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Countering Violent Extremism

Summary: “Countering Violent Extremism” programs rely on debunked methodology for identifying potential terrorists, inflict tangible harm on American Muslims, and provide an infrastructure for an administration openly hostile to Muslims to spy on their communities.

Published: March 16, 2017

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. 

Read Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act Docu­ments Refer­enced in the Report

Read the Exec­ut­ive Summary

Exec­ut­ive Summary

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Bren­nan Center CVE Report by The Bren­nan Center for Justice on Scribd