Anne Wu is Special Political Adviser in the Office of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF) and a career diplomat with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China.
In this interview, Ms. Wu discussed how young people are more susceptible to recruitment by terrorists, and how providing education and employment opportunities can help prevent that. “The youth are one of the most powerful groups, and also have the greatest potential for peaceful transformation for the society,” she said. “So that’s why education is so critical; education can provide a better future for the youth, and a better future for the society.”
Ms. Wu said one of the new initiatives undertaken by CTITF involves countering narratives put out by terrorists in way that targets specific groups. “Whatever the methodologies of counter narratives, we have to do it according to the context, and it is not only that the messages matter, but also identifying the targeted audience, identifying the critical messengers, as well as funding the appropriate media to reach out to the vulnerable community.”
“We also recognize that the Internet has a critical role too, because violent extremists like to use the Internet to encourage people to adopt their views,” she said.
“Countering violent extremism constitutes a key component in any preventive, comprehensive, and long-term counterterrorism strategy,” she said. “It requires the spirit of dialogue, understanding, respect, and tolerance, which are all reflected in the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, with also an emphasis on addressing conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism.”
The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Warren Hoge: Our guest today in the Global Observatory is Anne Wu, special political adviser in the Office of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force, known as CTITF. She is a career diplomat with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China and a former fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School at Harvard.
Anne, I want to ask you first about the phrase “countering violent extremism,” which has become such a focus of counterterrorism thinking at the UN community that it has its own UN acronym, CVE–the emblem of acceptance at the UN. What is CVE, and why is it so important?
Anne Wu: Thank you, Warren, for this interesting question, and thank you for the opportunity to invite me to speak at this forum. As you know, countering violent extremism constitutes a key component in any preventive, comprehensive, and long-term counterterrorism strategy. It requires the spirit of dialogue, understanding, respect, and tolerance, which are all reflected in the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, with also an emphasis on addressing conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism.
So, the focus on countering violent extremism is that it’s a non-cohesive approach to violent extremism and relies on, if I may quote the words of partnering member states, “winning the minds and hearts” of the segment of society that would otherwise become targeted by extremists and radical groups for recruitment, funding, and support.
There are many important elements that are relevant to CVE, probably as you read the working group report by the CTITF group on extremism and radicalization that lead to terrorism, those elements include dialogue, understanding, education, addressing economic and social inequality, prison, and rehabilitation programs, etc.
WH: There is a new International Center of Excellence in Countering Violent Extremism that has just been inaugurated in Abu Dhabi. Can you tell me about its purpose and how it will help the counterterrorism strategy being developed here at the United Nations?
AW: Yes, I heard that the purpose of this center was to create an international venue for training, dialogue, collaboration, and research on countering violent extremism. So, as you know, this center is under the umbrella of the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), which is an important partner with the United Nations. The Secretary-General actually sent his message to the latest GCTF Global Counterterrorism Forum Meeting during which the Center of Excellence in CVE was established, and he underlined that our activities can only make greater impact if we supplement and support each other.
Actually, our task force, the United Nations Counter-Terrorism and Implementation Task Force, is exploring potential partnerships with this CVE center on countering the appeal of terrorism and supporting victims. Our collaboration in this regard can only highlight the importance of multilateral cooperation, as well as the preventive approach.
WH: I know that one of the objectives of your office is to combat the narratives that extremists create to justify their actions and draw recruits. How do you do that? Do you debunk their narratives, or do you offer better ones that you hope would de-radicalize extremists, or do you hope to do both?
AW: That’s a very interesting question. As you know, counter narratives are critical in upholding our shared value and promoting the culture of peace, tolerance, pluralism, social cohesion, etc. So whatever the methodologies of counter narratives, we have to do it according to the context, and it is not only that the messages matter, but also identifying the targeted audience, identifying the critical messengers, as well as funding the appropriate media to reach out to the vulnerable community.
So, our task force is actually deliberating and undertaking new initiatives by engaging different audiences and groups, and by using different methodologies. For example, we are having a project on engaging the Somali Diaspora on countering radicalization, and for this project, we are targeting a particularly influential group in the Somali Diaspora, the online media professionals, and trying to equip them with the necessary professional skills to counter radicalization, and also help to debate constructively across political and plain boundaries, and also in recognizing that supporting victims of terrorism, and giving them the voice is critical in counter narratives.
We also aim to continue to provide media trainings to desired victims of terrorism, and try to equip them with the media skills so they can share their messages more effectively through various media. As you know, the peace and hope contained in the victims’ messages are particularly powerful in countering the narratives of extremist groups.
We also recognize that the Internet has a critical role too, because violent extremists like to use the Internet to encourage people to adopt their views, so the CTITF has also started looking at this area, particularly in terms of using Internet to countering the appeal to terrorism, and we are having a particular focus on analyzing counter narrative messages, as well as effective messengers who can deliver them.
So, whatever methodologies of debunking or creating new messages, I think we should have an end of transmitting and transforming, which means we transmit the professional skills, and then the recipient audience can be transformed with more constructive perspectives on how they see the world.
WH: One often hears in all aspects of the UN’s work, that there is a connection between security and development. How does that apply to your office’s work with advocates and participants in violent extremism?
AW: The merits of an integrated approach on development and security on counterterrorism is that it’s preventable, it’s preventive, it’s sustainable, and it corresponds to the basic needs of human existence, because any long-term objective of counterterrorist strategies is to safeguard the life, the security, and the well-being of people, and social and economic policies help to build a resilient community that could effectively counter terrorism.
Actually, in this regard, the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, our bible, has given us the guidance, because in the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism, it identifies the social and economic marginalization, as well as lack of good governance among those conditions. Member states reiterate their commitment to eradicate poverty, to promote sustainable development, and they recognize that success in this area, particularly in terms of youth unemployment, could help to reduce marginalization and countering the appeal of terrorism.
It is exactly under this policy guidance that our Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force is looking at a few potentials to better and more effectively address this link between security and development. For example, we’re developing a project enhancing the capacity of educational institutions in South Asia, with the aim–through programs such as teacher training, special training courses for students, enhancement of curriculum–to equip the targeted students with necessary or better skills to enter the job markets, as well as serve as responsible citizens.
Also under the context of helping to implement the plan of action on implementing the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in Central Asia–which is the first of its kind on regional implementation of the strategy while having a special focus on stressing conditions conducive–and we are conducting a study to better understand the linkage between economic and social conditions and terrorism in Central Asia.
WH: You made mention of the large numbers of young people and educating young people. As you know, the youth bulge means there are vast numbers of unemployed or otherwise idle youth to whom terrorism has some appeal, because it gives them identification with something, and they may not have families, may not have societies that welcome them. Is education an important aspect of your approach to counterterrorism, and do you think that undereducated people are particularly vulnerable to radical persuasion?
AW: This is another very important question, and also it’s relevant to the previous question you asked about development and security. Given the prominent role of schools and other educational establishments on equipping people with the appropriate perspectives, as well as equipping them with the necessary skills to compete in the job markets. Education has a pivotal role to play in ending counterterrorism efforts, particularly from the preventive angle, and I have mentioned about this South Asia initiative, in which we are helping to enhance the capacity of education and the institutions there.
I could also share with you the case which we are exploring. This is to address youth unemployment in West Africa. This project we are undertaking was inspired by a case study where we found that 60 percent of the West African population is under the age of 20. You see that while unemployed, marginalized, and impoverished, the youth are more likely to fall victim to the recruitment by armed conflicts and terrorists.
So, we recognize that while they may fall to the victims of such armed conflict and terrorists, but they also contribute a large pool of resources to the region’s stability and long-term development. So we’re trying to undertake a project that will help to raise the awareness of the security threats posed by the youth unemployment to the region, and, in the meantime, put together some training opportunities for the youth in need, and try to facilitate some employment opportunities for them.
The youth are one of the most powerful groups and also have the greatest potential for peaceful transformation for the society. So that’s why education is so critical; education can provide a better future for the youth, and a better future for the society.
WH: That’s a great explanation of the importance of education. Anne Wu, thank you very much for visiting with us today in the Global Observatory.
AW: Thank you, Warren, it’s my pleasure.
Photo credit: Don Pollard