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Counterterrorism Efforts Should Be Based on Facts, Not Flawed Theories

If the Obama administration’s new “Countering Violent Extremism” programs are anything like past iterations, they will likely create more problems than they solve.

February 19, 2015

Crossposted on Just Security blog.

This week, the White House held a three-day summit to discuss a recently announced domestic counterterrorism program, dubbed “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE). These programs, which are slated to launch in Boston, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles in the months ahead, aim to help communities identify violent extremists in the United States. The summit is part of the Administration’s renewed effort to position its outreach programs to Muslim American communities as part of a larger anti-terrorism campaign. But if these programs are anything like past iterations, they are likely to create more problems than they solve.

One major problem is that although the 2011 White House CVE strategy recognizes that violent extremists come from many ideological backgrounds, which we saw last year in Las Vegas and Kansas City, the actual programs tend to target only Muslim Americans. This solitary focus tends to stigmatize, rather than empower Muslim communities.

I spoke with NYU professor Arun Kundnani, author of The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror, who has studied CVE programs in both Britain and the U.S. He explains how tying outreach programs to an anti-terrorism purpose tends to reinforce the perception that the government views Muslim communities primarily as a potential security threat, rather than a constituency government is obligated to serve in a fair and equal manner:

The Brennan Center and the American Civil Liberties Union have uncovered ample evidence that the government has previously viewed its community outreach programs to Muslim groups as an opportunity to secretly gather intelligence.

A 2014 National Counterterrorism Center document published by The Intercept suggests it plans to use CVE programs to evaluate communities, families, and individuals for their potential to become terrorists. The document, a CVE guide for practitioners and analysts, includes a five-page checklist for police officers, public health workers, educators, and social service departments to rate “risk and resilience factors” of the public they serve on a five-point scale. The risk factors NCTC suggests include whether there was empathic parent-child bonding and whether family members trust each other, experienced loss, or perceive being treated unjustly. Communities are to be rated on whether they face discrimination by or show trust in law enforcement. There’s little evidentiary basis to believe these factors are relevant to whether a person becomes violent, let alone that lay persons could accurately rate them on a five-point scale.

But it is also ironic that individuals and communities that already face discrimination are considered a higher risk, which could potentially lead to their further targeting for disparate treatment from law enforcement and intelligence agencies. There’s no question that innocent American Muslims have suffered from over-aggressive surveillance, unjustified interference with their religious and political activities, and unnecessary impediments to their travel. Hina Shamsi, Director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, talked to me about the impact this misplaced scrutiny has on Muslim communities:

This highlights one glaring disconnect in the government’s CVE strategy. The flawed theories of terrorist radicalization the CVE programs rely on tend to identify individual or community grievances as a primary indicators or drivers of violence. A recent White House CVE strategy memo, however, recognizes that government activities themselves can generate grievances:

… We must remember that just as our words and deeds can either fuel or counter violent ideologies abroad, so too can they here at home. Actions and statements that cast suspicion toward entire communities, promote hatred and division, and send messages to certain Americans that they are somehow less American because of their faith or how they look, reinforce violent extremist propaganda and feed the sense of disenchantment and disenfranchisement that may spur violent extremist radicalization.If the

But rather than implement a strategy that evaluates the relative legitimacy of these grievances so the government can take action to mitigate them as appropriate, the government’s CVE programs attempt to suppress this debate by recruiting community leaders willing to promote pro-government messaging. Identifying past discrimination against these communities as one more reason to continue discriminating against them isn’t the answer.

Treating terrorism as the spread of an ideological infection within a vulnerable community also allows the government to put aside difficult questions about the role US foreign and national security policies play in generating anti-American grievances, which the Defense Department raised in a 2004 report. Studies supporting government-favored radicalization theories rarely mention U.S. military actions in Muslim countries, lethal drone strikes, torture, or the Guantanamo Bay prison as radicalizing influences, though many terrorists reference them in attempting to justify their actions.

The intelligence agencies should be leading the government in fact-based research on national security issues. Peddling debunked radicalization theories that spread unnecessary fear and confusion will only lead to more discrimination and distrust of government. This would be an unfortunate outcome, whether you believe it leads to more terrorism or not.