Calls for Broader Cooperation Define Astana Anti-Extremism Conference

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Participants in the Central and South Asian Regional Conference on Countering Violent Extremism in Astana on June 29.

ASTANA – Over two days of presentations and dialogue, participants at the Central and South Asian Regional Conference on Countering Violent Extremism called for more tools to support collaborative work to block terrorist recruitment efforts and discussed global law enforcement and other practices to identify and respond to potential threats.

The need for cooperation between governments and between governments, law enforcement bodies and communities became a theme of the June 29–30 conference in Astana. Launching the discussions, Kazakh Prime Minster Karim Massimov focused on cooperative efforts and the large role to be played by civil society actors in countering extremist violence. “We have to join our forces with all constructive forces in this world who are ready to counter violent extremism,” he said. “That is why we have to boost our contacts and cooperation with law enforcement agencies all over the world.”

Massimov called for an international convention defining terrorism, one of several proposals for international legislation and mechanisms to combat the spread of violent extremist thought and terrorist actions. In discussions on the role of media, a global database of extremist content online was proposed, as well as a mechanism to remove it. Regarding prevention, creating integrated regional research and awareness networks was another proposal.

Representatives of the governments and civil societies of 18 countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in Central and South Asia, plus private sector organisations and international bodies, including the UN, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), discussed the need for comprehensive cooperation to prevent terrorism and explored possible root causes of the phenomenon today.

In his opening remarks, U.S. Customs and Border Control Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske said security will not come from stopping security threats, but strengthening the social fabric and addressing the way governments interact with populations. “One way to meet the challenge is by empowering local communities to develop effective prevention and intervention programmes. Local communities maintain the most credible and persuasive voices to challenge that ideology.”

Speaking after the conference, Kerlikowske said he saw “real progress” in the recognition that law enforcement and government alone could not stop terrorism. “[T]here’s much more to this complex problem, involving a lot of other key players,” he noted. “You’re not going to arrest your way out of this particular problem.”
Law enforcement must also be seen as more than simply an investigative and punitive force, he said, but, in the context of improving government-governed interaction, as a protector of the rights of individuals.

The need to safeguard human rights as a way to preventing violence was also repeated throughout the conference. In the panel “Violent extremism in Central and South Asia: threat assessment and countermeasures,” EU Special Representative to Central Asia Peter Burian cautioned that excessive censorship of information or harsh crackdowns on communities would only fuel grievances that give rise to terrorism. The new EU Strategy for Central Asia adopted on June 22 takes the promotion of human rights in the region as a priority. Petko Draganov, special representative of the UN secretary-general and head of the Ashgabat-based UN Regional Centre for Preventative Diplomacy for Central Asia, continued the theme.

“An integral part of this whole society approach … is the acknowledgement that preventing violent extremism and promoting human rights go hand in hand,” he said. “Without meaningful recognition and implementation of core human rights, states aiming to protect their people from extremism are at risk of pushing their youth into violent predatory groups.”

In further panels on countering violent extremism in media, innovative approaches to preventing and countering violent extremism, developing national strategies and action plans for countering violent extremism, promoting local research, developing partnerships between government and civil society, methods of combatting terrorism, the role of different segments of society and promoting counter messaging, international participants shared success stories and urged more action. Much emphasis was also placed on religious education and promoting an understanding of “traditional” Islam in order to prevent extremist thought from spreading.

Nurtay Abykayev, chairman of Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee, said his country faced “massive” recruiting efforts and that more than 150 Kazakhs and more than 200 women, widows and children had travelled to areas of conflict to fight for terrorist groups. The task of countering recruiting efforts and the role of the Internet in particular was a matter of focus. Shavkat Sabirov, president of the Internet Association of Kazakhstan, called for a more specific targeting of dangerous online content, rather than the wholesale blocking of websites, and urged more attention to be paid to Kazakh-language media.

Faheem Ahamed, CEO of Lapis Communications, an organisation that works to counter extremist communication, called for rethinking ways to counter extremist messages: to stop reacting and start focusing on changing mindsets rather than countering arguments. “What we need to focus on is the master narrative, rather than the counter narrative. There is no master narrative for the Middle East, there is no master narrative internationally of who we are and what we stand for,” he said. Zaid Mohseni, COO of the Moby Group, discussed the importance of not providing more airtime to violent messages by countering them, and instead focusing on sophisticated proactive communications and branding through social media, mobile applications and even gaming platforms.

Adlet Mustafinov, deputy head of division of the Committee of the Penal System of Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs commented on his country’s efforts to thwart recruitment efforts in prisons, including through training prison staff, placing religious advisors in prisons and helping reformed inmates publish their own thoughts.

Representatives from the New York Police Department and the Houston Police Department, among others, shared their methods of detecting and preventing violent extremism through surveillance, community outreach, particularly in a variety of languages, as well as community training on police work and alliances with clergy members.

Concluding the first day of the conference, participants agreed on a series of steps to enhance counterterrorism efforts in Central and South Asia ahead of the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) leaders’ summit set for September in New York.

The steps include identifying persons responsible for countering extremism in each country in the region, developing inclusive national CVE strategies; implementing Global Counterterrorism Forum good practices; providing support for national nongovernmental organisations fighting extremism; developing CVE training programmes for public servants that promote rights; developing programmes for countering radicalisation in prisons and for rehabilitating violent extremist offenders; and strengthening the capacity of civil society organisations and others in the region engaged in providing information that counters hateful, violence-filled messages of extremists.

The conference was organised by the governments of Kazakhstan and the United States with support from the OSCE Programme Office in Astana.