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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.