war on the rocks

Can America’s Countering Violent Extremism Efforts be Salvaged?

December 17, 2018

The United States has good reason to be worried about domestic extremism: from the far right, far left, and Islamism. It should not be hard to make a plausible case for some kind of state response to challenge poisonous movements. That is where Terrorism Prevention Partnerships come in. This prevention program is better known as “Countering Violent Extremism” or by its initialism, CVE (although the nomenclature is contested as fiercely as it is tiresomely).

In theory, CVE makes sense. For example, parents who see their teenage son or daughter becoming obsessed with white supremacist propaganda, or suspect they are trying to travel to Syria, are given an option to refer the child to a sort of program in which the toxic ideas can be challenged and hopefully debunked. CVE, at its core, should be about stopping people from destroying their lives and the lives of those around them.

Once upon a time, however, few were content with how CVE was executed. From the right, CVE was viewed as President Barack Obama farming out counter-terrorism policy to the Muslim Brotherhood and on the left, as a front for the mass surveillance of Muslims. But when Donald Trump got elected, rumors appeared that the program may be scrapped, many in CVE appeared to have an epiphany. Suddenly, they saw CVE as a beloved initiative with nearly celestial power. As Seamus Hughes from George Washington University sarcastically tweeted: “everyone — in civil rights communities, NGOs, and advocacy groups — always loved domestic CVE until this Administration … took away this beautiful thing from us.”

Speculation remains that the administration may be willing to let the program die, although this is not certain. The new counter-terrorism strategy still refers to what would traditionally be considered several CVE initiatives. Yet either way, it is fair to say that domestic CVE has hardly taken off in the United States. The initial 2011 strategy seemed incomplete and compromised. The funding committed domestically was insufficient. There was never great enthusiasm for it in Congress. And the lack of momentum behind the entire venture meant that the U.S. prevention programs that do exist remain in their infancy.

However, rather than just reflexively blaming the federal government for this, it is worth considering if CVE is failing because it deserves to fail and/or because people (like me) who support the concept of prevention programs have not made a convincing case for them.

Here are just five albatrosses around the neck of CVE that need shifting.

Firstly, the language that polices the basic parameters of discussion is often nonsensical jargon informed by groupthink.

For example, it is gospel within the CVE community that we need “a whole of society” approach in the “CVE space,” to provide “off-ramps,” to build resilient communities, to take into account local and tribal dynamics while not adopting a “top down” approach. These particular pieces of conventional wisdom are usually presented as challenging orthodoxy. Even the supposedly straight-talking Trump administration lapses into the vacuous jargon, issuing reports that subject the reader to sentences such as “CVE requires a whole-of-society approach that addresses the local dynamics that terrorists exploit for recruitment.”

How can we build a “whole of society” approach, say, when using language so odd that it is a struggle for anyone who is not immersed in the peculiarities of CVE-speak to understand what on earth we are going on about? The typical American, if parachuted into a discussion among CVE academics and practitioners, would (a) struggle to understand what was actually being discussed and (b) have no idea that CVE is meant to save lives. Somehow, discussions about CVE have become so generic that we may as well be discussing transport policy rather than life or death issues and the war of ideas.

If CVE is just lots of people in Washington, D.C., agreeing with each other in language they understand, but is indecipherable cant to anyone else, making the case for its ongoing existence to anyone other than a small subset of government employees will remain a struggle.

Secondly, discussions can be so inoffensive that nothing of any substance is addressed. The debate over “radical Islamic terrorism” and the best terminology to describe Islamist terrorism has been done to death and will not be regurgitated here. However, let us acknowledge that the use of the phrase “violent extremism” held an appeal in governments across the world precisely because it allowed nervous bureaucrats to glide over the Islam aspect.

Yet, just as sure as extremists will call up an endless supply of root causes to justify their feelings of grievance, so there always will be somebody unhappy with the nomenclature of the day. Take this darkly hilarious paragraph from a recent Prevention Project/RUSI report:

Despite the plethora of [Preventing/Countering Violent Extremism] conferences, workshops, action plans, and programs and discussions about how to address the threat posed by violent extremism, the use of P/CVE or “violent extremism” terminology has proven to be counterproductive in certain local contexts.

Those able to overcome their shock at the notion that many CVE workshops may not be a productive use of time will marvel at the reason offered for banning the phrase P/CVE: “This language can alienate communities by giving the impression that there is something wrong or needs fixing and that the beneficiaries are a threat.”

Of course, there is “something wrong.” That “something” is why CVE exists in the first place. But now, apparently, the “VE” part of CVE is insufficiently euphemistic. As less offensive replacements for “countering violent extremism,” PP/RUSI suggests “community engagement,” “violence prevention,” or “safeguarding.”

There are obvious problems with this. The United Kingdom regularly uses “safeguarding,” and its Preventing Violent Extremism (“Prevent”) program remains frequently, and enthusiastically, denounced. Furthermore, CVE was only ever adopted in the first place because it was the lowest common denominator in offensiveness. Better to just accept the fact that those seeking to take offense will forever find reasons do so.

Thirdly, CVE is now too broad. A 2017 Washington Institute for Near East Policy paper pointed out that CVE is

so broadly defined that it can include everything from building playgrounds in “at risk” neighborhoods, to running localized intervention programs for people drawn to violent extremist ideologies, to rehabilitating people convicted on terrorism charges or returning foreign terrorist fighters.

All are, to different extents, theoretically worthy. However, it does speak to how all-encompassing CVE has become. Furthermore, this does not even factor in CVE abroad. At a May 2017 roundtable hosted by the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation, participants pointed out that many international development, democracy promotion, and conflict resolution programs overseas also now have CVE components. CVE labels were slapped on programs that actually had very little to do with CVE and the case for the program’s existence diminishes — especially among conservatives — when its uniqueness is diluted and it turns into just another big-government, foreign aid program.

As proof that truly nothing is immune to identity politics, there is even now a creeping focus on the need for a more “gender-centric” or “gender-sensitive” CVE. If anyone in the CVE community thinks that making it even more obscure will prevent a single terrorist attack, then they have become unmoored from reality.

Skepticism towards CVE is also heightened by another commonly cited problem: measuring its effectiveness and whether these programs are doing any good. It is disappointing that little work had been done on metrics until the Trump administration placed emphasis the need for programs to prove their worth to justify continued funding. It suggests that sustaining the concept of CVE — and the large contracts that accompanied it overseas — mattered more than its actual outcomes.

Fourthly, CVE has become ridiculously politicized. The U.S. government’s domestic CVE approach focuses on all forms of extremism. The administration has tried to tell the media this. Some of those who received the money tried to do the same.

Yet many don’t believe it, and journalists usually refuse to report it. Instead, they reiterate the preferred narrative that the administration really only cares about locking up jihadis and is tolerant of the far right. Virtually identical arguments have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Daily Beast, the Chicago Tribune, PoliticoNewsweek, Buzzfeed, NBC, Vanity Fair and The Atlantic — to name just a few.

Trump’s repeated reluctance to call out the far right with much vigor has clearly fed into this narrative. Sections of the right were also not helping themselves on this front prior to Trump. When the Obama administration began to warn of a rise in far-right activity in April 2009, the response from certain conservatives was a hyperbolic attack on the Department of Homeland Security for coming to that conclusion.

But when considering the administration’s actual CVE policy, you’ll find that the charge of apathy toward white supremacy rests almost entirely on one specific example, cited in virtually every piece of journalism on this topic. That is, a $400,000 grant that was cut for Life after Hate, a group which uses reformed neo-Nazis to challenge the far right.

It is self-evidently good that an organization like Life After Hate, which can effectively counteract neo-Nazism because it understands the appeal of it, exists. However, they also cannot be above criticism where it is merited. The group’s co-founder, Christian Picciolini, said the administration cut their funding because it refused to “acknowledge that white nationalist extremists are a major domestic terrorist threat.” But this isn’t correct.

In February 2017, the Washington Free Beacon flagged Picciolini’s post-2016 election tweets comparing Trump’s election to the rise of the Third Reich and an act of suicide. One of his tweets called for “revolt” in the United States. Picciolini also tweeted that he — along with “most journalists, POC [people of color], peace activists, cops & educators” had “fresh targets on our backs” because of the election. This is why Life After Hate’s grant was cut: for Department of Homeland Security to fund Picciolini to work on countering extremism while his own rhetoric was becoming increasingly extreme became much less tenable.

Agree with Picciolini or don’t. But reporters should at least mention that the guy who wanted a wad of government cash to counter extremism also called for revolt.

Republican politicians, too, are no innocents when it comes to politicizing CVE. The very notion seldom got a fair hearing in the GOP-controlled Congress as long as it was the Obama administration pushing it. It will be impossible to forge a sustainable policy with support from both sides of the aisle if CVE is just an extension of partisan politics.

Finally, there is a problem with misplaced energy. Clearly, the administration is going to be the main subject of criticism regarding CVE grants. They are the ones who set policy and decide how to spend the money. Yet for all the criticism of the administration, there were comparative crickets in August 2018 when the mayor of Los Angeles turned down $425,000 in CVE grants for small charities addressing mental health in immigrant and refugee communities. The mayor’s decision came just days after the Charlottesville violence. Yet groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) had mobilized opposition to the grant, saying it was “extremely offended” that CVE money could be used to treat Muslim mental health problems. After the money was rejected, various activists took to Twitter to celebrate, using the hashtag #StopCVE.

The U.S. government should not underestimate the ability of those who dislike the very concept of prevention programs to dominate the narrative. In the United Kingdom, groups that initially appeared to be on the fringes of the debate — such as Cage, an organization whose figurehead is a former Guantanamo detainee who once signed an FBI confession outlining his ties to terrorism and al-Qaeda — became very effective at polluting the entire area, misrepresenting or even outright lying about the purpose behind programs like Prevent. Probably more than any other NGO, Cage has now helped create the perception in the United Kingdom that Prevent is “toxic.”

Of course, the First Amendment ensures that the United States is fiercely — and correctly — protective of freedom of speech. This devotion, along with the Establishment clause, do as much as anything to give CVE efforts in the United States a different tinge to efforts in Europe. Yet like Cage, CAIR, and its allies reject the very concept of CVE, not just its efficacy. If those who care about CVE do not publicly call them out — with the same passion that they go after the administration — the same thing could happen in the United States.

This would be a shame, because prevention programs can be an important part of a government’s armory (and I have previously used these pages to float some ideas for what may make them more successful). However, they do not have a God-given right to exist. Those of us who want prevention programs to endure and succeed must actively address the problems that plague them.

The Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Fellow, Robin Simcox analyzes terrorism issues at the think tank’s Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.

Image: State Department photo