Reconsidering CVE: The Unintended Consequences of Countering Violent Extremism Efforts in America

Nabeela Barbari

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Between September 12, 2001, and December 31, 2016, there were eighty-five violent extremist attacks in the United States, which resulted in over 225 fatalities.[1] Tragically, this number became outdated almost immediately after it was reported; at least five attacks killed a dozen more people between January 2017 and November 2017. These incidents include the murder of a transit security guard, shot in Denver, Colorado, in January; the August murder of a young woman who was run over by a car while protesting the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; and the November murder of eight pedestrians who were intentionally run over by a truck driver in New York City.[2]

The problem of violent extremism in the United States is complex and, now more than ever, politically charged. In 2011, the U.S. government released two documents intended to drive its strategy for countering violent extremism (CVE): the National Strategy on Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism, and the Strategic Implementation Plan for that strategy document[3] Using open-source information, this thesis studies domestic CVE efforts since 2011 through a sociopsychological lens to establish a practical perspective. In doing so, the research identifies and empirically catalogs traditionally anecdotal narratives on the impact of CVE efforts in the United States to strategically illuminate their adverse, unintended consequences. While current CVE efforts have also garnered positive and intended results, this research indicates that the negative consequences outweigh the efforts’ originally beneficial purposes.

A number of these adverse consequences have been caused by inherent vulnerabilities in or inconsistent implementation of the aforementioned guiding documents—for instance, the documents fail to address domestic terrorism. Discrepancies between word and deed, especially when it comes to addressing all forms of violent extremism, pose a danger to democracy: they exacerbate systemic racial profiling and stigmatizing of individuals in CVE-targeted communities. Furthermore, this research reveals the dangerous impact of current public policy in the United States. Current policy, irrespective of actual threat information, conflates criminal terror-related activity with partisan civil immigration reform; this has bred relative deprivation among unfairly targeted U.S. citizens, who do not have equitable avenues to redress their grievances.

One of the most concerning findings is that these marginalized individuals are at greater risk for embarking on the complex journey toward radicalizing to violence. As such, this research concludes with one overarching consequence: current CVE efforts in the United States are contributing to greater national insecurity. Simply put, existing CVE practices inadvertently nudge individuals toward the staircase of radicalization to violence.[4]

This thesis offers recommendations for mitigating the damaging consequences of CVE efforts that have already taken root, and offers data-driven improvement options for policymakers to consider. For example, for the government to holistically improve national security and resilience against manmade disasters, policy and resources should prioritize countering probable—rather than improbable—violent extremist incidents. The most significant recommendation in this thesis, however, is for the fundamental restructuring of the U.S. government’s approach to counterterrorism. Currently, the United States prioritizes law enforcement efforts that interdict how individuals radicalize to violence. This often consists of mostly, if not entirely, pre-criminal activity outside the jurisdiction of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Rather, the focus should be on addressing the more difficult sociopsychological factors at the root of why individuals radicalize to violence to begin with. As agreed by most counterterrorism experts, most domestic and international CVE practitioners, and by the very individuals most affected by CVE-targeted efforts, success in preventing terrorism begins with making our citizens less susceptible to recruitment and radicalization tactics.

 

 

 

[1] U.S. Government Accountability Office, Countering Violent Extremism: Actions Needed to Define Strategy and Assess Progress of Federal Efforts, GAO-17-300 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2017), 3–4, https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-17-300.

[2] Kirk Mitchell, Jesse Paul, and Noelle Phillips, “Man Accused of Shooting RTD Guard at Union Station Was Former Soldier Who Posted about Police, Islam,” Denver Post, February 1, 2017, http://www.denverpost.com/2017/02/01/shooting-rtd-union-station-soldier-police-islam/; Abigail Hauslohner et al., “James Fields Jr.: A Neo-Nazi’s Violent, Rage-Fueled Journey to Charlottesville,” Washington Post, August 18, 2017, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-james-fields-jr-charlottesville-20170818-story.html; Renae Merle et al., “Five Argentines among 8 Dead in New York City Terror Attack,” Washington Post, November 1, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/
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[3] Executive Office of the President of the United States, National Strategy on Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism (Washington, DC: Executive Office of the President of the United States, 2011), https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/empowering_local_partners.pdf; Executive Office of the President of the United States, Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States (Washington, DC: Executive Office of the President, 2011)

[4] Fathali Moghaddam, “The Staircase to Terrorism: A Psychological Exploration,” in Psychology of Terrorism, ed. Bruce Bongar et al. (New York: Oxford Press, 2007), 69–77.

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