Want to Stop Homegrown Attacks? Start With Locally-Driven Violence Prevention

In her Congressional testimony last month, Elaine C. Duke, the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, put one last nail in the coffin of a key Obama administration effort to fight violent extremism.

Frustrated with the “war on terror” rhetoric of the Bush years and faced with a rise in homegrown radicalization, the Obama White House stood up a variety of “countering violent extremism” initiatives, a move designed to empower and attract greater support from the communities most affected by extremist recruitment. Yet in her recent speech, Duke explicitly backed away from “CVE” and the “violent extremism” framing of the Obama era, speaking instead of establishing a new “Office of Terrorism Prevention.”

The Trump administration’s return to a focus on terrorism is regrettable. Since the administration largely views terrorism as a Muslim issue, Trump’s continued focus on terrorism will only further alienate Muslims at home and abroad. It will leave the goal of building trust and partnership between the federal government and key communities that are best-placed to identify individuals vulnerable to terrorist propaganda, and to intervene before they become violent, more elusive than ever.

Yet as dire as the move may be, it also represents a rare opportunity: Trump’s withdrawal from the CVE agenda offers the chance to hit reset on the approach to strengthening local efforts in the United States to prevent violent extremism.  It allows for the conceptualization of a healthy ecosystem that prevents violent extremism, one that is part of a broader effort to prevent violence in communities across the country, and to begin building it from scratch.

That ecosystem will require at least three key elements.

First, local actors should play the lead role, not the federal government. Even when federal CVE officials and programs are well-intentioned, their efforts are often awkwardly out of touch with local needs and sensitivities, and inevitably approach local communities with national security interests in mind. To some extent this is understandable: the federal government is tasked with protecting the United States from foreign threats, so its domestic programs naturally tend to focus on preventing transnational actors like al-Qaeda or the Islamic State from mobilizing recruits at home. The problem is that when federal officials approach local communities with al-Qaeda or ISIS in mind, they are approaching communities that rarely view transnational actors as their gravest threat. Instead, they’re far more likely to be worried about gang violence or far-right extremists than they are jihadist recruitment. Federal actors may be concerned with preventing the high-impact but infrequent terror attacks, but local communities are often hyper-focused on the most prevalent forms of violence in their neighborhoods. This clumsy, national security-focused approach, one that can give the impression that the federal government sees local communities as potential terrorist-breeding grounds, only sows distrust

To get around that mismatch of interests, we need an ecosystem that is largely independent of federal largesse and oversight. Because local actors are more likely to buy-in to broader violence prevention efforts, this ecosystem needs to start with the needs and concerns of local communities.  This has been proven true through nascent ad hoc efforts such as the University of Denver’s Colorado Resilience Collaborative, along with the University of Maryland’s and the City of Los Angeles’ community resilience initiatives. Since these efforts have been framed around and address a wider range of violence-related concerns of local communities, they have been able to develop a multi-disciplinary approach, often drawing on professionals and other from within the community itself, to identify and intervene with those on the path towards targeted violence.

Second, and relatedly, the ecosystem should not view jihadist attacks in particular as a “violence apart.” For most of the past two decades, scholars and policymakers have treated the jihadist stripe as a particular species of violence that could only be understood in reference to the distinctive tenets of Islam or Salafism. Yet the similarities between jihadists and other political violent actors are often greater than the differences. Thankfully, the Obama administration recognized this, which is why it pushed hard for policies that identified Muslim extremists as just one subset among many forms of ideologically-informed extremists. However, the violence prevention ecosystem should go further, and view both jihadist and neo-Nazi violence as discrete instances of targeted violence more broadly – i.e., all violence carried out by one group against another. By reframing extremism as a form of targeted violence, researchers, policymakers and practitioners stand to gain significantly from work done throughout the social sciences on how and why individuals come to participate in violence on behalf of a gang or tribe as well as a race or faith. Drawing on this research, which examines the effect that interventions like behavioral therapy or cash transfer payments can have on the likelihood that individuals will join a violent group, offers tremendous potential for the field going forward.

Third, the ecosystem will need to rely more heavily on the philanthropic sector than did previous CVE-focused efforts. If federal funding is flawed because it inherently securitizes local communities, particularly when it comes from security agencies in Washington, corporate and philanthropic giving will need to pick up at least some of the slack. Fortunately, these foundations already have a long history of funding community-led efforts to address different forms of targeted violence, including by creating positive opportunities for marginalized and excluded youth. Yet to date, the philanthropic community has largely steered clear of supporting even the most worthwhile locally-led extremist prevention efforts. Historically, the reluctance has owed to the points raised above: a sense that such programs were too closely associated with the FBI, and driven less by local concerns than national security and broader foreign policy priorities in D.C. With the federal government withdrawing from the space altogether (despite the rhetoric), it may become possible to attract funding from foundations and businesses that were previously unwilling to even consider supporting projects derivative of Washington’s CVE agenda.

Needless to say, putting local actors and civil society front and center in the fight against violent extremism as another form of targeted violence won’t be easy. And no doubt getting community leaders, cities, social workers, teachers, mental health professionals, and other local actors on the same page will require significant resources and legwork.

Yet this may be an opportunity we as a society can’t afford to pass up. Establishing an ecosystem independent of the federal government that addresses radicalization and extremist recruitment as part of a broader effort to prevent targeted violence is necessary. Ironically, we may have a better chance of forming one now than we did when President Obama was in office. If preventing the next homegrown jihadist or white supremacist-inspired attack is our objective, we will not make meaningful and sustainable progress without one.

Image: Spencer Platt/Getty 

About the Author(s)

Eric Rosand

Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings, Director of “The Prevention Project: Organizing Against Violent Extremism” in Washington, D.C.

Christopher Meserole

fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.