George Selim, the first head of the countering violent extremism (CVE) office at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and of the federal CVE task force, resigned July 28. The reporting on George’s departure has focused on his relationship with the American Muslim community and his tireless work over the past decade engaging with communities across the country and working to get the federal government to do more to support local efforts to prevent kids from being recruited and radicalized to violence by ISIS and other violent extremist groups. As his friend and former colleague, I can say it will be extremely difficult to replace him.
Perhaps more than anyone else in this country, George was the face, voice, and institutional memory for the country’s CVE efforts, which continue to come under attack from both sides of the political divide. Will McCants, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution, told me this week that George, who never shied away from engaging with CVE skeptics in Congress or in civil liberties organizations, “was doing the brave work that no one else would have wanted to do.”
Apart from the Trump political appointees with whom George reportedly clashed, it is difficult to find anyone working in the CVE space who doesn’t admire him. A former White House colleague described him to me as “the most knowledgeable person on CVE around” and how “well-before CVE was in vogue he was arguing for the need to engage and partner with communities across the country as a complement to law enforcement-led counterterrorism efforts.” With George gone, this former colleague, like many of us working on CVE, wonder who inside the government will be advocating for giving communities and non-law enforcement actors more of a role in helping to prevent the next homegrown violent extremist attack?
Rand Beers, deputy Homeland Security adviser under President Barack Obama, told me that George, being a “persuader and not a fist-pounder,” was able to move the often lethargic federal bureaucracy to elevate CVE as a federal government priority, and to create and staff a dedicated CVE office in DHS, and convince Congress to provide dedicated CVE grant funds. Beers added that “this is very hard to do in Washington and is a testament to George’s advocacy and dedication, as well as the respect he earned all the way up to President Obama, who delivered a strong signal to his Cabinet on the need to do more on CVE following a briefing George delivered late in 2014.”
Washington Institute’s Matt Levitt views George “as a key point of continuity on the critical issue of CVE across the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations. At times… it seemed he was the only person pressing this issue. Critically, he understands the importance of both working with and through communities and countering all forms of violent extremism. His successor would be wise to seek his counsel.”
A problem of course, and one that may have helped precipitate the resignation, is that the Trump administration does not share this understanding of what CVE should be. Thus, any Trump-appointed successor to George is unlikely to grasp this as well.
Instead, to the extent the Trump administration decides to articulate a CVE strategy, mandate a DHS CVE office, or fund CVE programs, its approach is likely to be defined by two core principles: focusing exclusively on Islamic extremism and a heavy reliance on law enforcement. Neither of these reflect the lessons learned from years of CVE practice across the globe. What they do draw from are the views of certain White House advisers and President Trump’s own anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies. This new misguided approach was conveyed in the criteria for much-anticipated DHS CVE grants in late June.
It’s clear the Trump administration will now only support work focused on a single form of violent extremism: Islamist. Life After Hate, which works with far-right extremists, and had been approved for funding during the waning days of the Obama administration, was not awarded funds by the Trump administration. This, despite clear evidence that attacks committed by right-wing violent extremist groups have killed far more people in the U.S. than those committed by radical Islamist groups or individuals. There are also clear indications that singling out the American Muslim community as the sole focus of such efforts may serve to further alienate communities whose cooperation is critical to staunching ISIS recruitment and the growth of homegrown violent extremism.
The second core principle for the new Trump approach to CVE is that Washington will only support local efforts that involve some collaboration with law enforcement. This, despite the fact that it has been amply demonstrated that overt law enforcement involvement undermines the effectiveness of CVE interventions in the “pre-crime” space. Family members, teachers, mental health professionals, religious leaders, and community partners, who can often most effectively speak and intervene with individuals who may be turning to extremism, may be reluctant to get involved if they fear that it will lead to their child behind bars.
George’s resignation removes any doubt that the federally led CVE effort (supported by both Bush and Obama) is over. Katharine Gorka, who is rumored to replace George, has been vocal about her disdain for the very premise of CVE, and has suggested such community engagement is merely politically correct and ineffectual posturing at best, and, at worse, may actual serve to abet radical Islamism. She and her husband, Sebastian Gorka, now a deputy assistant to the president, previously worked at the right-wing media outlet, Breitbart News.
The writing for this sea change was on the wall following the election. The Trump Transition Team told DHS staff that it was thinking of moving from a CVE to CIE (countering Islamic extremism) label. The Trump administration also refused to release the funding under the DHS CVE grant program for decisions taken at the end of the Obama Administration, which led to the June release of the funds (but using narrower criteria). The fiscal year 2018 DHS budget proposal zeroed out the CVE grants program and reduced the budget and staff of the DHS’s CVE office. Most of the contracts of the regional DHS coordinators assigned to work with cities and communities to raise awareness regarding the threat of violent extremism are reportedly not being renewed as well.
The CVE task force that was established during the last year of the Obama administration to facilitate better coordination among the different federal agencies active in the CVE space had already begun to run out of steam. The FBI recalled its representative more than a month ago. Meanwhile the seats for the Department of Health and Human Services, the Bureau of Prisons, and the Department of Education remain empty, calling into question the extent of the “whole of government” approach that the task force was supposed to embody. With few of its own resources, the task force has had to rely on “detailees” (i.e., free labor) from individual federal agencies and many of these “detailees” have returned to their home agencies with no replacements in sight.
Yet, even with all of these negative signs, CVE advocates – yes, they do exist – held out a sliver of hope that all was not lost because George was still in government. Given his Republican credentials, the respect he had earned on Capitol Hill, and in communities around the country, one could not imagine having a more persuasive advocate for CVE on the inside.
So, where does this leave CVE efforts at a time when the threat from homegrown violent extremism is as great, if not greater than ever, and the data shows that the perpetrators of all recent terrorist attacks carried out in the U.S. were either American citizens or permanent legal residents, with none of them being born in the countries targeted by President Trump’s travel ban?
It’s not all bleak. There may be a silver lining in all of this. Getting the federal government out of the business of trying to build community partnerships linked to CVE may not be such a bad thing in terms of catalyzing more state, local, and community-led efforts to help prevent violent extremism.
Even during the CVE-friendly Obama administration, local, multi-disciplinary prevention-focused programs emerged in places like Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Montgomery County in Maryland. This often happened despite, rather than because, of Washington’s involvement. Washington guidance, funding, and other support for these efforts has been slow to materialize and usually comes with political or bureaucratic baggage.
According to Nate Snyder, a former Obama Administration DHS official and colleague of George’s, there’s “now an opportunity for governors, mayors, and community leaders to take the bull by the horns, no longer keep looking to DC, and chart their own course.”
Funding, expertise, guidance, and best practices in this area could be found from other sources, especially if the private sector and foundations step forward to support this important work. During the Obama administration, efforts to secure support from entities outside the federal government often stalled. This happened for a number of reasons, including the sense that CVE was purely a national security issue plus a reluctance to be associated with something linked to the polarizing “CVE” label.
Ironically, with the Trump administration having essentially ended the short-lived DHS CVE grants and narrowed the concept of CVE to exclude much community-led prevention work, it may have inadvertently created the conditions required to attract the resources and other support from a coalition of local businesses, non-profits, leaders, institutions, and professionals committed to catalyze this effort.
A final point worth making is that the often acrimonious debates around CVE over the past few years could leave one with the false impression that CVE is only about the federal government trying to build partnerships with American Muslim communities in the context of countering terrorism or violent extremism. This is among the reasons that the CVE debate focused on DHS’s CVE office, its grants program, and George, as the (now former) leader of the office, as well as the FBI.
However, CVE, in reality, is much bigger than that. In fact, the U.S. continues, even under the Trump administration, to encourage and provide funds and training to support efforts in other countries to address “the life-cycle of radicalization.” This involves work on prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation and reintegration (ironically to address all forms of violent extremism) and engages police, prosecutors, judges, probation offices, and civil society. In some cases this means providing police and prosecutors with alternatives to arrest and prosecution, particularly when dealing with juveniles suspected of supporting terrorism. In others situations, it’s putting in place prison rehabilitation and reintegration programs for violent extremist offenders. The U.S. continues to lag behind most of its close partners in both of these critical areas. The lack of any CVE programs in prison is of particular concern given that dozens of terrorist offenders are set to be released from U.S. prisons over the next few years.
While George tirelessly advocated for more progress like this, these are not areas where his office or DHS has much, if any, authority, let alone, influence. So, his departure and any cuts to the DHS CVE budget and office, need not affect these critical CVE issues, though it surely does not bode well for further progress under the current administration.