Terrorism & Extremism

An Abridged History of America’s Terrorism Prevention Programs: Fits and Starts

Bennett Clifford, Seamus Hughes, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens
Tuesday, December 29, 2020, 11:16 AM

There is an ongoing debate within policy circles on when and where countering violent extremism programs began in the U.S. There is, however, little debate on whether the strategy has been implemented effectively. By every objective measure, it has not.

The Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. (Jaakko H., https://tinyurl.com/y7c3cgw6; CC BY-SA 3.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en).

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The following is a modified excerpt from a new book,Homegrown: ISIS in America.”

In March 2014, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) had a problem. For months, both agencies had spent countless hours setting up a large community engagement program in North Carolina. There were repeated calls and meetings with Muslim American religious leaders to explain why the two counterterrorism organizations thought it was imperative to run something called a Community Resilience Exercise in Raleigh. The event was on the cusp of being canceled.

The C-REX, as it was called within government, is a hypothetical scenario that unfolds in stages, appearing to show a person radicalizing to violence. Usually run with a crowd evenly split between law enforcement and community partners, it is meant to facilitate a discussion on what role each side can play in terrorism prevention. Each side takes the role of the other, so community partners are law enforcement and vice versa. This role reversal helps set the stage for a better understanding of the limitations and misconceptions each possesses when trying to disengage an individual from extremist action.

On the government side, the local U.S. attorneys were supportive but hesitant to allow D.C.-based bureaucrats to sweep into their area and run a delicate conversation between law enforcement and the public about terrorism recruitment in the United States. After some hand holding, both sides agreed that March 20 would be the kickoff event. Representatives from Homeland Security and the NCTC had just begun the more than 280-mile trek from the nation’s capital to Raleigh, North Carolina, when their phones started ringing. The FBI had arrested Avin Marsalis Brown, the first American charged with attempting to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State. Brown was handcuffed and charged while at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, only a few minutes from the would-be community engagement venue. The case hinged on the use of an informant, a particularly sensitive touchpoint in community relations. Muslim American leaders wanted to cancel the event. Law enforcement was also reluctant to participate, citing concerns that they would have to answer questions about an ongoing investigation. After some careful negotiating and numerous conference calls, the C-REX went off without a hitch.

The three-hour event helped both sides understand where the other was coming from on addressing homegrown terrorism. An action plan was developed, with specific roles and responsibilities for both community partners and government officials. The near failure of the Raleigh C-REX was a microcosm of a larger issue with countering violent extremism (CVE) programs. (Disclosure: One of the authors, Seamus Hughes, worked for NCTC on CVE issues from 2011 to 2015.) The public-private partnership hinged on trust and an understanding of what the efforts sought to accomplish. After years of only hard counterterrorism approaches to extremism in America, and administrations that struggled to define the scope of the initiative, that trust and understanding was in short supply. There is an ongoing, and perhaps never-ending, debate within policy circles on when and where CVE programs began in the United States. Some members of George W. Bush’s administration argue that the “ideas and actions” section of their national security strategy was the first marker. Others say the story of the U.S. terrorism prevention program began in earnest in 2011 with the release of an Obama-era strategy entitled “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States,” which focused exclusively on the issue. There is, however, little debate on whether the strategy has been implemented effectively.

By every objective measure, it has not. The story of terrorism prevention in America is one of fits and starts. CVE programs have had many bosses, quite a few iterations and little coherency. To true believers of prevention programs, it is the best of government—an attempt to save people from themselves. To those who saw the past two decades of counterterrorism approaches as government overreach, fraught with civil liberties abuses, countering violent extremism is another thinly veiled attempt to profile Muslim Americans and police their thoughts and religious beliefs. Like most extreme policy positions, both are wrong.

The focus of countering violent extremism was shaped by a small but persistent band of bureaucrats in three different presidential administrations who were given a small mandate and little funding, but also believed that most people drawn to jihadist ideology—if given options and a way out—would choose to come back into the fold of normal society. To understand the evolution of CVE policy in the United States, it is important to start with a series of mundane government meetings across the pond.

A Transatlantic Idea

The concept of American counter-radicalization programs was born out of a series of conversations between British and American security officials in early 2004. A cross-pond collaboration structure called the Joint Contact Group included senior leadership from both countries’ counterterrorism apparatuses. The organization met every six months, alternating between Washington, D.C., and London. In the summer of 2004, at a meeting in the Reagan Building in Washington, American officials pushed their British counterparts to be more forceful on counter-radicalization programs. Senior American counterterrorism leadership spoke of overarching efforts to conduct community engagement across the country. The conversation helped spark action but only on one side of the table. The United Kingdom was about to put significant resources into CVE programs, while American officials would talk about forthcoming efforts but take years to catch up to their foreign colleagues. While the Americans were struggling to understand homegrown terrorism and create structures to address it, the United Kingdom was pushing ahead with an ambitious plan to implement counter-radicalization policies.

The United States was slow to implement its own thinking from the Reagan Building meeting, and it represented a shift in the way the U.S. government had previously discussed addressing homegrown terrorism. By March 2007, the first congressional hearings were starting to review the U.S. government’s approach to the threat. Michael Chertoff, then the secretary of homeland security, told senators that radicalization was an external problem for America, not an internal one: “The United States is fortunate that radicalization seems to have less appeal here than in other parts of the world.” He credited that lack of appeal to a number of issues:

Though it is difficult at this stage to determine the exact cause of these differences, there appear to be a set of advantages the US enjoys. Among these are economic advantages associated with low barriers to employment markets and business creation, traditional cultural acceptance of religious expression and free speech, unfettered participation in the U.S. political process and a high degree of social integration.

From every outsider’s perspective, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) would be a strange place to provide the impetus for terrorism prevention programs in the United States. Largely tasked with ensuring that the department’s programs did not run afoul of constitutional protections, its staff also found themselves explaining Homeland Security policy to marginalized populations in America. In the mid-2000s, very few offices within the U.S. government were conducting routine and continuous engagement with Muslim American communities. Headed by Daniel Sutherland, an eternal optimist who was skilled at the interagency process, the CRCL punched above its weight and largely set the future direction of CVE programs. Sutherland hired six full-time staffers to engage with Muslim American communities through dedicated community roundtables in places such as Dearborn, Michigan, and Chicago, Illinois. The roundtables were not specifically focused on counter-radicalization. To the contrary, the agendas were primarily about watchlisting, border screening and other initiatives that were controversial within Muslim American communities because they were disproportionally affected by the Department of Homeland Security’s policy implementations. As the roundtables progressed throughout the country, a debate raged within both communities and government on what to call this new initiative. Terminology to describe counter-radicalization programs has vacillated between broad and specific terms in the past 15 years. Originally called “countering radical Islam” during the early days of the Bush administration, by the end of its second term, thinking had shifted on how to describe the programs. A series of engagements were initiated by the CRCL with prominent Muslim American scholars and leaders about what name to give to counter-radicalization programs.

Nearly one year to the day after the Bush administration landed on “countering violent extremism” as the proper terminology, Obama was sworn in as president. His new national security team was increasingly uncomfortable with the use of the word “Islamist” to describe the threat. They were concerned that the general public would not understand the nuances between Islam, describing a religion, and Islamist, a full-fledged political ideology based on the religion.

There was no official memo about the shift, but as the new political appointees made their feelings known at National Security Council meetings, the rest of the bureaucracy fell in line. As such, the term “countering violent extremism,” which at the time was not seen as controversial, was adopted formally. As the Obama administration struggled to describe the budding homegrown threat, the summer and fall of 2009 represented an uptick in activity. A New York man, Najibullah Zazi, traveled with two friends to Afghanistan. While there, he received weapons and explosives training. Zazi’s return to the United States kicked off a nationwide manhunt that started in Colorado, where he was building a bomb, and ultimately ended with an arrest in New York City. Zazi’s was just one of many homegrown terrorism arrests spanning Illinois, Minnesota and North Carolina in late 2009.

The homegrown threat continued unabated and culminated in, at that time, one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. In November 2009, Maj. Nidal Hasan, an army doctor, walked into the Fort Hood processing center in Texas and opened fire, killing 13 and injuring more than 30 others. An after-action review commissioned by the FBI and led by its former director, William Webster, found “shortcomings in FBI policy guidance, technology, information review protocols, and training.” A congressional review by the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs also found systemic failures on the part of the Department of Defense and the FBI. The Senate report called for “a comprehensive approach to countering the threat of homegrown terrorism ... [and for] develop[ment of] a national approach to this challenge utilizing all relevant federal agencies including those not traditionally part of counterterrorism.” The report requested that Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence lead the effort.

In August 2011, the Obama administration announced the release of a new strategy titled “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.” At only eight pages long, it was unlike most national strategies. It read more like a policy speech than a guiding document with objectives, subobjectives and measures of effectiveness. The strategy did, however, have three main components: (1) “Enhancing Federal Engagement with and Support to Local Communities that May be Targeted by Violent Extremists”; (2) “Building Government and Law Enforcement Expertise for Preventing Violent Extremism”; and (3) “Countering Violent Extremist Propaganda While Promoting Our Ideals.”

In the strategy’s rollout, administration officials stated that the National Security Council

staff would take the lead on implementation. Congressional overseers, led by Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Susan Collins, expressed a continued interest in CVE efforts. In a September 2011 letter to the administration, the senators hammered the lack of a true strategy, stating that “the framework lacks the essential elements of a strategy ... there is no mission statement. Roles and responsibilities are not assigned to any agencies or individuals. And there are no stated strategic goals, performance goals or timelines, nor evaluation methods to measure performance. The framework also lacks resources and budget estimates.”

Responding to congressional pressure, the Obama administration released a Strategic Implementation Plan in December 2011. The plan was designed to act as a detailed blueprint for how the administration planned to build community resilience against violent extremism, detailing the specifics of the 2011 strategy. While the plan defined violent extremists as “individuals who support or commit ideologically-motivated violence to further political goals” and noted that it applies all forms of extremism, it also specified that it would “prioritize preventing violent extremism and terrorism that is inspired by al-Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents, which the 2010 National Security Strategy, the 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism, and the National Strategy for Empowering Local Partners identify as the preeminent security threats to our country.”

The plan fleshed out the objectives of the “Empowering Local Partners” strategy in a number of ways. First, it aimed to enhance federal engagement with and support to local communities that may be targeted by violent extremists. It also sought to build up government and law enforcement expertise on methods for preventing violent extremism. To achieve these objectives, the plan called for four fundamental activities that cut across different objectives: whole-of-government coordination, leveraging existing public safety, violence prevention, community resilience programming, coordinating domestic and international CVE efforts within legal limits, and addressing technology and virtual space. Federal responsibilities for pursuing the plan’s objectives by undertaking those activities were delegated through the 94 U.S. attorneys’ offices nationwide to four agencies: Homeland Security, the NCTC, the FBI and the Justice Department. The plan also noted that both Homeland Security and the NCTC had begun “raising awareness about violent extremism among private sector actors and foundations and connected them with community civic activists interested in developing programs to counter violent extremism.”

The Community Awareness Briefing, known internally as the CAB, was the opening salvo in trying to enhance community engagement on terrorism prevention. To an outside observer, it was simply a PowerPoint presentation with the latest terrorism arrest numbers, examples of terrorism propaganda and case studies of Americans who ultimately joined jihadist groups. But in the right hands, it was a powerful tool to convince a reluctant audience that terrorist recruitment in the United States is real. The CABs were delivered by a handful of trained community engagement officers at Homeland Security and the NCTC to mosques, colleges and community centers around the country. Through a small but committed cadre staff at the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Homeland Security began experimenting with the CABs at the Department of Justice’s Building Respect In Diverse Groups to Enhance Sensitivity (BRIDGES) meetings, which was their established engagement meeting. The CAB went through many iterations but ultimately settled on an approach that highlighted the human aspect of terrorist recruitment. Instead of a data-heavy presentation, the CAB focused on stories of individuals who joined terrorist organizations with the hope that the audience would be able to recognize those who were drawn to groups like the Islamic State as individuals who would have been convinced otherwise if given the right community mentorship.

The CABs were the most outward sign at the time of the U.S. government’s CVE efforts. However, there were problems: There were too few staff to implement the efforts, and there was little follow-up after the initial engagement. At the time, the U.S. government had only six full-time CVE staffers. Most were assigned to the NCTC, which had little reach into communities outside of Washington, D.C. While the CAB briefed well at National Security Council meetings, at the staff level there was growing frustration that not enough was being done to address the growing issue of radicalization of American Islamic State supporters. Community engagement officers at Homeland Security, the NCTC, the FBI and the Justice Department huddled together with an ambitious plan. Dubbed internally as the Group of Four, these staffers from the four main agencies working on CVE decided to refocus efforts on three pilot cities: Minneapolis-St. Paul, Boston and Los Angeles.

The plan was simple enough. Each of the cities had strong local partners who believed in the CVE mission. The Group of Four would spend the majority of their time helping to build up programming in those three areas with the hope that lessons learned could later be expanded to more municipalities. The “Three-City Pilot” had three distinct approaches: Boston’s focused on one-on-one interventions of radicalized individuals; Los Angeles’s, on broad-based community engagement; and Minneapolis-St. Paul’s, on what they saw as societal-level root causes of terrorism.

In the second part of the two-part series: The federal government effort to unroll the pilot programs was only in its nascent stages when a sustained and smart pressure campaign threatened to unravel the entire strategy.

Bennett Clifford is a senior research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. He studies violent extremist movements and organizations in the United States, as well as in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Balkans.
Seamus Hughes is a senior research faculty member and policy associate at the University of Nebraska at Omaha-based National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center (NCITE)
Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens is the Research Director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

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