TSG IntelBrief: Rebranding Countering Violent Extremism
February 3, 2017

Rebranding Countering Violent Extremism

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• A February 2 report by Reuters stated the U.S. may dramatically narrow the focus of its main program for countering violent extremism (CVE).

• The proposed changes include renaming and refocusing the current broad-based program to one centered only on countering ‘Islamic extremism’.

• Such a change would be consistent with previous statements made by President Trump and his advisors.

• The consequences of this change would be significant; already, a Minneapolis-based community group has turned down a $500,000 grant from the CVE program because of its disproportionate focus on Islam.

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The U.S. government has made great strides in developing effective counterterrorism strategies to detect and disrupt large-scale plots. Nonetheless, the threat of terrorism persists throughout the country—particularly the threat of lone actor terror attacks. Thus, the U.S.—like many Western countries—has tried to supplement counterterrorism strategies with efforts to counter violent extremism (CVE). In many ways, CVE strategies tend to mirror gang prevention programs; CVE is intended to identify and then assist—or ‘off-ramp’—at-risk youth before they head down the path towards violence.

A February 2 report by Reuters citing anonymous government sources indicated that the U.S. was moving towards rebranding ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ to ‘Countering Islamic Extremism’. Such a move would be consistent with statements made by President Trump and members of his National Security Council. It is also consistent with approaches that have failed repeatedly. While President Trump’s support for the term ‘radical Islamic terror’ may be semantics, changing official U.S. policy to ‘Countering Islamic Extremism’ is far more than semantics; it is a radical change in approach. By definition, CVE efforts depend heavily on community trust, cooperation, and support. Many groups that the U.S. has tried to collaborate with in CVE efforts are faith-based groups with local credibility. Asking these groups to work with the government has never been easy; there is a deep—and justified—sense of mistrust and fear among minority communities in the U.S. as it relates to working with the federal government, particularly law enforcement agencies. Narrowing the scope of current efforts to focus solely on ‘Islamic extremism’ will make these groups feel targeted, not inspire trust.

While the principle of CVE has many proponents, it also has no shortage of critics. A significant point of contention over CVE is how to measure its effectiveness. It is difficult to justify funding for programs in which success can only be measured by a negative event not occurring; by definition, CVE is successful only if it prevents acts of violent extremism, thus providing no ability to determine causation. Indeed, efforts to counter violent extremism are far easier said than done, as young individuals most vulnerable to radicalization are often already disconnected from society, and therefore less likely to be within the reach of any CVE program. Additionally, the larger the programs, the less effective they are likely to be; there are no ‘cookie-cutter’ approaches that can be applied. The most effective CVE programs tend to be locally focused, with federal funding flowing towards small neighborhood organizations with nuanced understanding of local dynamics.

It was widely anticipated that President Trump’s approach to CVE would drastically differ from that of his predecessor’s administration. Nonetheless, there is widespread agreement among those experienced in CVE that a disproportionate focus on Islam is likely to undermine any counter extremism efforts. Strategies put in place by previous U.S. administrations appeared to acknowledge this view. In the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush repeatedly emphasized that the global war on terror must not be viewed as a global war on Islam. The Obama administration continued pushing this message, avoiding terms that might have provided narrow electoral gains but significant foreign policy and counterterrorism downsides. The Trump administration appears to have a very different stance—one that will undoubtedly impact the effectiveness of future counter extremism efforts.

Approaching Muslim community groups—which have already expressed concerns that CVE efforts disproportionately focus on Muslims—with a program dubbed ‘Countering Islamic Extremism’ is destined to fail. This inevitable outcome was evidenced within hours of the Reuters report being published, when a Minneapolis-based community group turned down a federal CVE grant worth $500,000 due to the Trump administration’s rhetoric and actions regarding Muslims.

Putting aside the self-inflicted wounds that a high-profile federal program targeting ‘radical Islamic extremism’ would bring—with little benefit in the stated purpose of preventing violence—the suggested changes also ignore the fact that there are a substantial number of domestic terror threats that have nothing to do with Islamist extremism. Right-wing hate groups, white supremacists, and anti-government groups all pose an equal or greater threat to the domestic security of the United States than groups such as the so-called Islamic State. Shifting focus away from these domestic groups at a time when they appear to be growing in menace demonstrates a true misunderstanding of the nature of the threat facing the homeland.

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