Glowing Orbs and Glimmers of Hope: Trump’s baby steps to countering violent extremism

The most iconic photo of President Trump’s first foreign trip may end up being the one that mushroomed into an internet meme last weekend — the American leader, huddled with the King of Saudi Arabia and the President of Egypt, their hands joined on a glowing orb.  Buried under the snark the photo unleashed was the occasion it was intended to mark, the inauguration of a new Saudi-hosted Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology.  The unveiling came after a remarkably disciplined speech in which the President called for cooperation with Muslim-majority nations in countering extremism and carefully differentiated the peaceful practice of a great faith from those who pervert the name of Islam for evil purposes.  The urgency of counter-extremism efforts was reinforced when a suicide bomber struck a concert in Manchester, England on Monday, killing at least 22 and injuring dozens more.  Much more information is needed to assess whether the Saudi effort is likely to be successful, whether the President’s softer line on Islam and terrorism will persist, and whether the attack in England might have been prevented by counter-radicalization efforts.  But four months into Trump’s controversial presidency and following a norm-breaking campaign, one thing is clear: he has a long way to go if he wants to move from divisiveness to bringing people together in a quest to roll back extremism.

The establishment of the Saudi Center is the latest in a series of modest steps the Kingdom has taken in recent years to attempt to address some of the radicalization it has unleashed over the past several decades through its patronage of Wahhabism.  The Kingdom has participated in regional counter-radicalization forums, donated to a United Nations-led counterterrorism fund, and developed an extremist rehabilitation center designed to reintegrate former terrorists into society.  The Center appears to take these efforts one step further, by establishing a multinational operations center to monitor extremist communications and develop interventions.  Yet, beyond this general mission and glimmering photos of robed men staring at computer screens in meticulously arranged cubicles, it is difficult to tell what the Center will actually do.  Press reports and the Center’s website boast that it will utilize “artificial intelligence,” “big data,” and a range of software tools to detect and analyze extremist content in as little as six seconds, but no details are provided on key questions like what online platforms they will analyze and what types of content the data tools will flag.  Similarly, the Center notes that religious and cultural experts will formulate appropriate responses, but we don’t know anything about the specific types of expertise they might bring to the table or what interventions they might undertake.  We also don’t know whether or how this center will complement the efforts at the U.S.-Emirati Sawab Center, which also has a counter-messaging mission.  Such details are important if we are to understand whether they will be able to combat ISIS’s formidable media operation or whether their efforts are likely — intentionally or otherwise — to foment Sunni-Shia tensions.  And even in the unlikely event that the Saudi center is a brilliant operation, its effectiveness will ultimately be limited by the fact that it’s a government-run apparatus seeking to undermine, in the case of ISIS, a charismatic and organic nonstate movement.  Nevertheless, when it comes to Saudi reforms, small steps and gradual progress is the norm, and there is at least a glimmer of hope in this effort — especially if this step is a prelude to tangible Saudi action to address the role that people and organizations within the Kingdom play in propagating extremist ideas.

There is also a glimmer of hope that President Trump’s Saudi trip marks the first step in an evolution of his Administration’s views on counter-radicalization efforts.  Throughout the early months of the Trump presidency, his top advisers, most notably the fringe counterterrorism academic Sebastian Gorka, have lambasted the previous administration for not using the term “Radical Islamic Terrorism” and evinced a broader skepticism over the countering violent extremism (CVE) project — the soft power set of messaging, community engagement, and preventive approaches to dealing with terrorism.  Yet this week, on the heels of Trump’s measured remarks in Riyadh, the White House released a budget for 2018 that slashed funding for many agencies but left intact much of our government’s CVE programming.  The budget holds constant funding for the State Department’s counter-messaging office.  It does cut $10 million in CVE-focused Homeland Security grants (funds that the Congress reinstated for 2017 after prior Trump attempts to cut them) but it retains staffing for the CVE office. That said, if a speech in Riyadh, an opening of an undefined center, and a less worrisome 2018 budget represent the first steps in a course correction , well, the administration has a long way to go to emerge from the hole it  dug for itself.

The root of the problem is that President Trump has, without exaggeration, completely squandered the goodwill and cooperation on CVE that President Obama built over the final two years of his presidency.  As ISIS shocked the world in 2014 with its unspeakably grotesque but slickly produced propaganda, the Obama team (of which I was a part) decided to make a concerted push on CVE.  It was clear that government-led messaging would only do so much to undermine ISIS.  So our approach relied on bringing together authentic Muslim voices with technical experts to develop effective counter-narratives and spread them among at-risk populations.  The outpouring of support was overwhelming.  In a Presidential summit convened in early 2015 and smaller events in Washington, Boston, New York, and San Francisco, hundreds of leaders from Muslim-American communities, civil society, academia, Silicon Valley, Madison Avenue, and Hollywood enthusiastically came together to develop creative ideas to undercut ISIS and depict Islam and Muslim societies with dignity.  A group of outside experts helped us recraft the State Department’s messaging center into an organization focused on empowering partners.  And social media companies began to take concrete steps to address radicalization and terrorist use of their platforms while also training civil society organizations on how to use their sites for good.  Throughout this process, President Obama was criticized by conservatives for not referring to “radical Islamic terrorism.”  But his administration’s refusal to  appease political detractors through use of their incendiary terms was critical to sustaining support from the populations that we need as partners in confronting radicalization.  Non-governmental CVE efforts can and should continue regardless of who is in the White House, but the reality is that government’s convening power and persistent focus on these types of challenges are often needed to keep the momentum alive.

It also takes an administration with trust and good-will to have such convening power and the ability to promote such work.  And in fairness, it would have been difficult for any Republican to assume these efforts with these communities with the same credibility that Obama personally possessed by virtue of his political record and his identity.  But it is stunning to see just how badly Trump has alienated the communities he most needs to address radicalization.  Anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric from Trump and his surrogates, his high-profile feud with the Khan family, his restrictions on immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries, and some of his appointments have sowed deep distrust within the Muslim-American community.  His far right and uncompromising policies on immigration, the environment, and various social issues has provoked outrage in Silicon Valley.  Although the President has moved to forge relationships with top tech executives, it will be more difficult to convince mid-level talent to work with the Administration on CVE efforts.

It’s quite likely the President will never be able to recover with these communities.  But the counter-radicalization mission set brings Trump face to face with a perennial challenge of governing: setting aside rigid adherence to ideology and asking what needs to be done to solve a problem.  In this case, what’s needed is not more shiny government-run messaging centers but a broad counter-movement, leveraging the best of our communities and the private sector, and catalyzed by but not reliant on government.  It calls for leadership, a willingness not to alienate those who would help you, and a disciplined drive governed by principles.  Nothing from the past two years would lead us to believe Trump himself is capable of this, but the stakes are too high not to hold out hope. There are solutions here that good people in the Administration can seize, and develop as circumstances require — that is, if they are in search of genuine opportunities to address terrorism at its roots, not just generating a good photo op.

(Special thanks to Jonathan Lee (@JonathanLLeeand Jonathan Lachman (@jonlachmanfor their assistance in navigating the President’s 2018 Budget.) 

About the Author(s)

Luke Hartig

Executive Director of National Journal's Network Science Initiative and Fellow, International Security Program at New America. Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, former Deputy Director for Counterterrorism Operations in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. You can follow him on Twitter (@LukeHartig).