Foreign Policy Essay
The History of Countering Violent Extremism Tends to Repeat. It Shouldn’t.
Editor’s Note: Political leaders at times launch programs to counter violent extremism, but those programs rarely get off the ground. Bennett Clifford and Seamus Hughes of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism describe the rise and fall (and potential rise) of CVE efforts and argue that more limited, focused programs are more sustainable and more effective.
In the two decades after 9/11, the U.S. government made repeated attempts to create a nationwide countering violent extremism (CVE) policy, using the acronym to refer to any effort that attempts to reduce terrorism and violent extremism through means outside of arrests, prosecutions, and law enforcement investigations. These policy responses have followed a standard and well-worn path. First, sibylline warnings of growing radicalization problems, pursuant to a particular ideology or community, are issued by outside experts, sub-federal authorities, or local communities. These alerts pique the interest of policy officials, but before programs, strategies, and staff can be put into place, a major attack or event shocks both the public and policymakers, causing congressional overseers to demand immediate action.
This process—seen in the federal government’s response to post-9/11 events like the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and the unprecedented mobilizations of American Islamic State supporters to Syria and Iraq—then begins to hit several roadblocks. The initial strategic concepts put forward are broad based: They are characterized by “whole of society” approaches that involve as many implementing actors as possible, include long laundry lists of potential policies, and aim to reach as large a swathe of society as possible. In turn, various federal agencies are brought together in task forces and develop arsenals of CVE policies that range from community outreach, to one-on-one interventions for extremists, to attempting to build “resilience” to radicalization in local environments. However, because of their reach, use of controversial methods and tools such as the systems used to identify potential extremists, and fierce grassroots organizing against anything with a CVE label, the major strategic CVE initiatives quickly face political resistance. In the face of controversy, the responsible agencies whittle down their CVE workload to a bare minimum, invest the limited resources and staff power in a select number of policies, and change the names of terms and offices to avoid backlash. A skeleton crew of federal employees manage what’s left of “CVE” within their respective agencies, at least until the next major attack happens and the cycle starts anew.
It is said that history repeats or, at the very least, rhymes. This is particularly true in the U.S. policy world. There is something refreshing about the predictability of it all. However, when it comes to countering violent extremism programs, we should do our best not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Despite decades of dedicated effort by several federal agencies and their earnest employees, the U.S. government and the public alike are left with relatively little to show for it. The vicious circle described above doomed the Obama administration’s first attempt at a national CVE strategy, described in the August 2011 White House document “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism.” The strategy aimed to establish a framework for CVE policies focusing on building expertise in state and local law enforcement, engaging with communities, and countering extremist propaganda. In a 2020 article for Lawfare, we wrote that the first decade of the 2011 strategy was subject to “fits and starts … [the] programs have had many bosses, quite a few iterations and little coherency.” The reasons for its woes are manifold: divided agencies, limited resources and staff, unclear programmatic theories of change, a lack of a political constituency to defend it under pressure, and, perhaps most importantly, a near-singular focus on a particular form of violent extremism (jihadism) that limited its effectiveness and subjected the strategy to even more criticism from civil society and communities.
Due to these factors, there was little left of the Obama administration’s CVE strategy that withstood the tides and survived the change of presidential administrations in 2016. Fortunately, however, this has meant that most federal CVE efforts that remained during the past five years have been measurable and meaningful programs with limited theories of change that were implemented on a small-scale basis and focused on individuals rather than groups, communities, or societies. Programs like the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York’s Disruption and Early Engagement Project (DEEP) focused on individual cases of radicalization within the district and judged whether one-on-one interventions with “family members, mental health professionals, mentors, and state and local officials” were preferable to federal investigations and prosecutions. Downsized CVE programs like DEEP changed the outcomes of cases, avoided the political fracas, and could be applied to multiple forms of violent extremist radicalization.
The Biden administration, in its 2021 National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, took an important course correction when it acknowledged that the domestic terrorism threat picture comprises an ever-increasing range of violent extremist ideologies. As a result, any solution will require expanding “violence prevention”—the new nomenclature for CVE—to a wider range of communities, ideologies, and contexts. Today, as a result of horrific white supremacist mass-casualty attacks in Poway, Pittsburgh, El Paso, and most recently in Buffalo, and the events of Jan. 6, 2021, there is a renewed governmental focus on addressing racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism and what the U.S. government terms anti-government and anti-authority violent extremism.
But so far, most of the proposed CVE measures do not seem to have successfully integrated lessons from the last spin of the CVE wheel of fortune. Expansive CVE measures, building on outcry about the recent uptick in domestic violent extremism, are back to the fore—threatening to restart the old cycle again. On the campaign trail, Vice President Kamala Harris called for a dramatic escalation in CVE funding focused on domestic terrorism, to the tune of billions of dollars. While the 2021 national strategy released by the administration did not put a price tag on its proposal, the fourth pillar of the strategy calls on policymakers to “[tackle] the long-term contributors” to domestic violent extremism by “addressing the sources of that mobilization to violence,” signaling that part of its CVE agenda will include society-wide measures to inoculate wide swathes of the U.S. public against violent extremism. Arguably, these efforts have already proved their futility in ill-fated efforts like the rollout of the Department of Homeland Security’s Disinformation Governance Board, which was shuttered in the third week of its existence after concerns about the scope of the program prompted sustained backlash.
Regardless of their efficacy, broad-based CVE programs focusing on domestic extremism in this political climate are likely to be doomed to the same fate as the Disinformation Governance Board and other efforts that preceded it. The same problems hampered Obama-era CVE efforts focusing on jihadists, which prompted criticism from liberals opposed to society- or community-wide programming as violative of civil rights and illegitimately targeting specific communities and from conservatives opposed on the grounds that it was “too soft” on violent extremism. These critiques are still present but have flipped across the political lines and intensified when it comes to non-jihadist domestic terrorism. The only difference is that there is no guarantee that small-scale programs like one-on-one interventions that could be effective while avoiding political outcry would survive an initial wave of backlash. A major congressional fight over CVE could be the poison pill for any type of terrorism prevention focusing on domestic extremism.
Rather than inviting another national debate that weakens CVE policy, the Biden administration should break the wheel of fortune for CVE programming in the United States by skipping the large-scale initiatives and limiting its efforts to agency-specific guidance focusing on one-on-one interventions. Proponents of multibillion-dollar, gargantuan CVE agendas will say that an expansive scope is necessary to match the level of radicalization present in the country today, exemplified by studies that show that millions of Americans believe in extremist conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 presidential election or ideas similar to the “great replacement” theory. These statistics are certainly cause for concern, but tethering CVE policy to this notion is not the solution. A more manageable figure is 2,700, which is the number of domestic terrorism cases run by the FBI at any given time. From a public policy standpoint, a smaller, locally managed initiative that can take even a portion of those 2,700 cases off of the FBI’s caseload through interventions is infinitely preferable to a quickly conceived, politically controversial, and likely inefficiently managed large-scale CVE program that attempts to convince 20 million Americans to forego their conspiratorial viewpoints.
This is not to diminish the seriousness of the domestic terrorism threat environment in the United States, which by all accounts is at its most severe in decades. But from a policy standpoint, this is a triage situation, in which only programs that are manageable and measurable should be considered as the nation’s attention and political realities can sustain only that narrow scoping. There is a place for that larger responsibility of community-wide resilience in government, and more so civil society, but the departments of Justice and Homeland Security leading that effort is a recipe for failure. They are not equipped or well placed to run sprawling, impersonal outreach efforts, like the 2016 campaign that boiled down to messaging “don’t be an extremist”—messaging that is summarily dismissed by the very subsections of Americans they seek to influence.
New prevention programs focusing on domestic violent extremism, drawing from the Biden administration’s strategic guidelines, could be an important opportunity for the federal government to reset the course on CVE in the United States. The federal government should do its best not to repeat the mistakes of the past. It should avoid broad-based agendas with laundry lists of potential CVE-tangential policies and community-wide CVE programs, and instead focus on programs that center around one-on-one interventions of individuals already on the radar of law enforcement and primed for violence.