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Obama Administration’s Countering Violent Extremism Initiative ‘Deeply Flawed’

August 16, 2019

The Obama administration’s program to prevent individuals from embracing violent extremism was deeply flawed, according to a new report from the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

The Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Initiative was plagued by vague goals, the lack of a budget or administrative structure, and the failure to address all forms of violent extremism, particularly white supremacy. In addition, the initiative was opposed by many Muslim-Americans, the report says.

“Engaging with Communities to Prevent Violent Extremism: A Review of the Obama Administration’s CVE Initiative” was released Thursday by the center, which is based at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. The report’s co-authors are David Schanzer, director of the center and professor of public policy, and Joe Eyerman, senior research methodologist at RTI International.

“The CVE Initiative was a good-faith effort to develop ways to prevent individuals from becoming violent extremists,” Schanzer said, “but the program did not address the full range of terrorist threats and was strongly opposed by much of the Muslim-American community.”

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“The Trump administration neutered even the few aspects of the program that were attempting to deal with white supremacy and eventually canceled the entire program,” Schanzer added.

A number of terrorist attacks in the U.S. by homegrown extremists in 2009 led the Obama administration to launch the CVE initiative to engage communities in helping reduce the appeal of violent extremist ideologies. The report examines the benefits of using a community outreach approach to combat extremism, as well as the challenges and flaws of the initiative.

The co-authors base their conclusions on research conducted from 2014-16, including a nationwide survey of U.S. attorneys, interviews with key stakeholders in federal agencies involved in the initiative, officials at FBI field offices and focus groups of Muslim Americans.

From the beginning, the initiative focused primarily on engagement with Muslim-American communities. They viewed this focus as discriminatory, which undermined support for the initiative.

This focus also meant the initiative failed to develop strategies to engage communities vulnerable to recruitment by white supremacists and other extremists.  

Another serious flaw in the program was having the FBI as one of the lead agencies. As the federal agency with primary responsibility for investigating terrorism, the FBI had a fundamental conflict of interest when it engaged in community outreach and attempted to build trust with community leaders, the authors write. 

Including the FBI in the initiative also undercut support for the effort among Muslim Americans, many of whom opposed FBI counterterrorism tactics such as the use of informants in Muslim-American communities. 

The initiative was also under-funded, under-staffed and lacked clearly defined goals.

Homegrown extremism inspired by al Qaeda and ISIS peaked in 2015, when the initiative was in full effect, and has been in steep decline since then, the report says.

Far-right extremism, especially white-supremacist extremism, has increased dramatically in recent years. Of the 50 extremist murders committed in 2018, 94 percent were by far-right extremists: 78 percent by white supremacists and 16 percent by anti-government extremists. Only 2 percent were by domestic Islamist extremists.

If spite of its flaws, the initiative provided useful lessons about countering home-grown extremism that the authors say should guide future terrorism prevention efforts. Given increasing political and ideological polarization in the U.S. and globally, preventing acts of violent extremism will continue to be a major national security goal, said report co-author Eyerman.

The authors’ policy recommendations include:

  • To succeed, programs to prevent violent extremism should apply to all communities targeted by extremists and all forms of extremism.
  • The federal government should promote, but not lead, efforts to prevent violent extremism. Federal security and law enforcement agencies should still engage in building trust with local communities, but those efforts should be separate from terrorism prevention.
  • Prevention programs should be developed by state and local government agencies and community organizations to ensure buy-in and participation.

The study was supported by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice Award No. 2013-ZA-BX-0004. The opinions, findings, conclusions and recommendations expressed in the publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.