Started from the Bottom: Building a Better CVE Program from the Ground Up

The threat of radical Islamist terrorism dominates today’s public conscious. It has fueled the right-wing nationalist movement that is sweeping the West, it inundates the media, and ISIS-motivated attacks seem to happen almost weekly. In 2014, the federal government launched a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, with the goal of preventing US residents from joining violent extremist groups. However, CVE has had a rocky history: it has focused inordinately on Muslims, relied on problematic theories of radicalization, and therefore alienated American Muslim communities and chipped away at trust between those communities and law enforcement. All this has combined to stain CVE with a stigma and lack of credibility. CVE programs do have an important objective, so how can they be fixed? What is the solution to eliminating the past problems and developing an effective CVE program?

The first step is to stop relying on incorrect theories of terrorist radicalization. A 2017 report from the Brennan Center for Justice by Faiza Patel and Meghan Koushik breaks down the flawed information used by government-led CVE programs. One example is the notion that radical ideology means that someone will become a terrorist. Radicalization simply means that someone holds extreme ideas; it does not mean they will take the next step to mobilization, which is actively supporting violent goals and seeking out training and resources, or to action – actually carrying out an attack. A radicalized person could hold extreme beliefs for years and never commit a violent act, and many do. Another example is using “unscientific lists” of warning signs in an attempt to identify potential terrorists. There is no singular pathway to terrorism, and there is no set of warning signs that indicate violent extremism. As Patel and Koushik point out, relying on such an “overly broad approach creates a grave risk that people who have nothing to do with terrorism will be labeled potential threats”.

Building a CVE program around a framework of “alternative facts” about radicalization is like building a house with rotted wood; a fundamentally flawed basis will lead to failure in the program’s endeavors. It also leads to playing the dangerous game of policing ideology – as Patel and Koushik say, drawing “scrutiny to individuals whose speech or beliefs are outside the mainstream.” Couple this with CVE’s disproportionate focus on Muslim communities, and the credibility and effectiveness of the program and federal agencies is significantly damaged. The result is widening the schism between Muslim communities and law enforcement, effectively alienating what could be a powerful ally in the fight against violent extremism.

The second step is to shift the implementation of CVE away from federal agencies and into the hands of the community, particularly youth. Because of the stigma surrounding agencies like the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security, they cannot succeed in effectively countering violent extremism. CVE is accused of being another policing and surveillance tool, which is not it’s intention. As Eric Rosand of the Brookings Institute says, CVE funding tends to be misplaced.. The federal government does not allocate enough funds necessary for local communities to “develop tailored community engagement programs”. For context: the U.S. spends $11.5 million per day on its military presence in Iraq compared to $10 million given to support grassroots CVE for an entire year. The US has maintained a model based on the federal government and law enforcement, “thus complicating efforts to involve and build durable partnerships with the local actors...that are so critical to prevention efforts.”

In order to be a successful, effective program, the future of CVE needs to take a different direction. It must overhaul the debunked radicalization theories on which it relies. It needs to counter all forms of violent extremism across ideologies, as well as build strong relationships with Muslim communities. And most importantly, the reins of CVE must be passed from the federal government to local communities to develop programs tailored to their specific situation. The future of CVE has to be a youth-led, grassroots movement if it is to successfully prevent U.S. residents from joining violent extremist groups.

1. Patel, Faiza, and Meghan Koushik. "Countering Violent Extremism." Brennan Center for Justice. March 16, 2017. Accessed May 04, 2017.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Rosand, Eric. "Fixing CVE in the United States requires more than just a name change." Brookings. February 16, 2017. Accessed May 04, 2017.

5. Rosand, Eric. "Investing in prevention: An ounce of CVE or a pound of counterterrorism?" Brookings. May 6, 2016. Accessed May 04, 2017.