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Worst Suspicions Confirmed

Government reports show domestic anti-terrorism efforts target minorities.

  • Emmanuel Mauleón
October 3, 2018

Cross-posted from Just Security.

Three recent U.S. government reports on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiatives confirm many of the concerns the Brennan Center has had about these programs since they were first announced by the Obama administration four years ago.

CVE aims to deter people from joining “violent extremist” groups by bringing community and religious leaders together with law enforcement, health professionals, teachers and social service employees. These programs, however, are not new. CVE programs have existed for some time, often with dubious results.

Although these programs are purportedly aimed at rooting out all violent extremism, they have often focused only on the American Muslim community, stigmatizing them as suspect. Targeting Muslims promotes biases that can infect future policy and law enforcement actions. In reality, ideological violence comes from many quarters, particularly the far right, and most mass shootings involve no perceptible ideological motivation. This selective targeting of mostly Muslim — as well as Black communities — compounds the discrimination these communities already face from over-policing and increased surveillance. (I recently wrote about this subject in the UCLA Law Review.)

In addition, these programs rest upon the dubious and unsupported theory of “radicalization,” which claims that terrorists or those who join terrorist groups undergo a predictable path of “radicalization” — a sort of “terror conveyor belt” — which can be halted by early intervention. Most problematically, these theories identify protected speech and religious practices as markers of supposed radicalization. This can include such benign or First Amendment-protected activities as growing a beard (or alternately, shaving one), wearing traditional “Muslim” clothing, or criticizing U.S. foreign policy.

The Brennan Center has also highlighted the likelihood that CVE would be utilized as a surveillance program, coopting community leaders and institutions to spy on their own communities. Though often disguised within social programs, CVE is a law enforcement-led effort and can involve intelligence gathering under the guise of community outreach.

The recently released reports — two covering the period from August 2017 to December 31, 2017 and the other for fiscal year 2017 — show that many of the Brennan Center’s concerns were justified. Previously known by the anodyne-sounding Office of Community Partnerships in the Obama administration, CVE is now housed in the Office of Terrorism Prevention Partnerships (OTTP), which falls within the ambit of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). All Obama-era pretenses that CVE would target a variety of communities deemed “vulnerable” to radicalization have been abandoned. Grantee reports are now hyper-specific about targeted communities. For example, the quarterly reports note that the Boston Police Department, a CVE grant recipient, exclusively targets Muslim “Somali-American youth” in its efforts. The Seattle Police Department targets its program on a “micro-neighborhood level,” seeking to prevent radicalization among “refugee women, youth, and disenfranchised populations in ethnically and culturally diverse neighborhoods.” These reports cast aside the Obama-era feel-good language and make clear CVE’s true discriminatory intent.

The reports indicate that CVE programs are also expanding beyond their original scope, with new partners targeting communities not previously included in grant applications or other program information. For example, “Heartland for Democracy,” a Minneapolis-based organization, originally applied for a grant targeting the state’s Somali population. The fiscal 2017 report, however, boasts that Heartland for Democracy has “expanded to begin discussion with Native American student groups.” This expansion of a CVE program into a community it did not identify as a target when applying for its grant should raise alarms, especially when that community has routinely suffered discrimination, particularly at the hands of local law enforcement. The quarterly report also underscores the pace of expansion, boasting that “nearly half of the grantees report new partnerships,” with 11 grantees adding “over 235 partners, bringing the total . . . to 992.” Grantee partners in the past have included school districts, social workers, and various after-school programs that have regular contact with targeted communities. Mention of new partnerships, without further information as to who these partners are, how they are affiliated with CVE, or what information they are sharing with the Department of Homeland Security, should be of great concern.

The quarterly reports also suggest that the OTPP may be attempting to keep track of individuals who have participated in CVE programs. A footnote states that the office “provided reporting guidance to avoid intentionally counting the same participants twice.” This raises the question — how can OTTP ensure their partners are not collecting duplicative data without tracking personally identifying information? Without some form of unique marker assigned to program participants, it would be difficult to avoid “double-counting.” The reports do not elaborate on how this data is collected, who has access to it, how it is being used, and whether any personally identifying data is shared between CVE grantees and the federal government. Imagine signing your child up for an after-school basketball program only to later find that they have been evaluated for signs of “radicalization,” and their name or other personal identifiers has been shared with DHS.

Finally, the reports confirm that CVE programs are more interested in policing a community’s speech and political activism than in reducing violence. For example, school shootings are a major concern of both communities and law enforcement. But rather than incorporate these concerns into their programing, some CVE grantees viewed any effort to address school shootings as detracting from their focus on extremism. One CVE grantee, for example, had trouble “engaging participants in a counter messaging competition following a major school shooting, with participants wanting to address that issue with their energies instead.” [ital added]

These reports provide evidence confirming what was long feared about CVE programs — that they are largely a law enforcement surveillance effort focused on minority communities and are unwilling to address violent extremism of all stripes.

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