Whose violent extremism are we countering? Revisiting CVE in the U.S. 2013

The threat of improvised explosive devices (IED) coming to the U.S. has been a nearly constant worry since about 2005.  As IED’s proliferated in Iraq, counterterrorism analysts and their agencies quickly realized that these easy to construct homemade devices could be the weapon of choice for al Qaeda popping up around the globe and even in the U.S. homeland.  So dangerous the threat of IED’s, entire organizations were constructed to disrupt and defeat their construction (JIEDDO). Around the U.S., law enforcement and homeland security folks were told to look for al Qaeda to begin using IED’s in the U.S.

On January 17, 2011, the fears of IED’s coming to the U.S. came to fruition.  A sophisticated IED was found on a park bench in Spokane, Washington set to be remotely detonated during a Martin Luther King day parade. A deliberate terrorist plot on a U.S. target using an IED.  Surely this would prompt the entire U.S. counterterrorism community to spring into action, right?  A whole-of-government approach to work with the population to root out support for extremism, right? While the FBI did quickly investigate the case and arrest the perpetrator, there was hardly any media coverage following up on how a terrorist attack could emerge from the community.  The attack, foiled by local law enforcement, quickly faded from the headlines.  Why you might ask? Because it wasn’t “al Qaeda” that perpetrated the attack, it was a white supremacist named Kevin Harpham from Kettle Falls, Washington. In Kettle Falls, some were “shocked” but others were less surprised (see the video below, watch to the 1:30 mark). Why would one be surprised? Kettle Falls sits in a region known for white supremacist and anti-government folks and is only a short drive from a place called Ruby Ridge, Idaho – the scene of a past U.S. government standoff.

Based on the location and severity of the Harpham plot, surely the U.S. government would see the need to engage in a whole-of-government approach to counter the persistent violent extremism emerging from this locale, right? Wouldn’t the U.S. want to employ its strategy to counter violent extremism as outlined in its new memorandum for state and local law enforcement? Couldn’t the federal government arrange an online and ground CVE program to win over the “hearts and minds” of locals and prevent this pervasive threat from emerging again in the Pacific Northwest?  The Harpham incident disappeared from the headlines quickly and on the Internet there’s actually very little reporting on Harpham or the plot.  I guess doing CVE in rural Washington amongst armed and often times well trained extremists was less than appealing for the CVE crowd.

For those that read this blog, you’ve probably read my rants and reservations about CVE in the U.S. (See #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, #10). After sitting for more than a year deliberating at this blog about CVE in the U.S., I teamed up with Dr. Will McCants to coherently organize my reservations about the amorphous definition of CVE, when CVE strategies are applied and how CVE strategies are executed in the United States.  Recently, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) published this co-authored article entitled “U.S. Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism: An Assessment.”  Will and I have focused on different aspects of CVE for years and in this article we combined some thoughts as to how the U.S. might move forward should it deem it necessary to conduct a CVE campaign in the U.S.  Below is the introduction to the paper and here is the link to the full post. For those that do read Dr. McCants and I’s article, I look forward to any thoughts you have for or against our analysis.

The United States and its allies devote considerable financial and human resources to countering violent extremism (CVE). CVE is a central pillar of the United States’ domestic and international counterterrorism effort, following the lead of the United Kingdom’s Prevent initiative begun several years earlier. Like the United Kingdom, the United States launched its CVE enterprise in response to a perceived increase in radicalization among its Muslim citizens. The U.S. enterprise, however, lacks a clear definition, is based on flawed assumptions about what works, and its proponents have yet to question whether CVE is worth doing in the first place. The United Kingdom’s approach suffered from similar shortcomings when it was first introduced, many of which were corrected in a later program update. It is time for the United States to do the same.

And for those interested in the Harpham video, here’s a short YouTube clip.  Make sure to watch to the 1:30 mark….



  1. Unfortunately, the Kevin Harpham case is not the last example of the federal government seeming to downplay or ignore violent extremists motivated by what are traditionally considered ‘far right’ ideologies. Note, for example, the recent group of current and former soldiers arrested in Georgia after committing two (and possibly three) homicides, plotting to assassinate the president and launch an attack against Ft. Stewart. It appears that case is being prosecuted at the county level with federal authorities doing their best to pretend this group never existed.

    The lessons from the fallout of the 2009 DHS report on ‘Right Wing Extremism’ are pretty clear. Militias, white supremacists, and others are to be ignored or given the minimum amount of attention required. Time spent discussing them (let alone a strategy to engage/defuse them) only will result in partisan political outrage and therefore is to be avoided at all costs.

  2. I agree with you 100%. There have been a lot of domestic plots in recent years and they all are treated as single actors or a couple of “bad apples”. But this is not the case.

    • Whatever its proponents might believe, CVE is a form of offensive action (i.e., attack) and is likely to be perceived as such by its targets. You can see this dynamic more clearly in domestic extremist groups who have no qualms about objecting to government efforts to shove this and that down their throats, and who have a greater sense of entitlement to freely hold and express their beliefs than Islamist extremists, who tend to assume and expect they will be persecuted.

      One related problem is (as your post makes clear) is that CVE, a form of attack, is almost exclusively targeted toward individuals who have NOT already attacked the government or the public. So it’s attacking, almost exclusively, people who have already made a decision to sit out the revolution. Most CVE fails to acknowledge that decision and assumes you’re at risk of changing that decision. Rather than seeking to reinforce the decision that’s already been made, it targets a decision that hasn’t been made on the assumption the subject is going to make it. At best, this is likely to be ineffectual, at worst it’s possible it could change the good decision (sit out) into a bad decision (push back).

      Is there any data on domestic CVE implementations that could help assess these kinds of risks? I don’t remember seeing anything outlining the programs that exist, where they exist and who they targeted, and what outcomes if any have been measured.

  3. Even in the UK I do recall this incident, Clint you are right to ask whether CVE could work in Kettle Falls, Washington State.

    I doubt that the UK official advocates of our CVE, known as PVE, will admit without local public and non-government support there is very little the state can do. The UK also effectively ignored non-Islamic Jihad groups, such as the BNP & EDL (right wing, nationalist extremists).

    In the UK much was made of “shared values” at one stage of PVE, I’m not sure the ‘white supremacist and anti-government folks’ in Washington State share many of the values CVE advocates.

    A lot of hard thought is required at the local level for effective CVE. How would people react to on-line criticism, even petrol bombing (which has happened here)? I suspect most people will take the easiest course, stay away.

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