Last week the Department for Homeland Security (DHS) announced a welcome raft of further measures to address the threat of domestic violent extremism in the United States. The new measures, including the creation of a new Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships (CP3) and establishing a new domestic terrorism branch within the DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis, represent the latest and most significant practical actions taken by the new administration to make good on the election promise to “heal” a deeply divided America.
Joe Biden had launched his presidential campaign back in 2019 with a video condemning the vitriol and toxicity on display during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA that took place two years earlier. He remarked that the threat to the country was “unlike any I have seen in my lifetime” and later claimed that it was the scenes of torch-bearing Klansman and neo-Nazis descending on the city that prompted his decision to enter the race for the Oval Office as a force for good in what he described as the “battle for the soul of the nation”. It was therefore clear from the off that domestic extremism would be nestled firmly among the highest-priority policy issues for the incoming administration. The US Capitol siege on 6 January will, however, have further crystallised the sheer scale of the threat posed by the far-right that had reared its ugly head in Charlottesville four years earlier. It will also have inevitably injected policymakers with the sense of urgency that has been reflected in the speed at which the administration has taken active steps to combat violent extremism at home so far.
Signs of Progress
Within the first 100 days of the administration, the DHS and the Justice Department had committed to making domestic extremism a priority policy issue for the first time. The former doubled the size of the grant made available for domestic community-based initiatives designed to prevent terrorism and targeted violence to $20 million, and mandated that state, local and tribal agencies receiving DHS grants direct 7.5 per cent or a minimum of $77 million from allocated funds to train police officers and improve interstate intelligence sharing. The National Security Council has already been bolstered with officials from the FBI, National Counter-Terrorism Centre and the Justice Department, and recently the US has also committed to the international Christchurch Call to Action to address the threat of extremism online. A bi-partisan agreement has also been reached to establish a commission investigating the events of 6 January. There have also been reports the President is planning to appoint a “domestic terrorism czar” to the Office of the Director for National Intelligence (ODNI) as well as issue an executive order to reform the government's guidance on updating the terrorism watch-list.
All of the above was preceded and informed by an assessment of the threat to national security posed by domestic violent extremism conducted by the US Intelligence Community (IC) and commissioned by the President two days after taking office – which in itself marked significant progress from the previous administration. During the Trump presidency, for political purposes there had been a reluctance to publicly acknowledge the threat of domestic extremism from the far-right and a tendency to exaggerate the terrorist threat posed both by the far-left and from across the southern border. An assessment at odds with the findings of the IC review. In contrast, as one US law enforcement official put it “we now have a description of the threat that has been blessed by the full breadth of the intelligence community. That is in itself is a significant development”. Further still, it is an assessment endorsed by the sitting Commander in Chief – and one which should build a shared understanding of the threat across government and sow the seeds for effective cross-sectoral engagement to address it. While alignment on issues of national security between the Oval Office, the IC and broader government would typically be taken as a given, it’s now a sign of promise.
Unsurprisingly the report itself concluded that domestic violent extremism is now an “elevated threat to the homeland”. Doubling down before House Homeland Security Committee in March 2021, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas went on to claim: “While we remain vigilant about the threat of foreign terrorism, ideologically motivated domestic violent extremism now poses the most lethal and persistent terrorism-related threat to the homeland today."
This is significant, as though for 20 years the US has been the chief protagonist in the global war on terror, the policy focus has centred almost exclusively on addressing the threat of terrorism overseas - principally violent Islamist extremism. While prioritisation of the threat of ‘international’ terrorism had certainly been warranted, it needlessly came at the expense of neglecting the domestic threat picture. The tables have now turned, and the new administration is on a mission to address the glaring dissonance between its traditional policy focus on international terrorism and the reality of the current threat landscape. Last weeks announcements marked the latest steps in that mission.
The newly established CP3 will leverage behavioural threat assessment and management tools, and through the development of local preventative frameworks aim to address “the early risk-factors that can lead to radicalisation to violence”. In this instance radicalisation is a term used by the DHS to describe the process by which individuals come to believe use of unlawful violence is necessary, regardless of whether it is or isn’t ideologically motivated. Therefore, consistent with the remit of the Office of Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (OTVTP) established under the Trump administration, which the CP3 replaces, the scope of the new centre aims to address violent domestic threats of all forms including, but not limited to, domestic violent extremism. In doing so, it recognises that while violent extremism is a unique challenge, once we subtract its ideological lens, the types of early risk factors and grievances that can increase vulnerability to radicalisation in the traditional sense can also explain why individuals end up engaging in other forms of violent criminal activity. Through its initiatives, the CP3 therefore operates at a pre-radicalisation stage to address the vulnerabilities preyed upon by extremists and other nefarious actors for the purposes of radicalisation and recruitment.
This approach generally mirrors the principles that traditionally define the field of preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE), an umbrella term that came into fashion during the Obama era to categorise non-coercive measures implemented by governmental and non-governmental actors to address the spread and appeal of extremism, often at a pre-radicalisation stage and at a community level. Renewed government commitment to these principles will come as positive news to experts across the counter-extremism space who have lobbied tirelessly for such an approach for several years. Indeed, preventative initiatives grounded in a whole-of-society approach form the backbone to counter-extremism strategies that have been implemented with relative success in allied countries such as the UK, Germany and Norway for over a decade.
The Road Ahead
However, we’ve been here before. The US has dabbled in this area under both Obama and Trump, though as well intentioned as these earlier domestic P/CVE efforts may have been, a series of practical challenges including inadequate resourcing; inconsistent federal level leadership and coordination; unclear and conflated federal and local level initiatives; and an overemphasis on law enforcement engagement that has made it difficult to build trust with communities, meant they were doomed to fail. The public manipulation of the threat picture and divisive rhetoric espoused from the highest office in the land during the previous administration also did not help – rather it counterproductively “fanned the flames of prejudice and emboldened hate groups at home”.
Therefore, whilst it is encouraging that a history of flawed implementation has not deterred the administration from expressing a recommitment to the general principles of prevention and community engagement - optimism must remain cautious. As the IC threat assessment would attest, the stakes are much higher now. If the US is to launch a successful campaign against the now well-established threat of domestic violent extremism it must learn from the mistakes of its past. Promises of a renewed emphasis on prevention and community engagement look great on paper, but this time the US must put its money where its mouth is and commit.
That means backing initiatives with adequate resources and finding ways to navigate the jurisdictional red tape that has hamstrung federal and local government coordination in previous efforts. It also means no longer over-investing in law enforcement-centric initiatives as had been the case under the OTVTP, and more equitably distributing the award of grant funding across a broader range of societal actors including domestic NGOs, local community centres, social service workers, mental health professionals and those within formal and non-formal education settings. Finally, it means addressing the fact that the US has never had a strategy for preventing terrorism and targeted violence at home to guide and coordinate activities. Twenty years on from 9/11, this still needs fixing.
Lead Image: Getty Images