Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Aug 20, 2020
Countering Violent Extremism in the US: A Work in Progress

The rationale for countering violent extremism (CVE) is straightforward. Traditional counterterrorism and law enforcement approaches alone are unable to prevent extremist violence from taking root in communities. Instead, more comprehensive, “whole of society” efforts aimed at addressing the drivers of the violence and countering violent extremist narratives and propaganda are needed to prevent the radicalisation and recruitment of young people. Moreover, involving non-law enforcement actors, such as social workers, mental health professionals, peers, community leaders, civil society organisations and teachers, will allow law enforcement and other security actors to focus their attention and resources on those individuals who have already committed to violence.

Despite resting on seemingly unobjectionable premises and the US playing a leading role in internationalising the CVE agenda, including by contributing to the development of good practices and guidance for other countries to follow, the history of CVE in the US is a checkered one<1>. Domestic CVE efforts have struggled to gain public support and momentum, and the US has so far fallen well behind most of its allies in this critical area. Nevertheless, there is a clear path for improving its record, grounded in the same good practices, should the political environment allow.

CVE under Obama

CVE as a concept started to gain attention towards the end of George W. Bush’s presidency as part of a wider effort to move beyond the “War on Terror” that characterised the initial post-9/11 period. However, it did not become a policy priority for the US government until the latter part of Barack Obama’s presidency, when ISIS and other Jihadist-related radicalisation and terrorism within US borders became of increasing concern, starting with the Boston Marathon bombing<2>.

During its last two years in office, the Obama administration launched a flurry of CVE activities, with mixed results. It hosted a CVE Summit designed in part to showcase nascent CVE efforts in Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis<3>. It set up a variety of domestic-focused CVE initiatives, including a federal task force to facilitate more coordination among the growing number of federal agencies expected to contribute to the effort, launched a US$10-million federal grants programme to support the development of community-led CVE efforts (some 26 local programmes eventually received two-year funding), and created an office in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) focused on engaging with and building partnerships with the communities most affected by extremist recruitment<4>. Moreover, the Department of Justice invested in CVE research to get a better understanding of what works and what does not to counter violent extremism<5>. At the same time, the National Counterterrorism Center, together with other security agencies, continued to deliver Community Awareness Briefings to communities across the country on the nature of the terrorist threat, including on how international terrorism is affecting violent extremist recruit and radicalisation in the US<6>.

Although well intentioned, the Obama administration’s CVE efforts struggled to gain support from the communities they were intended to benefit for several inter-related reasons. For instance, there was a perception among some American Muslims and civil liberties groups that, despite the administration’s insistence that its focus was on all forms of violent extremism, the efforts were targeting only a single form relating to ISIS and other Islamist terrorist groups, which were of greatest concern to national security officials at the time.

Second, partly because CVE emerged as a national security-led, federally-driven effort, the initiatives inadvertently stigmatised some communities, and were seen by some as serving as a guise for intelligence-gathering and violating the civil liberties of law-abiding citizens. Having law enforcement agencies so prominently involved in CVE did not help<7>.

Third, despite the Obama administration’s recognition of the importance of locally owned and led CVE initiatives, the opportunities for communities to contribute to the development of policies and programmes in this area were few and far between. Many communities objected to the use of the term “CVE” and encouraged these efforts to be integrated into existing, wider, non-securitised local initiatives to prevent violence or strengthen social cohesion.

In part because of the limited support from communities, CVE was not able to garner friends in the US Congress. Democratic lawmakers tended to see CVE efforts as unfairly targeting and violating the civil liberties of American Muslims<8>. Republicans typically viewed CVE as too “soft” or unproven, and that attempts to focus on all forms of extremist violence were too “politically correct” and insufficiently focused on what they (despite the evidence) see as the “real” threat of “radical Islam”<9>. Moreover, there were few local CVE programmes being implemented, so there was no track record of success or even promise to convince skeptical lawmakers of the need to invest in such efforts.

CVE under Trump

Upon Donald Trump’s election as president, conventional wisdom was that CVE in the US would be dead in the water<10>. Although threats to rename it “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism” remained just that, the administration rescinded funding for multiple CVE projects that had been awarded in Obama’s final days<11>, eliminated funds for the modest DHS CVE grants programme<12>, reduced the number of DHS staff focusing on CVE, and allowed the inter-agency CVE task force to atrophy. More significantly, the White House’s divisive and anti-immigrant rhetoric undermined the little trust that existed between local communities and the federal government. This required strengthening not further erosion if CVE efforts were to move forward in the US.

Yet, predictions that CVE in the US would not survive the Trump administration and the anti-immigrant, Islamophobic and divisive rhetoric from the White House have not materialized—at least on paper. After reflexively criticising and dismantling much of the Obama-era CVE efforts—and following a comprehensive DHS-funded RAND review of CVE in the US that is informed by international CVE good practices—the administration took a number of modest steps to reorient CVE efforts in ways that might be steps in the right direction<13>.

For one, the DHS moved away from the stigmatising the “CVE” moniker and embraced what is likely to be a more palatable from the perspective of communities—“terrorism and targeted violence” prevention framework<14>. This emphasis on targeted violence is a positive development as it offers space for law enforcement and civil society actors to move beyond a focus on specific communities and adopt local strategies that address a range of threats to and concerns of the communities.

Beyond just the name change, the DHS developed a terrorism and targeted violence prevention strategy that explicitly addresses “racially, ethnically, and religiously motivated violence” and calls for a “‘whole-of-society” approach that includes non-law enforcement federal agencies and states and cities across the country<15>. Moreover, it emphasises the importance of involving local professionals and practitioners, including mental health professionals, social service providers or community-based organisations, that can identify those on the path to extremist violence and steer them in a non-violent direction<16>.

Notwithstanding the advances on paper, the Trump administration acknowledged that it didn’t request funding to implement the plan and it was only following Congressional intervention, that DHS committed more staff to the new office and the administration sought funding, including for a new US$10-million grants programme<17>.

Before announcing what largely amounts to the continuation of the programme albeit under a different name, the DHS conducted a review of the Obama-era grants with a view to apply the lessons learned from them to the new programme<18>.

The review revealed several interesting aspects. For instance, despite the rhetoric about the need to involve non-law enforcement and front-line professionals (such as social, health and youth workers, and teachers), and develop “off-ramps” for those on the path to radicalisation to extremist violence, most of the programmes focused on community engagement, training and awareness raising (primary prevention). These professionals constituted less than 15 percent of participants in these programmes. Moreover, few of the programmes focused on identifying and working with individuals at risk of radicalisation to extremist violence (secondary prevention), an area where cooperation between police and social and mental health workers is critical.

Most, if not all, secondary prevention programmes dealing with violent extremism in the US have emerged organically from within locally communities and are run by non-governmental, non-law enforcement institutions. These include the Colorado Resilience Collaborative led by the University of Denver and the Boston Children’s Hospital-led “Communities Connect” programme, which address the psycho-social and other needs of individuals on the path to extremist violence<19> <20>.

The DHS review offered an endorsement of programmes that, rather than being designed to address a single form of extremist violence, have the ability to focus on a wide range of risk factors for terrorism<21> .

The DHS commitment to improving CVE (or terrorism and targeted violence prevention) programming extends beyond the review of the Obama-era grant programmes. Following a growing international trend to invest in research on terrorism and violent extremism, and what works and doesn’t to prevent and counter these threats, the DHS recently committed US$35 million toward ten years of research in this area, starting a center of excellence based at the University of Nebraska <22>.

CVE gaps in the US

While the Trump administration deserves some credit for belatedly restoring much of the CVE architecture (albeit using different terminology) developed by its predecessor, significant gaps remain.

For example, there is still no comprehensive, national CVE (or terrorism and targeted violence prevention) framework along the lines of what the UN is calling on all countries to develop. Following international good practices<23>, such frameworks typically outline the roles and responsibilities for different national agencies, both law enforcement and non-law enforcement, and are increasingly developed following an inclusive process that allows for contributions from local and community-based actors, including civil society organisations.

In addition, with the Obama-era CVE task force dormant, there is no standing mechanism to coordinate among the different federal agencies involved in CVE— a recommended international CVE good practice<24>—to ensure that essential non-law enforcement institutions such as the health and education departments can engage state and local partners around the country consistently, and to enable lessons learned from CVE efforts in others countries to be systematically shared across the US government and among CVE practitioners across the country.

Beyond the coordination platform, there is no leadership on this issue coming from the White House to highlight the government’s sustained commitment to the issue and to consistently promote the “whole of society” approach to the challenge that is reflected in the DHS strategy (and international good practices more broadly), including by encouraging and incentivising the involvement of non-law enforcement and non-governmental actors in the response.

Programmatically, the US continues to lag well behind its partners in terms of available funding and focus. On the former, and as documented in the RAND study, US government investments in CVE programmes are dwarfed by those of other western countries facing similar threat levels<25>. On the latter, virtually every such country has developed programmes across the full spectrum of CVE to include primary, secondary and tertiary prevention. The overwhelming majority of the small number of CVE programmes in the US, however, have focused on primary prevention (awareness raising, training, dialogue and engagement). Instances of secondary and tertiary prevention initiatives—multi-disciplinary, intervention programmes that seek to steer “at risk” individuals away from violence, and/or rehabilitate and reintegrate into society those that may have already committed to violence (including terrorist offenders), such as those that exist in countries such as Australia<26>, Canada<27>, Denmark<28>, the Netherlands<29>, and the UK <30>—are virtually non-existent.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, there is the lingering gap in trust between local communities—the intended targets and beneficiaries of CVE efforts—and the government, starting with local law enforcement. Trust, which is typically a foundational element of any effective CVE policy or programme, has been further frayed during the Trump administration-era. This can be attributed to several factors, including police violence against Black Americans and the resulting social unrest. It also is the result of having a president whose rhetoric seems more intent on sewing divides rather than uniting communities, and who is unwilling to unequivocally condemn and mobilise a coordinated, “whole of society” response to the rise in right-wing extremist violence and hate during his term. This rhetoric, in particular, has eroded the modest progress DHS might have made by leaving behind the troublesome “CVE” lexicon by including a focus on right-wing and other non-Islamist extremist violence, and initiating a second iteration of the CVE grants programme that has benefited from the lessons learned from the inaugural one.

Hope for the future

Currently, the political climate for addressing the CVE lacunae in the US is not ripe and is unlikely to be so as long as Trump is president. This is particularly troublesome given the continuing rise in extremist violence, especially from white supremacists, and the growing need for effective architecture to help prevent such violence.

However, should the climate improve, the steps for filling them, drawing on international good practice and the lessons learned during the bumpy history of CVE in the US, are clear.

First, the federal government (and not just DHS) needs to develop a comprehensive strategy for addressing all forms of extremist violence, now also prioritising the white supremacist and other right-wing violence that is responsible for the vast majority deaths in the US in recent years<31>. Such a framework should be informed by the diverse needs and priorities of communities across the country, underpinned by respect for privacy and other human rights, and must outline the roles and responsibilities of government and non-governmental actors who will be encouraged, prodded, and/or mandated to contribute to its implementation.

Although Washington should lead the strategy development effort, it should avoid “top-down” dictation and instead follow an inclusive process that allows state, local and community stakeholders to contribute. The process should be led by the White House, rather than a particular federal agency, to ensure it reflects a balanced “whole of government” approach and avoids having the process driven by law enforcements agencies, which have historically been at the forefront of CVE efforts in the country.

Second, beyond simply reconstituting the Obama-era task force, Washington should ensure the body is at least co-led by a non-law enforcement agency, such as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), particularly given the abysmal DHS track under the Trump Administration  of putting children in cages and sending paramilitary forces to occupy parts of American cities,  and allows for sustained involvement of non-federal actors, such as representatives from cities and local community groups.

Beyond improving both horizontal and vertical collaboration, a mechanism should be put in place to promote accountability and ensure measures taken to implement the strategy are non-discriminatory and otherwise international human rights-compliant, age- and gender-sensitive, and independently monitored and evaluated.

Third, Washington should establish a federal grants programme funded at a level commensurate to the threat (at least US$200 million per year) to support locally-led prevention initiatives that are designed and led by communities and civil society, framed around the most pressing local threats and concerns, and prioritise the involvement of and collaborations with the police, social, youth and health workers, teachers and community leaders. Given the lingering controversies surrounding the DHS-led CVE grants programme and DHS more broadly under President Trump, and to emphasise a public health-driven preventive approach that supports rather than risks stigmatising communities and to incentivise the involvement of local stakeholders who have been leery of becoming involved in past CVE initiatives, a non-law enforcement agency such as HHS should lead this effort.

Fourth, a significant portion of these funds should be used to support the development of community-level prevention and intervention teams of social workers, psychologists, school administrators community advocates, community-based organisations and representatives from law enforcement<32>. These teams would be trusted resources for concerned family members or others in the community who see an individual demonstrating behaviours indicating they might be on the path to committing violence, potentially allowing intervention before a crime is committed<33>. Early intervention by a trained mental health professional could reduce the likelihood that violence will follow<34>.

Finally, all of this must be underpinned by a clear and consistent message from the White House and across the federal government, condemning all forms of extremist violence and committing to work with all segments of society in a transparent and rights-protecting way to prevent such violence, starting with the most affected communities.


<1> Global Counterterrorism Forum, Ankara Memorandum Good Practices for a Multi-Sectoral Approach to Countering Violent Extremism, September 2013.

<2>Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “Defeating Ideologically Inspired Violent Extremism: A Strategy to Build Strong Communities and Protect the U.S. Homeland,” March 2017.

<3>Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Fact Sheet: The White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism,” February 18, 2015.

<4>Eric Rosand, “Fixing CVE in the United States Requires More than a Name Change,Order from Chaos, Brookings, February 16, 2017.

<5>National Institute of Justice, US Department of Justice, “Research and Evaluation on Domestic Radicalization to Violent Extremism Eligibility,” March 12, 2014.

<6>Matthew Levitt, “Defeating Ideologically Inspired Violent Extremism: A Strategy to Build Strong Communities and Protect the U.S. Homeland,Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 2017.

<7>Murtaza Hussain, “Federal ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ Grants Focus on Minority Communities – Including in Schools,The Intercept, June 15, 2018.

<8>Ryan B. Greer and George Selim, “Reframing Prevention: If Government Won’t Lead, Civil Society Must Step Up to Curb Extremism,Just Security, December 10, 2018.

<9>Eric Rosand, “Congress Needs a Bi-Partisan Panel on Violent Extremism Now,The Hill, August 16, 2017.

<10>Yasmin Faruki, “CVE Was Doomed to Fail. Under Trump, It Will Get Worse”, Small Wars Journal, 21 February, 2017.

<11>Peter Beinart, “Trump Shut Programs to Counter Violent ExtremismThe Atlantic, October 29, 2018.

<12>Julia Edwards Ainsley, “White House budget slashes ‘countering violent extremism’ grants”, Reuters, May 23, 2019.

<13>Brian A Jackson, Ashley L Rhoades, Jordan R Reimer, Natasha Lander, Katherine  Costello, and Sina Beaghley, “Practical Terrorism Prevention: Reexamining U.S. National Approaches to Addressing the Threat of Ideologically Motivated Violence”. Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center operated by the RAND Corporation, 2019.

<14> Eric Rosand and Stevan Weine, “On CVE, the Trump administration could have been worse but it’s still not good enough,Order from Chaos, Brookings, April 7, 2020.

<15>U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence,” September 2019.

<16> Ibid.

<17>U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “FY 2021 Budget Request: DHS Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention and Protection + $80 Million in Program,” Fact Sheet, February 10, 2020, Enhancements.

<18>U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Terrorism and Targeted Violence Prevention, “Fiscal Year 2016 Countering Violent Extremism Grant Program - Preliminary Report on Programmatic Performance”, Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, March 26, 2020.

<19> Colorado Resilience Collaborative, “Fighting Targeted Violence”, Graduate School of Professional Psychology, University of Denver.

<20> Eric Rosand, “Multi-Disciplinary & Multi-Agency Approaches to Preventing & Countering Violent Extremism : An Emerging P/CVE Success Story?”, Global Terrorism Index 2018, December 13, 2018.

<21> U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Countering Violent Extremism Grant Program Preliminary Report,” at 29.

<22>DHS Selects the University of Nebraska Omaha to Lead Center of Excellence for Terrorism Prevention and Counterterrorism Research,” Security Magazine, February 25, 2020.

<23>Guidelines & Good Practices: Developing National P/CVE Strategies & Action Plans”, Hedayah Center, January 1, 2016.

<24> United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism, “Developing National and Regional Action Plans to Prevent Violent Extremism: 1st Edition”, September 2018.

<25> “Practical Terrorism Prevention”

<26> Department of Home Affairs, Government of Australia, “Countering violent extremism (CVE) intervention programs".

<27> Public Safety Canada, Government of Canada, “Intervention Programs in Canada”.

<28> European Commission Radicalization Awareness Network, “Collection of Aspiring Practices: Aarhus model: Prevention of Radicalisation and Discrimination in Aarhus”.

<29> EU Reducing Reoffending Project, “Safety House Model – The Netherlands”.

<30> Government of the United Kingdom, “Case study: The Channel programme,”.

<31> Seth G. Jones, Catrina Doxsee, and Nicholas Harrington, “The Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States,” Center for International and Strategic Studies, June 2020.

<32> Stevan Weine and Eric Rosand, “To Avoid Future ‘El Pasos’ It’s Time to Invest in Prevention,” Just Security, August, 7, 2019.

<33> Bishop Garrison and Ryan B. Greer, “New Zealand Attacks: A Wake-Up Call to Counter Far-Right Extremist Violence,Just Security, March 15, 2019.

<34> Stevan Weine, David P. Eisenman, La Tina Jackson, Janni Kinsler & Chloe Polutnik, “Utilizing mental health professionals to help prevent the next attacks,” International Review of Psychiatry, 29:4 (2017), 334-340, DOI: 10.1080/09540261.2017.1343533.

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