Embedding policies on community tension monitoring

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Recent developments in violent extremism in the Horn of Africa have seen security and peace practitioners, the academia and governments institutions seeking to understand what precipitates terrorist activities in the region. Terrorism exacerbated by increased radicalization of young people is emerging as a serious threat to states and societies in the Horn. What makes the situation even more critical is that the region is already afflicted by many other conflicts and vulnerabilities. The fear and threat of violent extremism and terrorism in the region now supersedes and galvanizes international concern more than any other form of violence.

So what is it that the Horn of Africa needs to do differently to counter violent extremism in the midst of the ‘usual’ violent conflicts? The on-going violent conflicts and escalating violent extremism provide the communities of the Horn of Africa with the opportunity to confront hard questions regarding their social, political, cultural, religious and economic realities. The very fact that violent extremism is expanding rapidly in the region indicates that it is hinged on an enabling environment – a breeding ground and vulnerable context.

It seems that the stakeholders in the security sector and civil society have for long lived in denial with regard to critical questions of violent extremism deriving from community tensions. In the past, there was also a notable absence of local-level initiatives which recognized violent extremism as an intrinsic problem requiring proactive rather than reactive responses.

However with the popularization of the notion of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), stakeholders in the region have identified weak law enforcement and judicial institutions, corruption, porous borders and in some cases, state security complicity in terrorist activities, lack of central authority, and grievances stemming from social, economic and political injustices as the main factors for violent extremist groups emergence and taking root in the region[1]. There is also a growing realization of the importance of countering terrorist narratives and investment in regional programs including in the areas of intelligence, law enforcement, investigation and prosecution, judicial capacities, border security, countering violence extremism financing and public participation in countering violent extremism. However, encouraging as these analyses and proposed interventions might be, the escalating nature of extremist violence in the region calls for a mechanism that monitors and responds to the underlying factors that feed extremist violence.

Community Tension Monitoring as the answer?

In seeking to actualize proactive measures to counter violent extremism we must continuously remind ourselves that it is in embedding Community Tension Monitoring that we can significantly enhance an effective response to countering violent extremism in the Horn of Africa. In this quest, I begin by conceptualizing the meaning of Community Tension Monitoring in the Horn of Africa region and explain how community tensions are a breeding ground for violence extremism.

The Institute of Community Cohesion based at the Coventry University in United Kingdom describes community tensions as a state of community dynamics which may potentially lead to disorder, threaten the peace and stability of communities or raise the levels of fear and anxiety in the whole, or a part of the local community[2]. Strained relationships may build up within or between communities, or against particular groups and institutions, based on real or perceived events or information on fears, prejudices, circumstances or specific actions. In the Horn of Africa region, the recent expansion of violent extremism builds on the long-standing (perceived and actual) injustices which have strained relations and are inflamed and sustained by push factors for violent extremism including marginalization, corruption and nepotism, low levels of education, human rights violations, discrimination based on religion or ethnic ground and politically instigated violence.

Violent extremism driven by community tensions in the Horn of Africa and aggravated by inequalities will create a breeding ground for terrorism if factors which produce cohesive communities are not fostered, where there is a common vision and sense of belonging, where diversity of backgrounds and circumstances is appreciated and positively valued, where those from different backgrounds have similar life opportunities and, where strong and positive relationships are being developed between people from different backgrounds and circumstances in the communities, worship and workplaces, in learning institutions and in cross-border areas.

Although the proposal at hand is countering violent extremism by addressing community tensions, it is also important to note that community tensions are not inherently negative . Depending on the cause, community tensions can be characteristic of peaceful coexistence. For instance, community activism and public protest are legitimate and potentially creative activities, though they may cause tensions. These can often be positive means of promoting social change, legal expression, and may produce tension. Community Tension Monitoring as a way of countering violent extremism seeks to prevent violence that is borne out of radicalization which in turn is rooted in more structural dynamics.

Fleshing out Community Tension Monitoring using Galtung

Johan Galtung[3], a Norwegian Peace Researcher propounds three types of violence which could be adapted to operationalize the Community Tension Monitoring tool. These are; direct violence which entails visible physical acts of violence, structural violence built into governance systems and determines injustices, and, cultural violence which refers to aspects of culture that make violence acceptable, normal or even glorify it.

Accordingly, direct, structural and cultural violence provide us with lenses to analyse community tensions as conduits for violence extremism and provide interventions. Tension Monitoring, could be done using the Experienced-Evidenced-Potential[4] system with levels of violence:

  • Experienced – how do communities feel? What do communities think is happening to them? Are their feelings expressing issues relating to cultural violence, historical factors, and marginalization?

  • Evidenced – what has happened or is happening? These are narratives of manifestations of direct violence that are extreme - Potential – what might happen or has the potential to happen? Are there signs and signals embedded in real and perceived structural violence? What is the composition of security institutions and predicted or planned activity?

Tension Monitoring should inform local policy action, foster a measured partnership and a multi-agency approach to improve communication, information sharing and community engagement to manage tensions leading to violent extremism. Through Tension Monitoring, good quality comprehensive information and intelligence about terrorist and extremist activities can be garnered by the partnership pooling their knowledge and expertise. It is clear that community tensions result from strained relations due to the absence of resilience factors. There is therefore a need to build ‘resilience’ factors which require developing a common vision and sense of belonging, ensuring religious, ethnic, political diversity in the Horn of Africa is appreciated and positively valued recognizing that those from different backgrounds have similar life opportunities.

Policies spelling out synergies among the public institutions, non-state actors, peace practitioners and the academia can play an important role in Community Tension Monitoring and countering violent extremism. Complacency and not listening are not responsible approaches to achieving a cohesive community.

Community tensions and violent extremism: Synergy and responses

So what causes community tensions and in the process creates conducive environment for terrorism and violent extremism in the Horn of Africa? A Horn of Africa Region Capacity-Building Working Group Workshop on Countering Violent Extremism in the Horn of Africa, held in Ankara, Turkey on the 11th of February 2014, identified porous borders, proximity to the Arabian Peninsula, weak law enforcement and judicial institutions, corruption and in some cases state complicity in terrorist activities, lack of central authority, and grievances stemming from social, economic and political injustices as the main factors for Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups emergence and taking root in the region. These structural factors further disenfranchise communities from their rights, perpetuate poverty, unemployment and vulnerability. Extremist groups exploit this kind of environment and can fill a void for those vulnerable groups most impacted by these circumstance especially youth and adolescents. These factors underlie community tensions necessary for violence extremism to thrive.

CVE programs in the Horn of Africa have seen development partners investing in programs in the areas of intelligence, law enforcement, investigation and prosecution, judicial capacities, border security and public participation. Such programs can benefit by drawing on the Community Tension Monitoring tool. Programs, such as the National Counter Terrorism Centre in Kenya, which targets government departments, for example, could include Tension Monitoring. The Kenyan National Counter Terrorism centre has a pilot programme focusing on coastal region and involving a number of key government departments with the objectives of building capacities for the authorities involved to develop long-term measures to counter radicalization and violence extremism[5]. The initiative seeks to build a bridge between the classical coercive approach to counter-terrorism and a social and crime prevention approach by combining traditional security with early-warning, preventive security measures. The other programs which target wider society and especially the youth in specific locations in the country could also include Tension Monitoring to inform programming. Such programs involve civil society organizations, inter-faith groups and government agencies in addressing mainly inter-religious tensions, sensitization and awareness creation on safety from violent extremism and terrorism.

One example of incorporating the Community Tension Monitoring tool in programming is ACT! Kenya’ project on Strengthening Community Resilience against Extremism (SCORE) in Malindi, Kilifi County with objective to respond to the threats of violent extremism and radicalization in Kenya[6].

The most efficacious approach to countering violent extremism in the region would be to institutionalize Community Tension Monitoring and dialogue. This would then call for a framework for understanding those community tensions in Horn of Africa region that predetermine opportunities for extreme violent activities like radicalization and terrorism.


The result of inclusive Community Tension Monitoring and Countering Violent Extremism will be the prevention of terrorism and the promotion of positive community relations and regional cooperation. In a best case scenario and if Community Tension Monitoring is adapted and utilized effectively, it could lead to a situation where the peoples of the region achieve well-being and can live in peace and feel safe and secure.

George Kut is an independent consultant and PhD candidate at Coventry University, United Kingdom. He may be reached at