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CVE Was Doomed to Fail. Under Trump, It Will Get Worse
Federal countering violent extremism (CVE) programming is more likely to harm than help build trust in American communities. Though well-intentioned, the Obama administration’s CVE strategy was flawed in its conception. Continuing CVE under the Trump administration will worsen an existing problem and place a burden on local CVE partners. Absent a radical change in policy by the Trump administration, local partners ought to disassociate themselves from federal CVE programming to salvage their credibility.
In 2011, the Obama administration released a national CVE program to build a soft counterterrorism strategy. The CVE rollout called on law enforcement to work with a wide range of local partners, including educators, public health professionals, faith-based leaders, and NGO workers. Together, these actors helped law enforcement develop community activities like table-top exercises, awareness briefings, and intervention programs. Five years after the strategy’s launch, local government officials and community groups have reported increased distrust and stigmatization in several cities, including each of the CVE’s pilot cities The design of CVE strategy was doomed to fail due to three principal reasons.
First, the U.S. government lacks an interagency consensus on a definition of violent extremism and program evaluation metrics. Despite the proliferation of research on violent extremism after 9/11, the U.S. does not have a model for what causes an individual to take up violence. Moreover, CVE program design tends to draw on gang intervention studies, which offer a comparable group of individuals who may be vulnerable to violence, but also lack credible evaluation metrics. Neither CVE nor gang interventions can ensure that community partners will be able to evaluate the progress of a given participant two or three years past the program’s launch. Defining success is therefore a perennial problem for CVE programs because it is impossible to determine the point at which a potentially violent person is no longer potentially violent.
Second, CVE disproportionately focuses on Muslim-American communities. Since 9/11, antigovernment, racist, and other non-jihadist extremists have conducted more attacks on Americans than Islamic jihadists. Yet, the CVE pilot programs conducted outreach to Muslims without specifically addressing other groups. In 2015, President Obama cited “the urgent threat of groups like al Qaeda and ISIL” as the reason for convening a White House Summit on CVE, which raises an important question. What is the difference between countering a potential violent extremist and a potential terrorist? If CVE is supposed to be a counterterrorism strategy, then why does the public funding and messaging disproportionately focus on a group that commits fewer terrorist attacks relative to other groups? That is not to say that Muslims should feel discouraged from supporting CVE, but calling on them to serve on the frontlines of problem they are not the primary contributors of is the opposite of empowering –– it is stigmatizing.
Finally, the national CVE strategy chose the wrong government agencies to launch the initiative. Consider the lead implementers of CVE: Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Department of Justice. These agencies play a vital role in maintaining our border security and enforcing the law, but they should not conduct CVE. In the past, the FBI and the NYPD have operated under the guise of community outreach to recruit informants and conduct surveillance. If CVE and counterterrorism serve the same function, it might be difficult for these agencies to differentiate between methods. These tactics are inherently at odds with CVE efforts because they erode rather than build trust with at-risk communities. Law enforcement communities ought to continue learning more about the communities they serve, but not through CVE.
CVE will only worsen under Trump. He is likely to rebrand CVE as “Countering Radical Islam,” and purposefully disregard other forms of extremism, despite the fact that non-Muslim extremists kill more Americans. Meanwhile, the number of hate groups operating in the U.S. has reached an all-time high and anti-Muslim hate groups have tripled in size. Trump’s approach will undoubtedly alienate Muslim American communities and elevate jihadist narratives, exacerbating rather than ameliorating the threat. However, we should dispel the notion that Muslim Americans are now inherently more vulnerable to violent extremism. Despite being disproportionately targeted under the Obama administration, Muslim Americans have demonstrated overwhelming resilience and resistance to jihadist terrorist recruitment.
Continuing a federal CVE strategy will make it harder for CVE partners to justify their community outreach. In recent weeks, dozens of community partners have already rejected 20% of a $10 million grant from DHS. Notably, one school rejected a grant that would have covered more than half of its yearly budget because the school’s president felt that accepting money would “do more harm than good” due to the “political climate.” Other organizations would be wise to follow suit, or else risk undermining the trust they sought to build.