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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.

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.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Flickr/B.C. Lorio)