Rebranding Countering Violent Extremism Programs: A Sharper Focus or Missing the Point?

Photo: AP/Carolyn Kaster

U.S. counterterrorism efforts have achieved their fair share of successes – killing terrorist leaders with drone strikes and commando raids, keeping terrorist cells on the run so they can’t plot future attacks, and destroying militants’ underground bases and infrastructure.

But one glaring weakness in the U.S. counterterrorism strategy is the lack of an effective and cohesive initiative that aims to prevent individuals from becoming radicalized or drawn to violence in the first place.

In February, the U.S. government’s efforts to nip radicalism in the bud were thrust into the national spotlight by reports that the Trump Administration intended to change the name of a Department of Homeland Security program from “Countering Violent Extremism” to “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism.”

Critics asserted that the program’s new title would limit the government’s attention to jihadi threats and preclude the government from combatting other forms of violent extremism, such as plots espoused by Americans on the radical right. But Michael Leiter, Cipher Brief network expert and former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, contends that “the Trump Administration’s change in vernacular, in and of itself is truthfully irrelevant.”

“I have to say, the name is the least of my worries,” says Leiter. “I would be very pleased if any administration spends less time worrying about what it’s called and more time worrying about how to combat it in all of its elements.”

Instead, Leiter believes the U.S. government should focus on mending a disjointed apparatus meant to counter violent extremism. At the federal level, elements within the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the Defense Department, the Department of Justice, and even the U.S. Agency for International Development all play roles in combatting violent extremism, but the lack of an umbrella body to monitor these operations has hindered interagency cooperation. These issues also trickle down to state and local levels. Communities seeking to implement CVE programs with financial support from the federal government often face significant bureaucratic hurdles in the wake of this disorder.

Regardless of the nomenclature, federal efforts already focus heavily on Muslim Americans and, in many cases, serve only to further alienate them. Indeed, says Michael German, a former undercover agent with the FBI, “if the Trump Administration were to rebrand this as specifically targeting Muslims it would just be a little more honest about what the original programs were in the first place.”

The Obama Administration originally envisioned the effort as a “soft” approach that would complement traditional law enforcement techniques by engaging with civil society and community leaders to prevent the spread of extremist ideologies. The Combatting Violent Extremism initiative aimed to identify individuals at risk of radicalization, to fund community health, education, and social service programs, and to promote anti-extremist messages. In 2014, the Department of Justice established pilot programs in a number of cities. Congress has since allocated roughly $10 million in funding for activities meant to counter radical extremists.

However, critics point out that almost all of these efforts have been led by federal and local law enforcement agencies, raising suspicions that the programs are fronts for government surveillance and intelligence-gathering in American Muslim communities.

On a deeper level, there is very little empirical evidence that ideology is the driving force behind terrorism or the violent radicalization process. Instead, according to documents released by the FBI, “violent extremism is not a linear progression” but rather “a dynamic situation involving numerous factors, catalysts, inhibitors, and mobilization variables.”

The whole idea of the Countering Violent Extremism initiative, says German, was “bad framing from the beginning.” However, he says, rebranding the program as Countering Radical Islamic Extremism would “openly stigmatize Muslims as the terrorism problem.” Not only would rebranding needlessly exacerbate government relations with American Muslims, it would also give short shrift to non-Muslim violent extremist groups. For instance, white supremacist and far right extremist groups have killed more people in the United States than jihadist groups since 2002.  

Ultimately, effective and inclusive programs would go a long way in advancing U.S. counterterrorism efforts.  Changing the name could undermine the underlying goal of the Countering Violent Extremism concept, to stop terrorist attacks in the U.S. before they happen.

Bennett Seftel (@BennettSeftel) is deputy director of analysis at The Cipher Brief, and Fritz Lodge (@FritzLodge) is an international producer.