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Preventing, Not Just Countering, Violent Extremism

Katerina Papatheodorou
Sunday, April 29, 2018, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Programs to counter (or, if you prefer, prevent) violent extremism are much talked about but rarely implemented. The Obama administration did some initial exploratory efforts, but even these small programs are on the chopping block in the Trump administration. Katerina Papatheodorou contends that this is a mistake: High levels of extremism make these programs necessary, and there are multiple models that offer lessons for the United States.


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Editor’s Note: Programs to counter (or, if you prefer, prevent) violent extremism are much talked about but rarely implemented. The Obama administration did some initial exploratory efforts, but even these small programs are on the chopping block in the Trump administration. Katerina Papatheodorou contends that this is a mistake: High levels of extremism make these programs necessary, and there are multiple models that offer lessons for the United States.


Currently, the United States does not have a comprehensive approach to Prevent and Counter Violent Extremism (P/CVE). With the rise of anti-immigrant and populist sentiment, the resurgence of right- and left-wing domestic extremism, as well as the number of Americans sympathetic to Salafi-jihadi ideologies, officials should consider a counterterrorism (CT) approach that also embraces P/CVE.

While some forms of extremism are steady or in decline, certain types of right-wing and left-wing violence are making a resurgence. Bomb threats, assault and battery, and intimidation and harassment cases emanating from anti-abortion extremists spiked last year, according to the National Abortion Foundation, which has been tracking abortion-related disruptions and violent incidents since 1977. The group also recorded 42,500 incidents of hate speech against abortion providers.

The fringe “sovereign citizen” movement, which does not recognize the legitimacy of the U.S. federal government, has been launching deadly attacks against law enforcement for years. In fact, a 2014 survey of law-enforcement personnel conducted by the University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) found that "sovereign citizens were the top concern of law enforcement." The reason for their concern is made clear by an incident in May of last year, when father and son Lloyd and Marshall Barrus were involved in a shootout with local police in Missoula, Montana, after murdering Deputy Sheriff Mason Moore earlier that day. Moore had tried to pull them over for speeding, but the pair refused to surrender and instead fired at Moore, wounding him. Due to his injuries, Moore was unable to continue pursuing them, but instead of stopping or driving away, the pair approached the patrol car and executed Moore. Marshall Barrus' children stated that both their father and their grandfather espoused strong anti-law enforcement beliefs and talked about carrying out a "suicide mission" against police. Marshall was fatally wounded during the ensuing shootout and Lloyd Barrus was apprehended and is currently facing multiple life sentences.

Other right-wing extremists are clearly aspiring to carry out attacks. Last February, Benjamin McDowell, a white supremacist and convicted felon, was arrested after purchasing a firearm from an undercover FBI agent. McDowell planned to use the gun in a mass shooting in homage to "the spirit of Dylann Roof," who attacked the historically black Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Authorities first became aware of McDowell's right-wing radical views after he posted threatening messages against a synagogue on Facebook. McDowell, who began associating with white supremacists while incarcerated on felony burglary charges a few years prior, also railed against his fellow extremists for not doing enough because "screaming 'white power' was not getting the job done."

Though McDowell was apprehended before he realized his plan, Baltimore resident James Jackson managed to stab a 66-year old man to death with a sword before turning himself into custody. Jackson, who later told police he had hated black men his entire life, traveled to New York and spent days stalking possible victims. He stated he wanted to go on a spree, killing as many black men as possible to express his dissatisfaction with interracial couples and make white women reconsider dating outside their race.

White supremacist groups are more visible now than they have been in recent years, with far-reaching ramifications. Taylor Michael Wilson, a 26-year-old extremist, is facing terrorism charges for attempting to derail an Amtrak train in October of last year. Authorities recently learned that he attended the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where Neo-Nazi James Fields Jr. murdered Heather Heyer. Wilson was also a cardholding member of the National Socialist Movement, the American iteration of the Nazi Party, and expressed a desire to kill black people.

On the other end of the political spectrum, individuals associated with the Antifascist movement, colloquially known as ‘Antifa,’ have become increasingly violent and often disrupt otherwise peaceful demonstrations by assaulting people and damaging property. For example, during a gathering to protest the appearance of right-wing troll Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California-Berkeley last February, radical Antifascists threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the police. Though these episodes are far from being as menacing as calls by right-wing radicals to exterminate religious and ethnic minorities, it is still a disquieting trend that demonstrates a willingness to use and justify violence instead of peaceful political opposition.

Terrorism threats also persist from abroad. The director of national intelligence (DNI) believes that though the number of Islamic State-inspired attacks has subsided, the group will likely spend the next year regrouping in Iraq and Syria, while still "encouraging its members and sympathizers to attack in their home countries." The DNI further warns that "homegrown violent extremists (HVEs) will remain the most prevalent and difficult-to-detect Sunni terrorist threat at home." The FBI is currently investigating potential HVEs in all 50 states.

Despite the excellent work of law-enforcement and intelligence officials working to disrupt plots nationwide, extremist ideologies endure. It is unrealistic to think that terrorism is a problem society can arrest its way out of, and current threats, which are dynamic and evolving, suggest that policies should shift from reaction to prevention. According to FBI statistics, hate crimes have been rising and competing ideologies seem to be feeding off each other, resulting in what Julia Ebner refers to as "reciprocal radicalization." Initiatives to prevent and counter violent extremism can complement traditional CT work, allowing officials to allocate their limited resources to the most urgent cases. For example, in 2014, FBI agents spent five months trying to discourage 19-year old Shannon Conley from attempting to join the Islamic State in Syria. During this time, agents met with Conley a total of nine times. Since she had not yet crossed the threshold to illegal activity, and with no diversion programs available to redirect her case, officials could not arrest her. Instead of concentrating on other cases, the FBI spent their resources trying to stop Conley from becoming a criminal. Despite their good intentions, however, Conley was adamant and was eventually arrested and convicted of attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization. Conley could have benefited from sustained professional help, such as psychological support, mentoring, or a chance to discuss her plans with a former extremist who had first-hand experience with groups like al-Qaeda and could have shattered her idealized concept of what being a terrorist entails.

P/CVE can also offer an alternative to lengthy prison sentences which might further marginalize and radicalize those non-violent extremists the FBI does not consider a security risk. It can also be used in cases of juvenile terrorism offenders or other cases in which officials might be reluctant to press charges, and can allow practitioners to intercede in the pre-criminal space when authorities are unable to intervene due to relevant constitutional and statutory constraints.

P/CVE is a contentious topic. One of the main criticisms stems from an overarching sense that the emphasis on Islamist-inspired extremism stigmatizes Muslim communities writ large. Some activists assert that P/CVE is merely a front used by governments to disguise intelligence gathering activities, incorrectly likening P/CVE to the infamous COINTELPRO. More convincing arguments question the lack of evaluation, which makes it hard to assess the effectiveness of P/CVE, as well as the lack of extremism-specific risk assessment tools that can be used to identify vulnerable individuals.

Many of these criticisms are not unfounded. For example, despite the Obama administration’s rhetoric about tackling all extreme ideologies, in reality, resources were disproportionately focused on addressing Salafi-jihadism. This solidified the perception that the government was targeting Muslims and reinforced the false belief that the United States is at war with Islam. Furthermore, the current administration does not seem concerned with addressing any other form of extremism, as evidenced by a recent DHS report regarding threats to national security, which brushed past the discussion of domestic terrorism, particularly that of the far-right persuasion.

It is also true that P/CVE is hard to evaluate and quantify, especially since it is inherently challenging to prove a negative—namely, that radicalization did not occur. Researchers have come to recognize that radicalization, regardless of ideology, is a highly-individualized process and there is no set of characteristics or a profile of who will become radicalized. Furthermore, the mere presence of radical beliefs does not guarantee involvement in terrorism.

P/CVE shows promise as an alternative to more reactionary approaches. Efforts should concentrate on targeted interventions that avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. These inclusive tactics are favorable because they address the multitude of personal, contextual, and socioeconomic factors specific to the individual. Such interventions offer highly personalized curricula that incorporate contributions from various experts, including mental health professionals, criminologists, and when necessary, theologians. Targeted interventions shift the focus from vulnerable communities to vulnerable individuals, and instead of stigmatizing entire groups, actually involve local actors in efforts aimed at protecting them. Research has demonstrated that when individuals are consulted during the design and implementation stages, they are more likely to support and participate in activities.

Evaluating targeted intervention schemes might be more manageable because the focus is on individuals rather than entire populations. This individualistic approach could make it easier to gauge individual behavioral changes, such as support for violence or extremist beliefs, and subjects’ level of civic engagement. Identifying at-risk individuals is a tricky endeavor. Assessment should focus on those exhibiting sustained interest in extremist propaganda and sympathy towards particular groups or movements, instead of merely targeting anyone who expresses views antithetical to the status quo.

P/CVE is no panacea. But, while it is wise to critique initiatives, calls to eliminate them entirely are counterproductive. Bringing attention to concerning aspects of programs and conducting systematic assessments can ensure that activities are producing the desired outcomes. Recurrent evaluations can also assist in identifying problematic facets that might need to be eliminated or refined.

Officials understand that the criminal justice system alone is an insufficient mechanism to address the problem. However, in instances when they showed a willingness to engage and be transparent, they were attacked for what critics asserted was a misguided effort to disguise intelligence gathering activities as community engagement. This was the case with the development of Shared Responsibility Committees (SRCs), the objective of which was to bring together local specialists that would create personalized intervention plans to dissuade at-risk individuals from mobilizing to violence. The FBI sought to work alongside community members to build the infrastructure for long-term P/CVE success. However, due to criticism of the program, SRCs were never even implemented.

Fortunately for the United States, many of its allies have pioneered numerous initiatives tackling radicalization and violence emanating from actors influenced by various political ideologies that can serve as a guiding light for policy design and implementation. Several countries integrate methods that use targeted interventions into a broader CVE framework. These programs are community-led and include the individuals’ support systems, both of which are better positioned to identify vulnerable individuals, and are better suited to intervene.

Local police officers from the Crime Prevention Unit leading the Danish Aarhus Model, for example, reach out to individuals and offer them alternatives to the hateful narratives peddled by radical ideologues. Community members can reach out to the appropriate authorities using a designated hotline to express their concerns regarding a loved one they feel might be radicalizing. Practitioners then meet with the referred individual to assess the situation and decide on next steps. Participants receive one-on-one counseling from practitioners who share the same cultural, religious, or socioeconomic background. Frequently, mentors also have experience dealing with some of the problems participants are currently facing, such as racism and discrimination.

The program in Aarhus gained prominence in 2012 after the implementation of its foreign fighter unit, but it is not focused solely on Islamist extremism. In fact, it was initially executed in 2007 as a response to the rise in far-right extremism cases associated with local soccer hooligans. Though the most recent evaluation of the program took place in 2011, a year before the introduction of the new initiative aimed exclusively at returning jihadis, authorities maintain that the sharp decrease in the number of foreign fighters hailing from Aarhus is proof that the model works. In 2013, 31 people from Aarhus (at least 22 of whom were affiliated with the local Salafi mosque) had joined jihadist camps in Syria. However, following implementation of the model, the number of individuals traveling to conflict zones diminished sharply, with only one person leaving in 2014 and three in 2015.

Jamal, a former participant, has publicly praised the program. Jamal was suspended from school following a fight with a classmate who said that Islam mistreats women and terrorizes Westerners. During his suspension, Jamal's mother passed away, something he attributed to the anxiety induced by the investigation. After her death, Jamal began associating with a group of Anwar al-Awlaki fans who spent their days fantasizing about jihad and planning their trip to Syria. A police officer working for the municipality's prevention program contacted Jamal who, though initially resistant, eventually agreed to join the program. Now, Jamal credits the program with saving his life and helping him feel more Danish, declaring: "I'm lucky I got that phone call."

A similar approach has also paid dividends in Belgium. Following the unprecedented mobilization of young, mainly second-generation Moroccan immigrants from the country’s Flemish region, Belgian politicians sought ways to prevent youth from becoming radicalized. Though slow to respond, local communities in the city of Vilvoorde, led by mayor Hans Bonte, initiated a program to help young individuals who were becoming increasingly isolated and espoused radical views. The aptly named Plan for Warmth and Safety also utilizes targeted interventions to engage with participants and reintegrate them back into mainstream society. Authorities believe these activities lowered the number of individuals traveling to Iraq and Syria, though it could also be due to the general trend in foreign fighter mobilization in recent years.

Given the country's history with right- and left-wing terrorism, Germany began implementing similar projects long before other European nations shifted their attention to P/CVE. EXIT-Deutschland's objective is to help individuals leave right-wing extremist movements. Based on the work of criminologist and former police officer Bernd Wagner, who co-founded the organization, EXIT provides personalized assistance to those wishing to disengage. Their approach emphasizes the need to 'restructure' one's life, accounting for the ways that extremist groups serve as familial and social support systems for participants. Former participants who have completed the program are involved in prevention work, often administering EXIT workshops in schools around Germany. During these seminars, former extremists discuss their experiences with students who see them as more credible given their past involvement in far-right groups. EXIT also advises local communities and local governments on right-wing group recruitment and propaganda tactics, and assists communities seeking to implement their own preventive and deradicalization efforts. The German government has conducted an assessment of EXIT's work, comparing their disengagement program to the deradicalization initiative administered by the Office of the Protection of the Constitution (the German intelligence agency). They found EXIT’s efforts have produced a substantially lower recidivism rate, while handling four times more cases. EXIT claims to have helped more than 500 individuals leave Neo-Nazi groups, with only 3 percent of them re-engaging. The initiative has inspired chapters throughout Europe and North America. The U.S. version, EXIT-USA, operated by the non-profit Life After Hate, also offers personalized intervention plans to individuals seeking to leave radical right-wing groups. The organization also runs an online campaign to detect and respond to hateful rhetoric on Twitter and consult with professionals from various industries regarding radicalization and ways to counter it. In 2016, Life After Hate was awarded $400,000 as part of a Department of Homeland Security grant to support organizations focused on P/CVE. However, funding was rescinded by the Trump administration, which has so far proved unwilling to recognize that radical right-wing ideologies are a dangerous domestic extremist threat.

Other local organizations here in the United States have been implementing prevention and rehabilitation programs with support from their local government officials. In Minnesota, for example, in 2014, Michael Davis, a federal judge presiding over an Islamic State-related criminal case, sought alternative solutions. Davis recruited German expert Daniel Koehler to evaluate a group of young Somali-Americans who were arrested before they could join the Islamic State in Syria. One of the defendants, Abdullahi Yusuf, participated in a 12-month rehabilitation program specifically tailored for him by the local non-profit Heartland Democracy. Yusuf was released from prison last November and is currently living with his family. He is under strict supervision by probation officers and has been taking steps towards reintegration.

The current interest in P/CVE might not last. But initiatives that create inclusive societies and encourage active citizenship can have lasting P/CVE-relevant outcomes, like enhanced resilience. For example, researchers have observed that solidifying protective services, such as groups providing young Somali-Americans opportunities to engage in humanitarian aid, and diminishing risk agents like neglected teenagers by implementing after-school educational and recreational programs, can improve resilience against radicalization and recruitment in communities like Little Mogadishu in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Such projects might not be tackling extremism explicitly, but they can diminish marginalization and isolation—issues frequently cited in radicalization narratives.

As officials grapple with many threats, both domestic and international, prevention programs can relieve law-enforcement resources and allow communities to take a more active role to shield themselves from extremism. Unfortunately, the current administration views P/CVE efforts as “needlessly politically correct” and it is unclear if officials will dismantle Obama-era programs. Furthermore, though DHS retained a grant program for local organizations working to counter radicalization and extremism, the department announced funding would instead be awarded to law-enforcement agencies and groups supporting them.

Yusuf’s case is a significant step towards the creation of rehabilitation and reintegration schemes and demonstrates changing attitudes in the United States toward alternative solutions. However, there is still an urgent need to create early intervention and prevention programs to stop individuals from radicalizing in the first place. While this has primarily focused on jihadist counterterrorism, it must be broadened to prevent radicalization among domestic far-right and far-left extremists as well. Future research should focus on generating proper evaluation tools to help practitioners appraise the effect, if any, of P/CVE ventures. Yes, Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism initiatives are flawed, but when faced with violence and hateful rhetoric emanating from Neo-Nazis, Salafi-jihadis, anti-abortion militants, and extreme antifascists, doing nothing is simply not an option.

Katerina Papatheodorou’s research focuses on radicalization and efforts focused on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) in Europe and the United States.

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