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Why Countering Violent Extremism Programs Are Bad Policy

In the aftermath of deadly white supremacist attacks, a destructive counterterrorism program is being rehabilitated.

Published: September 9, 2019

After a white suprem­acist gunman walked into a crowded Walmart and killed 22 people in early August, Demo­cratic pres­id­en­tial candid­ates and members of Congress have made address­ing white nation­al­ist terror­ism a prior­ity for federal law enforce­ment. This is a neces­sary and welcome devel­op­ment consid­er­ing this threat hasn’t been taken seri­ously enough by federal, state, or local law enforce­ment across the nation. Unfor­tu­nately, many of the policy and legis­lat­ive propos­als would strengthen directly and indir­ectly a coun­terter­ror­ism frame­work known as coun­ter­ing viol­ent extrem­ism (CVE).

While federal law enforce­ment agen­cies involved in CVE paint the program as a community outreach initi­at­ive dedic­ated to stop­ping people from becom­ing viol­ent extrem­ists, the real­ity is that these programs, which are based on junk science, have proven to be inef­fect­ive, discrim­in­at­ory, and divis­ive. Here’s what you need to know about the dangers of CVE programs and why the frame­work should be aban­doned rather than rehab­il­it­ated.

What is the coun­ter­ing viol­ent extrem­ism program? 

CVE is a coun­terter­ror­ism strategy that recruits community lead­ers, social work­ers, teach­ers, and public health providers ostens­ibly to assist the govern­ment in identi­fy­ing indi­vidu­als that may be “at risk” of becom­ing viol­ent extrem­ists. But the idea that there are predict­ive risk indic­at­ors has been discred­ited by decades of schol­arly research. They have been targeted almost exclus­ively at Muslims and employ spuri­ous criteria, such as reli­gi­os­ity and polit­ical activ­ism and vague feel­ings of alien­a­tion, as prox­ies for viol­ent tend­en­cies.

CVE has been around for several years, involving a vari­ety of programs led by federal prosec­utors, the FBI, and Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity. While these agen­cies often present the strategy as a “soft” approach to coun­terter­ror­ism, internal agency docu­ments obtained by the Bren­nan Center and others reveal that they often mask efforts to gather intel­li­gence, identify indi­vidu­als who are not suspec­ted of wrong­do­ing for surveil­lance, recruit inform­ants, and co-opt community lead­ers to promote govern­ment messaging. These goals are hidden behind the language of community outreach.

Though CVE programs have been in place for many years, no evid­ence demon­strates that they are effect­ive in redu­cing terror­ist viol­ence or even the spread of “extreme” ideas. And contrary to the stated goals of these programs to strengthen community resi­li­ence, they have proven to be discrim­in­at­ory in prac­tice and stig­mat­iz­ing, divis­ive, and destruct­ive to the communit­ies they target.

CVE programs were built on top of a disproven theory

CVE programs are designed around the erro­neous idea that there is a discern­ible process of radic­al­iz­a­tion that results in terror­ist viol­ence. The key assump­tion of radic­al­iz­a­tion theory is that indi­vidu­als who adopt “extrem­ist” ideo­lo­gies start down a conveyor belt that leads inex­or­ably toward becom­ing a terror­ist. 

While this propos­i­tion may have some intu­it­ive appeal, decades of empir­ical research disproves it. Many people hold views that can be described as “extreme” and never support or commit an act of viol­ence based on those beliefs. And many who commit terror­ist viol­ence have little or no attach­ments to an extreme ideo­logy.

As coun­terter­ror­ism scholar and former CIA officer Marc Sage­man stated, “Despite decades of research, . . . we still do not know what leads people to engage in polit­ical viol­ence.” Moreover, ideas that once seemed extreme, such as women’s suffrage and civil rights for all, were neces­sary drivers of social progress. Suppress­ing viol­ence is a laud­able govern­ment goal. Suppress­ing ideas that don’t meet govern­ment approval is not.

CVE programs based on this flawed radic­al­iz­a­tion theory routinely flag inno­cent beha­vior, such as mistrust of law enforce­ment and feel­ings of alien­a­tion, as indic­at­ors of “pre-terror­ism.” In a May 2014 docu­ment, “Coun­ter­ing Viol­ent Extrem­ism: A Guide for Prac­ti­tion­ers and Analysts,” the National Coun­terter­ror­ism Center developed a ques­tion­naire for police, social work­ers, and teach­ers to rank members of the communit­ies they serve on a scale of one to five in categor­ies like “Connec­tion to Group Iden­tity (Race, Nation­al­ity, Reli­gion, Ethni­city)” and “Expres­sions of Hope­less­ness, Futil­ity.”

Vague indic­at­ors like these are mean­ing­less predict­ors of terror­ist viol­ence and turn normal human exper­i­ences into suspi­cious beha­vi­ors that will poten­tially brand inno­cent indi­vidu­als as possible terror­ists. Not surpris­ingly, there is no evid­ence that CVE programs reduce terror­ism. In April 2017, the Govern­ment Account­ab­il­ity Office published a crit­ical report eval­u­at­ing federal CVE efforts.

“The federal govern­ment does not have a cohes­ive strategy or process for assess­ing the over­all CVE effort,” the report warned, stat­ing that its invest­ig­at­ors could not “determ­ine if the United States is better off today than it was in 2011 as a result of these tasks.”

CVE programs target Muslims despite the persist­ent threat of far-right domestic terror­ism

Govern­ment public-facing descrip­tions of CVE are almost always ideo­lo­gic­ally and reli­giously neut­ral, but the over­whelm­ing focus has always been on Amer­ican Muslim communit­ies. This is more than prob­lem­atic as CVE program­ming rein­forces false Islamo­phobic notions that Muslim Amer­ic­ans pose a grave threat of terror­ism. Since 9/11, multiple stud­ies show that far-right terror­ists commit more attacks and kill as many people as any other terror­ist move­ments.

Never­the­less, during the Obama admin­is­tra­tion, the federal govern­ment awar­ded 31 CVE grants total­ing $10 million, with only one going to a group that even partially focused on far-right viol­ence. More than half of that $400,000 grant was to be direc­ted toward identi­fy­ing and derad­ic­al­iz­ing so-called “jihadist” extrem­ists. The incom­ing Trump admin­is­tra­tion canceled that grant along with other Obama-era grants. Trump admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials also made the program’s preju­dice overt when a member of the pres­id­ent’s trans­ition team in 2016 floated the idea of renam­ing the program, “Coun­ter­ing Radical Islam” or “Coun­ter­ing Viol­ent Jihad.” 

Further­more, 85 percent of CVE grants admin­istered during the Trump era expli­citly targeted minor­ity groups, includ­ing Muslims, LGBTQ Amer­ic­ans, Black Lives Matter activ­ists, immig­rants, and refugees, accord­ing to Bren­nan Center analysis of the grants. More than half of CVE programs now focus on schools and students, in some cases as young as 5 years old.

CVE programs are Trojan horses

CVE programs are surveil­lance and intel­li­gence programs masquer­ad­ing as community outreach programs. Although the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity currently reports that “CVE efforts do not include gath­er­ing intel­li­gence or perform­ing invest­ig­a­tions for the purpose of crim­inal prosec­u­tion,” internal govern­ment docu­ments say other­wise.  

Accord­ing to a docu­ment unearthed by the Bren­nan Center, the FBI’s own CVE office describes its approach as designed to “strengthen our invest­ig­at­ive, intel­li­gence gath­er­ing, and collab­or­at­ive abil­it­ies to be proact­ive in coun­ter­ing viol­ent extrem­ism.”

Surveil­lance and intel­li­gence gath­er­ing even extends to young chil­dren and teen­agers in schools. In early 2016, the FBI launched a CVE program target­ing school­chil­dren. It included an inter­act­ive website, “Don’t Be a Puppet,” to teach chil­dren about viol­ent extrem­ism, with the goal of turn­ing teach­ers and students into govern­ment spies, monit­or­ing one another for tell-tale expres­sions of unortho­dox ideas.

In August 2016, the Amer­ican Feder­a­tion of Teach­ers form­ally objec­ted to the FBI’s “Don’t Be a Puppet” CVE program. The nation’s second largest teach­er’s union described the program as “ideo­lo­gical profil­ing and surveil­lance,” partic­u­larly of Middle East­ern and Muslim students, that will have a “chilling effect on our schools and immig­rant communit­ies, jeop­ard­iz­ing chil­dren’s sense of safety and well-being and threat­en­ing the secur­ity and sense of trust of entire communit­ies.” 

In community centers, places of worship, and schools, for example, CVE provides an excuse and a tool to surveil Amer­ic­ans whose only crime is belong­ing to a group that faces discrim­in­a­tion. This is a coun­ter­pro­duct­ive approach to coun­terter­ror­ism that stig­mat­izes and alien­ates targeted communit­ies and sows distrust of law enforce­ment. 

CVE programs jeop­ard­ize funda­mental rights

It’s under­stand­able that Demo­cratic pres­id­en­tial candid­ates and members of Congress would want to do some­thing to address white nation­al­ist terror­ism, but CVE is neither effect­ive nor can it be squared with funda­mental indi­vidual rights.

The coun­terter­ror­ism frame­work always risks asso­ci­at­ing “extrem­ist” ideas, a subject­ive and nebu­lous concept, with viol­ence, thereby stig­mat­iz­ing and dele­git­im­iz­ing inno­cent people in ways that touch on First-Amend­ment protec­ted activ­ity. For instance, in 2017, journ­al­ists revealed that the bureau had created a category of possible terror­ists labeled “Black Iden­tity Extrem­ist” for a move­ment that didn’t exist and connec­ted it to the First Amend­ment-protec­ted activ­ity of Black protest­ers against police viol­ence.

Amer­ican Muslims, however, have been the dispro­por­tion­ate victims of law enforce­ment suspi­cion and surveil­lance based on vague and mean­ing­less terror­ism indic­at­ors that implic­ate found­a­tional Amer­ican freedoms. In 2014, the Justice Depart­ment gave $500,000 to a nonprofit organ­iz­a­tion in Mont­gomery County, Mary­land. The program’s mission was to identify Amer­ican Muslims vulner­able to becom­ing terror­ists. Its “poten­tial risk factors” included “polit­ical griev­ances” and “ideo­logy, beliefs and values,” all expres­sions and beliefs protec­ted by the First Amend­ment. And in Boston, the Massachu­setts Office of Public Safety and Secur­ity, a 2016 CVE grantee, listed criti­cism of U.S. foreign policy as a terror­ism indic­ator.

This should­n’t be surpris­ing consid­er­ing the federal govern­ment routinely fails to abide by its own rule that that rights protec­tions must be baked into the grants they approve. In the Bren­nan Center’s analysis of 26 Trump-era CVE grants, 14 grantees never mention how their program will address privacy, civil rights, and civil liber­ties concerns. Of the 12 that do, only six indic­ate the safe­guards they would put in place to respect funda­mental rights. Not one of the six, however, specify the safe­guards they would insti­tute to protect indi­vidu­als from rights viol­a­tions. 

CVE programs fail because they focus on suppress­ing ideas, rather than redu­cing viol­ence. With more than half of the viol­ent crimes commit­ted in the United States going unsolved each year, law enforce­ment resources should not be wasted on CVE programs that have proven to be inef­fect­ive and discrim­in­at­ory in prac­tice. 

(Image: Sandy Huffaker/Getty)