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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Countering Violent Extremism in the United States

Jerome P. Bjelopera
Specialist in Organized Crime and Terrorism

In August 2011, the Obama Administration announced its counter-radicalization strategy. It is devised to address the forces that influence some people living in the United States to acquire and hold radical or extremist beliefs that may eventually compel them to commit terrorism. This is the first such strategy for the federal government, which calls this effort “combating violent extremism” (CVE). Since the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has prosecuted hundreds of individuals on terrorism charges. Unlike the necessarily secretive law enforcement and intelligence efforts driving these investigations, the CVE strategy includes sizeable government activity within the open marketplace of ideas, where private citizens are free to weigh competing ideologies and engage in constitutionally protected speech and expression. Some of the key challenges in the implementation of the CVE strategy likely spring from the interplay between the marketplace of ideas and the secretive realm encompassing law enforcement investigations and terrorist plotting.

The strategy addresses the radicalization of all types of potential terrorists in the United States but focuses on those inspired by Al Qaeda. To further elaborate this strategy, in December 2011 the Administration released its “Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States” (SIP). The SIP is a large-scale planning document with three major objectives and numerous future activities and efforts. The SIP’s three objectives involve (1) enhancing federal community engagement efforts related to CVE, (2) developing greater government and law enforcement expertise for preventing violent extremism, and (3) countering violent extremist propaganda.

This report provides examples of Administration CVE activity and examines some of the risks and challenges evident in the SIP’s three objectives. The report also diagrams and briefly discusses the “future activities and efforts” outlined in the SIP for each of these three objectives. A number of areas may call for oversight from Congress. These include the following: 

Picking Partners and Establishing “Rules of the Road” 

Much of the federal government’s CVE effort centers on engagement with Muslim American community groups. This may not be as easy as simply reaching out to local organizations. Who speaks for diverse Muslim communities in America? What criteria will the Administration employ in its selection efforts, and how open will the process be? Once approved as partners, what “rules of the road” will govern continued cooperation? Ad hoc and opaque decision making might render the whole CVE outreach process arbitrary to some community participants. Congress may opt to consider whether there is a need to require the Administration to release public guidelines in this area. 

Intervention with At-Risk Individuals 

There appears to be little federally driven guidance to community groups on how to intervene with people vulnerable to radicalization. Congress may desire to require the Administration to examine the utility and feasibility of developing a CVE intervention model—possibly akin to gang intervention models—for the United States

Identifying Programs to Assist Grassroots CVE Efforts 

Working with communities entails informing them of possible resources they can use. A publicly available, comprehensive list of grant programs that can be harnessed for CVE activities does not exist. Congress may be interested in asking the Administration to formalize a roster or designate a clearinghouse available to local entities to identify such programs. By possibly pursuing this, Congress may help to ensure that local constituents have better information about and more direct access to federal CVE programs. On the other hand, such a list could be perceived as an additional layer of bureaucracy between constituents and grant programs. 

Countering Extremist Ideas: Choosing Good vs. Bad 

The task of countering extremist ideas highlighted in the CVE strategy and SIP raises a number of questions. Do the strategy and the SIP place the federal government in the business of determining which ideologies are dangerous and which are safe—essentially determining which beliefs are good and which are bad? In order to conduct effective oversight, Congress may choose to ask the Administration to define exactly what it means when referring to “violent extremist narratives.” 

The Lack of a Lead Agency 

There is no single agency managing all of the individual activities and efforts of the plan. At the national level, some may argue that it would be of value to have a single federal agency in charge of the government’s CVE efforts. From their perspective, without a lead agency it may be difficult to monitor the levels of federal funding devoted to CVE efforts and how many personnel are devoted to CVE in the federal government. For how many of these employees is counterradicalization a full-time job? Are there mechanisms to track federal CVE expenditure? Which federal body is responsible for this? Congress may wish to pursue with the Administration the feasibility or value of designating a lead agency, or the possibility of naming a lead via legislation. However, it is unclear what types of authority—especially in the budgetary realm— such a lead may be able to wield over well-established agencies playing central roles in the CVE strategy. 


Without a high degree of transparency, an engagement strategy driven by federal agencies charged with intelligence gathering and law enforcement responsibilities may run the risk of being perceived as an effort to co-opt communities into the security process—providing tips, leads, sources, and informants. Some may maintain that this threatens to “securitize” a relationship intended as outreach within the marketplace of ideas. As such, critics may argue that it might not be particularly effective to have the same federal agencies responsible for classified counterterrorism investigations grounded in secrecy also be the main players in the CVE strategy. However, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have responsibilities for much of the CVE program. Because of this reality, Congress may opt to consider whether there is a need for greater transparency from the Administration in its CVE efforts.

Date of Report: January 14, 2013
Number of Pages: 33
Order Number: R42553
Price: $29.95

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