Fighting Terrorism Without Dividing Us: Why Congress Must Look Beyond Countering Violent Extremism

Counterterrorism programs and policies should be driven by objective data-driven analyses to ensure they are lawful, effective, and an efficient uses of security resources.

July 27, 2017

Cross-posted from Just Security

On Thursday July 27, the National Security Subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will hold a hearing on “Combatting Homegrown Terrorism.” Preventing terrorism in the United States is of course an important goal, and it is entirely appropriate for Congress to examine ways to improve our counterterrorism efforts and keep the public better informed about the threats we face. Unfortunately, this hearing omits crucial voices necessary to a fair and complete examination of domestic terrorist threats and the effectiveness of counterterrorism policies, and perpetuates the false notion that Muslims present a singular terrorist threat in the United States. These omissions will only help to reinforce a flawed counterterrorism narrative that misinforms the public, amplifies unreasonable fear, and increases divisiveness, all of which undermine the social cohesiveness necessary to build resiliency to terrorism and ensure the security of all Americans.

Domestic counterterrorism policies since the 9/11 terrorist attacks have focused on “radicalization” as the primary driver of terrorism. Radicalization theories posit that adopting an extremist ideology is a necessary first step on a pathway toward terrorist violence. Countless empirical studies of actual terrorists have discredited this theory, however. The vast majority of people holding extreme views never engage in or support terrorist violence, and many of those who do commit acts of terrorism do not hold extremist beliefs. Most terrorism researchers today acknowledge that there is no profile, pattern, predictive pathway or reliable indicators that can be used to accurately determine who will become a terrorist in the future. Despite this research, the government has embraced the notion that suppressing radical ideologies – called “countering violent extremism” or “CVE” – will be an effective method of reducing terrorist violence. There is no evidence to support this proposition, yet CVE programs have proliferated in the U.S. and around the world.

CVE programs are not new, and are as flawed in practice as they are in theory. CVE programs in the U.S and around the world have been criticized for reinforcing anti-Muslim stereotypes, facilitating surreptitious intelligence gathering, suppressing dissent against government policies, and sowing discord in targeted communities. CVE programs are led by law enforcement and homeland security agencies, which securitizes the relationship with the targeted communities and taints the value of the social services provided. Government documents show that CVE community outreach programs are often designed for intelligence collection rather than to identify and serve the needs of the community. This undermines trust, stigmatizes those who participate in government CVE programs, and alienates those who refuse them. These programs often include a component to instruct teachers, social workers, medical professionals, and community members to identify dubious “indicators” of extremism for reporting to law enforcement. These indicators are not supported by scientific studies, and often include First Amendment-protected activities like religious practice and political viewpoint. While all citizens should feel empowered to report suspected criminal activity that poses a risk of violence within their communities, using disproven criteria to identify and report supposed pre-terrorists can only result in false reporting that wastes security resources and violates the rights of innocent persons.

CVE programs are also discriminatory. A 2017 Government Accountability Office evaluation of CVE programs determined that far right extremists were responsible for 73 percent of extremist attacks resulting in fatalities in the U.S. since 9/11, yet the Obama administration’s CVE programs focused almost exclusively on Muslim communities and the Trump administration has made clear they will focus entirely on “radical Islam” in the future. This exclusive focus mischaracterizes the actual terrorist threat Americans face today, and fosters anti-Muslim sentiment among law enforcement and in the general public.

Unfortunately, the subcommittee did not invite any of the researchers or public policy advocates who have evaluated these radicalization theories and the CVE programs they have fostered, depriving members evidence challenging this approach. Most importantly, the subcommittee invited no witnesses representing the Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, Somali, South Asian and Sikh communities that are often targeted by overbroad and ill-conceived counterterrorism measures – and are increasingly victims of acts of domestic terrorism we often call hate crimes – who could speak to the negative impacts of CVE programs. One of the purported goals of CVE is to strengthen the relationship between targeted communities and law enforcement, but by ignoring the input of community groups, CVE programs undermine this objective. Since President Obama announced the program in 2011, a wide range of community groups and civil rights organizations have expressed their opposition to CVE, particularly representatives of the Muslim communities targeted by CVE. By silencing these voices the subcommittee further alienates these communities from government officials who too often view them as suspects rather than as citizens deserving equal protection of the law. Our nation’s security can only be achieved by uniting, nurturing, and protecting all American communities.

By putting forth an incomplete narrative about CVE, this subcommittee is ignoring the scientific research and first-hand experience of community members that challenges CVE’s operating principles. Law enforcement, intelligence, and homeland security resources should focus on understanding and addressing all forms of criminal violence that threaten the lives and safety of American communities. Singling out Muslims as the source of extremist violence polarizes communities and undermines public confidence in government and law enforcement. Counterterrorism programs and policies should be driven by objective data-driven analyses to ensure they are lawful, effective, and an efficient uses of security resources. The government should cease funding those policies and practices that are not supported by rigorous social science research or cannot stand up to academic peer review.

Terrorists use horrible violence to stoke fear and divide society. Congress should ensure that our counterterrorism policies don’t do the same.

(Photo: Flickr/B.C. Lorio)