As the Trump administration reportedly plans to revamp a controversial set of programs begun by the Obama administration called “Countering Violent Extremism,” (CVE) our new report finds that CVE programs are already targeted almost exclusively at American Muslims. Moreover, these programs rely on debunked methodology that aims to identify potential terrorists based on supposedly radical views, while damaging American Muslim communities by ensnaring completely innocent individuals and increasing distrust between those communities and law enforcement. The report recommends a wholesale reconsideration of these programs in each form they take.
President Donald Trump’s animosity towards Muslims is well documented. During his campaign, he often expressed suspicions about American Muslims, called for greater surveillance of their mosques and communities, and refused to rule out forced registration of Muslims in government databases. Within a week of taking office, he fulfilled his campaign promise to institute a “Muslim ban,” issuing an executive order temporarily barring people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States and halting the Syrian refugee program. Two federal courts halted implementation of the order, relying in part on his calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country. Trump transition officials have also signaled the administration’s intent to target American Muslims in other ways. They have floated the idea of renaming the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program “Countering Radical Islam or Countering Violent Jihad,” to make clear it will target only American Muslims. Reports suggest that such a change is imminent. New DHS Secretary John Kelly is conducting a review of the program which will determine its final contours. Four groups previously awarded over $2.2 million in federal dollars to work on CVE projects aimed at Muslim communities worried by the new administration’s statements have stated that they will decline the funds, and others may follow suit.
Regardless of whether CVE is called Countering Violent Islam or not, the programs initiated under this rubric by the Obama administration — while couched in neutral terms — have, in practice, focused almost exclusively on American Muslim communities. This is despite the fact that empirical data shows that violence from far right movements results in at least as many fatalities in the U.S. as attacks inspired by Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. CVE not only stigmatizes Muslim communities as inherently suspect, it also creates serious risks of flagging innocuous activity as pre-terrorism and suppressing religious observance and speech. These flaws are only exacerbated when CVE programs are run by an administration that is overtly hostile towards Muslims, and that includes within its highest ranks individuals known for their frequent and public denunciations of a faith that is practiced by 1.6 billion people around the world.
CVE has been part of the conversation about counterterrorism for over a decade, but the approach became more prominent in the United States starting in 2011, when the White House issued its “National Strategy for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.” CVE aims to supplement law enforcement counterterrorism tactics such as surveillance, investigations, and prosecutions with a secondary set of prevention measures. Roughly speaking, these can be divided into three categories:
- Initiatives focused on identifying American Muslims — especially young people — who have adopted “radical” or “extremist” ideas, or who supposedly exhibit signs of alienation and are therefore assumed to be at risk for becoming terrorists. These are frequently called intervention programs, and are supported by research grants aimed at identifying the predictive signatures of people who become terrorists.
- Programs to fund or facilitate the provision of health, education, and social services to American Muslim communities, based on the theory that adverse economic and social conditions facilitate terrorism.
- The promotion of messages that the government believes will counter the propaganda of groups like ISIS, as well as monitoring and sometimes suppressing messages that the government believes foster extremism, including encouraging Internet companies to remove extremist or terrorist content from their websites and promote counter-messages.
In 2014, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced CVE pilot programs in Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Montgomery County, Maryland. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has launched its own initiatives and Congress has allocated $10 million for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Community Partnerships to distribute in grant funding. These funds were awarded in the waning days of the Obama administration to a mix of 31 police departments, academic institutions, and non-profit groups.
CVE proponents often present the strategy as a “soft” approach, which aims to divert at-risk American Muslims away from terrorism. A central goal of the Obama administration was to develop partnerships between the government and Muslim civil society to identify individuals at risk of terrorism and conduct interventions, which could include counseling, mentoring, or mental health treatment. The aim may be laudable, but CVE’s negative consequences outweigh any assumed and unproven benefits.
Many CVE programs label people as potential terrorists using disproven criteria and methods. The first is that extremist ideology is a precursor to, and driver of, terrorism. While this proposition has some intuitive appeal, it has been disproven by decades of empirical research. Many people hold views that can be described as “extreme” and never act violently; the reverse is also true.
The second disproven premise underlying CVE is that there is a predictable path toward terrorism, and that potential terrorists have identifiable markers. This notion has also been repeatedly debunked by empirical findings acknowledged by the White House and various law enforcement agencies. Yet CVE programs run or sponsored by the government continue to use unscientific lists of markers or signs in a misguided effort to identify individuals who are supposedly on their way to becoming terrorists. This overly broad approach creates a grave risk that people who have nothing to do with terrorism will be labeled potential threats, particularly because schoolteachers and social service and healthcare providers who come into contact with young Muslims, but have no law enforcement or intelligence experience, are expected to make these determinations.
CVE intervention programs are framed as community-led efforts to counsel young Muslims. In practice they are mostly led, funded, and administered by law enforcement agencies, including the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, U.S. Attorney’s Offices, the FBI, and state and local law enforcement agencies. The involvement of these agencies increases the likelihood that these programs will act as a vehicle for intelligence reporting about people and organizations in CVE-targeted communities who have been identified as terrorism risks based on disproven indicators. Publicly available information about these programs does not include rules preventing the entities that receive funding for, or participate in, CVE programs from sharing information with the FBI and police.
It is unlikely that either new or existing CVE programs will carry tangible security benefits. Channeling law enforcement resources into investigating people based on a potpourri of unproven indicators isn’t likely to snare criminals, but rather to draw scrutiny to individuals whose speech or beliefs are outside the mainstream. In addition, these programs risk damaging critical relationships between law enforcement and Muslim communities, further undermining the goal of preventing terrorism.
These risks are far from theoretical. The United Kingdom has used a similar approach, which has resulted in thousands of people, including children, being wrongly identified as potential terrorists. The U.K.’s CVE program is widely perceived as targeting Muslims, particularly their political views; and has resulted in widespread suspicion of government among British Muslims. Top officials in the government have called for its review or dismantling.
Finally, by targeting extreme or radical viewpoints — either by identifying political views as potential indicators of terrorism, or by seeking to suppress them online — CVE programs restrict discourse and debate. This not only undermines First Amendment values, but also drives terrorist narratives underground, where they are harder to challenge.
This report aims to trigger a much-needed course correction by highlighting the risks of CVE programs. It recommends a shift away from CVE to a framework that focuses on viewing American Muslims as a source of strength rather than suspicion. The report makes six recommendations, which should be implemented by the responsible federal, state, and local agencies.
First, counterterrorism and law enforcement officials should focus on what has been proven to work, rather than trying to identify pre-terrorists based on disproven criteria. This means vigorously investigating any suspicion of criminal activity, a tactic that has a proven track record of leading to counterterrorism successes. Communities should feel comfortable sharing information when they suspect criminal activity, rather than pressured to detect nebulous markers of radicalization.
Second, although American Muslims have a strong record of assisting law enforcement, these relationships have been frayed by 15 years in which their communities have been the primary focus of counterterrorism efforts, most recently by CVE. To increase mutual trust, government agencies should reset engagement efforts with American Muslims to cover a broad range of issues, rather than focusing resources on contentious counterterrorism programs. Law enforcement officers should not lead engagement efforts and there should be strict protocols for the sharing of information gathered in the course of community outreach.
Third, to the extent that the federal government continues to conduct or provide funding for CVE programs, it should ensure that the agencies running CVE programs, as well the groups and agencies that receive federal dollars, have in place public and robust safeguards against the manifest risks posed by these programs before they are implemented.
Fourth, while there is no evidence to suggest that providing funds for social and educational programs helps prevent terrorism, these initiatives are generally beneficial and could be continued. However, to avoid the risks associated with CVE, these programs should be conducted outside the counterterrorism and law enforcement umbrella, and include safeguards to prevent them from turning into vehicles for intelligence gathering.
Fifth, with respect to CVE measures relating to the Internet — i.e., monitoring and removal of content and counter-messaging — this report recommends greater transparency and the development of procedural safeguards.
Finally, government funding of terrorism research should adhere to scientific protocols, measure the effectiveness of CVE programs, and pay close attention to their impact on community relations and constitutional norms.
Even if the federal government pulls back from its active sponsorship of CVE or renames it to make clear that the target is “radical Islam,” the infrastructure for these programs has already been developed at the local level. It is therefore critical that government agencies, particularly at the state and local levels, heed the recommendations set out above and dismantle, or at the very least substantially reconfigure, their CVE programs.