A silver lining in Trump’s proposal to gut domestic counter-extremism programmes
One of Washington’s hottest policy debates is receiving renewed focus. Countering violent extremism (CVE) was the subject of a conference at the Hudson Institute, with participants including former US Secretary of Defence and CIA Director Leon Panetta and former White House strategist Stephen Bannon.
The same day, US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, hosted defence leaders from 73 coalition countries, framing the anti-Islamic State campaign within a global “conflict against extremism.”
CVE, which seeks to counter efforts by violent extremists to recruit, radicalise and mobilise followers, has increasingly factored into the White House’s narrative in its military campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) and its policy to isolate Iran. On the home front, however, US President Donald Trump seems to be taking an entirely different approach by proposing to cut funding for domestic CVE programmes.
On the chopping block are Obama-era progammes that provided grants and resources to municipal governments and non-profit organisations that work with communities deemed vulnerable to violent extremism. The principle behind the programmes is that resilient communities are the strongest defence against extremist messaging.
Its funds went to after-school programmes in Minneapolis, job-training for at-risk individuals in Boston and capacity building for non-profit organisations in Los Angeles. Trump’s budget proposal would cut these programmes, stripping funding from cash-strapped, non-profit organisations and municipal governments.
There may be a silver lining in this, however. Trump’s proposed cuts question CVE’s central premise that communities are the key to countering violent extremism. However, the community-centric approach does more harm than good by creating a perception of collective punishment instead of focusing on individual interventions.
The experience of ethnic Somali Americans in Minneapolis offers insight into how community-focused CVE programmes often miss the mark. Beginning in 2007, Al Shabab, a designated foreign terrorist organisation active in East Africa, began recruiting young Somali Minnesotans to fight overseas. The group was successful in luring recruits. As of June 2016, more than 20 Somalis had been charged with terrorism-related offences.
Facing what it perceived to be a growing threat, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2015 assembled a “community resiliency plan” for Minneapolis that provided $1 million in grants to community-based organisations for after-school activities, job-training programmes and academic scholarships for Somali Americans.
The sweeping nature of DHS’s approach warrants scrutiny. More than 40,000 Somalis live in Minnesota but only 35 have been charged since 2007 for involvement in terrorism. Do these numbers warrant a broad community-focused approach?
Rather than counter extremism, the community approach stigmatises entire identity groups for the actions of a few individuals. It lumps economic and social programmes into a security framework, creating the impression that the US government sees the well-being of a particular community strictly as a security issue. This puts local community leaders in the difficult position of accepting crucial financial resources on terms that brand their community as a threat.
CVE has had a particularly deleterious effect on American- Muslim communities, where the vast majority of grants and funding have been targeted. Local non-profit organisations and groups that work with Muslims are termed “partners” in building community “resiliency,” creating a host of damaging and flawed perceptions.
First, by placing communities front and centre, CVE wrongly assumes that individuals at risk of radicalisation are known by their local communities. The focus on Muslim communities as partners in CVE “essentialises” Muslim identity as the only identity that matters. In reality, like other American racial, religious or ethnic groups, Muslim Americans have multiple and complex identities.
Finally, the community-focused approach puts the government in the position of determining which Muslim community organisations are moderate or mainstream, thus creating the perception that the government is defining Islam within certain boundaries.
The Trump administration’s proposal to gut domestic CVE programming offers a rare opportunity to overturn a community-centric paradigm that has stifled domestic counter-extremism efforts. Rather than target communities, CVE should focus on interventions that target individuals who have demonstrated sympathy or an affinity with violent extremist ideology and put the impetus and burden on the individual, rather than on the community.
Such efforts are well within the federal government’s means. The FBI, for instance, has identified fewer than 1,000 individuals since 2014 as having been radicalised online. This relatively small number is a manageable caseload for intervention programmes and does not warrant broadly targeting entire communities.
Trump would do well to support acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke’s review of domestic CVE programmes by issuing a directive to shift the focus from communities towards individual interventions. Funding for after-school programmes and job training should be removed from the CVE umbrella and transferred to non-security entities, such as the Department of Education.
In doing so, the Trump administration would reset the narrative around CVE and help take communities out of the cross hairs.