Foreign Policy Essay

When It Comes to CVE, the United States Stands to Learn a Lot from Others. Will It?

By Eric Rosand
Sunday, September 10, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Programs to counter violent extremism (known as “CVE”) attempt to offer non-military and non-law enforcement means to fight terrorism, working with communities to identify potential radicals and move them away from violence. Critics who have the ear of the Trump administration deride them as weak and ineffective, and programs at DHS and other agencies are on the chopping block. Eric Rosand, a non-resident fellow at Brookings and the director of the Prevention Project, calls for renewing U.S. CVE efforts. In particular, the United States has much to learn from allies such as Canada and Australia that do far more to counter extremism of all kinds.


Given the recent terrorist attacks in Australia, Canada, Britain, and the United States, and concerns about home-grown radicalization and fighters returning from Iraq and Syria, it is no surprise that “countering violent extremism” or CVE featured prominently in this summer’s annual “Five Eyes” gathering of ministers of interior and justice. In the Joint Communique issued following the meeting, the governments committed to take a range of CVE actions, including efforts related to “enhancing [their] knowledge” on “local level initiatives and sharing of best practices in prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation” of violent extremist offenders.

Let’s hope the U.S. side is serious about wanting to enhance its knowledge here. Unlike most other areas of counterterrorism, the U.S. government is generally near the back of its class on CVE and has few positive lessons and experiences to share. Indeed, if the United States is, as stated in the communique, committed to “step[ping] up efforts to counter terrorist recruitment and radicalization,” it should focus more attention on learning from others, starting with its Five Eyes partners.

Canada and Australia are two partners we can learn from. Both countries face radicalization challenges similar in scale to those of the United States and are also multicultural “melting pots” of immigrants with federal systems.

Despite these similarities, the contrast between the approaches being taken in the United States, particularly under the Trump administration, and in Australia and Canada could not be much sharper. Our partners have done a better job recognizing the importance of, investing in, and empowering Muslim and other relevant local communities; using appropriate terminology and framing; engaging multiple levels of government and involving non-law enforcement agencies from top to bottom; and developing individually-targeted intervention or “off-ramp” programs involving non-law enforcement professionals.

The United States: An Active Repudiation of CVE

The Trump administration’s approach to CVE has ranged from neglect to active repudiation on the basis that it is politically correct and ineffective. Earlier in the summer, DHS released its first-ever CVE local grant awards under a program initiated during the last year of the Obama administration; the program allocated only $10 million for the entire country, roughly the same amount the Dutch government provides for CVE projects in a country that has 307 million fewer people than the United States. The funds were released, however, only after removing some community groups that the Obama administration had approved for funding in January but now do not meet what appear to be the Trump administration’s criteria for supporting CVE.

The U.S. government will now only support work focused on one form of violent extremism: Islamist–thus de-prioritizing other forms such as ones linked to neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and other hate groups that were behind the recent violence in Charlottesville. In addition, CVE is restricted to programs that involve some collaboration with law enforcement, meaning those community-led efforts focused on intervening with young people before they make a commitment to carry out violence and where the involvement of the police will hinder the development of such preventive efforts were denied DHS funding.

Narrowly focusing CVE on a single ideology or religion can undermine efforts to empower and incentivize community members who need to become more actively involved in efforts to prevent radicalization and recruitment to violence in their communities.

Neither of these criteria reflects the lessons learned from our own best practices and those of our “Five Eyes” counterparts. Narrowly focusing CVE on a single ideology or religion can undermine efforts to empower and incentivize community members who need to become more actively involved in efforts to prevent radicalization and recruitment to violence in their communities. In addition, requiring the involvement of law enforcement in all community-based CVE programs risks undermining prevention efforts in a “pre-crime” space.

The future is even grimmer. The White House has proposed cutting all funding (in its FY2018 budget) to the DHS CVE grants program and reducing the budget and staff of the DHS CVE office. Further, the federal CVE Task Force—which was established in early 2016 to improve coordination at the federal level, facilitate more involvement on non-security federal agencies like Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education, and allow for more systematic engagement with state and local actors—continues to operate, but with no money, a weak mandate, and a number of the key seats (including FBI, Bureau of Prisons, HHS, and Education) empty. The last two agencies remain reluctant to engage in CVE due, at least in part, to lingering concerns about the “CVE” label.

Canada: A “Whole of Society” Approach

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently created a national CVE coordination body “to provide national leadership, coordination, and support to prevent the radicalization of young people.” Rather than following the Washington example of slapping a “CVE” label on its federal task force despite awareness that it could hamper its ability to garner support from local communities, Canada chose terminology that is more likely to attract broad-based community and non-law enforcement support: “community engagement and prevention of violence.” Shifting away from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s narrower approach, which focused mainly on Canadian Muslims, the new body will be looking at all forms of radicalization to violence. The new center opened in June 2017 with a budget of $35 million over the first five years and then $10 million annually thereafter.

The center will work with government-level committees, including one consisting of deputy ministers from both security and non-security federal departments, to “coordinate and provide direction for [counter-radicalization to violence] efforts and priorities.” There is also a joint committee of representatives from the federal, provincial, and territorial levels to facilitate vertical collaboration.

The center will also manage a “community resilience fund” to support local intervention programming and research. Among the initiatives currently receiving support is one aimed at developing a CVE “practitioners’ network” to “support the growing community of professional practitioners and civil society actors in Canada who are involved in [CVE work].”

Perhaps the most-well known CVE initiative in Canada is Montreal’s Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence (CPRLV), which is supported with funds from the local and provincial governments. Launched in 2015, primarily in response to concerns over young Quebecois traveling to Syria and Iraq, its staff of psychologists, social workers, and researchers look at all forms of violent extremism, with a focus on behavior that indicates the risk of violence rather than simply “radical” ideas. Its 24-hour helpline has fielded about 1,500 calls since March 2015. Particularly since the deadly shooting in a Quebec City mosque in January, the center has seen a spike in calls about far-right extremism and hate crimes and has launched initiatives focused on these issues.

[O]ne of the keys to the center’s success has been convincing families that it is operating independently of law enforcement and the intelligence services ... and that its focus is on helping families...

The CPRLV also leads seminars for police and schoolteachers and provides psychosocial counselling to radicalized individuals and helps them reintegrate into society. According to its director, one of the keys to the center’s success has been convincing families that it is operating independently of law enforcement and the intelligence services (although cases can be referred to the police under limited and clearly defined circumstances) and that its focus is on helping families, including parents whose children have traveled or sought to travel to join the Islamic State.

Outside of Montreal, police departments in Toronto and Calgary have relied on existing or created new “community safety” hubs; a person deemed at risk of extremism is referred by a police officer or non-law enforcement local official to an intervention “hub” of medical professionals, faith groups, teachers, and housing and other local officials. The idea is to identify people at risk and to intervene before they head down the path to violence, an early intervention increasingly referred to as “off-ramping.” Similar preventive efforts have struggled to get off the ground in the United States, in part because of concerns about the role of the FBI, particularly given its role in intelligence-gathering in community-focused CVE efforts.

Australia: Social Cohesion and Resilience Building

Similar to those in Canada, Australia far outpaces the United States in investment and innovation in CVE. Australia’s efforts excel at developing collaboration among different levels of the federal system. A sign of its circumspect approach is that its non-security government agencies and offices are as engaged as their security counterparts.

In August 2014, the national government provided $13.4 million for a CVE program focused on intervening early before a law-enforcement response was required. As part of this effort, a directory of CVE intervention services identifying relevant organizations that the government could call upon to assist individuals deemed vulnerable to involvement in violent extremist activities was established. If an individual referred to the program is not found to be part of an active police investigation, then a panel determines the individual’s needs and recommends the relevant services.

The national government is also funding an “Australian Intervention Support Hub, which brings together a range of experts, including social scientists and mental and public health professionals, to identify and translate international CVE best practices into an Australian context, support community based CVE initiatives, and provide training for groups and service providers around Australia to develop and sensitively undertake CVE interventions.

State-level CVE efforts in Australia have dramatically increased amid growing concerns about young Australians being recruited to join the Islamic State.

Australia’s Living Safer Together Program includes a website with information on what communities and the Australian government are doing to build resilient communities that take action against violent extremism and a $1.9-million grants program to support community-based organizations’ efforts to help individuals move away from violent extremism.

State-level CVE efforts in Australia have dramatically increased amid growing concerns about young Australians being recruited to join the Islamic State. In 2015, the government of the Australian state of Victoria allocated $25 million over four years to “strengthen social cohesion and multiculturalism and tackle extremism.” It established a Social Cohesion and Community Resilience Advisory Group, including ministers of education, police, youth, and multicultural affairs, as well as representatives from the community, and followed with a community resilience grants program to support projects focused on those most at risk of being targeted by violent extremism. Sensitive to concerns regarding the securitization of CVE work, government funding for these programs aimed at building social cohesion or resilience to violent extremism comes from the Office of Multicultural Affairs rather than law-enforcement or security agencies or budgets.

Following a similar path, in November 2015, New South Wales’ premier announced a $50-million set of CVE programs and other measures to support schools and build community resilience and cohesion. Last year, the New South Wales government, through its Multicultural Affairs Office, initiated a grants program—again with non-security funds, now totaling $8 million—for community-based projects linked to “community resilience, youth engagement, and conflict resolution,” with projects designed to run for one-to-four years.

Lessons Learned?

Australia’s and Canada’s CVE efforts, only some of which have been highlighted above, are by no means perfect. But that’s true of almost all CVE programs, partially because this is such a nascent field. It continues to be difficult to measure their effectiveness, particularly when politicians demand results in the short term despite the longer-term nature of most CVE efforts. Programs must navigate difficult balancing acts—between addressing Islamist and other forms of violent extremism, between the involvement of law and non-law enforcement professionals, and between government and community members. Additionally, the lack of trust between police and communities that feel targeted by CVE measures can hinder progress.

Nevertheless, there are a number of lessons that the United States could learn from these two close allies.

The first involves the importance of investing in and empowering community-led efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism, which in some, but not all, cases should involve the police. Locally-led CVE efforts require long-term funding support, including from the federal government, and a willingness to experiment in a field in which it continues to be difficult to measure effectiveness. Washington’s miniscule and short-term investments (soon to be zeroed out) have been a drop in the bucket compared those of Canberra and Ottawa, particularly when one considers the difference in population and investments in “hard” security measures. Fewer resources means fewer local programs that could help a community resist the lure of violent extremist propaganda or steer an individual off the path of violence. Fewer resources also means less appetite for calculated risk-taking and innovation in a field where experts argue that experimentation is what is needed.

Washington’s miniscule and short-term investments (soon to be zeroed out) have been a drop in the bucket compared those of Canberra and Ottawa...

It’s also not just the amount of money, but the source as well, as it is difficult to move away from the perception of a highly-securitized approach to CVE if all funding for locally-led CVE efforts come from security/law enforcement agencies and budgets. The approach taken by both Victoria and NSW, with a grants scheme managed by a non-security actor (the state-level ministry of multicultural affairs), which facilitates an increased focus on preventative efforts (before an individual has committed to violence), is thus worth considering. In the United States, this could mean getting the Departments of Health and Human Services or Education and/or their state and local equivalents to initiate grants programs focused on preventing violent extremism in their communities or schools.

The second is that the nature of the public discourse around violent extremism and CVE is critical to building support from the local partners. President Trump’s railing against “radical Islamic extremism” and his anti-Muslim and anti-immigration rhetoric and policies stand in sharp contrast to the approaches taken by his Australian and Canadian counterparts. For example, shortly after taking office in 2015, Prime Minister Turnbull sought to reach out to and publicly change the discourse with Australian Muslim communities “in an effort to rehabilitate relationships and recognize these communities as partners in CVE.”

A third is that framing and terminology matters when it comes to building trust with civil society and other local actors who are on the frontlines of most efforts to prevent violent extremism from taking root in communities. In developing its new national center, Canada has eschewed the acronym “CVE” and related jargon that can alienate these communities, gravitating to language that is more likely to appeal to relevant communities, i.e., “community engagement” and “violence prevention.” In Australia, terms like “social cohesion” and “resilience building”—vice “CVE” —are used to frame local grants programs that support community-led efforts to reduce the risk of violent extremism. Washington continues to favor the “CVE” label—with President Trump using the “Islamic extremist” moniker that eggs on the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment of his party and far-right extremists—despite it being rejected by those outside the Beltway working in this space.

A fourth is the importance of involving non-security agencies and actors in all levels of CVE work. This includes those in fields of education, social work, and public health. State and local health officials—for example, in Los Angeles and Boston—are becoming involved in community efforts to prevent violence, including violent extremism, but this work is not labeled as or exclusively focused on CVE. This is lacking at the federal level. Key cabinet departments like Education and HHS, which could leverage their significant resources, expertise, and networks, remain reluctant to associate themselves with Washington’s CVE task force let alone CVE efforts more broadly.

A fifth is the need to invest resources and mobilize expertise to develop individually focused intervention programs, which can “de-radicalize” or “off-ramp” individuals before they turn to violence. As has been pointed out recently, CVE efforts in the United States have focused more on broader counter-messaging or community-focused initiatives. The result is that families concerned about their loved ones showing signs of being susceptible to radicalization—for example, celebrating terrorist propaganda, but having not (yet) committed a crime—have few if any alternatives to calling the police. U.S. law enforcement agencies need these outlets so they can focus more of their resources on the violent extremists.

A sixth is the importance of investing in national practitioner’s networks to facilitate the sharing of expertise and lessons learned among the small but growing community of practitioners, professionals, and community-based organizations, across a variety of disciplines, involved in a range of efforts related to countering violent extremism and, more broadly, violence prevention. Both Canberra and Ottawa have invested in directories for their respective countries and Washington would be wise to follow suit.

Finally, and perhaps most basically, is the need to pursue a truly federalized approach to the challenge of violent extremism. Washington should provide more resources, responsibilities, and encouragement to support efforts of governors and mayors across the country to develop multi-agency programs aimed at reducing violent extremism as well as other forms of violence of concern to the community.

The good news is that while the United States has a lot to learn from both Australia and Canada, there is no shortage of opportunities for this learning to take place, including through meetings of CVE officials from the Five Eyes countries, bilateral exchanges, and the Global Counterterrorism Forum’s CVE Working Group. Many CVE practitioners across the United States seem genuinely eager to engage their partners abroad. The bad news, however, is that appetite for improvement does not appear to exist where it is needed most: the White House, Congress, and DHS.