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Responding to the Rise in Domestic Terrorism: Don’t Forget Prevention

Eric Rosand
Sunday, May 26, 2019, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Programs to counter violent extremism often are well-meaning but misconceived and poorly resourced. As a result, for jihadist-linked terrorism they usually prove ineffective and are a policy afterthought rather than a key counterterrorism tool for the United States. Eric Rosand, the director of The Prevention Project and a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, argues that these programs can be critical components of effective counterterrorism for right-wing and other forms of domestic terrorism.

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Editor’s Note: Programs to counter violent extremism often are well-meaning but misconceived and poorly resourced. As a result, for jihadist-linked terrorism they usually prove ineffective and are a policy afterthought rather than a key counterterrorism tool for the United States. Eric Rosand, the director of The Prevention Project and a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, argues that these programs can be critical components of effective counterterrorism for right-wing and other forms of domestic terrorism. However, he contends they need to be rethought, bringing in additional bureaucratic actors and empowering local communities more effectively, among other changes.

Daniel Byman


The April attack on a synagogue in Poway, California, was the latest demonstration of the rise in extremist violence in the United States committed not by “jihadists” inspired by ISIS or other international terrorists, but by white supremacists, neo-Nazis or other right-wing groups. With the Tree of Life Synagogue attacks still fresh in many Americans’ minds, post-Poway discussions further highlighted how the resources and tools available to prevent right-wing extremist violence or domestic terrorism in the United States are dwarfed by those available to deal with the jihadist-inspired violence that data shows to be a much lesser threat. Rectifying this imbalance requires urgent attention.

The response to recent right-wing violence has emphasized the need for tougher laws, with some commentators urging Congress to adopt a domestic terrorism statute that includes the “material support” clause that exists for international terrorism. This would allow law enforcement to intervene at early stages of attack planning and plotting. Some experts have argued that a list of domestic terrorist groups should be created, modeled, where appropriate, on the one the Department of State maintains for foreign terrorist organizations. There have also been repeated calls, including by congressional leaders, for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to increase their data collection and analytic capabilities on this issue and for more intelligence sharing on right-wing threats with other countries. Ensuring federal law-enforcement agencies have the resources and tools needed to prioritize the investigation and prosecution of domestic terrorist has also received attention. House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson has led the charge to pressure social media companies to do more to crack down on the use of their platforms by right-wing organizations, that is, taking steps similar to those they have taken against extremist content linked to ISIS and other jihadi groups. There have also been proposals to make more funding available to protect religious institutions and other “soft targets” from terrorist attacks.

The increased attention to right-wing or domestic terrorism is long overdue, and each of the above steps deserves serious consideration. However, by largely limiting the focus to the existing counterterrorism tool kit and how it can be applied to the rising right-wing threat in the United States, we are in danger of adopting the same overly narrow, security-driven approach to preventing domestic terrorism that has characterized efforts against jihadi-inspired violence at home. We need a national framework that includes an ecosystem of actors and programs that extends beyond law enforcement and involves mental health professionals, social workers, teachers, religious and other community leaders, parents, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector (beyond just social media companies).

Mind the Gap

Virtually every industrialized country that faces extremist violence threats has developed a national framework that outlines the roles and responsibilities of actors at the national and local levels and across law-enforcement and non-law-enforcement disciplines (see, for example, Canada, Denmark, and Switzerland). Such frameworks lay the foundations for multidisciplinary local programs that can intercede with individuals showing observable signs of being at risk of, vulnerable to or already on the path of radicalization to violence—regardless of their ideological, political or other motivation. These mechanisms aim to stop the path to violence at an early stage, enabling the mobilization of professionals and other community members who may be better placed to deliver an effective and preventive intervention because they have particular competence, expertise or perceived credibility or legitimacy that the police do not possess.

These programs are primarily for concerned family or other community members who suspect that an individual is becoming radicalized but has not yet committed to violence. (They also offer the police an option between arrest and doing nothing. This is important when dealing with individuals who have yet to commit a crime but could put people’s lives at risk if they don’t receive some form of intervention, and it encourages family members who are understandably reluctant to work with authorities if it means their loved ones end up in jail.) Prior studies have shown that for three out of four persons who go on to commit violent attacks, their family or friends knew that something was seriously awry, but they did not get help, call the police or stop the attack. This is often because they do not know whom to call other than the police and are often reluctant to make that call and potentially risk heavy law-enforcement action. Many of these programs rely on psychologists, religious leaders or former extremists to help individuals, whether associated with right-wing or jihadi groups, to disengage from violence.

Many of the ecosystems of programs enacted by U.S. allies are due, at least in part, to the generous and long-term national-level funding and guidance that have been made available to support locally led efforts to develop and sustain extremist violence prevention (and disengagement) initiatives framed around the concerns of specific communities. Yet the United States has become the outlier.

Even before President Trump, U.S. efforts at countering violent extremism (CVE)—which focused primarily on jihadi-related extremism—were championed primarily by government officials but attracted little public or local support. Those on the political left tended to see CVE efforts at home as too law-enforcement oriented and raised concerns about the targeting of American Muslims and the violation of their civil liberties. Those on the right felt they lacked metrics and were too politically correct—and thus were insufficiently focused on what they (despite the evidence) saw as the “real” threat of “radical Islam.” Many communities around the country that might want to become more involved in local initiatives to prevent extremist violence have felt excluded from what they perceived to be an overly securitized, Washington-centric conversation that was perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be about preventing future ISIS and al-Qaeda-inspired attacks, and not about extremist or targeted violence more broadly, including right-wing and gang violence. These stakeholders felt that CVE programs did not sufficiently take into account their broader concerns, which often were linked to rising levels of Islamophobia and broader feelings of discrimination and stigmatization.

As has been well documented, the Trump administration cut federal resources for preventing extremist violence, including not renewing the one-time $10 million local grants program and significantly downsizing the relevant DHS office. More broadly, the Trump administration, despite the rhetoric on “domestic terrorism” in its 2018 counterterrorism strategy, ignored a congressional request to produce a strategy for countering violent extremism both at home and abroad.

The polarizing and politicized debates in the United States around CVE efforts have not allowed the space for a serious, practical discussion about how best to prevent extremist violence at home that is informed by the existing data and evidence. A more serious approach should incorporate good practices and lessons learned from U.S. allies in Europe, as well as Australia and Canada, all of which are confronted by both jihadi and right-wing threats.

Seize the Day

The current spotlight on right-wing extremist violence in the United States—and the widely available data showing that it, and not jihadi-inspired violence, is a much greater threat to cities and communities around the country—creates a unique opportunity to move beyond the unproductive CVE debates of the past few years. It’s time for a more productive conversation that includes communities that are concerned about extremist violence of any stripe affecting them and want to contribute to prevention efforts. A smart, comprehensive and sustainable national framework to prevent violent extremist attacks is long overdue. A better approach must go beyond investigations, prosecutions and arrests; involve more than just removing extremist content from social media platforms; and rally the support of the Departments of Health and Human Services and Education, alongside the federal law-enforcement agencies, and state, local and community-level actors and organizations.

Core elements of a framework could include the following:

  • An emphasis on government collaboration and engagement with communities.
  • The involvement of professionals from across different disciplines, such as mental health, social work, mentoring and education.
  • A national network connecting front-line practitioners and professionals working to prevent different forms of extremist violence in their communities.
  • An approach based on evidence rather than on assumptions.
  • The development of nondiscriminatory tools to enable professionals and community members to better identify those most at risk or vulnerable to committing acts of extremist violence and local programs that can address those risk factors and vulnerabilities.
  • A small-grants program, ideally overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, that provides funding and guidance to community-based and other local organizations interested in starting new or scaling up existing programs aimed at preventing extremist violence, but framed around local concerns.
  • More broadly, the adoption of a public health (as opposed to a law-enforcement-driven) approach to preventing extremist violence, which offers opportunities for multipurpose programming, avoiding stigma, and leveraging existing public health resources, including mental health professionals, social workers or teachers.

Regrettably, given the current rhetoric, tensions and political climate, levels of hate-inspired and other extremist violence in the United States are unlikely to dip in the coming years and may even worsen. As such, the issue of how to address this extremism is unlikely to go away. Rather than simply relying on the existing playbook, political leaders, policymakers and practitioners would be wise to prioritize the development of this missing prevention framework.

Eric is the President of PVE Solutions, LLC, a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a former senior counterterrorism official at the U.S. Department of State.

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