In a post last week, Steve Weine celebrated the fact that the Obama administration’s countering violent extremism (CVE) program was still alive. In his view, “national security pragmatists,” by preserving funding for CVE, won an important battle against folks like Sebastian Gorka, an adviser to President Donald Trump who views the program as simply an exercise in political correctness. But I would argue that CVE is now on life support and the time has come to pull the plug on an approach that even Steve concedes is unproven. It is also an approach that – even during the Obama administration – was robustly resisted by many of the Muslim American communities at which it was aimed, as well as by the Brennan Center for Justice, and a number of civil rights and civil liberties groups.
CVE has three principal weaknesses, all of which have become pretty much impossible to ignore in the Trump administration. First, CVE programs often use a disproven approach of trying to identify individuals vulnerable to “radicalization” in order to divert them to more productive paths than terrorism. The problem here is not a lack of research. In the last decade, the U.S. government alone has plunked down at least $3 million to $4 million a year on research into “radicalization” and CVE. The problem, as counter-terrorism scholar and former CIA officer Marc Sageman has stated, is that “[d]espite decades of research … we still do not know what leads people to engage in political violence. Attempts to discern a terrorist ‘profile’ or to model terrorist behavior have failed to yield lasting insights.”
While pretty much every government document on CVE I’ve come across acknowledges this reality, government-funded programs nonetheless use discredited markers (e.g., concerns about human and civil rights, the view that the West is at war with Islam) and vague behavioral indicators (e.g., alienation, feelings of anxiety) to identify individuals as potential terrorists. Troubling as this was during the Obama years, it is truly terrifying in a time when law enforcement agencies may feel unconstrained by a White House that cares not a whit about civil rights and liberties, especially when it comes to Muslim Americans.
Some CVE programs are not aimed at individuals, but at making Muslim communities more resilient against terrorist recruitment by addressing social or economic grievances. While these programs may not pose the same risks to individual rights as intervention programs, they nonetheless rest on the same flawed premise: Muslim Americans have a propensity to violence that must be contained. As Yusufi Valli, the Executive Director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, explained in his dissent to the framework for the Boston CVE program:
Many of the services suggested in this report are initiatives that ought to be implemented in any and all communities, particularly those that have been marginalized. … [But] [f]or the government to offer us services based on concerns of violent extremism in our community – as implied by this framework – seems to reinforce the same stereotype that society holds of American-Muslims: that they or Islam are inherently violent.
A related problem with CVE is its almost exclusive focus on Muslim communities. This is not to say that equal opportunity CVE would be fine, but rather to underline the fundamentally discriminatory impetus behind CVE given data showing that, in the U.S., right-wing violence is at least as much of a problem as that carried out in the name of al-Qaeda or ISIS. While the Obama administration generally used neutral terms to talk about its CVE initiative, there was never any doubt that the programs were aimed almost exclusively at “problem” Muslim communities. The three pilot programs initiated under Obama, as well as a program in Montgomery County, Md., funded by the Justice Department, were focused on Muslims. An examination of the groups allocated DHS CVE funding under Obama shows that of the non-profit groups providing services to communities and individuals, groups focusing on Muslims were awarded approximately 80 percent of the funding.
The inclusion of Life After Hate – a group known for its work helping individuals who want to disengage from neo-Nazi movements – in the initial group of grant recipients didn’t change this. CVE programs aimed at violence inspired by al-Qaeda/ISIS go to Muslim communities asking them to identify individuals at risk of becoming terrorists or providing resources in the hope of preventing people from becoming terrorists. I am not aware of a single U.S. CVE program that goes out into white communities to help them identify potential violent individuals in their midst or that provides white communities with social and economic resources with the explicit purpose of preventing the next shooting at an African American church.
Of course, by withdrawing funding from Life After Hate, the Trump administration only reinforced the message that CVE is about Muslims. But this goal had largely been accomplished by Trump’s own casting of all Muslims as potential terrorists (both rhetorically and via the Muslim ban), as well as by placing a clutch of Islamophobes in senior Administration positions and multiple reports that the Administration was considering renaming the program Countering Violent Islam or Countering Islamic Extremism.
Finally, Muslim communities – which have been the target of extensive surveillance by law enforcement since the 9/11 attacks, including under the guise of community outreach programs – were understandably concerned that CVE was just another intelligence-gathering exercise. The Obama administration went to great lengths to argue that this was not so. Its 2016 CVE plan explicitly stated that investigations and intelligence collection are “not the goal of CVE efforts.” The Department of Homeland Security’s 2016 CVE strategy went further, claiming that “[i]ntelligence and law enforcement investigations are not part of CVE activities.” But the grant money awarded by DHS tells a different story. Under Obama, almost one-third of the funding was allocated to police and public service agencies and policing research institutions, underlining the central role of law enforcement in CVE. After the Trump administration’s review, an additional $1.8 million was granted to these types of institutions, bringing their share of CVE funding up to almost 50 percent. The withdrawal of DHS funds from the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a group that is commonly considered as having a close relationship with law enforcement, particularly in its hometown of Los Angeles, only underlines the Trump administration’s consistent distrust for Muslims and reinforces the status of CVE as a law enforcement initiative.
I have little doubt that many of those who argue in favor of CVE mean well, but the risks that were patently obvious in the Obama years have been magnified a hundredfold under the current administration. Indeed, even the handful of Muslim groups who were willing to take CVE money are mostly no longer on board. It’s hard to see how an initiative that claims to be “community-led” is going to work if there is almost nobody left in the community to lead it. It’s time to let this dog die.