I chose France and Morocco because I wanted to examine CVE in two countries with a colonial relationship. Due to travel restrictions, I could not propose a project in Algeria, which has a more controversial colonial relationship with France, so Morocco presented a feasible alternative.
Since Morocco’s independence from France in 1957, the country has tackled a diverse range of security threats stemming from its complex social fabric and location in a historically troubled neighborhood. Despite alleged decreases in the number of Morocco foreign fighters, the country’s security is still precarious due to irregular migration patterns, strained border relations, and challenges to governance, especially from disenfranchised populations in the northern part of the country where violent extremist recruitment is most fertile. In response to these challenges, the country has taken a fairly holistic approach, including security sector and legislative reforms, increased collaboration with international partners, and rigorous religious leadership training to rebuff the spread of extremist interpretations of Islam.
France presented a far more dire security picture than Morocco did. Since January 2015, 230 people have died in terrorist attacks while the country has been involved in external military operations against militants in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Levant. In the last few years, the government has issued (and renewed) a state of emergency, expanded its intelligence and law enforcement apparatus, and passed laws aimed at deterring foreign fighter recruitment. In terms of CVE, the state launched a social media campaign called Stop Dijahdisme and announced the creation of 12 deradicalization centers, of which only one has opened and then promptly shut down. In the course of my interviews, I found that one of the most prevalent challenges in France’s CVE strategy is social integration. The country maintains a fractious relationship with a few of its former colonies and struggles with fully integrating its citizens of North African heritage. The question of how to deal with a foreign violent extremist versus a domestic violent extremist raised a number of interesting legal and ethical questions that I had not previously considered.
My biggest takeaway from the experience is the importance of establishing credibility. In terms of CVE programming, the diversity of stakeholders helped me realize the challenge of building trust with communities vulnerable to violent extremist recruitment. It is much harder for government to work with these communities than it is for nonprofits to do so. Whereas nonprofits are more focused on building community resilience, the state is always concerned with guarding public safety, which makes it difficult to communicate purely benign intentions. Public perceptions of success in CVE programming may therefore change based on the actor involved.
Overall, this experience helped me realize the importance of going abroad to gain a ground-level perspective on sensitive issues in national security. Face-to-face interactions can make a huge difference in terms of how we understand and interpret data. In spite of the linguistic and cultural barriers, I was heartened by the kindness and generosity of various interviewees. The trip crystallized my passion for working with people and conducting research internationally. Thanks to the support of SSP, I am hopeful that I will be able to parlay my education and experiences abroad into a future career in national security policy making.