A silver lining in Trump’s proposal to gut domestic counter-extremism programmes

October 29, 2017

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.