Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune
By: Kaitlin Sandin, Columnist
Before and since the election, president-elect Trump and his allies have made clear that the new administration is willing to discard policies and programs that they believe add little value, regardless of their popularity within either political party. While some may welcome a dizzying reorganization of the federal bureaucracy, the incoming administration should carefully examine the potential impact of eliminating programs before passing judgment. In particular, the new administration should preserve efforts to counter violent extremism (CVE) and should embrace the recently released “Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States,” which offers federal support and funding for local efforts to counter terrorism.[i] In the U.S., CVE is relatively young, but early indications suggest a potential for success. The incoming administration should give its full support to this popular, relatively inexpensive, and innovative method of combating domestic terrorism.
Though several European nations have been implementing CVE for over 30 years, it was only institutionalized in the United States in 2011 when the White House released a strategy document designed to empower local partners.[ii] Like ‘terrorism,’ there is no universally accepted definition of ‘countering violent extremism,’ though most agree that it contains some or all of the following: engagement, prevention, intervention, interdiction, and rehabilitation/reintegration. Through these lines of effort, CVE aims to prevent individuals from falling in with a terrorist organization or ideology without using traditional law enforcement methods such as surveillance or arrest and prosecution.[iii]
When deciding whether or not to support current CVE efforts, the new administration will necessarily question whether or not they work. The White House’s 2011 CVE strategy created three pilot programs in Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis-St. Paul.[iv] Grant funds in these cities have only recently been awarded, so formal evaluations are not yet available.[v] However, preliminary evidence suggests that some programs are promising. Terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins believes that efforts in the Twin Cities have been successful in reducing the number of individuals who travel overseas to join a terrorist organization.[vi]
In addition, programs abroad and at home (independent from government) have demonstrated the potential of CVE. In Aarhus, Denmark, several local crime prevention officers took up efforts to counter extremism after a number of young Muslims left to join ISIS.[vii] They adopted an open-door policy allowing potential extremists and those returning from Iraq and Syria access to psychiatric and job counseling services.[viii] The Aarhus program also recognized the digitized nature of radicalization, and helped parents take conversations offline when they found their children consuming extremist content online.[ix] Although CVE programming often suffers from lack of metrics, here success was measurable. In 2012, 34 individuals from the town left to join ISIS. By 2015, over 330 people had taken advantage of the program and only one individual left for Iraq and Syria that year.[x]
Closer to home, the World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE), a Montgomery County, Maryland-based organization that employs community stakeholders, conducts education about extremism, and provides mentoring and crisis interventions, was found in a formal evaluation to have a positive effect on many CVE-related indicators such as an individual’s ability to cope with stress, exercise resiliency, and engage with their community.[xi] As federal programs get off the ground and their success or failure becomes apparent, Aarhus and Maryland will be important models of best practices. Importantly, however, each program is context-specific and cannot be merely transplanted to another city. In recognition of the importance of customization of CVE, the White House strategy rightly and explicitly supports localized programming rather than mandating a one-size-fits-all approach.[xii]
There are undoubtedly still knots to unravel in the nascent U.S. CVE strategy. The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice rotate as the lead in overseeing the implementation of the strategy through a joint task force, which leads to a lack of ownership and continuity, both vital to success. [xiii] In addition, CVE programs must expand to encompass all varieties of extremism, both because the current focus on Islamist extremism can unfairly single-out Muslim communities, and because far more American lives have been lost to right-wing extremism.[xiv] Finally, DHS and DOJ should create and disseminate quantifiable measurements for success so that future administrations are able to make informed decisions about the efficacy of CVE.
Efforts are already underway to address these challenges. Passed unanimously by the House Committee on Homeland Security in July 2015 in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting, the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Act would elevate CVE as a priority of the Department of Homeland Security, designate an assistant secretary to take responsibility for overseeing CVE programs, reallocate $10 million to support existing CVE programs, and create a counter-messaging grant program to combat domestic terrorist propaganda.[xv] Unfortunately, the bill has not received yet received a floor vote. The new administration should take note of the bill’s bipartisan support and publicly encourage its passage in this session of Congress or the next.
Though the U.S. has undoubtedly improved its military, intelligence, and law enforcement counterterrorism capabilities in the years since the September 11 attacks, preventing individual terrorist attacks are merely tactical victories. In order to achieve a strategic victory, the U.S. must address the roots of violent extremism and discredit the ideologies that lead individuals to commit acts of terrorism. This is where CVE comes in. CVE and law enforcement efforts are meant to work hand-in-hand, just as police forces have long supported gang-prevention programs to reduce the level of violence in cities. The administration does not have to choose between a ‘soft’ CVE approach or a ‘hard’ law enforcement approach. They would do well to consider how the U.S. can continue to reduce the threat of terrorism through innovation, rather than returning to traditional methods that fail to address the root causes of extremism.
[i] The White House, “Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States,” October 2016, https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2016_strategic_implementation_plan_empowering_local_partners_prev.pdf.
[ii] National Security Critical Issues Task-Force, “Countering Violent Extremism: Applying the Public Health Model,” October 2016, https://georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/NSCITF-Report-on-Countering-Violent-Extremism.pdf.
[iii] National Security Critical Issues Task-Force, “Countering Violent Extremism: Applying the Public Health Model.”; Alejandro J. Beutel, “What is CVE (Countering Violent Extremism)?,” Patheos, November 1, 2016, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/altmuslim/2016/11/what-is-cve-countering-violent-extremism/.
[iv] The White House, “FACT SHEET: The White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism,” February 18, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/18/fact-sheet-white-house-summit-countering-violent-extremism.
[v] National Security Critical Issues Task-Force, “Countering Violent Extremism: Applying the Public Health Model.”
[vi] Brian Michael Jenkins, Bruce Hoffman, and Martha Crenshaw, “How Much Really Changed About Terrorism on 9/11?,” The Atlantic, September 11, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/09/jenkins-hoffman-crenshaw-september-11-al-qaeda/499334/.
[vii] Hanna Rosin, “How A Danish Town Helped Young Muslims Turn Away From ISIS,” July 15, 2016, http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/07/15/485900076/how-a-danish-town-helped-young-muslims-turn-away-from-isis.
[xi] Michael J. Williams, John G. Horgan, and William P. Evans, “Evaluation of a Multi-Faceted, U.S. Community-Based, Muslim-Led CVE Program,” U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, June 2016, https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/249936.pdf.
[xii] The White House, “Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.”
[xiii] National Security Critical Issues Task-Force, “Countering Violent Extremism: Applying the Public Health Model.”
[xiv] Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer, “The Growing Right-Wing Terror Threat,” June 16, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/16/opinion/the-other-terror-threat.html; Steven Montemayor, “Summit at U explores ways to counter extremism on local level,” August 18, 2016, http://www.startribune.com/summit-at-u-explores-ways-to-counter-extremism-on-local-level/390652161/.
[xv] U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, “Bipartisan Support in Congress to Counter Violent Extremism, July 16, 2015, https://homeland.house.gov/press/bipartisan-support-congress-counter-violent-extremism/.