In 2015, former President Barack Obama hosted the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.Photo Credit: Polarism
By: Lee Walter, Columnist
In the wake of a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue and a series of pipe bomb mailings to high-profile political figures across the country, the Trump administration decided to cancel all future funding for the Obama-era Countering Violent Extremism Grant Program. Given the timing, this decision has drawn harsh criticism from some observers.[i] The program, which appropriated federal dollars to approved non-governmental organizations that combat radicalization by performing outreach in high-risk communities and providing assistance to former violent extremists seeking to reform themselves, was in jeopardy the moment the president took office. The Trump administration first cancelled funding to several organizations on the approved list immediately after taking office, placing the entire program in doubt.[ii] Now, with the synagogue shooting and pipe bomb mailings in recent memory and the CVE Grant Program cancelled before it could produce real results, a perennial question looms larger than ever: how well do CVE programs work? Are they still worth funding?
Other countries’ CVE initiatives provide useful data, as some of the United States’ closest allies have found reasonable success with their own CVE programs. The United Kingdom is a frequent target of terrorism and has produced some of ISIS’ most notorious foreign fighters. In response, it has created a hefty, centralized counter-terror program that includes robust civil society outreach efforts. The “Prevent” pillar of the country’s broad “Contest” counter-terror strategy is clearly CVE-minded; the program’s stated objectives are to challenge radical ideology, support at-risk individuals, and work with key industries that interact with vulnerable populations on a regular basis.[iii] It accomplishes these goals through a variety of means, including support for school initiatives designed to teach young people to identify extremist narratives, engagement with Islamic scholars to develop the most effective outreach strategies for Muslim communities, and collaboration with media outlets to promote the stories of victims of terrorism.[iv] The Contest strategy is believed to cost around 40 million pounds per year, or just 1% of the United Kingdom’s 3 billion pound counter-terrorism budget,[v] and it appears to have already found modest success. The UK government claims that in 2015 alone, around 150 people (50 of whom were underage) were deterred from going abroad to join ISIS as a result of at least some element of the intervention program.[vi] While the government’s numbers are almost certainly inflated, this is a clear success given that only around 1,000 British citizens have joined ISIS since the founding of the organization.[vii]
The French government pursued CVE programming even more aggressively, passing its own massive counter-terror program dubbed “Prevent to Protect.” The program involves cooperation between national and local governments as well as civil society organizations in a variety of ways, including the separation of radicalized inmates from the general population in prisons, the offer of free counseling services to high-risk individuals and foreign fighters returning from overseas, the development of counter-messaging initiatives aimed at discrediting extremist conspiracy theories online, and work with social networking sites to remove illegal terrorist content from their sites.[viii] The program is still in its infancy, but the programming was developed after years of intense study by experts within a government that has had to deal with by far the largest domestic terrorism problem of any country in Western Europe, and early reports are already promising.
Admittedly, both programs have flaws, mostly due to law enforcement overreach. The UK government has mandated that certain civil authorities such as doctors and teachers must report suspicious individuals to the police instead of intervening themselves,[ix] which has led to poor engagement with at-risk individuals. After all, who wants to go to a teacher with troubling thoughts when he or she is required by law to alert the police?.[x] The French also ran into difficulties due to accusations that its anti-terror initiatives disproportionately target Muslims.[xi]
There is no reason the US government cannot learn from these mistakes, fund more CVE projects similar to those started by the French and British, and garner most of the benefits with few of the drawbacks. Many of the problems that arose in the United Kingdom and France should be avoided due to the parameters of the CVE Grant Program: No NGO personnel are required to report at-risk individuals to the US government as part of the deal, and the absence of direct law enforcement involvement means a reduced risk of disproportionate targeting of certain minority groups. That law enforcement should not be involved in these programs should be an easy sell, as it is by now painfully obvious that no good can come from mixing law enforcement surveillance with civil society collaboration (e.g. the roundly-criticized post-9/11 law enforcement attempts at Muslim community “outreach,” the highly controversial law enforcement penetration of protest organizations in the 1960s, etc.).
Obviously, leaning on softer CVE approaches is politically parlous. The moment the system fails and a previously-identified at-risk individual carries out an attack, the government will be accused of not doing enough. But this “tough-on-terrorism” mindset is precisely the problem, and until the public stops wrongly seeing all security issues as nails, it will keep wrongly demanding hammers to fix them.
[i] Laura Strickler, “Trump Admin Will Apparently Not Renew Program to Fight Domestic Terror,” NBC News, October 31, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/trump-admin-will-apparently-not-renew-program-fight-domestic-terror-n926361 .
[iii] “Prevent Strategy,” Her Majesty’s Government, June 2011, 7, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/97976/prevent-strategy-review.pdf.
[iv] Ibid., 48-49.
[v] “Reality Check: What is the Prevent Strategy?,” BBC, June 4, 2017, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2017-40151991.
[vii] “IS Foreign Fighters: 5,600 Have Returned Home – Report,” BBC, October 24, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-41734069.
[viii] Nicolas Boring, “France: Government Announces National Plan to Prevent Radicalization,” Library of Congress, February 26, 2018, https://www.loc.gov/law/foreign-news/article/france-government-announces-national-plan-to-prevent-radicalization/.
[ix] “Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015,” Her Majesty’s Government (accessed: August 10, 2018), Part 5, Ch. 1, Sec. 26, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/6/pdfs/ukpga_20150006_en.pdf.
[x] Sally Weale, “Prevent Strategy Stigmatising Muslim Pupils, Say Teachers,” The Guardian, July 3, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/03/prevent-strategy-anti-radicalisation-stigmatising-muslim-pupils-teachers.
[xi] James McAuley, “French Muslims Enraged by Passage of Macron’s Version of Patriot Act,” Washington Post, October 3, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/with-french-patriot-act-macron-enrages-french-muslims/2017/10/03/998a0af4-a841-11e7-9a98-07140d2eed02_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.4cad4210d974.