Much of our nation’s focus on preventing terrorist attacks has been on our borders, but, in fact, violent extremists are already here. It is like those old horror movies, where the climax begins with the line, “The call is coming from inside the house!” While border security is an important issue, we can’t ignore the threat that lies within.
For this reason, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have been engaged in Countering Violent Extremism, a government program to prevent violent extremists from radicalizing and mobilizing recruits. Recent posts at Just Security have debated the effectiveness and wisdom of the program. I believe Countering Violent Extremism, or “CVE,” is an important part of our nation’s homeland security strategy. But even here, we are making some serious mistakes.
Ignoring Threats from Within
First, we obsess over foreign threats when, in fact, most threats originate here at home. It reminds me of the way the public fixates on plane crashes, when far more fatalities occur each year from auto accidents. We are missing the big picture. While CVE was intended to address all forms of violent extremism, too often, the dialogue comes back to international terrorism inspired by ISIS and al-Qaeda. It is understandable that the military and State Department are focused on international threats, but the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security need to respond to all hazards here at home. A single focus on international terrorism is misguided and counter-productive. Of course, ISIS and al-Qaeda are serious threats that merit inclusion in CVE efforts, but groups and individuals with other motivations have claimed the lives of even more innocent Americans since 9/11. Consider the acts of violence in Oak Creek, Wis., Tucson, Ariz., Charleston, S.C., Dallas, Tex., and at the recent congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va. Threats from white supremacists, anti-government extremists, neo-Nazis and other domestic groups are just as serious as threats from international terrorist groups. In his recent piece for Just Security, Prof. Steven Weine cited the statistic from the General Accountability Office that since 2001, right-wing extremist groups have committed 73 percent of fatal violent extremist attacks in the United States. To singly focus on terrorism inspired by groups located in the Middle East misses a large part of the threat to public safety. Instead, CVE efforts should focus on all forms of violent extremism.
Stigmatizing and Alienating Muslims
And by focusing solely on groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, we are not only overlooking other sources of violence, but we are also contributing to the false narrative that America is at war with Islam. The “us vs. them” theme is contrary to our American values of inclusion, and it is also dangerous because it drives terrorist recruiting around the world and makes us less safe. We need our Muslim neighbors at home to provide crime tips, serve as police officers and enlist as soldiers. More importantly, we need every American to feel like a valued and integral part of the community to prevent feelings of alienation and loneliness, which can lead to radicalization. We need Muslims around the world to serve as our allies and share information. We risk failing to meet all of those goals when we brand Muslims as the enemy. We also compromise our nation’s values of equal justice under the law unless we ensure that all members of society are treated like part of the American family. Even worse, early in the Trump administration, rumors circulated that the program would be renamed “Countering Islamic Extremism,” causing at least one youth organization in Michigan to return a CVE grant. As a practical matter, it is insulting to go into a Muslim community and ask children to participate in a counterterrorism program that is offered only to Muslims. But that is the reality with current CVE programs that focus solely on Islamic-inspired extremism. A better model is one that invites all communities to partner with law enforcement and social service organizations to improve outcomes for youth from all backgrounds. A broader focus would help CVE programs prevent attacks from all sources without stigmatizing and alienating an important segment of our society.
Overlooking Mental Health Issues
Second, the scope of CVE should be expanded even more broadly to include individuals who commit acts of violence because of mental health issues, even if they are not acting on any extremist ideology. Mental health intervention is part of some CVE models, but only when the actor is motivated by some form of extremism. For victims of fatal mass shootings, it matters little whether the shooter was motivated by extremist views or a mental health problem because the outcome is the same. The shootings by mentally ill gunmen at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., are just as tragic as those committed by violent extremists. We should focus on helping individuals with mental illness with early intervention programs before they head down a path toward violence.
A third problem with CVE is the name itself – Countering Violent Extremism. I never studied marketing, but it seems obvious that program names should not repel the very people you are trying to attract. Names should reflect what you are trying to accomplish, not what you are trying to stop. In Minneapolis, the community partners understood this truism, and used the term “Building Community Resilience” instead of “Countering Violent Extremism” for their programs. Many of the so-called CVE programs seek to engage youth in civics, recreation, career opportunities, community service and volunteerism, providing a positive path to becoming a contributing member of society. The participants in the programs are young people, most of whom have shown no predisposition toward violence. Even if the content of the programs were otherwise attractive, no parent wants to send his child to a program with a name that suggests that, but for this activity, the child would be wearing a suicide vest. In Detroit, for example, we learned through experience in gang intervention work that more parents wanted to send their children to programs with names like “Youth Leadership Academy” than “Violence Prevention Initiative.” The name “Countering Violent Extremism” connotes that its participants are would-be violent terrorists, and the program needs to be rebranded if it is to succeed. This is not an effort to mask the program’s true intentions, but instead, a shift in focus to emphasize that the program seeks to provide positive opportunities to improve public safety outcomes among all demographic groups.
Losing the War of Ideas
Fourth, we are not only losing the marketing war, but we are also losing the war of ideas. A large part of recruiting by terrorists occurs online. Extremist groups have become tech-savvy, using social media platforms in sophisticated ways to spread propaganda and recruit individuals to commit acts of terrorism. In this way, they are said to be “crowdsourcing” terrorism. The U.S. government has no answer to that. An FBI effort at a video game to teach teens about violent extremism was predictably feeble. Instead of asking crime fighters to develop messaging to steer people away from terrorist propaganda, we should enlist the help of those who do it best, the technology and media innovators who are creating smart phone apps, social media platforms and video games. Late in the Obama Administration, officials convened leaders from Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue to seek their assistance. We need to renew and redouble this effort to win the war on the so-called “Information Battlefield.”
Ticking Time Bombs
Finally, CVE programs are missing an important segment of the threat to public safety — those who have already gone down the path toward violent extremism. The FBI has taken steps to develop intervention programs and “offramps” for those who want to step away from extremist groups before committing acts of violence, but no solution exists for convicted extremists who will return to society upon completion of their prison sentences. Because it is not a crime to express extremist views or support for violent groups, violent extremists are often convicted of offenses other than terrorism, such as false statements, fraud charges or weapons offenses, which carry relatively modest sentences. After serving their sentences, however, these individuals are coming back to our communities. We need to address treatment while they are in prison if we want to avoid recidivism and protect public safety upon their release.
Some experimental programs in de-radicalization are occurring in Minneapolis, where young men have been convicted of various charges for seeking to travel to Syria to join ISIS. Academic researchers have begun grappling with this problem, including the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has looked to its own programs that treat offenders ranging from gang members to child sex offenders to find a model that might work on violent extremists, but it has yet to find an answer. The government clearly has more work to do to address this problem. We should fund research to identify ways to de-radicalize extremists. If we want to protect the public from violent extremism, we can’t forget about the extremists after they go to prison. They are the ticking time bomb of terrorism prosecutions.
CVE is a bad word in some circles, but with some meaningful changes, it can be an important element to a multi-faceted strategy to improve public safety within our borders.
Image: Dylan Roof, the suspect in the mass shooting that left nine dead in a Charleston church. Photo: Getty