecutes the travel of foreign fighters, transfer financial resources, and prevents the entry of terrorists through borders by using internationally accepted databases and credible information that provides grounds that travels are undertaken for the purpose of committing a terrorist act. 

5-Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education system and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all (Goal 4) and achieve gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls (Goal 5) and promote sustainable, inclusive economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all (Goal 8). 

There is a fundamental need for capacity building for front-line law enforcement on community cultural, societal, and religious behavior to distinguish them from potential criminal and violent extremist indicators and behavior. Civil society, community training efforts, methods, and materials should be continually updated and revised to keep up with the evolution of threats. 

Mr. Hamza Ben Mehrez, Senior Policy Analyst ( iGmena )