Who is Responsible for Countering Violent Extremism in the US?
By: Kylie Bull, Contributing Editor
An effective counter-radicalization strategy is arguably the most effective weapon in the fight against terrorism. Addressing the forces that influence some people to acquire and hold radical or extremist beliefs that may eventually compel them to commit terrorism is of paramount importance, not only for the countries that may be targeted, but also for the long term health of the faiths that are used as “cover” for extremist beliefs.
In August 2011, the Obama administration announced its first counter-radicalization strategy, an effort that has become known as “combating violent extremism” (CVE). The strategy addresses the radicalization of all types of potential terrorists in the United States but focuses on those inspired by Al Qaeda.
To further elaborate this strategy, in December 2011 the administration released its “Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States” (SIP). The SIP is a large-scale planning document with three major objectives and numerous future activities and efforts.
The SIP’s three objectives are: enhancing federal community engagement efforts related to CVE; developing greater government and law enforcement expertise for preventing violent extremism; and countering violent extremist propaganda.
In his February 19 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, Countering Violent Extremism in the United States, CRS specialist in organized crime and terrorism, Jerome P Bjelopera, examined some of the risks and challenges evident in the SIP’s three objectives.
The report highlighted the lack of a lead agency. Currently there is no single agency managing all of the individual activities and efforts of the CVE plan.
“At the national level, some may argue that it would be of value to have a single federal agency in charge of the government’s CVE efforts,” Bjelopera stated. “From their perspective, without a lead agency it may be difficult to monitor the levels of federal funding devoted to CVE efforts and how many personnel are devoted to CVE in the federal government.”
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Justice and FBI have responsibilities for much of the CVE program. DHS is cited as a lead agency in 43 of the 62 future activities and efforts discussed in the SIP.
Because it is a key player and decision maker in more than two-thirds of the SIP’s impending plans, it seems DHS may be the de facto lead agency in charge of US CVE activity in the near future. Bjelopera asked if this level of involvement will lead to DHS having a matching level of say in the CVE strategy’s further evolution.
DHS has launched a number of core initiatives in line with the CVE strategy. DHS hosts conferences and workshops for law enforcement to better educate them about CVE; trains front line officers on Suspicious Activities Reporting and CVE; and has prioritized prevention activities through department grants that directly support local law enforcement efforts to understand, recognize, prepare for, prevent and respond to terrorist pre-cursor activity, and separately to raise public awareness and vigilance. The department’s If You See Something, Say Something campaign is one example of this.
DHS also has CVE partnerships with the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, Belgium, Spain, Denmark and Australia, as well as partnerships with international law enforcement organizations such as Europol.
Should a strategy, which has at its heart the open engagement of Muslim-American community groups, be led by a security or law enforcement agency? Does this send the wrong message and “securitize” a relationship that is intended as an outreach of ideas? Would these agencies be better served by focusing on classified counterterrorism investigations and leaving counter-radicalization to an entirely new government department?
Bjelopera said Congress may wish to pursue with the administration the feasibility or value of designating a lead agency, or the possibility of naming a lead via legislation. Alternatively, local authorities may be better placed to perform the outreach and engagement role, simply because they have a better knowledge and understanding of the Muslim American communities. The local authority led pathway may not, however, satisfactorily address the issue of monitoring federal funding or that of effective measuring CVE efforts on a national scale.
In addition to the issue of a CVE lead, the report criticizes the lack of federally driven guidance to community groups on how to intervene with people who are vulnerable to radicalization. Bjelopera pointed to the United Kingdom’s Channel program as a model that the United States could look to for guidance. However, it is likely that Channel would not easily transfer to the United States, and that many large scale changes would be required. Furthermore, although Channel has had its successes, radicalization is not a solved problem in the United Kingdom -- far from it.
A further problem facing CVE in the United States is that of selecting effective partners. The report noted that when asked which of a list of national Muslim-American organizations represents their interests, 55 percent of Muslim men and 42 percent of Muslim women said that none do.”
Such figures suggest the difficulty of choosing partners who accurately represent community needs. The US government could conceivably affect the legitimacy of community actors simply by choosing them as outreach partners.
Despite the numerous problems in US counter-radicalization policy highlighted in the CRS study, it remains to be seen whether either the administration or Congress will move to address them, or whether there will be movement to clarify which agency has the lead in confronting the matter.