In the wake of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, many commentators have criticized the Trump administration’s revocation of grants meant to target far-right violence, distributed through the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Though revealing of Trump’s priorities and continued indifference to the rise of white supremacist violence, this strain of criticism is misguided, as programs using the “countering violent extremism” framework are fundamentally flawed. In particular, the DHS program has always largely targeted Muslims, which is why so many Muslim communities have opposed it. The Obama administration awarded only a single CVE grant, out of a total of 31, which addressed far-right violence, and then only partially. That grant (later rescinded by Trump) also targeted Muslim Americans. In short, the assumption by some critics that—prior to Trump—CVE was used to seriously tackle far-right violence could not be further from the truth.
More broadly, there is no evidence that CVE works. It relies on the disproven assumption that we can prevent terrorism by monitoring people who express “bad ideas.” While both the alleged mail bomber Cesar Sayoc and the synagogue-shooting suspect Robert Bowers publicly espoused poisonous views, taking someone’s prior statements as a predictor of violence is unreliable. Though with hindsight we might identify similar behaviors exhibited by other terrorism suspects, it does not follow that any of those behaviors exhibited in a general population are good predictors of who will commit acts of terrorism. This logic can criminalize many ordinary behaviors and cast suspicion on entire populations. One need look no further than Trump-era CVE grants that list such target communities as LGBTQ groups and Black Lives Matter organizations, or the Chinese crackdown on the Muslim Uighur population as invocations of countering “extremism” used to target minority populations and political expression.
Recent reports suggest the Trump administration may end the DHS CVE grant program altogether. The end of CVE would be a good thing. As the Brennan Center’s analysis has shown, the grant program has largely served to stigmatize American Muslims and created serious risks of flagging innocuous activity as “pre-terrorism,” suppressing religious observance and speech. These flaws have only been exacerbated under an administration which has been overtly hostile toward Muslims.
The end of the DHS grants, however, would not be the end of CVE. Other federal and local initiatives may persist, and Congress could elect to fund CVE efforts through different channels, such as this Department of Justice grant focused on online radicalization monitoring, or these recent National Institute of Justice grants spending millions on CVE research. Meanwhile, CVE has taken off internationally, adopted by the U.N. Secretary General and implemented by several U.N. bodies, and the European Union. Last month, Eric Rosand and Emily Winterbotham, co-authors of the recent report, A Roadmap to Progress: The State of the Global P/CVE Agenda, urged policymakers to exercise patience with the current shortcomings of countering violent extremism programs around the globe. They emphasized CVE programs aimed at improving governance and the respect for human rights—no doubt worthy pursuits. The issue is whether these should be framed as counterterrorism. Indeed, the previous Special Rapporteur on Counterterrorism appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council warned against this framing, noting that humanitarian aid should be based on identified needs—not because a group is determined to be “at risk” of radicalization. Framing human rights through a counter-extremism lens distorts and potentially undermines the desired outcomes. Most recently, a report released earlier this year by the Transnational Institute (TNI) on The Globalization of Countering Violent Extremism: Undermining Human Rights, Instrumentalizing Civil Society, examines the UN’s initiatives in depth, and finds that the global expansion of CVE has come at a steep price.
First, CVE programs utilize vague and inconsistent definitions of radicalization, extremism, violent-extremism, and non-violent extremism. This hinders accurate assessment of perceived terror threats and makes measuring the programs’ effectiveness nearly impossible. The TNI report also underscores the empirical incoherence of the regime, finding that—as has often been repeated to seemingly deaf ears—there is no evidence on the causes of terrorism that support CVE strategies.
The report finds that CVE dissuades dissent, stifles transparency, facilitates stigmatization, undermines secularism, and reinforces gender-stereotypes. For all the problems evident when CVE is executed in good faith, the authors warn against abuse, arguing that the “extremist” label can be applied to legitimate political activities including protests, demonstrations and direct actions.
A frequent justification of CVE is that it is effective specifically because the programs consult and have the cooperation of the communities involved. But as noted by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the current U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, these programs “predictably fail to be community driven” when they begin as a “top-down counterterrorism strategy.” When communities are asked to participate in programs based on assumptions of the community’s latent criminality, any governmental claims of “buy-in” are manufactured, as I’ve written in the past.
Most agree that, as they exist, CVE programs are not working. But the solution is not simply better implementation. As Amrit Singh, director of the Project on National Security and Counterterrorism at the Open Society Foundation pointed out at the TNI report launch, “there is no ‘correct’ definition of CVE which fixes its underlying design flaws.” CVE programs fail because they rest on a fundamentally flawed and frequently debunked theory of radicalization, which asserts that individuals become terrorists through a predictable process which can be spotted by external signs of their so-called radicalization. It is no surprise that these programs have predictably strayed from their mandates, labeling broad swaths of political speech and expression as “pre-criminal,” and have harmed the very communities they purport to support. Yet, in CVE’s nearly 15 years of existence, there has been zero evidence that it reduces terror.
Let’s learn from CVE’s missteps. The research debunking radicalization theory is not a loss, but a course correction against criminalizing innocent behaviors. True community input on security policy that centralizes the safeguarding of civil liberties and human rights is essential to effective governance—not recast as a reward for acquiescence to government monitoring. And the space opened by CVE, which embraces serious discussion of the role that government actions and state violence plays in political conflict, is one that should remain central in future policy debates.