GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, Germany – In the course of exploring a definition and framework for “Countering Violent Extremism,” the 97 participants in a week-long seminar on the topic here have traveled down many paths.
Lectures, panel discussions and more intimate meetings happening during Senior Executive Seminar 12-8 at the Department of Defense’s George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies have taken on geographical and human journeys.
Russia. Norway. Afghanistan. Germany. The whole of Europe. The Middle East. The United States. Locations familiar and not so familiar have been popping up as the participants -- general officers, parliamentarians, ministers and dignitaries with some power to affect change – listen and contribute.
The Marshall Center director challenged the participants from 61 countries to ensure those contributions were meaningful.
“The topic is so important and there is such a variety of experience that we want to get interaction among you. Each of you has something very important to say about this topic,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Keith W. Dayton in his opening remarks Sept. 5. “This is your conference. You are what will make this week a success.”
Charged by the Defense Department to explore CVE, the Marshall Center brought in 25 guest speakers from the DOD, European Union, law enforcement, academia and business over eight days to set the tone and act as a catalyst for the CVE discussion. The center will collect the week’s worth of collaborative anecdotes and report back to the department.
Among the topics that have come up in discussion:
•Causes and drivers of radicalization
•Pathways to violent extremism
•Tools and action -- what's missing?
•Right- and left-wing extremism in Germany and Europe
German Brig. Gen. Axel Binder is a division commander and one of the participants in the seminar. He said extremism and terrorism are two of the most important security issues of the century.
“[The issues] are challenging our societies; the basis of our societies, and therefore we have to understand it better,” he said. “A seminar like this, where people gather from all over the world, is the best opportunity to exchange views, to learn from each other and to connect with each other in countering this threat.”
The week-long learning crucible is fired by the idea that all discussions are ruled by a non-attribution policy and professionals are encouraged to give their opinions – and not their country’s official stance – on the topic, according to Marine Corps Col. Philip Lark, SES deputy course director.
“It usually takes one or two days, but participants begin to open up after they realize they can speak freely and candidly about the issues at hand,” Lark said. “This is very important to ensuring the information we collect and the ideas we bring forward have merit.”
In one example, the seminar explored The Nigerian Boko Haram Movement. According to one definition, Boko Haram is a “violent jihadist militant organization based in the northeast of Nigeria. It is an Islamist movement which strongly opposes man-made laws and modern science. Founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2001, the organization is a Jihadist group that seeks to establish sharia law in the country. The group is also known for attacking Christians and bombing churches.”
To explore the movement as part of the overall CVE conversation, the Marshall Center brought in Dr. Peter Pham of the U.S. Atlantic Council; Prof. Ricardo Laremont from the State University of New York at Binghamton; and Dr. Freedom Onuoha, research fellow at National Defense College in Nigeria.
Onuoha said the Senior Executive Seminar was the right place to explore the topic in the context of the greater discussion of violent extremism.
“The issues that are being addressed here cut across various countries and are transnational in nature,” he said. “We are talking to participants who are actually making the policies that can help their countries. More importantly, since we are facing one common problem, that collaboration is established today and they can carry it forward.
“Extremist and terrorist groups try to copy from one another,” he continued. “Over time, as a result of misguided policies or a lack of serious attention by the government, you see the tendencies of these groups become more radicalized; becoming more prone to violence and taking tactics they’ve never adopted before.”
NATO’s Supreme Allied Command for Europe, Admiral James Stavridis, provided an hour-long video teleconference and a briefing titled “21st Century Security." He said we’ve built walls in the past and now we need bridges and to work in partnership with one another.
“No one of us is as smart as all of us thinking together,” Stavridis told the group from NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.
While the seminar thinks together and travels down a myriad paths, Binder said he did not expect the group would come up with answers to all the questions because CVE is a complex problem.
“I hope to leave with a better understanding of the issues; if possible, best practices and especially an understanding of the role the military could play.”
Onuoha added that he praises the way the Marshall Center – a German-American partnership – does business and the paths it has taken so far.
“What the Marshall Center has been able to achieve is to bring together these people of diverse backgrounds and nationalities to appreciate the enormity of this problem of terrorism and especially understand that this is an evolutionary process. The kind of relationship established by participating in this kind of seminar will build a long-lasting background for these future leaders to be able to confront these problems.”
The seminar finishes Sept. 12.