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Giving CVE a Chance

Last week’s announcement by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) of a revised list of awardees of the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Grant Program generated many headlines about whose funding was revoked. Meanwhile, the most important storyline has been ignored: CVE lives! Pragmatists within the Trump administration and Congress have for now prevailed and are allowing CVE to go forward. When understood in that light, the question should be what is now needed to help ensure progress along this front.

CVE uses “community-driven solutions” to mitigate factors associated with violent extremism and to rehabilitate those who have started down a dangerous path. These strategies are widely seen as a necessary complement to military and traditional law enforcement strategies. However, these practices are still very new, and we don’t really yet know what works though we know some of what doesn’t.

DHS just awarded 26 grants totaling $10 million to “organizations that will work to improve the security of our communities and prevent terrorism.” These include local law enforcement agencies, state and local government agencies, universities, and non-profits.

Awarding these grants should be seen as a small, but notable victory for national security pragmatists.  The program aims to follow through with innovative strategies to prevent terrorism started by Presidents Bush and Obama, and approved by Congress.  The folks who will work to ensure these grants improve future CVE efforts include George Selim and other staff of the Office of Community Partnership, DHS Secretary Kelly, as well as members of congressional oversight committees. Representative Michael McCaul, chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, and Senators John McCain, Rob Portman and Ron Johnson (Chairman) of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs will continue to help ensure these taxpayer-funded programs provide the necessary return on investment.

In short, CVE was not relegated by Trump to the archives, as many feared. An explanation even appears on the DHS website which says: “conventional approaches are unlikely to identify and disrupt all terrorist plots.”

All this is reassuring, because listening to the rhetoric coming from candidate Trump, and from his team and supporters, it appeared to many that the Trump administration had CVE in its gunsights.

Some background

Before taking office, the Trump team suggested that they would rename Countering Violent Extremism to something like Countering Islamic Extremism. As recently as March 2017, Special Assistant to the President, Sebastian Gorka (author of Defeating Jihad) promised no more programs that provided “jobs for jihadis” or that focused on “root causes and upstream factors.”

Just the other day, Frank Gaffney, the Anti-Muslim activist who found an audience in the Trump team, launched a new book (Team Jihad) which decries “civilizational jihad,” defined as the “stealthy, subversive” approach used by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Both Gorka and Gaffney promote the views that CVE is, at best, an exercise in political correctness–a collusion between liberals and Jihadis to distract from the true problem—and at worst, represents an infiltration of the enemy into U.S. government policy. Gorka’s and Gaffney’s fringe ideas have been widely dismissed in academic and policy circles.

While CVE has at times suffered from a lack of conceptual clarity, it stands as a key effort to directly counter attempts by ISIS and other violent extremists to polarize and divide Western society. How can we accomplish this mission – such as asking police officers to build bridges with refugee and immigrant communities – if we abandon thoughtful dialogue, which may indeed need to be “politically correct?”

Recent actions

Secretary Kelly inherited the CVE Grant Program from the Obama administration, which had announced the awardees just days before leaving office. The Trump administration promptly froze the funds and Secretary Kelly conducted another review with new criteria, resulting in funds being revoked from three organizations: the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), Life After Hate, and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.  Four other Muslim organization had refused the funding following Trump’s election victory.

For many looking at Secretary Kelly’s decision to revoke funding, it was hard not to see Gorka and Gaffney’s fingerprints and anti-Muslim agenda, particularly regarding the MPAC and Life After Hate.

MPAC director Salam al-Marayati stated that they were removed because, “we did not meet the criteria of working with law enforcement to counter violent extremism.”  MPAC’s model focuses on “community-led initiatives that improve mental health resources, access to counseling, and a host of other social services without the involvement or spectre of law enforcement.”

If true, the disqualifying element as perceived by MPAC would be troubling given that fundamentally CVE is supposed to be about non-law enforcement initiatives. Then what are we to make of the fact that 10 of the 26 awards went to law enforcement agencies and many more of the awards have some relationship with law enforcement?  It is certainly possible for law enforcement to take the lead on some initiatives to bring community partners on board.  But a central question should be, do these programs leave enough bandwidth for the communities to meaningfully collaborate. Furthermore, there are surely circumstances where police officers are not actually the best persons to do the work of violence prevention, especially when the prevention involves actions taken long before a person turns to violence.

The Life After Hate reversal garnered the most headlines, such as “DHS Strips Funding from Group that Counters Neo-Nazi Violence.”  Christian Picciolini and other Life After Hate spokespersons, explained this as the story of the Trump administration abandoning the fight against right-wing violent extremism.  Such an abandonment would fly in the face of a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from April 2017 which found that, “Of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001, far right wing violent extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73 percent) while radical Islamist violent extremists were responsible for 23 (27 percent).”

In a June 28th appearance at the annual conference hosted by the Center for New American Security, Secretary Kelly explained his justification for denying funds to the three organizations.  He said that communities had not committed money and thus didn’t indicate community buy-in. He also said that he was very attuned to the White supremacist violence.  He spoke in the voice of a pragmatist, expressing reasonable, though arguable perspectives.

One major challenge for Secretary Kelly is that it is going to take more than a few public statements to get out from under this administration’s anti-Muslim attitudes and singular focus on “radical Islamic terrorism,” which feeds upon decades of anti-Muslim activism on the far-right, led by the likes of Gaffney.

Another challenge for Secretary Kelly, a retired United States Marine Corps general and the former commander of United States Southern Command, will be to demonstrate that DHS’s commitment to working with communities is genuine and to defeat perceptions that CVE is principally a vehicle for giving more funds to those in uniform.  If CVE isn’t working for, with, and by communities, then it isn’t CVE.

Another challenge is that Secretary Kelly needs to find ways to add funding to these grants so that they might answer the very important question he raised:  Is CVE effective?  Secretary Kelly was told that we don’t yet know because not enough research has been conducted. Unfortunately, the grants themselves do not include rigorous program evaluations. To get the answer Secretary Kelly wants, he would have to enhance them by enabling the DHS office of Science and Technology and the Office of Community Partnerships to fund the evaluations needed.

In sum, steps that the administration should take include:

1. drop any criteria that limits CVE grants, in intention or effect, only to organizations that work directly with law enforcement
2. look for opportunities to fund organizations that address far-right wing and Neo-Nazi violence
3. increase funding to ensure that the CVE grants are accompanied by rigorous evaluations of their program’s effectiveness

Thanks to Secretary Kelly, and the efforts of other pragmatists within the administration and Congress, the Trump administration is now at least giving CVE a chance. This is essential because we know that traditional law enforcement counter-terrorism strategies are necessary, but not sufficient.  We need to try new community-focused approaches and to learn if, and how, CVE can keep communities safe and healthy. In the final analysis, we need effective CVE strategies to defend our democratic society against the civilizational war that violent extremists of all stripes aim to provoke.

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About the Author

M.D. is Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, where he is also the Director of the International Center on Responses to Catastrophes and the Director of Global Health Research Training at the Center for Global Health.