Countering Violent Extremism: Where do we focus?

Yesterday, @will_mccants provided a needed perspective as to where the focus should be for countering violent extremism (CVE) in the domestic U.S. setting.  Will’s post, “Countering Violent Extremism, Part 2 – Scope” outlines a spectrum of people either vulnerable to, supporting of, or actively participating in violent extremism. As I’ve noted on this forum in the past, there is little evidence to warrant the overarching, highly bureaucratic response outlined in the White House Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism.  As Will reiterates here and I have pointed to in past posts, there are insufficient numbers of violent extremists to warrant large-scale national programs to win Muslim “Hearts and Minds”. Here’s Will’s opinion on where to focus:

Based on the incredibly low numbers of AQ supporters in the United States (see Charlie Kurzman’s recent study), the United States should treat the problem of AQ support like it treats supporters of white hate groups. It should focus on turning around law-abiding and incarcerated supporters rather than reaching out to the broader communities of which they are a part. This approach may not suit law enforcement (which prefers to build cases), the administration (which wants to increase the resilience of US Muslims against al-Qaeda propaganda), civil libertarians (who worry about infringing on personal freedoms), or large swathes of the public (who are terrified of fifth columns). But it is commensurate with the threat; its success can be measured; it carries less risk of alienating communities from which terrorists arise; it undermines the narrative that these communities are potential threats; and it is far less threatening to civil liberties than the current approach.

Will’s focus is on target, and that of the White House Strategy is not.  I’ve yet to see them explain where these lost communities requiring extremist de-programming reside.  Of course, they’ll quickly jump to the Minneapolis Somali recruits to al Shabaab which represents one case of mass recruitment of young vulnerable boys.  But, the reasons these young boys joined al Shabaab may have more to do with identity than ideology.  Likewise, the community didn’t seem to be very informed on what their young boys were doing.  So in the context of Minneapolis-Shabaab recruitment, what would have been accomplished or prevented in the White House CVE approach to engage vulnerable communities?

Of equal importance are the questions of “why now?” and “why this approach?”.  The administration seems convinced a “Spike in Homegrown Extremism” exists – or maybe three years ago there might have been.  Thus, the federal government committed years ago to execute a plan.  This plan emerges many years later looking like something that may have been worthwhile doing in 2002 more than 2012.  It’s taken so long to put this CVE plan together that the threat has evolved into something entirely different.  The current plan appears likely to exasperate current tensions playing out with regards to the NYPD’s surveillance of ‘vulnerable communities’.

Lastly, if I’ve learned anything, broad, top-down federal strategies to deal with local issues routinely fail.  The individuals, ideologies and threats of extremism arising from local communities vary wildly from place to place.  I doubt this strategy, its approach and its associated costs will have any significant impact on extremism – the ends will never justify the means.

My take: if the federal government needs to expend such energy and resources to protect Americans, they should apply their efforts on real, large scale problems which threaten the security of everyday citizens.  Disrupting the violence emanating from Mexican drug cartels immediately comes to mind.

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