The images from Charlottesville captured the nation’s attention. Cameras showed Nazi salutes, swastikas, and militant antifa counter-protesters. As pepper spray and ramming vehicles supplanted debate, those events highlighted ideological strains different from the jihadist movement that dominates discussion of violent extremism in America. It may be surprising, then, that the U.S. government’s efforts to counter violent extremism of all ideological varieties has been the subject of growing controversy.
The government’s efforts to counter violent extremism — a bundle of programs known as CVE — rest on the premise that America cannot arrest and kill its way to victory against militant groups. CVE aims to intervene in the process of violent radicalization with a collection of non-coercive, non-violent, and voluntary activities. CVE’s detractors have been energized by President Donald Trump’s election. On the left, a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice, while decrying the president’s “animosity towards Muslims,” cheered the prospect that his administration might “dismantle, or at the very least substantially reconfigure,” the domestic CVE apparatus. On the right, a Heritage Foundation-based commentator argued that CVE should focus exclusively on “the threat posed by Islamism.”
While CVE has always had opponents, its adversaries now occupy influential political positions in the new administration. Whether the government will embrace an anti-CVE tack remains unclear. Despite the ascension of CVE skeptics, this year the Department of Homeland Security authorized its Office for Community Partnerships to release 26 CVE grants to community organizations, with a total of $10 million in awards. At the time the grants were approved, one of this article’s co-authors (George Selim) served as the office’s director, while the other author (Daveed Gartenstein-Ross) served as a senior advisor to the director.
The terminology of violent extremism was first used during the Bush administration, and the policies designed to counter the phenomenon were driven by career civil servants. The Bush administration recognized the ideological component of jihadist groups, and pioneered a preventive approach to weaken the pull of the ideas motivating these groups. This was the original “war of ideas.” (The architects of the preventive approach, though, did not view ideology as the exclusive or primary driver of extremist violence in all cases.) This realization led Bush administration officials to adopt a multidisciplinary approach to reducing the appeal of extremist violence, an approach that continued under Obama.
Community-driven CVE has proven valuable in advancing U.S. national interests. Modifications to the programs are in our view welcome, but many criticisms of community-driven CVE are off-base or misapprehend what it is. The events in Charlottesville underscore the reason why framing CVE broadly, rather than honing in on a single ideology, is a necessity rather than a politically correct frivolity. Abandonment of community-driven CVE would leave behind a dangerous void. We believe it is important for Americans to understand how domestic CVE efforts were conceived, and the programs that comprise them. But first, perhaps nothing illuminates the great promise of CVE better than the stunning success that such efforts achieved in a place far from our shores — a small Belgian town called Vilvoorde.
* * *
Vilvoorde is a small Flemish town near Brussels, often described as “sleepy.” Between 2012 and 2014, 28 individuals from Vilvoorde left to join jihadist groups in Syria — an unprecedented number for a town of less than 40,000 people, and the highest recruitment rate in Western Europe. “We have seen young people leaving from virtually every secondary school in my city or from every neighborhood,” Vilvoorde’s mayor, Hans Bonte, recalled.
But 2014 was a turning point for the city. Bonte instituted a CVE program, modeled on American efforts, centered on prevention and intervention. One aspect of this program brought together mothers of deceased Belgian foreign fighters, foreign fighter returnees, police officers, teachers, and local religious officials to reclaim Islamic religious terms and cultural practices from the terrorists. And after glimpsing signs of radicalization in children as young as 11 years old, Vilvoorde created another engagement program centered on a youth center that would provide teenagers with a positive social environment and educational opportunities.
Elsewhere in Europe, foreign fighter travel to Syria spiked following the announcement by the Islamic State (ISIL) that it had reestablished the caliphate. Vilvoorde, though, saw the number of its citizens who turned to terrorism or departed for Syria drop to zero. Local officials attributed this stunning success to their CVE efforts.
Vilvoorde is a striking example of what CVE can accomplish in adverse circumstances. It is highly unlikely that an approached based exclusively on law enforcement — surveillance, detention, and arrest — could have achieved a comparable degree of success. Round-the-clock surveillance of a single individual who is radicalized and believed to pose a risk of violence requires around two dozen officers. Vilvoorde did not have the resources to deal with every subject through surveillance and arrest, a situation mirrored throughout Europe, where counter-terrorism officials have been warning for over a decade that their security services are overstretched. These resource constraints challenge even the United States, which faces a less daunting problem with extremist violence than does Europe.
For Vilvoorde, CVE represented both an effective and cost-efficient alternative to sole reliance on strict counterterrorism measures. Whereas “counter-terrorism” implies countering an individual who, in the eyes of the law, has already taken steps toward committing a terrorist act or joining a terrorist group, CVE counters recruitment, focusing on the root causes of terrorist motivations, and working to either prevent those causes or provide “off-ramps” for individuals who may have taken steps toward embracing ideologically-motivated violence. It works, in part, by thinning the herd of those who might pose a danger.
Why look at Belgium? CVE’s successes have been more dramatic in Western Europe than in the United States for a few interlocking reasons. First, Europe has a more significant problem with extremism than does the United States. Since it starts from a baseline of more dramatic difficulties, European countries also have the opportunity to produce more dramatic successes. Second, Western European countries like Britain, Germany, France, and Belgium have poured more resources into CVE efforts than has the U.S. government. Third, the U.S. government has been less aggressive about a certain aspect of CVE — intervention into the process of radicalization — than have Western European countries. In our view, more focus on intervention by the U.S. government would yield better results. Thus, examples from European countries like Belgium illustrate CVE’s potential — and, in particular, its potential when the circumstances are most adverse.
* * *
The Obama administration was actually rather slow to stamp its own imprimatur on this set of policies. From a perch within government, one of this article’s co-authors (Selim) discerned a long evaluation period: It seemingly took about two years for the Obama administration to really sink its teeth into issues related to CVE, which resulted in carrying over the policies of the previous administration.
From the Bush administration onward, the U.S. government has implemented several kinds of community-driven CVE programs. Such programs hold that government can engage relevant communities in reducing the chances that those in their midst might be driven to violent action. A sizable amount of focus in the United States and Europe has been on Islamist terrorism (though, compared to Western Europe, a fractional amount of resources has been spent by the U.S government), but it is important to note there has not been an exclusive focus on Islamist terrorism.
The U.K. government’s disclosures, for example, make it clear that while Islamist terrorism rates as the top concern, right-wing extremism ranks second. But there have also been interventions in other ideological sectors, including with left-wing, anarchist, and Sikh extremists. While Sikh extremism doesn’t register as a major issue for most Americans, the deadliest terrorist attack in Canadian history came from this movement. British interventions related to left-wing and Sikh extremism have tended to be more isolated, with more generalized programs of intervention focusing on Islamist and right-wing ideologies.
There are many similarities between the radicalization and recruitment processes of domestic-extremist groups and foreign terrorist organizations. Both cast nets far and wide with their messages, hoping to catch individuals with the right state of mind, or “cognitive opening,” to be susceptible to recruitment. Both cultivate followers with a steady stream of proselytization that includes tactics and techniques to spew hate, or even commit acts of terror. And while federal authorities and police need to be right 100 percent of the time to stop attacks, extremists need only to be right once in their attempts to incite violence and terrorism. These attempts are repeated continuously.
What do community-driven CVE policies actually entail? One type of CVE policy is counter-messaging designed to refute extremist propaganda. One of us (Selim) was serving in a National Security Council staff position when ISIL came to international prominence in early 2014. Across the U.S. government, there were intense discussions about how to counter the group’s alarming ability to recruit. ISIL was making sophisticated use of social media, jihadist messaging was becoming markedly higher in quality, and radicalization was occurring exponentially faster than in the past.
Fashioning a response involved reaching out to private-sector colleagues at EdVenture Partners, who specialize in building industry-education partnerships, for help developing online grassroots campaigns by college and university students across the globe. The goal was to create a swell of content pushing back against ISIL’s digital onslaught. The first semester of the resulting “peer-to-peer” program was piloted in the fall of 2015. The U.S. government and its partners constructed a 15-week academic syllabus that faculty could use to turn their classrooms into a laboratory for countering ISIL’s messaging.
College classes in mass communications, digital media, marketing, political science, and some other social sciences from across the United States (and also internationally) were tasked with identifying an audience, designing a social-media campaign, implementing the campaign, and measuring its effectiveness — all on a budget of $1,000 to $2,000. Participating campuses competed against each other for prize money and notoriety. At the end of the semester, all the programs were evaluated by participants from the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, and executives from private social-media firms. The Lahore University of Management Sciences ended up winning the competition, with West Point coming in second. Counter-narratives generated through this competition reached 4.5 million people.
Different situations call for different tools. Around 2008, there was a noticeable spike in the radicalization and recruitment of young Somali-Americans in Minneapolis’s Twin Cities area, with dozens traveling back to Somalia to join militant groups. It soon became clear to civil servants working on the issue that the Twin Cities-based Somali-American community lacked key information that could help it prevent radicalization in its midst. Officials recognized commonalities between the situation in the Twin Cities and that of other communities — including Arab, Muslim, and South Asian communities — where foreign terrorist organizations were trying to radicalize and recruit young people, especially online.
Early in the Obama administration, a number of federal officials who had specialized in outreach and engagement with the American Muslim community created the Community Awareness Briefing program. (One of this article’s co-authors was a part of this effort.) The Community Awareness Briefing became a critical tool through which the federal government could clearly and effectively, in a non-threatening fashion, help educate families, parents, and educators about the threat of radicalization and recruitment. As in the Twin Cities, the briefing often served as a conversation-starter that could produce deeper discussions about offering resources to communities to help them develop comprehensive plans for building and enhancing community resilience, intervention programs, and the like.
In some ways, the challenges presented by radicalization are similar to those posed by human trafficking. Both happen right under people’s noses; without knowing the signs to look for, many observers will find the phenomenon hard to spot. So, addressing the problem often necessitates first raising awareness about its nature and scope. The interagency CVE Task Force used the Community Awareness Briefing as a key instrument for raising awareness about the nature and scope of the threat.
But some of the most important results of CVE are less direct. The approach builds trust between communities and authorities. For recent immigrants arriving from countries like Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Libya, engaging with police or security services may seem like an alien concept. These exercises, in addition to imparting information, help to humanize the government. Community members can see first-hand the ways that law enforcement approaches are nuanced, and can actually serve the community.
This trust can benefit the community. Those who have experienced CVE engagements are more likely to come to authorities with their problems. These bonds of trust also make communities more hostile to violent extremist recruiting efforts.
But training and engagement can only extend so far: interventions begin where someone subscribing to violent extremist ideas, who may pose a danger, has been identified. Intervention efforts are more robust in Europe than in the United States. In America, intervention unfortunately remains an unmet post-9/11 priority. European efforts often include an ideological dimension, in part because the U.S.’s conception of the separation between church and state differs from that of its European allies.
Other kinds of interventions involve mental-health professionals. While terrorists, generally speaking, suffer from mental illness at a lesser rate than the general population, it is still a factor in some cases. Anecdotal evidence suggests that lone-wolf terrorists (as opposed to those affiliated with groups) are “relatively likely to suffer from some form of personality disorder.” Intervention teams may bring together social workers, psychology professionals, and, when needed, police.
Interventions are intended to give individuals who are at risk of violent extremist radicalization a way to get off the ledge other than being arrested. Employing interventions rather than a criminal-only approach relates to the key insight driving CVE efforts: that neither the United States nor its allies have the resources to deal with violent extremism solely through policing efforts when the problem is large, as it sadly is today. It is necessary to thin the numbers of people who may engage in extremist violence.
This is also a superior alternative for families who have a son or daughter who is radicalizing. If your son or daughter is radicalizing, and the authorities don’t have any kind of off-ramping mechanism in place, the options that the authorities could undertake are rather bleak: arrest, surveillance, or doing nothing. Members of a close-knit community who recognize the signs of radicalization in a community member will face similarly unsatisfactory options if they are considering drawing in authorities who have no alternatives other than arrest and prosecution.
Resilient communities are better able to prevent radicalization before it happens. The most recent round of CVE grants was aimed at creating “communities where violent extremists routinely meet disinterest and opposition, recruitment attempts routinely fail, and communities know what tools and support are available to assist individuals that may be on a path towards violence.” This is the way to fight terror.
* * *
Vilvoorde is a shining example of the success of CVE efforts. As of the last available count, the city has applied its deradicalization approach to 39 citizens. Of the 131 residents found to be at risk of radicalization, not one has departed for Syria or taken part in terrorist attacks or plots. But Vilvoorde is far from unique.
In Montreal, for example, the Center for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence developed and implemented a comprehensive CVE prevention program. Its approach to CVE relies on engagement and intervention. In the engagement space, the center provides local stakeholders with training on radicalization through presentations, and awareness-raising workshops and teaching tools developed for social workers, prison professionals, law enforcement professionals, public and private organizations, and educational professionals. For example, the center held 53 meetings with community organizations on the risks and signs of radicalization, directly reaching nearly 1,000 community leaders and members. Tying its programs together is a hotline that local stakeholders can contact for advice on radicalization, help with intervention, and requests for trainings. The center’s hotline received 577 calls between March and December 2015, the most recent period for which information is available. Of these calls, 186 contained credible and actionable evidence of radicalization. 150 calls involved youths with “worrisome” or “alarming” behavior that led the center’s intervention team to act, while eight cases were referred directly to law enforcement as an imminent threat of violence to the community.
The British city of Luton has seen its residents recruited into white supremacist, anti-government, and Islamist violent extremist organizations. While Prevent — a nationwide strategy of engagement programs — operates in every locality, there are over 100 different tailored intervention programs across the U.K., known as Channel panels. The U.K. Home Office funds both Prevent and Channel. Various data points suggest that both have been effective at reducing radicalization and facilitating interdiction of those who are mobilizing. Referrals to Channel in Luton have increased. The percentage of people who enter Channel intervention programs in Luton and exit successfully appears to be relatively high. Overall, Luton seems to be reducing its pool of radicalized individuals significantly.
Robust community-based CVE programs have also been implemented in Denver and Los Angeles. The Denver program includes frequent delivery of the Community Awareness Briefing,and is building CVE into existing programs, such as gang prevention programs and school resource officer trainings. And the L.A. region has developed engagement programs designed to foster partnerships between federal and local government, law enforcement, the private sector, academia, and community-based organizations in order to establish a resilient civil society and build healthy communities. The L.A. framework also uses engagement programs to strengthen at-risk populations’ identity formation, integration, inter-group relations, and access to services, thereby reducing the success of terrorist recruitment and inspiration within those communities.
There’s unquestionably a need for better evaluation of what does and does not work. Some programs classified as CVE have, at best, a tenuous relationship to preventing violent extremism. (This is actually not so different from the mislabeling of counterterrorism programs following the 9/11 attacks.)
It’s that need for better evaluation that makes the $10 million in CVE grants authorized by then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly a unique opportunity. The various programs funded by this grant money will create one of the biggest datasets concerning the outcomes produced by various kinds of community-driven CVE efforts. Not all of the grantees’ projects will succeed; it is virtually certain that some of their projects will fail. But being able to measure and evaluate these programs successfully will give the U.S. government a much better idea of what works and what does not, moving beyond the anecdotal evidence that too frequently drives CVE policy. Both of us have worked with dedicated civil servants and advisors to try to ensure that a strong monitoring and evaluation regime is in place to measure these grants’ effectiveness.
* * *
Examples from both Europe and here in our own backyards have proven that the fundamentals of both civic engagement and community policing are still sound. Deliberate and focused efforts need to be applied in today’s changing threat environment; prevention can no longer be an afterthought or an unfunded mandate. While revisions to community-driven CVE policies may be laudable, discarding community-driven CVE as a tool would be a mistake that we would come to regret. Critics on the left should heed the words of Andrew Glazzard and Eric Rosand in a recent article they wrote for Lawfare: “Less CVE is unlikely to mean more peacebuilding or conflict prevention; less CVE will, if recent history is anything to go by, mean more counterterrorism and hard security.” Glazzard and Rosand concluded that “CVE’s detractors should be careful what they wish for.” And for critics on the right: Would doing away with community-driven CVE really make us more safe?
We need to be able to thin the pool of potential violent extremist recruits of all stripes, and have off-ramps rather than just a law enforcement approach. It’s important that limited resources be conserved, something that community-driven CVE can advance while a law enforcement-only approach does not. Community-driven CVE can already claim demonstrable successes, and as the U.S. government’s data about what works becomes more robust, the effectiveness and efficiency of these efforts should improve as well.