Countering Violent Extremism under the Trump Administration: Shortsighted and Counterproductive

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) encompasses a set of measures designed to identify and counter threats of violent extremism. Some form of it has been a central component of US policy since the monumental attacks of September 11, 2001 which have largely shaped America’s CVE strategy. The threat has since evolved, the research evidence expanded, and the risks for the United States have become better understood. However, these developments have not been reflected in CVE strategies. Especially under the Trump Administration, the efforts to counter the threat of violent extremism have taken a dangerous turn, wrapped in Islamophobic rhetoric, unconstitutional and discriminatory policies, ignoring and yet embracing right-wing extremism, and aggressive military operations at the expense of long-term reform.

The Evolution of CVE

CVE refers to a broad framework or set of programs and initiatives aimed at complementing “counterterrorism” operations both domestically and internationally. While hard power means the employment of military campaigns, policing, and surveillance to disrupt an imminent violent act, CVE efforts are intended to prevent violent extremism by identifying and deterring threats throughout the so-called “radicalization process.”

The “soft power” CVE program in the United States was a trademark of the Obama Administration, signaling a shift in US policy from that of the former Bush Administration. After the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush set up an initiative to counter threats to US security that largely involved military and hard power measures. From secret prisons (“black sites”), to the USA PATRIOT Act, interrogation techniques, and the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, the policies of the Bush Administration were heavily criticized for violating human rights and producing the counter-effect of violent extremism. With gross violations of rights and privacies and the proliferation of even more extremist groups such as the Islamic State (IS), this reliance on hard power techniques was deemed unsuccessful.

Following the Bush Administration’s largely unpopular, costly, and ineffective “War on Terror,” President Barak Obama sought to design a more comprehensive approach that incorporates soft power preventive measures. Most prominently, then-President Obama refused to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism” and adopted the more neutral “violent extremism,” thus stressing the notion that violent extremists come in all forms while purposefully avoiding alienating Muslims and Islam—a step that was welcomed worldwide, especially in the Muslim world. In fact, this approach better reflected the empirical evidence, which shows that the majority of attacks in the United States and Europe are committed by non-Muslims, such as attacks motivated by anti-abortion or separatist and nationalist ideologies, or committed by environmentalist groups and right-wing neo-Nazi extremists.

The domestic CVE program started in 2011 with the White House Strategy Document and the ensuing pilot program in different US cities. The international component of President Obama’s CVE initiative was launched in 2015 with the White House CVE Summit, in which over 70 nations participated. The US counterterrorism policy under Obama took a new approach that focused on preventative measures rather than repressive counterterrorism means, thus echoing the Preventing Violent Extremism or PVE approach of the United Nations.. The formal adoption of CVE by the United States helped launch this approach internationally, which has now evolved into a rapidly developing and growing field of research and practice around the world.

Although it was a step forward from Bush-era policies, Obama’s CVE program had many shortcomings and critics. The Trump Administration, nonetheless, chose to keep and reinforce the problematic components of CVE while ignoring the research and pulling funding from those components that have positive potential. The current administration has made proposals and statements that risk focusing the CVE program on Islam, cancelled soft power programs, and eliminated some funding altogether. Overall, CVE or PVE approaches continue to suffer from a variety of issues that have not been addressed by policymakers in the United States.

Domestic CVE Programs: From Bad to Worse

The domestic CVE program initiated by the Obama Administration was designed to build relations and trust with at-risk communities, and primarily run through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The program includes the Office of Community Partnerships, the CVE Grants Program, and the CVE Joint Task Force, which is run in partnership with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Department of Justice, and National Counterterrorism Center.

While these initiatives had good intentions and were paraded as efforts to engage with the community and prevent violent extremism, one can easily see the implications of such an excessive law enforcement agenda that focuses disproportionately on Muslims. Numerous analysts have since shown that these programs are misguided, ineffective (even counter-effective), and prejudiced in nature. These policies have been heavily criticized by civil rights and civil liberties groups and by Arab and Muslim American organizations.

First, the program overall represents a discriminatory policy that disproportionately targets Muslim communities in the United States. It was not surprising that targeting innocent Muslims as potential criminals based solely on their religious affiliation did not lead to desirable outcomes. Despite overwhelming research evidence showing that marginalization and perceived discrimination are major factors contributing to violent extremism, the US government continues to pursue such policies. Moreover, community outreach programs, which were piloted in Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis in 2014 and then spread throughout the country, were established in Muslim areas and have been used primarily as a front for intelligence gathering and surveillance. This led not only to diminished trust between the community and law enforcement, but it also generated fear and with it greater isolation and division among community members.

The repercussions of this are profound. At a time when integration and belonging are vital for immigrant communities, an environment of mistrust and fear will surely hinder the process of integration. In addition, while recent research points to issues of individual-level alienation and lack of belonging as motivators for extremism, the CVE approach deepens rather than solves the feelings of isolation and alienation. In creating such a culture of fear and paranoia, the CVE program might even push vulnerable youth to online spaces in search of belonging, acceptance, and identity, where they might come across messages and propaganda materials from the Islamic State (IS). While marginalization is found to be one of primary drivers of violent extremism, stigmatizing Muslim communities undermines the very purpose and efforts of CVE.

Second, the CVE program relies on misguided implicit assumptions about the process of radicalization. The commonly discussed “conveyer belt” approach to radicalization has been proven as flawed: there is no one pathway, profile, or pattern that leads to violent extremism nor are there clear signs or observable behavioral markers. While several studies have disproven the radicalization theory, this flawed approach is still used as the foundation of the CVE program, where friends and family members are asked to report on a set of assumed observable signs of radicalization—although they are often as shocked to hear the news of an attack as everyone else.

Additionally, this theory assumes that there is a direct link between holding extremist views and committing violent acts. Treating extremist opinions as a crime is a violation of constitutionally protected rights and freedoms, and risks stigmatizing innocent individuals and groups of people. A prominent example of this is the FBI’s “Don’t Be a Puppet” website and game aimed at middle and high school students. The game is designed to help teenagers assess if their fellow students are “puppets” (i.e. violent extremists) based on their beliefs, thus encouraging bullying and profiling. Moreover, according to the American Federation of Teachers, the game creates “suspicion of people based on their heritage or ethnicity.” After almost two decades of CVE policies in the United States and around the world, what the analysts agree on is that there is no one singular observable path to violent extremism.

Third, the focus of CVE on economic support is ill-advised. While some of the economic and social services implemented by CVE are positive and can help youth obtain skills and employment opportunities, there is no evidence that increasing economic opportunities is linked to preventing violent attacks. In order to better understand the correlation between socioeconomic conditions and acts of violence, one can only look at anecdotal evidence. If poverty and disenfranchisement were correlated with the tendency for violent extremism, then we would see far more violent attacks committed by people from disadvantaged economic backgrounds.

Overall, this policing strategy against Muslim communities would reinforce stereotypes and fear of Muslims, legitimize recruitment by extremist groups through alienating Muslim communities, and continue to disregard the research and Muslim voices. With such an overwhelming body of empirical evidence and no indication that the millions of dollars spent on domestic CVE efforts have had any impact in terms of countering of violent extremism—in fact, they are more likely to create the opposite effect—the CVE program persisted under Obama and continues under Trump. Even worse, the changes proposed and implemented by the Trump Administration augmented those very flaws of the CVE program.

The Trump Factor

President Trump’s fixation on Islam and his proposals to change the CVE program from countering violent extremism to countering “radical Islamic extremism” provide a significant regression to an already problematic program. The Trump Administration’s proposal, coupled with the controversial Muslim ban, demonstrated Islamophobic footings to the point that several grant recipients (amounting to 20 percent of the $10 million total) announced their rejection of the DHS grant under the Trump Administration. To be sure, singling out an entire religion as the focus of violent extremism further alienates American Muslims. It can be unconstitutional and represents a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

In addition to renaming the program, President Trump has proposed cutting funding to the CVE program, and this especially impacts grants to organizations that address neo-Nazi and right-wing violence. While CVE grants to 31 organizations were approved in January 2017 at the end of the Obama Administration, President Trump froze all CVE grants when he took office. In July 2017, it was revealed that the Trump Administration excluded 11 organizations from the list of grant recipients. Among those excluded were Life After Hate, an organization focusing on right wing and white supremacist extremism, and a project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to counter both militant Islamist and far right propaganda.

While several reports point to the prevalence of the threat of right wing extremism, the Trump Administration continues to ignore these groups. A recent report by the FBI and DHS emphasized that white supremacist organizations were responsible for more homicides between 2000 and 2016 than “any other domestic extremist movement.” Nonetheless, President Trump disregards these threats, and even seems to embrace and nurture such groups. Reports of increased hate crimes since Trump became president represent a case in point. More recently, President Trump’s troubling reaction to the events in Charlottesville and his refusal to condemn right wing hate groups and violence only added to the situation. Misrepresenting the threat of violent extremism in the United States constitutes a dangerous practice, where federal resources are not expended to address the real threats facing the country.

The Trump Administration was also reported to have proposed cutting the $50 million allocated for the CVE program by fiscal year 2018. Although this proposal did not materialize (yet), George Selim, the first Director of the Office for Community Partnerships at DHS, resigned from his position in July 2017, citing disagreement with the current administration over CVE approaches.

Additionally, the scaling down on CVE by the Trump Administration is a response to criticism by Republican members of Congress that the program does not go far enough in terms of law enforcement. While the Obama CVE program provided 30 percent of funding to law enforcement and policing organizations, the grants under the Trump Administration awarded to police and law agencies have increased to 50 percent. Notably, the Muslim Public Affairs Council was also denied the CVE grant by the Trump Administration because the organization would not agree to working “with law enforcement.” Moreover, under the Trump Administration the disregard for civil liberties as a result of the heavy focus on “law and order” might exacerbate abuses against members of the Muslim faith.

This shift represents a further magnification of the shortcomings of Obama’s CVE program, with a disproportionate focus on Muslim communities, exclusion of right wing extremisms, and heavy reliance on surveillance and policing. Overall, it is based on viewing CVE through a law enforcement paradigm. Although it was reported that only a few of the 31 CVE grants awarded in January 2017 under President Obama went to organizations fighting right wing violence, such as Life After Hate, DHS spokesperson Lucia Martinez insisted that among the 26 grants awarded under the Trump Administration, 16 address all forms of violent extremism.

While it is not yet clear whether the Trump Administration’s Islamophobic rhetoric and policy proposals will actually be approved or implemented, two things are clear. First, the Trump Administration is amplifying the worst aspects of CVE, and second, the damage has already been done as a result of the administration’s hostility toward Islam and vilification of Muslim communities. These positions will create further fear of Muslims, stigmatize and alienate American Muslims, and damage any real possibility of engaging with the Muslim community.

With most Muslim community organizations pulling out, even those who took CVE funds under the Obama Administration, it is difficult to see how this program could continue with its intended purpose of building bridges and engaging with Muslims and “at risk” communities.

In terms of policy recommendations for the Trump Administration, there is a solid body of literature and growing consensus showing what not to do, such as not targeting Muslim communities, not using a primarily law enforcement lens, and not employing the radicalization theory approach. However, there is little agreement regarding what should be done to address the threat of domestic violent extremism.

When considering the empirical information available, two main approaches emerge. The first is an individual-level response based on data that show some common characteristics in specific settings. In Europe, for example, lone attackers inspired by the Islamic State share a second-generation immigration status, a history of petty crimes, identification as born-again Muslims, and troubled social and family backgrounds. Collecting empirical evidence in specific contexts might be a useful starting point. Additionally, once such individuals have been identified, a social and psychological support paradigm should be used instead of the current law enforcement response, as new approaches to violent extremism consider it a mental health issue and not a religious one.

While it might be extremely difficult to identify individual-level risk factors, the second approach involves a structural, community-wide effort that aims to build resilient communities; these are based on strong social connections and identity, bridging the individual with the larger community, empowerment, and social and economic services. What is clear is that the research evidence points to ineffective existing CVE programs that should be discontinued and replaced with more empirically based strategies.

International CVE: Shortsighted and Counterproductive

President Trump’s approach to the global fight against the Islamic State has mostly mirrored that of Obama, with some tactical changes such as delegating more authority to field commanders and a more aggressive military battle. The principal substantial difference is that the Trump Administration has focused almost exclusively on military means to fight IS, while former President Obama complemented it with soft power CVE through building awareness, countering extremist narratives, and emphasizing community-led intervention. Despite good intentions, the Obama Administration’s programs also missed the mark as it relied on flawed assumptions such as the existence of a path to radicalization and a relationship between extremist ideologies and violence.

President Trump’s military campaign with coalition forces against IS, on the other hand, has been celebrated as a success. Whereas the Islamic State’s territorial control over geographic areas in Iraq and Syria has been diminishing, the battle against violent extremism is far from over.

First, the Trump Administration’s loose guidelines for authorizing military strikes and its hawkish approach have led to civilian casualties and displacement, thus further exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. As Secretary of Defense James Mattis put it, US policy against the Islamic State is “annihilation” and “civilian casualties are a fact of life.” According to Amnesty International, coalition forces used unnecessary force in densely populated areas in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Accusations of US attacks against civilians would likely feed into the Islamic State’s narrative and contribute to recruitment by extremist groups.

Second, after the fall of the Islamic State, if segments of the Iraqi population continue to be marginalized without access to services and political participation, or when Bashar al-Assad continues his repressive dictatorship in Syria, such unaddressed underlying structural factors and grievances will likely lead to further violence and the rise of new extremist groups.

Third, military operations without subsequent programs for humanitarian services, reconstruction, transition, and nation building are futile. A vacuum in governance contributes profoundly to violent extremism. In fact, the Islamic State has conducted several significant attacks in liberated cities across Iraq and Syria.

However, the Trump Administration does not seem to be interested in learning from history. It does not have a plan in place to help stabilize and rebuild areas in Iraq and Syria and support reconciliation efforts. On the contrary, Trump stated in a speech that he is not interested in nation building but in “killing terrorists.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is also considering a draft revision to the State Department’s statement of purpose by omitting the promotion of democracy and a just world from its mission. Secretary Tillerson also dropped the human rights agenda from the State Department’s priorities and stated that American values are “an obstacle to pursuing national security.”

Additionally, budget cuts to UN agencies and State Department programs, including USAID, have been proposed. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley boasted about cutting the budget to UN peacekeeping missions and described the UN Human Rights Council as “corrupt.” In March, the White House announced the 2018 fiscal year budget, which increases defense and national security spending by $54 billion and introduces vast cuts in foreign aid.

The Trump Administration’s heavy-handed military operation to counter violent extremism is detached from the very environments that contribute to CVE’s growth and expansion. Scrapping reconstruction and democracy promotion programs, while embracing dictators and abusers of human rights from Egypt to Syria to Saudi Arabia, undermines the very efforts of the anti-IS military campaign. Without resolutions and just transitions for the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the narrative of extremist groups such as the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and others will continue to appeal to marginalized and oppressed populations. Military efforts will not solve the problems of sectarianism, power vacuums, dictatorships, and marginalization. On the contrary, military means lead to further conflict, grievances, and weak states, thus contributing to an increase in violent extremism. Even at home, an FBI study has shown that US military operations are the biggest motivations for domestic violent extremism.

The military campaign against IS has led to a humanitarian crisis that the international community and US leadership must address in order to establish viable governing structures and reconciliation efforts that prevent the further eruption of extremist and militant groups. The Trump Administration continues to ignore the research evidence when it comes to countering violent extremism globally, and it fails to understand that democratic governance and human rights directly impact US national security.

The Trump Administration would better serve US interests and security by focusing on fostering democratic governance, investing in diplomatic solutions, and supporting nation building and the rule of law while addressing each context’s local and unique group-based grievances and marginalization.