Trump/Bannon Plan to Counter “Violent Islamic Extremism”—A Gift to White Supremacists, and Islamic Terrorists Too

When Trump’s homeland security “landing team” recently visited the offices of administration officials working on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), they stated that the program would likely be renamed something like Countering Islamic Extremism.  News reports suggest this change could be imminent, even though the White House appears keen to avoid discussing it (watch Sean Spicer’s cutting off reporter April Ryan’s attempt to ask about it). This path leads to ruin—including a major conflict between political appointees and the government’s most respected homeland security and law enforcement experts, and an empowering of violent radical groups.

What’s the goal?
We know from last week’s “Muslim ban” executive order that the Trump team is not just playing with words. They are likely trying to orchestrate a major shift in U.S. security policy that would signal a return to the “global war on terror,”  or this time a “global war on radical Islamic terror” in accord with their mindset. The Bush administration began to distance itself from this rhetoric as it shifted to a “global struggle against violent extremism,” and the Obama administration abandoned it altogether:  it deployed military force only against specific armed groups with which the U.S. was engaged in armed conflict, and it supplemented that military effort with a broader preventive strategy under the banner of CVE.

What’s distinct about CVE is that is uses non-military strategies to mitigate factors associated with violent extremism and to rehabilitate those who have started down a path of violent extremism. These strategies are widely seen as a necessary complement to military and traditional law enforcement strategies.

Who are the architects?
In his inaugural address President Trump committed himself to eradicating “radical Islamic terrorism … from the face of the earth.”  He brought in new officials, most notably Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn (and there are others), who view “radical Islam,” akin to communism, as posing an existential threat to the United States that requires a vastly expanded military campaign, perhaps involving the use of force against groups that have never attacked the United States. More broadly, their vision of a war against a variant of a religion, rather than against specific, organized terrorist organizations, infects the ways in which they will likely approach their preventive strategies, too.  This worldview has been articulated by several others, some of whom have served on or endorsed the Trump transition team, including James Carafano, Frank Gaffney, and Katharine and Sebastian Gorka. The latter was recently picked to serve as a Deputy Assistant to the President. This part of Trump’s circle regards CVE as at best an exercise in political correctness, or worse as a sign of infiltration of the enemy into U.S. government policy, and in either case something which must be eliminated.

Who are their detractors?
These views may be popular with many of President Trump’s supporters, but they are certainly not shared by many, if not most, of the U.S. homeland security and law enforcement establishment within the U.S. and least of all by Muslim American communities. A new struggle within government over this sea change in countering violent extremism is likely to take shape pitting the homeland security and law enforcement establishment against the incoming team empowered by President Trump.

What’s at stake on the home front?
The domestic consequences of this shift could be highly significant both in terms of their impact on the security of the homeland and on our liberal democracy.  How specifically could this unfold?

It starts with simply changing the name from CVE—which includes all forms of ideologically inspired violence—to a name solely focused on radical Islam, such as Countering Islamic Extremism.  Such a move would further damage Muslim American communities’ fragile trust in law enforcement and government.  Already the organization called the Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities from Dearborn, Michigan, and Ka Joog from Minneapolis-St. Paul have declined their CVE grants just as they were awarded. The last thing that homeland security and law enforcement regulars want is to empower the community opposition to partnering with government and law enforcement.

Next, the White House might undermine, divest in or dismantle the programs designed to build trust and cooperation between law enforcement and Muslim American community members, such as the important advancements in community-oriented policing.  Also at risk are multiple new promising programs which are being started and evaluated using well-founded methodologies and that are well-positioned to give communities and criminal justice agencies new prevention and intervention strategies that can work. Overall these programs are designed to prevent violent acts either through community-wide prevention programs that mitigate community-level risks for radicalization or through individual-level services that address factors which lead people down a path toward violence.  Disrupting the burgeoning CVE field midstream would be a pointless and wasteful end to a nearly 10-year process of program development and knowledge building conducted with bi-partisan support (Disclaimer: As an academic researcher, I have received federal research funding and participated in some of these activities).

On top of this, law enforcement could be asked to focus their efforts almost exclusively on Muslims and not on the violent far right. This would further convince Muslim Americans that they are being singled out as suspects while their security is not taken seriously, and might even lead to increased numbers of hate crimes and hate speech against Muslim Americans. It will create a security blind-spot that ignores a very real and deadly threat from violent far-right actors. Don’t for a minute think the white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups have not already sat up and taken notice. Media Matters reported their reactions to the news of the Trump administration’s plans:

“My hands are shaking right now as I prepare this article – I’m just that unbelievably happy,” announced neo-Nazi website Infostormer. “This measure would be the first step to us going fully mainstream, and beginning the process of entering the government in full-force without the fear of being attacked, financially-assailed, and intimidated into silence by the nefarious Jews.”

At neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer, editor Andrew Anglin announced to readers, “Donald Trump is setting us free.” He continued, “This is absolutely a signal of favor to us. We are not a threat to America, we are American patriots trying to save this country.”

A negative feedback loop
As a consequence of the administration’s planned changes, we could see a decrease in tips and leads from Muslim Americans to law enforcement, and a decrease in their efforts to challenge extremist ideology within their quarters. Our homeland security strategies greatly depend upon both.

As a consequence, law enforcement agencies could be forced to rely more and more on “hard” counter-terrorism techniques such as surveillance and agent provocateurs. These in turn would likely lead to more arrests and incarcerations and further opposition from community groups, schools, and faith centers.  With respect to these arrests, would they be getting truly hardened and dangerous individuals or would they just be picking up low-hanging fruit that could be taken care of through other means by communities like mental health care, religious education, and social services?

Countering Islamic Extremism would hit Muslim Americans the hardest of all. Increasing numbers of them will wonder whether they are still welcome in America, and this could increase the number who succumb to radicalization and recruitment from Islamic terrorists eager to exploit any surge in frustration with the U.S. government.

Hope for a different direction?
In a time when sales of dystopic novels are surging, there is still hope for another path, in the person of retired U.S. Marine Corps General John Kelly, the Secretary of Homeland Security.  His resume in Iraq and U.S. Southern Command demonstrates that he has the vision and operational expertise to strike the right kind of balance for homeland security.

Under Kelly’s leadership, the Trump team can back down from its campaign rhetoric and early position-taking promising a global war on Islamic terrorism.  They could instead take a pragmatic approach to making changes aimed at improving the policies started by Presidents Bush and Obama.

Instead of abandoning CVE, they could reframe and rebrand it, but not in the McCarthy-like tenor started by the other members of the Trump team. Rather, Secretary Kelly could follow a recent bipartisan commission’s recommendations which include strengthening resistance to extremist ideology, White House leadership, and investment in community-led prevention.

Instead of focusing only on Muslims, Secretary Kelly could make it abundantly clear that the Administration will focus on all forms of violent extremism, including the violent far right and far left.  This in itself would greatly improve the cooperation of Muslim Americans who wouldn’t feel singled out.

Instead of overreliance on “hard” counter-terrorism approaches, Secretary Kelly could double down on the support to local law enforcement. Local first responders are often in the best position to work with communities to identify individuals who may pose a threat. Nearly one half of policing agencies in the U.S. are using the community policing practices of outreach and engagement to communities being targeted for recruitment to terrorism, according to a recent national study.  Training for local law enforcement on community policing strategies and preventing violent extremism could be scaled up to reach the other half, thereby enhancing officer safety and community security.

Lastly, Secretary Kelly could help develop and advance approaches to address what law enforcement tells us is an ever growing problem: online radicalization and recruitment that is directed at American teenagers and young adults, some of whom are more vulnerable to extremist ideology because of psychosocial and mental health problems.  Addressing this situation will have to involve strengthening collaborations between law enforcement and mental health, conducting new research to better define the problem, and developing new community-based capacities for risk assessment, prevention, and intervention.

Of course there are many others within the government, in addition to Secretary Kelly, whose voices and interventions are needed to stand up to the anti-Muslim crowd and to bring the U.S. government back from the brink—such as Representative Michael McCaul, chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, and Senators John McCain, Rob Portman and Ron Johnson (Chairman) who all serve on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Along with Secretary Kelly, they could find smart ways to address America’s security needs while preserving its democracy. This is not a case of better late than never. The hour is nigh.

Image: Pulaski, Tennessee July 11, 2009 – Spencer Platt/Getty 

About the Author(s)

Stevan Weine

Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, Director of the International Center on Responses to Catastrophes, Director of Global Health Research Training at the Center for Global Health