Left of Boom
Remaking the Global War on Terror
“CVE is the squishy stuff,” Tanvir Rahman abruptly explained as I settled into his office. For Rahman, if counterterrorism (CT) denoted the use of “human intelligence, surveillance, and kinetic means” to fight terrorism, then “CVE is not CT.” Researcher Adrian Baker similarly described CVE as “different from counterterrorism.” These common refrains defined CVE as an alternative to “law enforcement–centric” antiterrorism methods like FBI stings, preemptive prosecutions, surveillance, and “all kinds of things like that” (Baker, interview, January 27, 2017). Most practitioners distinguished CVE from counterterrorism, evident in Rahman’s eager commentary.
National security experts similarly defined CVE in contradistinction to counterterrorism. Humera Khan (2015), for example, described CVE as “the use of non-coercive means to dissuade individuals or groups from mobilizing towards violence, and to mitigate recruitment, support, or engagement in ideologically-motivated or -justified terrorism by non-state actors in furtherance of political objectives” (para. 3, emphasis in original). Daniel Glickman characterized CVE as “the solution to the problem of violent extremism that looks to non-kinetic and non-coercive toolkits” because “you can’t kill or arrest” every perceived threat (participant observation, March 29, 2017). Retired FBI senior advisor Matt Rogers more evocatively described CVE as the “fourth way,” a viable alternative to “handcuffs, body bags, and the closed case file” (participant observation, October 7, 2016). These experts carefully defined CVE in opposition to more aggressive counterterrorism tactics.
To better understand CVE as “not CT,” this chapter explores what constitutes counterterrorism and the contexts that led the United States to develop “squishy” national security methods. I map what Baker described as the “stylistic” and “substantive” shifts that ushered in a “new set of policies and strategies” now known as countering violent extremism. More specifically, this chapter locates CVE within the ongoing oscillations in the global war on terror, shifting between conventional warfighting, counterterrorism, and counterinsurgency. Through this genealogical excavation, I examine how the distinction between CVE and counterterrorism is “fuzzy at best” (Ayat 2017, para. 15).
Following the Squishy Stuff: From Conventional War to Counterinsurgency
In an August 2004 speech, President George W. Bush lamented that “we actually misnamed the war on terror” and proposed that the war “ought to be the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies, who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world.” Although the Washington Post reduced the proposed renaming to a “malapropism” and satirically suggested the abbreviation SAIEWDNBIFSWHTUTAAWTTTSTCOTFW, Bush’s speech marked the beginning of a concerted but fitful effort to rebrand the global war on terror (Milbank 2004, para. 3). Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (2006), for example, traded the term “global war on terror” for “global struggle against violent extremism.” National Security Advisor Steven Hadley similarly defined a “global struggle against extremism,” which demanded more than military intervention to win (as quoted in Schmitt and Shanker 2005). Reframing the global war on terror as the global struggle against violent extremism—G-SAVE for short—initiated a strategic effort to recast the war and to widen its scope to include “all of the tools of statecraft, economic influence, and private enterprise” (Hadley, as quoted in M. Davis 2005). The attempted rebranding of the global war on terror indicated equivocation both in the U.S. military strategy and in the dominant narrative shaping the public’s understanding of that military strategy. In this section, I examine these oscillations in the global war on terror, necessary precursors to the development of the CVE framework in the United States.
Counterterrorism: The Rise of the Intelligence Industry and Targeted Assassinations
After the September 11 attacks, President Bush invaded Afghanistan (2001) using special operations forces to assassinate terrorist leaders, aerial bombardments to destroy terrorist training camps, and the provision of financial and military aid to support the Afghan Northern Alliance. In his presidential address to the nation, Bush (2001d) reported that the U.S. military had begun “strikes against al-Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.” Bush argued that these “carefully targeted actions [were] designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.” Rather than engage in conventional warfare, Bush initiated a series of remote and special operations to kill terrorists and destroy their networks. To support these “kill or capture” efforts, Bush ordered the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) (2012) to “collect real-time, actionable intelligence” that could guide targeted assassinations, drones strikes, and special operations raids. These intelligence-driven operations formulated the basis of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan.
According to the counterterrorism paradigm, terrorism “is caused by specific individuals or groups that use violence to attack state interests” and “results from a lack of state capacity to maintain a monopoly on force” (Schirch 2015, 1). Given this understanding of terrorism, U.S. counterterrorism operations involve active measures to find and destroy terrorist organizations or cells, like drone strikes guided by signals- and human-intelligence. These “kinetic” and “enemy-centric” practices form the core of U.S. counterterrorism strategy, most evident in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
The twenty-first century rise of U.S. counterterrorism marks a “discernible shift in combat into the shadow spaces of covert and robotic wars, and a focus on special operations, remote warfare, and intelligence-gathering” (Khalili 2015, 2). By deploying these counterterrorism operations, U.S. military strategists shifted war away from the battlefield and toward more nimble technologies, including drone strikes and special operations raids to “neutralize” terrorists. Despite legal bans on assassinations—“targeted killings” in counterterrorism parlance—the U.S. liberal political culture has justified and enabled these assassinations as progressive alternatives to more indiscriminate warfighting.
In a normalizing society, state racism intervenes to authorize killing “not only its enemies but its own citizens” in the name of national security (Foucault 2003, 254). Rather than only manage, regulate, and discipline populations, the U.S. security state exercises sovereign power—the right to kill—through these counterterrorism tactics, like President Obama’s secret “kill list,” a macabre catalog of suspected terrorists pursued by the U.S. military. Racism “justifies the death-function in the economy of biopower by appealing to the principle that the death of others makes one biologically stronger” (258). With “racism [as] the precondition that makes killing acceptable,” the U.S. security state generates public support for its murderous functions by framing constant surveillance, drone strikes, and targeted assassinations as necessary methods to improve the health and security of U.S. society (256). The U.S. public accepts calibrated violence against populations that putatively pose a civilizational threat to the nation.
This approach is predicated on the principle of the lesser evil, “often presented as a dilemma between two or more bad choices in situations where available options are, or seem to be, limited. The choice made justifies the pursuit of harmful actions that would be otherwise deemed unacceptable in the hope of averting even greater suffering” (Weizman 2011, 6). As a cold political calculus organized around the economy of violence, the principle of the lesser evil suggests that moderated killing can arrest more lethal violence. In his 2015 State of the Union address, for example, President Obama declared that “we will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks” and “reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we’ve done relentlessly since I took office, to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies.” For Obama (2015c), the extrajudicial killing of a few preemptively prevented deadlier violence in the form of a terrorist attack, despite the growing number of civilian deaths his “surgical strikes” accrued.
To support these global efforts, the United States has enhanced its domestic counterterrorism operations, particularly through the passing of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA Patriot Act). The 2001 Patriot Act “was the first of many changes to surveillance laws that made it easier for the government to spy on ordinary Americans” (American Civil Liberties Union, “Surveillience under the Patriot Act,” para. 1). Through the Patriot Act, FBI agents could use self-issued subpoenas to obtain the phone, computer, credit, and banking histories of everyday people. In addition, NSA agents began conducting “warrantless surveillance” by monitoring phone calls, text messages, and internet activity without public or judicial oversight and in violation of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Patriot Act expanded the U.S. security state’s authority to surveil, monitor, and police Muslim communities in the United States.
Given the authorization of these expansive surveillance practices, the NYPD recruited “mosque crawlers” who acted as inside observers in mosques, reporting on sermons and employing a “create and capture” method to “create” conversations about terrorism and “capture” and report these responses to law enforcement (American Civil Liberties Union, “Factsheet,” n.d.). The NYPD also tasked undercover police officers with “raking the coals” to find terrorist “hotspots” by monitoring conversations at sites frequented by Muslims, including restaurants and sports venues. The NYPD also surveilled Muslim students and student groups “far beyond the city limits” in the name of national security (Gilson, Park, and Vicens 2013). To do so, undercover informants trawled Muslim student websites, attended student group meetings, and participated in events, like a whitewater rafting trip, to record student names and the number of times each student prayed. Oftentimes, the FBI entrapped Muslims to force them to serve as informants in these covert operations under the threat of prosecution, incarceration, and/or deportation. Through these criminalizing technologies of control, the U.S. security state has treated Muslims as the enemy within—incipient homegrown terrorists (Aaronson 2013).
As these examples illustrate, the September 11 attacks authorized the massive expansion of domestic surveillance targeting Muslim communities, which articulates with global military operations. As Deepa Kumar (2012) observes, “While the foreign policy establishment oversees the war on terror enemy abroad, the law enforcement apparatus targets the enemy at home. The net result is a spectacle of terrorism that is constantly kept alive in the American imagination” (140). Domestic counterterrorism practices have contributed to broader global war on terror operations.
Within the United States, political leaders historically have utilized counterterrorism strategies like targeted assassinations, intelligence-gathering activities, and coercive policing to neutralize political dissidents and repress communities of color perceived to threaten state interests while supporting U.S. military operations abroad. In fact, the desire to deter, destroy, and disrupt subversive activities domestically facilitated the rapid growth of the FBI shortly after its inception in 1908. Across history, U.S. presidents and their attorneys general have “directed the FBI to investigate individuals and organizations engaged in what others might characterize as political advocacy,” even if they did not violate federal law (Theoharis 2000, 2). These FBI activities eventually evolved into formal domestic counterterrorism programs used to dismantle “terrorist” groups perceived to threaten state interests like the Black Panthers and, more recently, Black Lives Matter organizers and Indigenous water protectors. Today, the FBI serves as the lead federal law enforcement agency in domestic counterterrorism operations, which have included the use of deadly force, as in the 2016 FBI killing of suspected extremist Usaamah Rahim. I track the FBI’s genealogy to map the emergence of domestic counterterrorism within the United States, which informs contemporary security regimes.
With the 1914 onset of World War I, for example, President Woodrow Wilson feared that domestic protests could disrupt national efforts to mobilize an effective military response, increase military spending, and raise a conscript army. Wilson also worried that the U.S. public might commit espionage or sabotage military shipments, a growing concern after the discovery of explosive devices in ships bound for Allied countries. Given these concerns, the Wilson administration passed the 1917 Espionage Act, which, in part, prohibited oral and written statements “with the intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies . . . or cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States.” Political organizers who protested the war or the newly instituted military draft faced prosecution.
During this time, the FBI convicted over two thousand individuals under the Espionage Act, “but none involved espionage or sabotage by German operatives or their American sympathizers” (Theoharis 2000, 7). Instead, the FBI targeted Socialist Party members, labor union organizers, and pro-German and pro-Irish activists. In 2013, the U.S. government charged whistleblower Edward Snowden with three felonies for leaking classified security documents to journalist Glenn Greenwald, including two counts under the Espionage Act. The U.S. government continues to use the Espionage Act to punish political dissidents in the name of national security.
The vocabularies of the 1917 Espionage Act drew from the 1798 Sedition Act, which prohibited public opposition to the U.S. government, punishing those who “write, print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous, and malicious writing” intending to “stir up sedition.” The Sedition Act guarded against insurrections by European immigrants following the French Revolution as well as Irish rebellions in the United States. The United States historically has criminalized political dissidents as threats to state interests and national security, particularly in times of imminent or ongoing war.
In 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer established a special FBI “Radical Division”—renamed the General Intelligence Division (GID)—to “collect and collate all information about radical political activities” uncovered by the bureau and other law enforcement agencies (Theoharis 2000, 8). The newly formed GID quickly amassed over two hundred thousand dossiers on radical organizers, which the FBI used to raid the offices of the Union of Russian Workers in twelve U.S. cities and eventually deported 249 of the arrestees.
In 1920, FBI agents provocateurs—undercover agents who incite others to commit a crime to facilitate arrests—infiltrated communist organizations. These FBI activities led to the 1920 Palmer Raids, resulting in the arrest of some fourteen thousand communists in thirty-three cities across the United States. The FBI framed the raids as enforcing immigration laws rather than repressing the communist movement. Yet the raids sought to “publicize the seriousness of the radical threat” to gain support for the policing of political dissidence (Theoharis 2000, 9).
Through these raids, the FBI sought to dismantle the growing radical left in the name of national security. To discredit the communist movement following the raids, the FBI invited reporters “to view and photograph the unkempt and bearded radicals (confirming the stereotypical image of mad bombers)” (Theoharis 2000, 9). In addition, “press reports glowingly characterized the raids not as deportation proceedings but as the successful containment of a potentially revolutionary threat” (9). Despite these efforts to discredit the radical left, the U.S. public criticized the FBI’s use of agents provocateurs to incite criminal activities and the “lack of legal authority to enforce immigration laws” (8). The Palmer Raids tarnished the FBI’s reputation and diminished public approval for these tactics. Despite this fallout, the FBI continues to use agents provocateurs, undercover informants, and raids to manage and criminalize political organizers.
In 1924, J. Edgar Hoover was promoted to FBI director, an appointment that intentionally initiated administrative reforms to rein in surveillance, including illegal wiretapping. Despite these changes, Hoover continued the FBI’s war on political dissidents by developing the 1956 Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO). Drawing from previous domestic counterterrorism operations, COINTELPRO tasked the FBI with conducting blanket surveillance by using undercover informants and agents provocateurs to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, and otherwise neutralize” the “terrorist” activities of groups like the Communist Party and, later, the Socialist Workers Party, the Black Panther Party, and the Ku Klux Klan (Hoover 1967). COINTELPRO therefore surveilled and sometimes assassinated community organizers like Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, ushering in an era of lethal force to manage political dissidents perceived to threaten the nation and its interests.
To achieve these goals, Hoover (1968) directed the FBI to “pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them before they exercise their potential for violence” and to “prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining RESPECTABILITY by discrediting them” (3). To do so, the FBI “replicated the tactics that had been employed during wartime operations against foreign intelligence agencies,” including the use of informants, propaganda, and disinformation to delegitimize and destabilize targeted groups (Theoharis 2000, 127). As a repressive project that included lethal force, COINTELPRO sought to disrupt all political organizing that challenged the state’s legitimacy and authority, from communists to the Black Panthers.
The 1976 Church Committee report on the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations revealed that “nonviolent organizations and individuals were targeted because the Bureau believed they represented a ‘potential’ for violence.” The FBI therefore “conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect national security and deter violence” (Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities 1976). Today, the FBI and other agencies target Muslim communities through similar anticipatory tactics, on the same theory that political and religious organizing represent a “potential” for violence and therefore pose a possible if not imminent threat to U.S. national security.
This long legacy bears on contemporary FBI practices aimed at policing political and religious organizing through surveillance, entrapment, and lethal force, particularly in communities of color. The FBI (2018) continues to “neutralize terrorist cells and operatives here in the U.S., help dismantle extremist networks worldwide, and cut off financing and other forms of support provided to foreign terrorist organizations by terrorist sympathizers.” U.S. intelligence agencies, for example, worked with private security firm TigerSwan to disrupt the 2016–2017 Indigenous NoDAPL protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which transports (and leaks) crude oil across Indigenous lands. To do so, TigerSwan approached Indigenous organizers as “jihadists” engaged in an “ideologically-driven insurgency with a strong religious component.” Despite the NoDAPL movement’s use of peaceful resistance and civil disobedience, TigerSwan called for “aggressive intelligence preparation of the battlefield and active coordination between intelligence and security elements.” Drawing from COINTELPRO tactics, TigerSwan also sought to delegitimize and disrupt the protests by exploiting “ongoing native versus non-native rifts, and tribal rifts between peaceful and violent elements” as well as filing an unsubstantiated racketeering lawsuit against environmentalist groups that have supported the NoDAPL movement (documents obtained by the Intercept). By describing Indigenous water protectors as “jihadists,” the U.S. security state authorized coercive, if not lethal, force to destroy the political movement.
Since the 1600s, the United States has surveilled, monitored, and punished political organizing by communities of color, including settler rebellions, Indigenous resistance, and slave revolts. These abusive systems of power continue to haunt domestic security regimes as well as global military operations focused more exclusively on targeted assassinations and remote warfare. One former FBI agent even explained that the U.S. security state has used “exactly the same terminology and methodology to suppress the labor movement and civil rights movement and now the Muslim community. It’s political suppression” (participant observation, April 21, 2017). From this perspective, CVE has continued the U.S. legacy of “political suppression” by targeting politically active communities of color as terrorist threats, from Indigenous water protectors to Black Lives Matter organizers. Although racialization and colonization are neither analogous nor equivalent, these two distinct global systems of dominance, and the various technologies of control and degradation on which they depend, operate as conjoined state projects whose continuities bear on contemporary security regimes (Lowe 2015; Byrd 2011). As we will see, despite the common refrain that “CVE is not CT,” this new antiterrorism framework has contributed to and articulated with ongoing efforts to neutralize perceived threats through coercive tactics on both domestic and global fronts.
Recalibrating the Global War on Terror: From Hard to Smart Power
Despite the primacy of counterterrorism, it is only one tactic that the U.S. security state deploys to maintain dominance. Unlike Afghanistan, the 2003 invasion of Iraq began as a conventional, albeit profoundly asymmetric, war. The United States deployed ground troops, which quickly conquered Iraq’s major cities. Notwithstanding these early military victories, U.S. soldiers confronted Iraqi resistance fueled by growing civilian deaths and the prolonged military occupation. Given the increased attacks on U.S. troops and declining public support for the war, the Bush administration sought less lethal strategies that could engage civil society and mitigate resistance.
As radicalization theories gained prominence and the war raged on, the Bush administration ushered in new strategies for the “global struggle against violent extremism.” Military strategists, for example, recognized that “you can’t just confront terror on the battlefield, that if we really want people to stop people blowing themselves up—terrorist attacks—we have to continue the operational and tactical stuff . . . but we really need to prevent people from finding these ideologies and these narratives appealing in the first place” (Susan Bailey, participant observation, May 16, 2017). For the Bush administration, the “2005–2006 era” marked a concerted effort to recalibrate its war strategy to integrate more complex tools to prevent the “regeneration” of the radical ideologies perceived to fuel terrorism (Thomas Vincent, participant observation, May 16, 2017).
In 2006, President Bush announced his “Strategy for Victory in Iraq: Clear, Hold, and Build,” a plan supported by a 2007 “troop surge.” Instead of only killing and capturing its enemies, the U.S. military sought to clear a contested territory of insurgents; to hold, or defend, the city from insurgent influence; and to work with local leaders to rebuild local economic, political, and government infrastructures to “win hearts and minds” (Office of the Press Secretary 2006, para. 5). U.S. soldiers, for example, played soccer with Iraqi children, handed out coloring books, and developed relationships with Iraqi families. In addition, Bush deployed special operations forces, which covertly assassinated insurgents and detained enemy combatants, civilian suspects, and civilian populations inclined to support the insurgency (Khalili 2015, 2). Through its development of a “clear, hold, and build” strategy, the United States began redefining the global war on terror as an intimate struggle for legitimacy that prioritized political tactics over military aggression. As the U.S. public grew weary of the protracted military operations and soldiers’ repeated deployments, the discursive shift toward the global struggle against violent extremism matched the (re)emergence of a new war strategy.
Although the 2007 troop surge initiated efforts to fight a smarter, more complex war, U.S. policymakers also planned to scale back military operations, ultimately authorizing a complete withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011 and increasing the use of technologies like drones to conduct assassinations without ground troops. The scaling up and scaling down of U.S. troops in Iraq reflects “on the fly” efforts to develop more effective global war on terror strategies, sometimes shifting or blending theories of change in the process (Kilcullen 2010, ix). As the U.S. war in Iraq indicates, these multiple approaches to the global war on terror have been messy, dynamic, and blurred. CVE is the result of the ongoing oscillations between global war on terror strategies and growing recognition that the United States could not “kill or arrest” every perceived threat, both domestically and globally. The United States needed to integrate more complex antiterrorism methods to support the “operational and tactic stuff.”
An ideological shift from culturalist to reformist understandings of “Muslim extremism” facilitated this shift in war strategy. Informed by Samuel P. Huntington’s (1996) “clash of civilizations” thesis, culturalists frame Islam as inherently incompatible with the West, a cultural divide that provokes intractable conflict. Because “Muslim extremists are a threat to Western civilization,” culturalists contend that “the state can legitimately use wide-ranging emergency powers to counter them,” whether through drone strikes, special registries, or FBI stings (Kundnani 2014, 63). The cultural clash between Islam and the West demands an aggressive approach to national security both domestically and globally.
Reformist thinkers, however, reject the culturalist thesis, arguing that violent extremists rely on “distorted” or “perverse” interpretations of Islam. As reformist thinking has gained prominence within terrorism studies, U.S. military planners have sought a more complex war strategy aligned with these new understandings. A U.S.-Muslim Engagement Project report (2008), for example, explained that “policies and actions—not a clash of civilizations—are at the root of our divisions” (1). This report concluded that “it has become clear that military force may be necessary, but not sufficient, to defeat violent extremists in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, or to prevent attacks elsewhere” (1). In this view, military strategists needed to elevate diplomatic efforts to resolve conflict, enhance local governance and civic participation, catalyze job growth, and improve mutual respect between Muslims and non-Muslims through the coordinated efforts of federal, state, local, and private institutions. In this view, the “kill or capture” military strategy had proven ineffective and even counterproductive, necessitating more complex methods of fighting global insurgencies, both at home and abroad.
Political scientist Joseph S. Nye Jr. (2009) similarly advised that “the United States and its allies cannot defeat Islamist terrorism if the number of people the extremists are recruiting is larger than the number of extremists killed or deterred” (160). Although “hard power” could “deal with” individual terrorists like Osama bin Laden through targeted assassinations, “soft power is needed to reduce the extremists’ numbers and win the hearts and minds of the mainstream” (163). “Smart power” integrated both kinetic and non-kinetic measures to gain the support of “mainstream” Muslims and prevent insurgent regeneration similar to the clear, hold, and build method used in Iraq (163). Smart power narrowed its focus on gaining legitimacy, winning the approval of the “uncommitted middle,” and supporting “mainstream” or “moderate” Muslims (U.S. Army/Marine Corps 2007). As the United States struggled to gain legitimacy in Iraq and Afghanistan, its war strategists pursued alternative approaches that relied on both military force and rebuilding civil society to quell insurgent regeneration.
Shifting the Center of Gravity: The Counterinsurgency Turn
This more complex approach to warfighting is known as counterinsurgency, a distinct state struggle to regain legitimacy and quash dissent through “military, paramilitary, economic, psychological, and civil actions” (U.S. Army/Marine Corps 2007, 1–2). In the counterinsurgency paradigm, problems in the state-society relationship drive “non-state armed groups”—insurgents—to “use violence to attack state interests” (Schirch 2016, 150). “Insurgency” therefore refers to “an organized, protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government, occupying power, or other political authority while increasing insurgent control” (U.S. Army/Marine Corps 2007, 2). The counterinsurgency theory of change involves destroying, isolating, and undermining insurgents and their narratives as well as winning the hearts and minds of the general population. Recognizing the limits of lethal force, this approach integrates humanitarian, development, and diplomatic efforts with military, intelligence, and police operations. This means that counterinsurgency combines enemy-centric methods to destroy insurgents with population-centric efforts to listen to, understand, and win the support of local communities.
Remaking earlier U.S. counterinsurgency strategies of the mid-1900s, these efforts seek to “secure the civilian, rather than destroy the enemy” (Sewall 2007, xxv). In contrast to an enemy-centric war strategy that relies only on lethal and coercive force, a population-centric approach engages in “perception-shifting” to “influence attitudes and alliances with the population at large” (Bhungalia 2015, 2312). According to counterinsurgency doctrine, “the civilian population is the center of gravity—the deciding factor in the struggle. Therefore, civilians must be separated from insurgents to insulate them from insurgent pressure,” ultimately “isolating, weakening, and defeating the insurgents” (Sewall 2007, xxv). Instead of destroying the enemy on the battlefield, this type of warfighting works to persuade civilians to denounce the insurgency. These efforts “defeat the regenerating capacity” of insurgent networks, making this approach more effective than the “kill or capture” strategy (Vincent, participant observation, May 16, 2017).
Although the counterinsurgency turn in the global war on terror ushered in softer antiterrorism tools, it did not abandon remote warfare or other counterterrorism tactics, evident in the rise of drone strikes, targeted assassinations, dragnet surveillance, and FBI stings under both the Obama and Trump administrations. For an established, interim, or occupying government to regain legitimacy and authority, it must “eliminate those extremists whose beliefs prevent them from ever reconciling with the government,” isolate the general population from insurgent pressures, gain the support of the “uncommitted middle,” “provide the security and rule of law that allow establishment of social services and growth of economic activity,” and facilitate “people taking charge of their own affairs and consenting to the government’s rule” (U.S. Army/Marine Corps 2007, 2). U.S. counterinsurgency operations therefore deploy both kinetic and non-kinetic methods to suppress insurgent movements.
The pivot toward counterinsurgency signified a broader “cultural turn” in the global war on terror. War strategists blamed U.S. soldiers’ misunderstandings of Iraq’s cultural terrain for their early military failures. The U.S. military therefore sought greater “cultural awareness” to improve its global war on terror operations (Scales 2004, 2). U.S. Major General Robert Scales (2004), for example, explained that “intimate knowledge of the enemy’s motivation, intent, will, tactical method, and cultural environment has proven to be far more important for success than the deployment of smart bombs, unmanned aircraft, and expansive bandwidth” (2). The U.S. military has committed significant resources to anthropologically studying the cultural and social aspects of its targets of war with the help of academics. The U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System (2007–2014), for instance, deployed social scientists alongside combat troops “to support operationally relevant decision-making, to develop a knowledge base, and to enable socio-cultural understanding across the operational environment” (U.S. Army 2013). By building relationships with local communities, social scientists curated intimate cultural knowledge not as a “substitute for killing” but, rather, as a “prerequisite for its refinement” (Gregory 2008, 8).
Consonant with this cultural turn, counterinsurgency operations depend on “conflict ethnography,” whereby the “professional counterinsurgent” engages in a “close reading” of the “physical, human, informational, and ideological setting[s] in which the conflict takes place” (Kilcullen 2007, para. 11). The cultivation of “cultural capability” depends on “extensive partnership with, and reliance on, local populations and security forces” as “only locals have the access to the population and deep understanding of a particular insurgency that is necessary to combat it” (Kilcullen 2010, 224). Community engagement serves as a key feature of the cultural turn in the global war on terror, as it fosters relationships with the local community, facilitates intelligence gathering, and fortifies the legitimacy of the U.S. military, all critical in the struggle to win hearts and minds. As we will see, CVE similarly has relied on community engagement to advance its mission through both kinetic and non-kinetic antiterrorism methods. In fact, the shift to the “global struggle against violent extremism” shaped both global and domestic war on terror operations through the introduction of hard and soft technologies of control to prevent the regenerating capacity of extremist ideology.
To facilitate this community engagement, the United States has worked domestically and globally to build partnerships with local populations and enhance national security through the strategic provision of humanitarian aid and other social services. In principle, humanitarian aid reduces suffering and responds to crises through the administration of life-sustaining services like medical assistance, food and water, and shelter to those most in need. In this framing, humanitarian aid mitigates the effects of war, violence, or prolonged conflict.
The strategic delivery of basic provisions to win hearts and minds, however, securitizes humanitarian aid. Historically and presently, humanitarian aid can justify, advance, or fuel war, as the United States decides who receives aid, for what purposes, and under what conditions. As a key tactic in perception-shifting, the securitization of humanitarian aid contributes to grander counterinsurgency strategy.
Although humanitarian aid organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) uphold principles of impartiality and neutrality, John Cosgrave (2004) reports that “aid decisions are increasingly being weighted in terms of security and foreign policy rather than on humanitarian goals” (1). The “changing patterns of who gets aid can only be explained in terms of broader foreign policy” (Cosgrave 2004, 2). In 2003, for example, the United States directed $20 billion in humanitarian aid to the reconstruction of and regime change within Iraq, despite ongoing humanitarian crises in sub-Saharan Africa. Aid diversions from Africa to Iraq highlight just one example of this shift.
The securitization of humanitarian aid involves “picking who is a terrorist and who is an ally,” a political determination that dictates the distribution of aid, eschewing the humanitarian commitment to neutrality. As foreign policy, humanitarian aid, and war cohere, agencies evaluate the “importance and usefulness” of potential recipients in the global war on terror, a key metric in determining who does and does not receive aid (participant observation, April 21, 2017). Geopolitical selectivity undermines humanitarianism’s core principles of impartiality and neutrality (however flawed) and refashions aid as a critical global war on terror tool.
Contravening “traditional” humanitarians who view aid as apolitical and neutral, “new” humanitarians connect their aid efforts to development, democratization, and the general improvement of the human condition (Burde 2007; Nan 2010). These emerging efforts include the provision of educational services, thereby refuting the notion that education is “an indulgence that can be postponed till the development phase of reconstruction” (Cahill 2010, 1). Although new humanitarians view education in emergencies as a means to protect children, rebuild communities, and address the psychosocial needs of children, educational aid can be instrumentalized in the service of foreign policy or used to fuel conflict (Sobe 2007; Novelli 2010b). Since militaries and insurgents often attack and close schools as a part of their war strategy, the provision of educational services is a political act that can garner support, shift perceptions, and win hearts and minds.
In addition, the United States has mobilized education to Americanize aid recipients through the inculcation of U.S. beliefs, cultures, and ways of life. Donor states, for example, can impose certain conditions for the delivery of educational aid, including the importation of U.S. textbooks, languages, teachers, and pedagogies. In the current context, educational aid can be used to “induce policy change” by “using education as a means of socializing target populations towards accepting Western and capitalist hegemony” in ways that support the political agendas of donor states (Novelli 2010b, 453). Given the inherently political nature of education, educational aid can be “reduced to a political commodity” or “used by politicians to manufacture the consent of loyal supporters or to deprive societies of progress” (Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned 2010, 7). The delivery of educational aid can be, and is, strategically deployed in the development, security, and economic interests of donor states.
Taking this tack, President Obama (2010) appealed to the U.N. Development Summit for continued investment in global development, particularly related to poverty, health, and education. Obama proffered that “in our global economy, progress in even the poorest countries can advance the prosperity and security of people beyond their borders, including my fellow Americans.” Obama also argued that “when millions of fathers cannot provide for their families, it feeds the despair that can fuel instability and violent extremism,” thereby inextricably linking national security and global development. Through such a gendered call, Obama refuted the “old myth” that “development is mere charity that does not serve our interests.” Economist Jishnu Das (2010) more poignantly asked, “Why bother with humanitarian aid if you have no chance of winning the hearts and minds of recipients?” (para. 2). For both Obama and Das, humanitarian aid, including education, is a critical counterinsurgency tool domestically and globally.
To justify this development approach to national security, Obama appealed to the U.S. public through humanitarian and democratic ideals. Obama (2010), for instance, argued that U.S. investment in global development was “rooted in America’s enduring commitment to the dignity and potential of every human being.” This liberal rhetoric, however, “has long been deployed in the interest of imperial aims” (Kumar 2012, 123). Today, U.S. empire depends on liberal commitments to human rights, democracy, and national security rather than the “civilizing mission” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These liberal precepts justify war as well as the humanitarian, development, and diplomatic interventions that support U.S. military operations.
The securitization of humanitarian aid contributes to grander counterinsurgency strategy, evident in the continued “comingling of militaristic and humanitarian forces, coercion and governance, destructive and productive technologies, and war and law” (Bhungalia 2015, 2312). As a theory of war guided by liberal precepts, counterinsurgency emphasizes managing civilian populations and winning hearts and minds through economic development, service provision, humanitarian aid, and calculated violence. As a recalibrated military strategy, counterinsurgency doctrine responds to the perceived failures of the global war on terror and advances a perceptively less lethal approach to warfighting.
Playing Nice: Toward Full-Spectrum Dominance through Community-Oriented Policing
Through the domestic application of counterinsurgency principles, the U.S. security state deploys a “careful balance of hard and soft controls,” including a reliance on community outreach and the securitization of social services to support domestic and global antiterrorism operations (Insolacion 2013, 188). To prevent the regenerating capacity of insurgent networks within the United States, law enforcement agencies have renewed their community policing efforts. In the community-oriented policing paradigm, community members serve as coproducers of public safety. In this view, coproducing public safety amounts to “democracy in action” by empowering local communities to collaboratively solve local problems with law enforcement agencies (Community Policing Consortium 1994, 4).
In the United States, this “democratic” approach to policing dates back to the mid-twentieth century, although national commitments to community policing have fluctuated with shifting political, cultural, and social contexts from the civil rights movement to the war on drugs. The early rise of community policing models in the United States represented a pivot away from “incident-oriented” policing and toward “problem-oriented” policing. Leading police strategists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling (1989), for example, explained that “the conventional police strategy is ‘incident-oriented’—a citizen calls to report an incident, such as a burglary, and the police respond by recording information relevant to the crime and then trying to solve it” (para. 4). Incident-oriented policing, however, fails to address the underlying community conditions that cause these crimes. Given these limitations, Wilson and Kelling called for a more complex “problem-oriented” approach to policing that directly addressed the root causes of crime.
Community policing also emerged as a response to national critiques that coercive policing violently suppressed the 1960s Black freedom struggle. As mass protests and political assassinations grew during this time, national commissions identified the police as the source of social tension. The “police force’s inability to handle urban unrest in an effective and appropriate manner brought demands by civic leaders and politicians for a reexamination of police practices” (Community Policing Consortium 1994, 7). Like the military occupation of Iraq, both the U.S. government and its public indicted the police as the cause of political instability. Confronting increasing social unrest, emerging community policing models sought to repair the police’s image, reputation, and capacity to solve crimes, particularly in communities of color contesting police brutality, racial profiling, and constant surveillance.
After the 1992 Los Angeles uprisings, for example, President George H. W. Bush initiated Operation Weed and Seed to “weed” out criminals and to “seed” community revitalization projects. This community-oriented policing initiative “bridge[d] weeding and seeding strategies: officers obtain[ed] cooperation and information from area residents while they assist[ed] residents in obtaining information about community revitalization and resources” (Department of Justice 2014b). By enhancing the police’s intelligence-gathering capabilities, community cooperation facilitated the “weeding” out of criminals. In this model, population-centric tactics like community revitalization projects can strengthen the police’s capacity to arrest, detain, and incarcerate.
Despite the progressive framing of Operation Weed and Seed, some warned that “this is a program that use[d] a disproportionate share of its resources on the weed side of the formula in communities of color, and use[d] a disproportionate share of its resources on the seed side in communities that [were] predominately white” (Kanigher 1996). Operation Weed and Seed also forced communities to comply with local policing to gain access to sorely needed “community revitalization and resources.” Even though the Bush administration pitched Operation Weed and Seed as a program responsive to local needs, organizers argued that this community policing initiative merely intensified misdemeanor arrests and police brutality against people of color while securitizing the provision of community resources. Resistance to Operation Weed and Seed revealed contestations over who counted as “the community” and what constituted “policing,” particularly as some residents experienced increased police brutality in the name of social order.
Given the perceived rise of homegrown terrorism and intensifying concerns about the abrogation of civil liberties in the pursuit of national security, the U.S. security state has sought to apply community policing models like Operation Weed and Seed. In fact, community policing “is understood today, and increasingly promoted as, an effective approach to preventing terrorist activity” as “it builds on community-police relationships and collaborative ownership of security issues” (United States Institute of Peace 2014, 5). Cultivating community partnerships and developing community trust “may lead to increased reporting of suspicious activity as well as sharing of information, target hardening, and improved coordination” by “leveraging the strength of communities and their members” (International Association of Chiefs of Police 2014, 2). In this view, community members “are an important force multiplier,” especially as local law enforcement agencies “have become increasingly important in providing for the national security of the United States” (1–2).
In 2007, for example, the Los Angeles Police Department’s counterterrorism bureau “proposed using U.S. census data and other demographic information to pinpoint various Muslim communities and then reach out to them through social service agencies” (Winton, Watanable, and Krikorian 2007, para. 2). Through this initiative, the LAPD sought to map Muslim communities under the auspices of providing social services while documenting what the department perceived to be “hotbeds of extremism” (Winton, Watanable, and Krikorian 2007, para. 1). In doing so, Deputy Police Chief Michael Downing reported, “It is also our hope to identify communities, within the larger Muslim community, which may be susceptible to violent ideologically based extremism and then use a full spectrum approach guided by an intelligence-led strategy” (as quoted in Winton, Watanable, and Krikorian 2007). By aligning its community outreach with broader national security goals, the LAPD pursued a “full spectrum,” “intelligence-led” counterterrorism approach, particularly in Muslim communities perceived to be uniquely vulnerable to terrorist radicalization. This process securitized social service providers, whose work contributed to and enhanced the U.S. security state and its counterterrorism agenda. As we will see, this community policing approach has anchored the Los Angeles CVE model, which treats Muslim communities as uniquely vulnerable to becoming “hotbeds of extremism” and social service providers as critical foot soldiers in the domestic war on terror.
Community engagement continues to support coercive policing operations dedicated to territorial control and national security. In 2016, for example, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) established a new Office for Community Engagement staffed with ICE community relations field officers. According to one field officer, this new office “has expanded and strengthened ICE within all of civil society.” In addition, the local field officers “increase local and national understandings and support of ICE’s mission,” which bolsters trust and collaboration with communities. Through strategic community outreach efforts, these officers cultivate relationships that generate more referrals that report “national security threats” to ICE “before an attack materializes” (participant observation, November 10, 2016). By enhancing ICE’s reputation within targeted communities, these community engagement activities have strengthened ICE’s border enforcement capacities.
To facilitate these community engagement tactics, ICE relies on “third-party policing,” a strategy whereby law enforcement agencies or local legislation require government employees like teachers to report undocumented immigrants. A 2004 Arizona statute, for example, mandated that social workers report “any violation of federal immigration law by any applicant for [public] benefits” like college scholarships and imposed criminal misdemeanor charges on social workers who failed to comply with this reporting mandate (Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 46–140.01). These tips facilitated immigration raids, making undocumented families “afraid to pick their kids up from school, shop, and otherwise go about their daily lives” (Insolacion 2013, 197). Law enforcement officials therefore have exploited social service providers to intensify border enforcement.
Because immigration raids have a “chilling” effect on the local community, ICE “plays nice” and establishes “good relations” through community collaborations that “manufacture support for ICE” and therefore strengthen its border enforcement capabilities (Insolacion 2013, 196). U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents, for example, have created activities like “Shop with a Cop” where law enforcement personnel take children to local stores to buy clothing or shoes (Miller 2014, 71). The Border Patrol Explorer program provides young adults aged 14–20 with “the opportunity to work with dedicated law enforcement professionals throughout their formative years,” which drums up support for Border Patrol and encourages children of color to consider law enforcement careers (Department of Homeland Security 2014). Rather than rely solely on immigration raids that intensify local resistance, federal law enforcement agencies have developed strategic relationships with local communities who coproduce territorial and national security through their own reporting of potentially undocumented individuals assumed to threaten the United States. By managing resistance, ICE’s community engagement efforts have complemented more coercive enforcement methods, like incarceration, torture, and even murder by Border Patrol agents. In this way, community policing integrates counterinsurgency doctrine, utilizing both kinetic and non-kinetic methods to defeat perceived insurgencies and win hearts and minds.
These community policing methods slowly crept into the early stages of CVE planning. In 2010, for example, DHS formed a CVE Curriculum Working Group led by LAPD’s counterterrorism expert, Michael Downing. This working group sought to adapt community-oriented policing models to “address the dynamics of Violent Extremism and the associated convergent threats, particularly those that emanate from Diaspora communities” (Department of Homeland Security CVE Curriculum Working Group 2011, 5). Following the recommendations of the working group, the 2011 White House Strategic Implementation Plan detailed the importance of integrating CVE efforts into existing community-oriented policing models and building law enforcement expertise in CVE methods. This work has informed the development of the LAPD’s “countering violent extremism tailored community policing” model (CVETCP). CVE researchers argue that “adopting a community policing model is a necessary approach to better protect and serve communities at risk for violent radicalization,” including “Muslim immigrants and refugees from countries where the police were feared and citizens learned to turn away” (Weine, Younis, and Polutnik 2017, 1). Like more traditional community policing models, CVETCP has “leverage[d] existing community partnerships to counter violent extremism and violent crime,” ultimately enhancing police legitimacy, capacity, and power, especially in diasporic communities (White House 2016, 16). Furthermore, CVETCP assumes that “Diaspora communities” are uniquely vulnerable to violent extremism and reaffirms the police as problem-solvers rather than violent forces to be feared.
Despite the rapid emergence of CVETCP, some security experts have argued that these “government-led and government-sourced” initiatives have threatened the integrity of CVE. These critiques have created calls for CVE programs to maintain a strict “division of labor” where law enforcement “deal with crime” and communities “deal with non-crime.” According to Baker, “the evidence is suggesting that it would be civil society-sourced and -led efforts . . . that are the most promising approach to essentially ameliorating” the complex factors “associated with entry into non-state ideologically-motivated violence.” Baker argued that transferring CVE duties to civil society organizations “seems to be a much more promising direction” than police-led initiatives (interview, January 27, 2017).
Given these concerns with “government-led and government-sourced” programs, some cities have developed CVE initiatives with ostensibly minimal collaboration with law enforcement agencies. In Chicago, for example, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority presented its Targeted Violence Prevention Program (TVPP) as distinct from police-led initiatives. Rather than rely on law enforcement, TVPP practitioners sought to “educate a broad cross-section of communities in Illinois on how to off-ramp individuals who exhibit warning signs of radicalization to violence as well as those who exhibit behaviors signifying they may be in the early stages of planning an act of ideologically inspired targeted violence” (Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority 2016, 3). In this “community-led” model facilitated by a state law enforcement agency and funded by the Department of Homeland Security, TVPP practitioners trained social service providers like mental health professionals to identify and work with individuals vulnerable to or in the process of radicalizing. These efforts, however, also incorporated local police officers “eager to participate” and garnered support from the Chicago Police Department, Elgin police chief, FBI, DHS, and Illinois Terrorism Task Force (obtained documents). Advertisements for a training for mental health professionals, for example, listed FBI special agents and a DHS representative as speakers. Despite public-facing documents that framed TVPP as a community-driven initiative, practitioners necessarily relied on law enforcement agents who helped design and implement the program.
“Community-led” CVE programs have called on social service providers to coproduce national security in cooperation with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Practitioners have contended that this approach offers an alternative to more coercive counterterrorism practices. Critics, however, have argued that this new generation of CVE programs enhances police power by deputizing social service providers as law enforcement agents who identify, report, and off-ramp individuals on the perceived pathway to violent extremism. In addition, the introduction of these programs has not led to the suspension of conventional counterterrorism practices, like FBI sting operations. Despite ongoing claims that “CVE is not CT,” CVE has served as one component of a multipronged antiterrorism approach that deploys a careful balance of hard and soft technologies of control to achieve territorial security and full spectrum dominance.
The Wake-Up Call: Facing the Threat of Homegrown Terrorism
When President Obama formally launched CVE in 2015, he explained that this national security approach “encompasses the preventative aspects of counterterrorism as well as interventions to undermine the attraction of extremist movements and ideologies that seek to promote violence” through community engagement. More specifically, Obama reported that the “underlying premise” of CVE is that “communities provide the solution to violent extremism” and that “CVE efforts are best pursued at the local level, tailored to local dynamics, where local officials continue to build relationships with their communities through established community policing and community outreach mechanisms” (Office of the Press Secretary 2015). As this explanation indicates, the U.S. security state has developed new domestic antiterrorism methods by integrating (and sometimes conflating) the principles of community-oriented policing, counterterrorism, and counterinsurgency. By deploying both kinetic and non-kinetic tactics, this integrated strategy has sought to disrupt, deter, and/or destroy insurgents “left of boom”: before they build and activate bombs within the United States or travel abroad to fight for designated foreign terrorist organizations.
This multipronged national security approach has drawn from President Bush’s earlier efforts to mobilize Muslim youth in the United States as “active messengers” who could counter extremist propaganda and “identify people who were in danger of being radicalized” (Bailey, participant observation, May 16, 2017). Bush’s “global struggle against violent extremism” strategy, however, “didn’t resonate so they just stuck with the ‘global war on terror,’” both “stylistically” and “substantively” within the United States (Baker, interview, January 27, 2017). CVE therefore “went dormant” until the Obama administration redesigned and repackaged this national security approach (Bailey, participant observation, May 16, 2017).
Even after Obama announced his 2011 Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States plan, emerging domestic CVE programs still were “not well-funded” and lacked “political support.” As an underfunded initiative with little political support, CVE “remained more of an activity that was on the bookshelf rather than something that really galvanized the U.S. government” (Bailey, participant observation, May 16, 2017). The 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, however, reignited governmental and public interest in domestic CVE programs as a key global war on terror strategy:
After the Boston bombings, all of a sudden people within the government really woke up to the fact that there is a domestic threat, despite a lot of the work the Obama administration had done addressing some of the big-picture foreign policy grievances that helped motivate terrorist narratives like having troops on the ground in the Middle East or having what people perceived as sort of a negative or a confrontational relationship with various countries in the Middle East. We still had people who were attracted to these ideologies, domestically. So that was a wake-up call. (Bailey, participant observation, May 16, 2017)
For government officials, the Boston bombings signaled a rising “domestic threat” that could destabilize the United States economically, politically, and territorially. Shortly after, ISIS “really began its march, territorially” and started “splashing” sophisticated videos across U.S. news screens during the summer of 2014 (Bailey, participant observation, May 16, 2017). Despite the fluctuating commitment to CVE and other non-kinetic antiterrorism methods, the Boston bombings and growing ISIS presence generated a sense of urgency in the U.S. public, which demanded an immediate response to the perceived crisis of homegrown terrorism. CVE came to serve as that response, evident in the 2014 launch of pilot programs in Boston, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles. As in Iraq, the U.S. security state recognized the limitations of its “kill or capture” approach and therefore pursued a more complex domestic war on terror strategy that could support its military pursuit of ISIS.
Following the Boston Marathon bombings, U.S. news outlets pointed to a growing homegrown terrorist threat, heightening fears of an attack in local communities, venues, or schools. In a fear-filling report, Fox News warned that “Boston is just the beginning,” provocatively suggesting that the U.S. public should expect additional attacks (Erickson 2013). Local CVE actors harnessed palpable fears of a homegrown terrorist attack to advance their agenda.
In Illinois, news of an FBI sting operation that led to the arrest of teenager Adel Daoud rapidly circulated and “stunned” Muslim communities (Shah 2014a). Referencing the Daoud arrest, Targeted Violence Prevention Program director Junaid Afeef (2014) urged “Muslims in America” to help “halt extremism” in a local op-ed piece. In fact, Afeef reported that he was “more concerned about the future of Muslims in America” than ever before. In his compelling message, Afeef (2014) implored “the Muslim leadership of our mosques” to “wake up” to the “reality that our young people are vulnerable to extremist ideologies” and to “take control of this nightmare” (para. 2). Like others, Afeef reaffirmed that violent extremism was a dangerous problem that Muslim communities needed to solve collectively.
At a 2016 U.S. Department of Homeland Security Quarterly Roundtable, community leader Masoud Kaleel similarly reported that in his community, “ten young Muslims were arrested over the past two years” for terrorism-related crimes. Kaleel poignantly described how “the families of these people were devastated.” He also explained that since these arrests, local Muslim organizations “have been involved in developing programs to build the resilience” to terrorist radicalization. Despite concerns that an “overreaction” to homegrown terrorism could lead to racist arrests like Ahmed the clockmaker, Kaleel affirmed CVE as an important intervention given the number of “devastating” terrorism-related prosecutions across the United States (participant observation, November 10, 2016). In this view, CVE could protect Muslim children from terrorist influences.
Like Kaleel, Tanvir Rahman expressed deep concerns about the preemptive arrest of Mohammed Hamzah Khan, a teenager who allegedly tried to fly overseas to join ISIS. For Rahman, if the FBI understood that “a kid is going down this path . . . there’s got to be a better way” to address the issue than simply arresting him. Khan’s arrest and sentencing generated an urgent desire to develop nonpunitive solutions to the intimately local problem of violent extremism.
Muslim leader Bassem Ali also described how the radicalization of his former student, Samir Khan, affected him and drew him into CVE work. Ali described Khan as “this kid who was this cyber jihadi who was working out of his parents’ basement and eventually he left and went to Yemen and then he resurfaced publishing, or allegedly publishing, Inspire, which was this English-language magazine about al-Qaeda.” Ali kept in irregular contact with Khan until he was killed in a 2011 U.S. targeted drone strike alongside fellow U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. As his teacher, Ali “watched [Khan] transform from this nerdy kid into this guy who is full of rage and such over the years. So, it’s a lot that is very close to my heart” (interview, March 16, 2017). For many Muslim leaders like Ali, Kaleel, and Rahman, these “devastating” arrests close to their hearts compelled them to “do something about this.” As community leaders, they felt a sense of duty to protect Muslim children from terrorist influences. Researching, developing, and implementing CVE programs became one way these leaders worked to create healthy communities resilient to terrorist radicalization.
Law enforcement official David Greene similarly framed homegrown terrorism as a deeply personal issue. In a public forum, Greene delivered a provocative speech that communicated the imminent and terrifying danger of violent extremism taking hold of youth in nearby coffee shops, community centers, and schools. As a part of his call to action, Greene offered an anecdote that illustrated the intimate urgency of this perceived problem, saying:
About a mile from here, on an average afternoon kind of like this, a group of young Somali teens were at a restaurant. And while they were at the restaurant, they were on a Skype telephone call with a terrorism recruiter from Somalia, from, excuse me, from Syria. And the conversation was tape recorded, so we know what was said and we know what happened. And as they were sitting in the restaurant—just like my kids would do when they were teens, talking amongst themselves, talking to the server about what they wanted to eat and drink—they were also Skyping with someone who was trying to destroy their lives. He was a terrorist recruiter from ISIL. And during that call, he’s explaining to them how they can get to Syria—through Mexico, through Canada, and other means. And they’re listening, they’re engaging, because that’s what they had decided they wanted to do.
And I tell you that because as we spend the day speaking about countering violent extremism, or as they call it in Minnesota, building community resilience, this is what we’re trying to stop. Luckily, none of those young men made it to Syria. But a number of their friends did. And those friends are dead, before they reached, for the most part, their 21st birthday. And so, for me, when we talk about countering extremism, building resilience, stopping terror recruiting, it’s not a theory. It’s not a concept. It’s personal, and it’s real, and it’s something we all need to care a great deal about. (participant observation, August 18, 2016)
Through repeated narratives of how parents in the Twin Cities “lost young sons to terrorist recruiters” in nearby restaurants and coffee shops, Greene evoked a palpable sense of urgency, grief, and fear. After citing the names of recently arrested youth, Greene declared that “it’s my goal to work with our community, to work with our civil society, our Somali community, our law enforcement to make sure that when we’re done . . . no one else will have to know the pain of losing a son or daughter to terrorism before they turn twenty or twenty-one” (participant observation, August 18, 2016). By narrating the threat of losing a loved one to terrorist recruiters, Greene framed CVE as a progressive effort to protect the community and defend the nation.
As an outsider to local politics, I found Greene’s storytelling evocative. As I traveled the country, I heard other CVE actors rely on similar storytelling to elicit the approval and consent of community members seeking to protect their children from terrorist influences. Through these provocative stories, political actors like Greene “do not seek merely to purchase or compel others’ assent to specific policies”; they also “aim to shape the linguistic axes that define the scope and substance of political debate” and “fix the terms in which debate is conducted, policy legitimated, and events interpreted” (Krebs 2015, 9). Greene thus strategically employed storytelling to gain support for his controversial CVE policies and programs, shape how communities interpreted the problem of homegrown terrorism, and limit the terms of the CVE debate.
The centrality of these national security narratives, however, did not mean that local communities agreed to CVE policies or circumscribed their interpretations to the terms advanced by politicians like Greene. College student Hodan Hassan, for example, argued that Greene “caused so much destruction” through both his recitation of these maligned narratives and the CVE practices they came to justify (participant observation, April 21, 2017). Like Hassan, college student Bashir Cilmi criticized a Somali elder who “pushed the notion that hoards and swarms of Somalis are becoming radicalized and if you don’t send them on camping trips, they’re going to radicalize.” Cilmi concluded that, through these oppressive narratives, “you lose or are stripped of your identity and voice for ourselves” (participant observation, April 21, 2017). U.S. media, for example, began portraying Minneapolis as “a city gone mad” and “the Islamic State of Minnesota.” Somali organizers like Hassan and Cilmi rejected these narratives as dehumanizing and destructive accounts.
Despite these critiques, these dominant narratives resonated with CVE actors who mobilized to “halt extremism” in the United States. From their perspective, CVE offered a way to protect their children from terrorist radicalization without relying on FBI stings, as in the case of Adel Daoud. Framed as a liberal alternative to conventional counterterrorism, CVE gained currency in communities as a therapeutic approach to solving the problem of violent extremism.
As these examples illustrate, the Boston bombings and preemptive prosecutions of Muslim youth like Adel Daoud ushered in a new commitment to and rearticulation of CVE within the United States. Through a process Foucault (2003) calls “eventalization,” incidents like the Boston bombings take on historical significance as “events” by transforming structures of meaning. These events usher in the diagnosis of new problems to be managed through new forms of knowledge. The Boston bombings and FBI stings disrupted prior modes of understanding, diagnosed a new problem of domestic radicalization, and installed new epistemologies to make sense of and respond to homegrown terrorism. These new modes of understanding have informed emerging national security approaches like countering violent extremism. Politicians have capitalized on these devastating events to advance CVE as a viable strategy to fight homegrown terrorism without criminalizing Muslim communities. Through these fear-filling and grief-stricken national security narratives, political leaders have shaped how the U.S. public thinks about the problem of homegrown terrorism and solutions to this perceived problem.
Left of Boom: Toward a Hybrid Antiterrorism Theory of Change
As these observations indicate, news of local arrests encouraged political leaders, law enforcement officials, and community members to develop a “left of boom” strategy that prevents violent acts before they are planned and executed within the United States. Learning from its early global war on terror failures, security experts recognized that they could not “kill or arrest” every perceived threat, domestically or globally. The U.S. security state therefore has turned to a more complex antiterrorism approach through the variable integration of counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and community policing paradigms.
Across the United States, CVE actors have contributed to this new approach by developing a portfolio of ostensibly “soft” antiterrorism programs that differentially support, and incorporate, more kinetic measures like community policing. As with the U.K.’s CONTEST program, this multipronged approach has sought to eliminate the threat of homegrown terrorism, prevent terrorist regeneration, and protect children from terrorist influences while pursuing military operations like drone strikes and targeted assassinations. As the “squishy stuff,” CVE programs have bolstered support for the very institutions that historically have criminalized communities of color by appearing to attenuate coercive policing, racial profiling, and political exclusion.
To develop CVE in the face of unrelenting community resistance, security experts have produced new scholarship that examines the terrorist radicalization process and the “macro-, meso-, and micro-level” factors that facilitate that process (Baker, interview, January 27, 2017). Although social scientists, community organizers, and national security experts disagree on the validity of this radicalization research, this scholarship has shaped how CVE practitioners organized and made sense of their work. To do so, they rigorously read and interpreted radicalization models, rejecting, accepting, and negotiating prevailing national security frameworks for themselves. Given the continued saliency of, and contestations over, radicalization theories in CVE policies, I now turn to the main tenets of this research.