Managing Public Objections to CVE
On a hot summer day, my father eagerly assembled my brother, mother, and me for a family photograph. My father staged the photograph, placing us in front of our two-car garage. Above us waved a crisp U.S. flag that my father dutifully displayed each national holiday. Looking at the photograph some twenty-five years later, the prominence of the flag, and its centrality in our lives, cannot be missed.
As a curious child, I often followed my father as he put up, and took down, our flag. I watched him carefully affix the flag to our suburban home and listened as he discussed the importance of this patriotic symbol to our own filial identity. Although as a child I ascribed no exceptional value to this ritual, I cataloged my father’s sometimes conflicting narration of the flag’s role in our suburban lives. Family photographs, for example, worked to capture a realized American dream, complete with a house with a white picket fence, two cars, and two children. At the same time, my father sometimes grumbled that the flag served as reassurance to our neighbors who questioned our Americanness, an antagonistic sentiment harnessed to nativist understandings of citizenship and belonging. Our family photograph thus signified a proud yet anxious American family seeking to continually reassert its social value materially and symbolically. In the long shadow of the Vietnam War, my multiracial immigrant family sought to visibly prove our loyalty to the United States in a “culture of proof” often tethered to a “neoliberal ethos that demanded a commitment to the core American value of capitalism” (Silva 2016, 58). Flanked by symbols of suburban consumption, the U.S. flag compensated for our racial difference by communicating our patriotism and indicating our willingness to assimilate to dominant U.S. culture. U.S. symbols, rituals, and performances reasserted our social value while reminding us that our belonging was contingent on continually proving deserving citizenship.
My own childhood experiences growing up in the United States reflect the fraught and often contradictory experiences of immigrant families who negotiate dynamic geopolitical, social, and cultural contexts. In the wake of the Iranian revolution and the September 11 attacks, U.S. Muslims have deployed similar tactics to navigate shifting racial formations that mark their bodies as perpetual foreigners, incipient terrorists, or impossible subjects. This charged context compels “Muslim-looking” people to perform patriotic acts that minimize their racial difference and demonstrate their love for the United States.
These patriotic performances work to ward off the terrorist label and the violence such a label authorizes. Some Muslim women, for example, have donned hijabs embossed with the U.S. flag, a practice iconicized through a 2017 anti-Trump protest poster.
The Americanized hijab militates against the racialized trope of the terrorist that facilitates the exclusion, demonization, and criminalization of anyone who “looks Muslim.” To navigate the political terrain partially wrought by the global war on terror, some racialized populations enact public performances of U.S. loyalty while others engage in a politics of refusal.
Given its increasing national security concerns, the U.S. government has called on Muslims not only to denounce homegrown terrorism but also to actively thwart it. For U.S. Muslims at this historical juncture, performing patriot acts now involves serving as key operatives in the fight against domestic terrorism. CAIR-Los Angeles director Hussam Ayloush even declared in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks that “Muslims in America are the first line of defense against terrorism conducted falsely in the name of Islam” (as quoted in Silva 2016, 67–68). Four years later, Ayloush would retract this charge, warning that the intensifying arrangements between mosques and law enforcement eroded trust by deepening the surveillance, monitoring, and prosecution of Muslim communities across the United States (Aaronson 2013, 112). Racist assumptions about who is dangerous drive the demand for all Muslims to denounce—and now prevent—terrorism as a part of their patriotic duties.
As Ayloush’s own shift in understanding indicates, Muslim communities differentially interpret, negotiate, and respond to these demands, especially as families consider the possibilities, limitations, and risks of various approaches. In the current security context, the U.S. public marks Muslims who work with law enforcement in the fight against terrorism as “good Muslims.” Collaborating with the police as terrorist watchdogs, however, advances the criminalization of Muslims and therefore can destroy community relationships, erode trust, and harm friends and family. Conversely, resisting the role of terrorist watchdog risks the “bad Muslim” label, which exposes communities to heightened surveillance, monitoring, and threats of arrest.
Given this “impossible dilemma” manufactured by the U.S. security state, some targeted communities that objected to FBI stings have welcomed CVE as an alternative to more coercive forms of policing imposed on Muslim communities after September 11 (Cacho 2012). Some Muslim leaders have viewed CVE as a compromise between protecting civil liberties and pursuing national security. Others, however, have rejected any collaborations with the U.S. security state, especially projects that assume Muslims are more susceptible to violent extremism or that uniquely hold their communities responsible for preventing terrorism. Like my own family, Muslim communities have found different ways to navigate these complex contexts and made strategic decisions about how to keep their loved ones safe from state and vigilante violence.
Since its inception, the U.S. government has struggled to manage the real and perceived tensions between national security and civil liberties. When the 2002 Homeland Security Act established the Department of Homeland Security, for example, it required the Homeland Security Secretary to appoint an Officer for Civil Liberties and Civil Rights. This officer must “review and assess information concerning abuses of civil rights, civil liberties, and profiling on the basis of race, ethnicity, or religion” and then report all findings to Congress (Pub. L. No. 107-296). In a 2004 report regarding the Homeland Security Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Protection Act, Congress reaffirmed its commitment to “provide checks and balances to protect civil rights and civil liberties” (S. Rep. 108-350 , 2). The report, however, also warned that DHS had become the “country’s biggest law enforcement agency,” employed “more Federal officers with arrest and firearm authority than the Department of Justice,” and installed many programs and policies, all of which “have the potential, if not scrutinized, to affect individual liberties” (2). The report cautioned that “in this post-9/11 world, the Department must be especially sensitive to maintaining civil liberties as it works to strengthen security and detect and deter terrorist attacks” (3). The September 11 attacks intensified debates about ensuring national security without eroding civil liberties, evident in the legislative provisions that expanded and regulated the reach of the U.S. security state.
Although the September 11 attacks and their aftermath amplified attention on the continued abrogation of civil liberties in the name of national security, these concerns predate the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security. The 1988 Civil Liberties Act, for example, granted reparations to U.S.-based Japanese people incarcerated in camps run by the Department of Justice following the 1941 Japanese bombing of Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor (Pub. L. No. 100-383). In the 1940s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt justified the forced relocation and incarceration of more than one hundred thousand U.S.-Japanese people as an effective national security strategy. Four decades later, the prosecution of eight pro-Palestinian organizers revealed a similar DOJ “contingency plan” to round up and detain thousands of legal “alien activists” from Algeria, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Syria, and Tunisia.
As with these forms of planned and actual mass incarceration, prevailing yet dynamic racial formations continue to shape antiterrorism policies and their corresponding national security vocabularies, norms, and logics. Throughout history, the United States has installed policies, laws, and programs that suspend the civil liberties of some, whether by criminalizing dissent, immigration, or people on the basis of race, religion, gender, and other axes of difference. The United States uses ongoing national security concerns to justify these marginalizing efforts.
Informed by these histories, human rights, civil liberties, and community-based organizations have challenged CVE, particularly by calling attention to how this national security framework “stigmatize[s] American Muslims and cast[s] unwarranted suspicion on innocuous activity” (American Civil Liberties Union 2014). CVE expert Susan Bailey, for example, affirmed that “there’s a lot of controversy about CVE domestically. There are concerns about civil liberties. There’s concerns about stigmatization of entire communities.” Political scientist Seth Michaels similarly worried that “we don’t want a plane blown out of the sky, but we need to find a balance between protections of civil liberties as well as security. I don’t think we found it here in the United States.” Given these concerns, Lieutenant Colonel Ryan Simpson asked, “How we can strike the right equilibrium between civil liberties and security?” As these examples illustrate, the elusive struggle to “strike the right equilibrium” between civil liberties and national security has palpated CVE conversations (participant observation, May 16, 2017).
This tension also surfaced in local national security programming, including educational initiatives. A 2017 Chicago History Museum teacher workshop titled Spies, Traitors, Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America even asked these central questions: “How do we identify the ‘enemy’? How do we keep our country safe without compromising civil liberties?” For this teacher workshop, the museum highlighted the tensions between national security and civil liberties, particularly in the identification of the “enemy.”
Given these ongoing debates, CVE actors often confronted critics who questioned their work and its impact on the civil liberties and civil rights of targeted communities. Competing definitions and practices pulled CVE actors in different, and sometimes contradictory, directions as they struggled to address public opposition to their work. As CVE researcher Ron Stuart reported, “Not surprisingly, DHS and FBI are huge bureaucracies and the people who work in them don’t see things all the same way. So, depending on who you talk to, you get very different outlooks and perspectives on how much we should be emphasizing things like intervention versus just being law enforcement only.” In fact, Stuart explained that an FBI agent recently rejected CVE, insisting that “we don’t want to do [CVE] interventions. Our job is to arrest people. We’re going to arrest. We’re not going to do anything other than that.” Yet, that same FBI agent later said, “We can’t arrest our way out” of the problem of violent extremism. From Stuart’s experience, “even the same person isn’t necessarily consistent with what they’re saying” (interview, February 17, 2017). Rather than flatten the complex personhood of CVE actors, this chapter explores how these workers acted on their own intellectual conceptualizations of national security and civil liberties, thereby understanding and performing their roles differently. By positioning national security workers as complex and sometimes contradictory people, this chapter queries how CVE actors differentially defined for themselves what constituted ethical national security work and responded to public opposition to their work.
CVE Meets Its Critics: From Unintelligent Analyses to Conspiracy Theories
In a 2015 Patheos article, Junaid Afeef and Alejandro Beutel (2015) argued that “CVE critics are right” and that “CVE is still necessary” (para. 1). In this piece, Afeef and Beutel (2015) recognized that, although the Obama administration branded CVE as “an alternative paradigm to the excesses of the War on Terror,” many civil liberties groups “have raised important criticisms and concerns about CVE that must be addressed to the satisfaction of the public” (para. 1). Given these concerns, Afeef and Beutel (2015) concluded that “it is necessary for American Muslim communities to take up the challenge of developing programs that incorporate these lessons in order to prevent Muslims from succumbing to ISIS’s powerful online recruitment efforts. The legitimate grievances of Americans—including Muslims—cannot be a reason to not do the right thing” (para. 2). Rather than reject CVE, Afeef and Beutel offered remedies to fix CVE’s programmatic flaws while offloading redesign responsibilities onto Muslim communities. In reading this article, I realized I needed to explore how CVE actors managed community concerns, like racial and religious profiling, in ways that reaffirmed, rather than threatened, the primacy of CVE on the national security stage.
I quickly learned that by managing national security narratives and corresponding community concerns, CVE actors set the terms of the national security debate, which, in turn, shaped the legitimation and formation of policy outcomes. Although some social scientists address the power of national security narratives in the legitimation of public policy, I contend that managing public objections is integral to sustaining controversial national security policies like CVE. Social scientists must pay careful attention to the discursive maneuvers national security workers deploy to control the terms of the national security debate, organize public understandings of national security, and pressure Muslim communities to uphold, rather than contest, the U.S. security state as “good citizens.” It is to these maneuvers I now turn.
“Little CVE”: Learning from Past Mistakes
In 2017, I observed a public CVE workshop for mental health professionals, which included a DHS representative, FBI special agents, and local practitioners. A small group of protestors disrupted the beginning of this workshop, holding signs and shouting chants that contested CVE’s reliance on racial and religious profiling. Through my observation of this workshop, I learned, firsthand, how some CVE actors responded to public objections to their work.
After the protestors left, DHS representative Nabil Soliman introduced himself to workshop participants as “not a typical DHS person” given his prior experience as a “civil rights attorney who prosecuted crime [committed] by DHS.” Like Afeef and Beutel, Soliman acknowledged past abuses by DHS. Yet, he also insisted that DHS was now a “different agency” dedicated to “advancing civil rights and civil liberties,” which “will help us reach our goal of securing our communities and campuses.” Legitimized by his status as a former civil rights attorney, Soliman sought to bolster support for security agencies whose past crimes fueled distrust in communities of color by framing DHS as a “different agency” that had learned from past mistakes. Practitioners like Tanvir Rahman similarly argued that they had learned from the “behaviors and practices that have been objectionable” and struggled to prove their work differed from these past efforts that “securitized relationships between law enforcement and these minority communities” (interview, November 10, 2016). Throughout my fieldwork, the concept of “learning from past mistakes” sought to manage public objections to local CVE programming (Emily Evans, participant observation, October 7, 2016).
Meanwhile, on Twitter, co-facilitator Alex Russo described the protestors as “well-intentioned, though misinformed,” even asserting that they were all “on the same team.” Through this narrative, Russo suggested that he shared similar objections to past CVE programs and therefore offered an alternative approach that did not rely on law enforcement. In fact, Russo described his work as “little cve”—denoted by all lowercase letters—to distance himself from federal CVE programs that often collaborated with the police, despite applying for a DHS grant. Like Rahman, Russo managed public objections to his work by distinguishing it from the “objectionable practices” of other CVE programs. The presence of FBI agents, however, called into question Russo’s narrative that his approach differed from other police-led programs.
Co-facilitator Tanvir Rahman also asserted that “we’re all on the same team” and that the protestors—“kids”—were simply “wasting our time.” Protestors, however, identified serious concerns with local CVE programming, shouting, “What markers are there that lead to violent jihadism? What markers are there? There are none! There’s no real science behind this except . . . racism. That’s why we’re here.” After the protestors left, Rahman explained to participants that his work “educated communities to identify behaviors outside of the norm that we should be concerned about,” which “is not about racial profiling and stereotyping.” Like Russo, Rahman argued that protestors wrongly conflated his work with past CVE practices, despite his insistence that mental health professionals could learn the “warning signs of radicalization to violence.” An FBI special agent then confirmed that, through their observations, mental health professionals could report individuals indicating “movement toward violent ideology.” Local CVE programming therefore employed the same techniques as other initiatives by seeking to identify, report, and off-ramp individuals vulnerable to violent extremism in collaboration with law enforcement, even though Rahman framed his work as different from these past practices. Despite using similar practices and organizing logics, Rahman objected to the conflation of his work with other harmful CVE programs.
By reducing the protestors to misinformed kids and rejecting their critiques through simple denials, these practitioners managed how participants interpreted public objections to their work. These brief statements effectively minimized the impact of the protest on workshop participants, evident in their continued engagement in the training. In fact, only one participant walked out of the workshop to provide jail support for the two protestors arrested on a trespassing charge after another co-facilitator called the police (participant observation, October 27, 2017).
As these examples demonstrate, practitioners like Rahman and Russo managed community dissent by identifying ways security agencies had “learned from past mistakes,” distancing their work from other “objectionable practices,” and discrediting protestors as “kids” who misunderstood the new generation of CVE programming. This approach positioned CVE as a progressive response to past abuses by the U.S. security state, a narrative that resonated with the personal experiences of public officials like Nabil Soliman. Through these strategic maneuvers, practitioners sought to reaffirm the concept of homegrown terrorism and increase public support for and cooperation with government agencies that historically have criminalized Muslim communities, including the Department of Homeland Security.
Like other community organizers, the 2017 protestors refused CVE collaborations because they shored up the U.S. security state. Some practitioners, however, encouraged the “voluntary and ongoing cooperation” between the government and civil rights organizations to “build resources for communities that can be truly useful in preventing violence whilst safeguarding civil liberties” (Afeef 2018, paras. 11–12). In their efforts to distinguish current CVE practices from past abuses, some practitioners missed the broader critiques related to enhancing the very institutions and organizing logics that have harmed, and continue to harm, Muslim communities. The introduction of CVE, after all, has not stopped the use of FBI stings and other coercive methods to prevent violent extremism. Rather than advocate for national security reforms, community organizers sought to develop new forms of public safety independent of the U.S. security state, a strategy often misunderstood by CVE actors as they managed public objections to their work.
From Prediction to Prevention: Negotiating CVE’s Scientific Limitations
CVE actors like Adrian Baker also managed the credibility of their work in the face of social science research that routinely demonstrated that there are no scientifically proven indicators, risk factors, or warning signs of violent extremism. Given these scientific limitations, CVE actors argued that, although these indicators could not predict who will become a terrorist, they could help identify individuals “vulnerable to” or “at risk of” violent extremism. The use of these indicators became one “alternative fact” practitioners and researchers sought to manage.
Baker, for example, used his interview to dispel the “false narratives” about CVE’s predictive functions. To do so, Baker explained throughout his interview that critics wrongly concluded that CVE sought to predict, rather than prevent, violent extremism. For Baker, “CVE itself is not attempting to do violence prediction. That has also been a narrative based on alternative facts. It is about prevention rather than prediction.” Given these circulating “alternative facts” and “false narratives” about violence prediction, Baker refrained from using the “r-word”—radicalization—which he reported “was almost like dropping the f-bomb in some communities” (interview, January 27, 2017). Because the r-word “sets off alarm bells” and signals predictive policing, Baker preferred the term “entry into violence.”
In his discussion of “entry into violence,” Baker conceded that radicalization research could not draw a causal link between the early warning signs of radicalization and violent extremism. Practitioners therefore could not use these warning signs to predict who might commit an act of terrorism. Baker, however, also argued that these warning signs were “associated with entry into violence,” meaning they could help identify individuals “vulnerable to” violent extremism. This strategy allowed CVE actors to use these warning signs in their everyday work while affirming the research studies that disproved them. Critics, however, argued that using these factors to identify individuals “at risk” of violent extremism posed the same problems (and scientific limitations) as employing these factors to predict who will commit an act of terrorism (participant observation, April 21, 2017).
Leading CVE partners like the now defunct World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE) created manuals, practices, and programs that followed these contradictory logics. WORDE (2016), for example, published a CVE instructor’s manual that detailed how “radicalization to violent extremism is multi-faceted, interconnected, and often entails overlapping potential factors” (42). WORDE (2016) also argued:
This framework was developed using terms such as “risk factor” or “indicators of vulnerability” in the colloquial sense. It is important to note that, scientifically, “risk factors” may assume that risk is quantifiable, or that there is a proven causal link between two factors (for example, smoking is a common risk factor of lung cancer). However, because there are no studies to date that have demonstrated a causal link between any one risk factor, or combination of factors, and an individual becoming a terrorist, our use of the term “risk factor” is not predictive of who will become radicalized. Instead, it represents a structured guide to explore variables that have a potential to contribute to one’s radicalization. (44, emphasis in original)
Although WORDE admitted (2016) that no research studies had demonstrated a causal link between its listed risk factors and violent extremism, it suggested that these risk factors could serve as a “structured guide” in identifying individuals vulnerable to violent extremism (44).
WORDE employee Nazanin Zaghari also reported that despite “millions of dollars of research” that demonstrated that “there is no single factor that can predict who will become a terrorist,” empirical research on “convicted terrorists” suggested that “some common indicators . . . exist in many of those cases, which may make an individual more vulnerable to recruitment and radicalization” (participant observation, August 18, 2016). Even though Zaghari recognized that scientific studies had disproven the utility of these “common indicators,” she proffered that their mere presence in some “convicted terrorists” imbued these indicators with the power to identify individuals “at risk of” or “vulnerable to” violent extremism. Following these contradictory logics, WORDE’s CVE programming taught community members how to identify individuals vulnerable to terrorist radicalization and recruitment using the very warning signs WORDE conceded had no scientific basis.
Adhering to this model, community members referred more than twenty-five individuals for interventions, citing “homesickness,” “acculturation-related stress,” “feelings of alienation,” and “economic stressors” as signs these individuals “may be at risk of violent extremism.” A partner agency, for example, worried about a “young Afghan male” who had “withdrawn from family and friends and had failed to attend school for several months.” With the assistance of WORDE (2014), the agency determined the young man was “severely homesick and needed help adjusting to his life in the U.S.” and therefore possibly at risk of violent extremism (4). By associating common immigrant experiences with violent extremism, WORDE encouraged adults to view Muslim, Arab, and other immigrant children through a radicalization lens, without considering the impact of marking individuals at risk of violent extremism.
Critics have identified these contradictory logics as scientifically suspect, ethically questionable, and practically flawed. Legal scholars, for example, contend that “WORDE in fact seems to use these factors to do just what the group says they cannot”—identify individuals as vulnerable to violent extremism based on “potential risk factors” (Patel and Koushik 2017, 26). Given the public opposition to CVE, “policymakers are being forced to admit that the science does not support their policy, but instead of changing the policy, they’re keeping it, and then inevitably having to contradict themselves when explaining the policy’s scientific credentials” (Kundnani, as quoted in Mirza 2016). In this view, the indicators of violent extremism could neither predict who will become a terrorist nor identify individuals vulnerable to violent extremism.
The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA) (2016) similarly worked this tension as it created and instituted bystander-gatekeeping trainings to “educate community members on how to identify warning signs of radicalization to violence and warning signs that someone may be in the early stages of planning an act of targeted violence” (18). In its 2016 DHS CVE grant proposal, for instance, ICJIA framed its bystander-gatekeeper training as a preventative, not predictive, approach to violent extremism while still relying on “warning signs of radicalization.” ICJIA advanced this training despite recognizing that “there are no known profiles of people who will become radicalized to violence or who will engage in acts of ideologically inspired targeted violence” (obtained documents). In this view, the absence of a single profile of a violent extremist did not preclude the possibility of using early warning signs to detect individuals “radicalizing or mobilizing toward violence.” Like WORDE, ICJIA (2016) conceded that these “potential risk factors correlated with violent extremism” and “risk factors associated with radicalization toward violent extremism” had no predictive power while using them preemptively to identify individuals who may be vulnerable to violent extremism (9, emphasis added). CVE actors used qualifying vocabularies like “potential risk factors correlated with violent extremism” and “may be early indications to possible violence” as a way to recognize and then sidestep scientific studies that demonstrate that there are no known indicators that can be used to identify individuals vulnerable to violence.
CVE actors also relied on public health metaphors to manage the contradictory logics that organized their work. Researchers Alejandro Beutel, Asma Shah, and Mimi Yu (2016), for example, proposed that “violence prediction and violence prevention can be understood using an analogy: Doctors cannot precisely say when a person is going to have a heart attack (prediction); however they can confidently identify when someone is at serious risk for one and what steps can be taken to lower that risk (prevention)” (para. 28). Predictive efforts “focus on determining the accuracy of whether or not an individual will commit a future act of violence” (para. 29). Preventive measures, however, “focus on 1) developing a rapid and context-specific analysis of a potential threat posed by an individual and 2) connecting the person of concern to protective resources that will mitigate their specific issues driving them toward violence” (para. 29). By distinguishing prediction from prevention, the researchers asserted that CVE “does NOT seek to ‘predict’ who will be a violent extremist and who will not” (para. 26). The doctor analogy, however, obfuscated how CVE actors have identified “persons of concern” or individuals at risk of violent extremism. This analogy also erased the scientific studies demonstrating that there are no early warning signs of violent extremism and no indicators that reliably can detect individuals “at serious risk” of violent extremism.
In practice, these nuanced arguments flattened into self-contradictory statements that criminalized individuals using disproven indicators of violent extremism. The NYPD, for example, acknowledged that it is “difficult to predict who will radicalize” while routinely questioning, investigating, and arresting individuals exhibiting “typical signatures” of radicalization, like growing a beard, wearing traditional Islamic clothing, or experiencing social disenfranchisement (Silber and Bhatt 2007, 20). These warning signs also have “criminalize[d] the normal human experiences of Muslims and open[ed] the door to people acting on prejudices and stereotypes in tagging individuals as potential terrorists” (Patel, Lindsay, and DenUyl 2018a, 1). Aysha Khoury, for example, warned that “showing signs of withdrawing or isolation” sometimes triggered a CVE intervention, even though withdrawn youth usually are “just struggling to grow up,” a common U.S. experience with no connection to violent extremism (interview, January 25, 2017). For these critics, the distinction between causality and correlation and the debate about prediction and prevention were meaningless. The NYPD and other organizations have responded to disproven warning signs that may, or may not, indicate an individual is vulnerable to radicalizing as though the individual is, or may become, dangerous.
To support their work, organizations like ICJIA turned to studies that curated risk factors “associated with” violent extremism. The DHS-funded National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) (2017b), for example, developed a terrorist database called Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS). This database contains “individual-level information on the backgrounds, attributes, and radicalization processes of nearly 1,500 violent and non-violent extremists who adhere to far right, far left, Islamist, or single-issue ideologies in the United States covering 1948–2013.” Even though PIRUS can identify the “backgrounds, attributes, and radicalization processes” common among violent extremists and compare them to nonviolent extremists, researchers still have no way of knowing if any of these behaviors and characteristics correspond to terrorist radicalization. The database also employs questionable categories, such as classifying the Black Panther Party as a terrorist organization. CVE critics reject this troubling strategy, reporting that “government programs try to get around the lack of predictive markers via checklists of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors that identify individuals at risk of violent extremism” (Patel and Singh 2016, para. 6).
Given these limitations, radicalization theorist Marc Sageman (2014) concedes that “after all this funding and this flurry of publications, with each new terrorist incident we realize that we are no closer to answering our original question about what leads people to turn to political violence” (569). Despite understanding that “credible empirical studies amply demonstrate that there are no predictive markers of who is likely to become a terrorist,” CVE strategists have “promoted programs that rely on such markers” to identify individuals “at risk” of violent extremism (rather than predict who will go on to commit terrorism) (Patel and Singh 2016, para. 17). This self-contradictory practice defined many CVE programs.
As these examples illustrate, researchers and practitioners negotiated the scientific limitations of CVE by defining their work as a preventative, not predictive, approach to violent extremism. In addition, CVE actors admitted that the warning signs “associated with radicalization” could not predict who will become a terrorist while arguing that these warning signs could help identify individuals at risk of violent extremism. Through these discursive maneuvers, CVE actors worked to maintain the credibility of this approach and the security agencies leading it, which they viewed as effectively balancing national security and civil rights.
“Our Criminal Justice System Works”: Denying Racial and Religious Profiling
Given the continued charge that CVE relied on racial and religious profiling to identify individuals “at risk of” or “vulnerable to” violent extremism, organizations and practitioners often made direct statements to acknowledge their commitment to protecting the civil liberties of targeted communities. The Los Angeles Interagency Coordination Group, for example, placed civil liberties at the heart of its published materials. Its 2015 publication enunciated that “the preservation of civil rights and civil liberties is a key pillar of the Los Angeles CVE Framework” and that “the Framework is designed to mitigate the risk presented by violent extremist groups while preserving individual liberty, fairness, and equality under the law” (Los Angeles Interagency Coordination Group in collaboration with community stakeholders 2015). To assuage community concerns, the Los Angeles CVE Framework openly expressed a commitment to balancing civil liberties and national security in all lines of effort.
Despite this stated commitment, Muslim organizations in California publicly opposed local CVE programming. A coalition of Muslim Student Associations (2015) at twenty-seven college campuses across California, for example, wrote that as “advocates for social equity and protection of civil liberties for all Americans, we firmly stand in opposition to the Countering Violent Extremism programs.” Although CVE organizations sought to minimize public objections to their work through their verbal commitments to civil rights and civil liberties, communities still contested CVE because it “solely targets and stigmatizes the Muslim community” (Muslim Student Association-West 2015). In fact, consistent pushback from community organizations led Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti to turn down the city’s $425,000 DHS CVE grant in 2018.
Other CVE actors similarly affirmed the importance of ensuring the protection of civil liberties through blunt arguments that stymied debate. For example, when local critics accused Minneapolis officials of targeting Somali youth through CVE programming, David Greene publicly asserted that “I’ll pledge to you as your senior law enforcement official, at the federal level and at the state, we are abiding by all the civil liberties and human rights that all of us, including me, cherish and hold dear. So, our criminal justice system works. It’s got all the right checks and balances, and I pledge to you, we are not profiling. We never will.” Given the ongoing resistance to local CVE programming, Greene emphasized that “the criminal justice system works” and reaffirmed his commitment to protecting the civil liberties of “all of us” (participant observation, August 18, 2016).
In addition to these verbal assurances, Greene met with people across Minnesota who had been “victims of Islamophobia” to demonstrate his commitment to “standing up to Islamophobia,” which he “cared about deeply to [his] core.” Greene personalized this commitment, describing how,
as a Jew, what it sounds like to me when I hear people denouncing Muslims, it sounds like what my forefathers and foremothers lived with many years ago. When my great-great-grandfather was required to change his name because it sounded too Jewish, he couldn’t live in the community in Austria they lived in. . . . Coming from that background and living with that history, I will stand up to anybody in Minnesota who tries to reinvent that against our Muslim community. (participant observation, August 18, 2016)
Greene’s primary audience of national security workers met his personal narrative with resounding affirmation, evident in a sudden round of applause. For this audience, this narrative assuaged any fears of racial discrimination, harassment, or profiling CVE might engender through local programming (participant observation, August 18, 2016).
Community organizers, however, questioned Greene’s commitment to their civil liberties, particularly given local CVE programming’s “laser focus” on Somali youth. Public declarations, after all, are often “non-performative” in that “they do not do what they say” (S. Ahmed 2004b, para. 1). A stated commitment “does not necessarily commit the institution to doing anything” and, simultaneously, can be used to “block the recognition of racism within institutions” (S. Ahmed 2012, 116–17). Institutional workers can refer to these strategic public statements to deny their impingement on the civil liberties of targeted communities, regardless of their actual practices. These public statements therefore can serve as evidence of an organization’s commitment to civil liberties without necessarily enacting that commitment.
Some community members, for example, questioned Greene’s commitment to “not profiling,” citing the recent arrests and prosecutions of Somali youth on terrorism-related charges (participant observation, August 18, 2016). CVE practitioner Yasir Ahmed even urged Greene to “stop going after the Somali community” and “stop targeting them.” Ahmed fumed, “You’re a prosecutor! You’re not there to help people” (informal conversation, April 12, 2017). Refusing to enroll local youth in CVE-oriented sports programs endorsed by Greene, another CVE practitioner insisted that “we’re not going to send our children to law enforcement” (informal conversation, April 13, 2017). As these examples demonstrate, some practitioners objected to Greene’s role in CVE, particularly because he was a federal prosecutor “who will prosecute you.” From their perspective, local CVE programs intensified, not mitigated, the criminalization of Somali youth by “seeing the Muslim community as having a Muslim problem” in need of interventions conducted in collaboration with law enforcement (participant observation, April 21, 2017). From the perspectives of these CVE practitioners, Greene’s passionate speeches about how the “criminal justice system works” sinisterly masked his role in targeting and arresting Somali youth.
Somali organizers also dismissed Greene’s stated commitment to their civil liberties and civil rights, pointing to the continued use of racial profiling to identify children perceived to be at risk of violent extremism. College student Axado Isnino reported that local CVE programs were “predicated on the idea that Muslims have a higher propensity for violence than the general population,” a premise that “dehumanized” Somali youth. Given their experiences, youth organizers rejected CVE as a racist project that targeted them because they were “Black and Muslim and poor and refugees” (participant observation, April 21, 2017). CVE practitioner Aysha Khoury affirmed these comments, saying that, in Minneapolis, “It doesn’t matter where you look. There’s so much resentment to even the idea of doing CVE programming. And civil rights groups have been protesting that this is actually just a glorified way of targeting Muslims anyway. And if you ask to confirm that? I’d say, ‘Actually, yes, we are. That is what we do’” (interview, January 25, 2017). Statements like Greene’s therefore “can be described as non-performatives: they do not bring into effect that which they name,” even while appearing to attenuate racial and religious profiling (S. Ahmed 2012, 119). In this view, these speech acts intended to assuage community concerns without changing the practices that generated these concerns.
Despite these critiques, CVE practitioner Abdirahman Mahdi viewed Greene as a “genuine leader” and “true partner with the community” as he always “looked out for the community” (informal conversation, April 12, 2017). For some, Greene and other political leaders adequately addressed community concerns by stating their commitment to the Somali community and convening a Somali American Task Force to hold them accountable. For others, high-level CVE practitioners simply disregarded deeper problems that harmed communities, especially Somali youth, through these speech acts.
Through these public statements, CVE actors defended their work as “doing the right thing” for Muslim communities targeted by terrorist recruiters. In this view, CVE could “keep communities safe and healthy” and “defend our democratic society against the civilizational war that violent extremists of all stripes aim to provoke” (Weine 2017, para. 21). Through these speech acts, CVE actors sought to assuage community concerns related to racial and religious profiling. Despite the prominence of these narrative strategies, CVE practitioners and community members differentially responded to these public statements.
“Is That Really CVE?” CVE-Specific vs. CVE-Relevant Programming
Despite these efforts to manage public objections to CVE, some practitioners expressed deep concerns about programs that sought to identify individuals vulnerable to violent extremism. Khoury, for example, reported that “there’s a lot of questions in terms of, ‘How are you doing targeting on who is receiving [CVE] programming?’” Although preventative programs like counter-messaging campaigns could include all youth, more direct interventions identified individuals perceived to be at risk of violent extremism. For Khoury, this identificatory process could “end up being profiling,” especially when the “assumption of vulnerability is based on ethnicity, sometimes on religion, and it’s unclear if it’s based on actual vulnerability. So, the slicing gets done. And how does it end up entering the role of profiling?” Khoury reported that she observed CVE programs “curtail religious freedom” by using religiosity as a proxy for radicalization, even though religiosity “is not the same thing as extremism.” Informed by her experiences as a national security practitioner and Muslim woman, Khoury warned that CVE could “end up being profiling” (interview, January 25, 2017, emphasis in original). Even when intentionally focused on addressing all forms of political violence, CVE risked devolving into racial profiling by employing explicitly racialized indicators like increased religiosity or unintentionally using a racialized lens to identify individuals vulnerable to radicalization.
Concerned about how “the slicing gets done,” Khoury advocated for prevention programs “for everyone” rather than tailored interventions that targeted specific individuals. To differentiate between these two approaches, CVE practitioners began classifying their work as either “CVE-relevant” or “CVE-specific.” These classifications quickly gained currency in the CVE policy world as they effectively differentiated prevention efforts “for everyone” from direct interventions.
CVE-specific “refers to measures designed to prevent violent extremism in a direct, targeted fashion, such as intervening with someone drawn to extremist ideologies” (Green and Proctor 2016, 28). This process involves “getting referrals from the community members, the family members” about “loved ones” vulnerable to radicalization and then developing tailored interventions to “off-ramp” these individuals from the perceived pathway to violent extremism (Khoury, interview, January 25, 2017). CVE practitioners design tailored deradicalization programs for each identified individual, like culturally relevant counseling and religious (re)education.
Some CVE actors objected to both the identification of at-risk individuals using disproven indicators and the effectiveness of CVE-specific interventions. Researcher Ron Stuart reported that “the story nobody wants to tell, but it actually needs to be told, ‘cause this is what happens when you do interventions, is it doesn’t work. It’s not meant to work all the time. Anybody who says intervention is effective any high percentage at a time, I don’t know who they’re doing interventions with; there’s no intervention that I’m aware of that has really high percentages of effectiveness” (interview, February 17, 2017). In this view, CVE-specific interventions experienced a high failure rate and identified individuals using disproven indicators of violent extremism.
CVE-relevant measures “are more general, intending to reduce vulnerability to extremism in an indirect way. CVE-relevant efforts are primarily advanced through education, development, human rights and governance programs, and youth initiatives” (Green and Proctor 2016, 28). From Khoury’s perspective, CVE-relevant programs were “open to everyone” and thus did not target “a particular ethnicity, a particular religion, gender, nothing.” A local CVE-relevant program related to internet safety, for example, welcomed all community members and taught “the whole spectrum” of online “child predators,” such as “pedophiles, cyber-bullies, and extremists.” For some practitioners, focusing on CVE-relevant programming eschewed the problems of implicit bias and racial profiling that generated public opposition to their work (interview, January 25, 2017).
Despite her commitment to this work, Khoury cautioned that CVE-relevant programming risked labeling conventional “good governance” initiatives as national security programs. Khoury questioned this approach, asking, “If you’re providing services to an underserved community, is that really CVE?” (interview, January 25, 2017). This process securitized the provision of social services by delivering “good governance” initiatives under the banner of countering violent extremism. Given the ongoing disinvestment in immigrant neighborhoods, I observed some community leaders accept CVE funding to provide much-needed social services like culturally responsive counseling and youth sports leagues, even if they did not consider violent extremism to be a significant issue in their communities. Some, however, rejected these funds because they could jeopardize community partnerships and require reporting mechanisms akin to intelligence gathering (Arab American Action Network 2017). Community organizers therefore rejected the premise that they should receive these services as potential security threats, arguing that they deserved these resources as worthy community members.
As these examples illustrate, CVE practitioners, researchers, and communities responded to the charge of racial profiling in different ways, whether by redesigning their CVE programs, dismissing these concerns altogether, making public declarations of their commitment to civil liberties and civil rights, or developing CVE-relevant programs “for everyone.” Practitioners reached for different national security vocabularies, logics, and research to justify their work in the face of constant community resistance. Although “policies of the state are enacted amid tension and difference,” practitioners often deployed coherent frameworks that reaffirmed a broader commitment to CVE (Mountz 2010, 58).
The different narratives, norms, and logics CVE actors used to make sense of, organize, and justify their work produced different programming across the United States. Although higher-level bureaucrats like Greene worked to establish a coherent narrative about CVE, institutional workers often generated their own understandings of CVE that departed from federal- and state-level practices. Although some public officials minimized the role of racial and religious profiling in the implementation of CVE programs, practitioners like Khoury redesigned their efforts to address the problem of profiling. Despite these efforts, however, federal policymakers sometimes undermined this work by intensifying CVE’s focus on Muslim communities, in national security forums, policy directives, and funding opportunities. Rather than conceptualize the security state as a disembodied monolith, these struggles over the meanings and practices of CVE demonstrate how the daily work of institutional workers drove the uneven implementation of national security policy.
Ideologically Ecumenical: Toward Equal Opportunity CVE
As CVE actors labored amid palpable pressures and tensions, some directly addressed the problem of racial and religious profiling by creating more inclusive programming that equally targeted “sovereign citizen extremists,” “environmental extremists,” “white supremacy extremists,” and “militia extremists.” Tanvir Rahman, for example, recognized that directing “99.9% of your effort” at “the Muslim and Arab communities, and at ISIS and al-Qaeda-inspired [violence] eviscerates trust” (interview, November 10, 2016). Given this damaging shortcoming, Rahman sought to engage all communities in CVE programming.
The CVE policy world has referred to this inclusive approach as “ideologically ecumenical.” According to Adrian Baker, an ideologically ecumenical CVE program “dealt with not just people who are associated with al-Qaeda and ISIS but also violent far-right actors and even violent far-left actors as well” (interview, January 27, 2017). The DHS Homeland Security Academic Advisory Council (HSAAC) (2017) similarly encouraged a “big tent” approach that addressed “all forms of violent extremism, regardless of ideology, focusing not on radical thought or speech, but on preventing violence” (15). Daniel Glickman reported that the “problem set” of violent extremists was “broader than Islamists” and therefore required a more comprehensive “solution set” (participant observation, March 29, 2017). An “ideologically ecumenical” or “big tent” approach intentionally broadened CVE efforts to include all known forms of violent extremism in the United States, from ecoterrorism to white supremacy. In 2019, DHS formally institutionalized this ideologically ecumenical approach by establishing the Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention, thereby “expanding the aperture of terrorism prevention” to counter “a broader range of current and emerging threats” (Department of Homeland Security 2019).
Following these logics, DHS representative Amir Samy reported that “radicalization and recruitment have affected all populations of society,” including “people who are American-born, white males.” This means that “the nature and scope of the threat is diverse.” Given this diverse threat, Samy called for a “model of countering and preventing violent extremism” that was “equally diverse and very tailored to a local approach and to local demographics.” When asked what a tailored approach might look like, Samy cautioned that “it would be inappropriate for someone who lives and works in Washington, [DC] to opine on” a local issue. Rather than charge federal officials with developing local solutions, Samy urged “local individuals” to “decide how that should be played” (participant observation, August 18, 2016).
As an example of this “equally diverse and very tailored” approach, Samy pointed to how Minneapolis “pioneered” CVE with a “prevention framework” to “inoculate young people from all forms of ideologically-inspired violence.” For Samy, preventing the “next generation of recruits” depended on a “tailored” big tent approach to countering violent extremism. To narrow these big tent efforts, CVE practitioners needed to be responsive to “local demographics,” like Somali parents in Minneapolis who “have seen incidents of young men and women who have attempted to travel abroad . . . to join Boko Haram or Al-Shabaab.” For some federal policymakers like Samy, preventing “the next generation of recruits” among Minneapolis’s Somali youth exemplified a tailored big tent approach to countering violent extremism in local communities (participant observation, August 18, 2016).
Samy used the concept of ideologically ecumenical CVE to manage public objections to CVE. This concept framed CVE programs as a “tailored” approach responsive to local needs and threats rather than organized by racialized assumptions about who may be vulnerable to violent extremism. Positioning CVE as an equal opportunity or inclusive national security strategy worked to dispel community concerns about racial profiling, even though CVE continued to target Muslim communities disproportionately (Kundnani 2014; Patel, Lindsay, and DenUyl 2018b). In fact, under the Trump administration, “at least 85% of CVE grants, and over half of CVE programs, now explicitly target minority groups, including Muslims, LGBTQ Americans, Black Lives Matter activists, immigrants, and refugees” (Patel, Lindsay, and DenUyl 2018b). This means that state-sponsored CVE programs increasingly target nondominant communities, including Muslims, immigrants, and refugees.
Despite the DHS HSAAC’s call for an ideologically ecumenical approach to CVE, a subsequent U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs hearing limited its testimony to the problem of “Islamist” violent extremism. In this hearing, ranking member Claire McCaskill (2017) admitted that “the United States faces threats from a variety of sources including white supremacists, eco-terrorists, and ISIS and al-Qaeda members and sympathizers.” Yet, McCaskill then reported that “in the context of Sunni-inspired violent extremism, which is where this hearing appears to be focused based on the witnesses, it’s absolutely vital that any effort our government undertakes to counter violent extremism is done in partnership with and with the full engagement of the Muslim community.” McCaskill confirmed that expert witnesses would focus on “Sunni-inspired violent extremism” as a “civilizational problem,” despite recognizing other security threats. By implying that Sunni Islam can “inspire” terrorism, this narrow scope encouraged the “full engagement of the Muslim community,” a demand seldom leveled against white or Christian communities to thwart the threat of white supremacist violence.
Like McCaskill, CVE actors often referenced a “diverse threat” before focusing exclusively on “Sunni-inspired violent extremism.” Over time, I observed CVE forums begin including a token practitioner working to end white supremacist violence while largely focusing on “radical Islamic terrorism,” “Islamist extremism,” or “radical jihadism.” CVE actors could point to this practitioner as evidence of their ideologically ecumenical approach.
By focusing on “Sunni-inspired violent extremism,” this Senate hearing affirmed the targeting of Muslim communities to “optimally protect ourselves and the world against radical jihadism” (Lenczowski 2017). To do so, national security experts testified that the United States needed to monitor Muslim student groups, schools, and organizations capable of radicalizing youth. These experts also suggested that Muslim advocacy groups fostered terrorist militancy. Asra Nomani (2017), for example, referred to Muslim organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Muslim Student Associations as “soft propogandists” for Islamist extremists. Ayaan Hirsi Ali (2017) similarly warned that “Islamist groups” like CAIR “have enjoyed not just protection but at times official sponsorship from government agencies duped into regarding them as representative of ‘moderate Muslims’ simply because they do not engage in violence,” despite their putative circulation of “the ideology that justifies, promotes, and celebrates those acts [of violence].” Contrary to this fear-filling framing, CAIR (2015) seeks to “enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.” By positioning this mission as allied with “Islamist causes and interests,” Nomani (2017) suggested that Muslim civil rights organizations “push Islamist ideas,” equating political action with “radical jihad.”
In their senate testimony, national security experts concluded that politically active Muslims advanced “Islamist causes and interests.” To counteract these “Islamists,” John Lenczowski (2017) called on “politically moderate Muslims who do not seek radical Jihadist domination” to deliver messages to “Islamic audiences concerning issues of radical jihad.” In addition, Lenczowski (2017) encouraged the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to “quietly and covertly” support these moderate Muslim voices by “embark[ing] on a major revival of its covert political influence capabilities.” To win this “ideological war,” Lenczowski (2017) implored the U.S. security state to give “funding, media assistance, and possibly even physical protection” to “politically moderate Muslims . . . capable of arguing against the killing of innocents.” By conflating political activism with violent extremism, Lenczowski (2017) portrayed “politically moderate Muslims” as “good Muslims” and Muslim civil rights advocates as terrorists. In this view, politically moderate Muslims could serve as an antidote to “bad” or “radical” Muslims who pose a national security threat to the United States.
Despite calls for an “ideologically ecumenical” approach to CVE, the trope of the Muslim terrorist seethed below the surface of congressional national security debates and organized CVE practices, which approached politically active Muslims as terrorist threats. Practitioners and community members unintentionally reached for these tropes to make sense of local security threats, evident in Khoury’s warning that CVE could devolve into religious profiling and in WORDE’s identification of Arab students experiencing “acculturation-related stress” as possibly radicalizing. Although many practitioners rejected these fiercely anti-Muslim interpretations of pressing national security threats and referred to these expert witnesses as “Islamophobes,” the circulation of these narratives influenced how individuals differentially enacted CVE programs.
Shortly before the institutionalization of CVE, the trope of the Muslim terrorist coherently crystallized in the emerging term “going Muslim.” Hoover Institution fellow Tunku Varadarajan (2009) coined the phrase “going Muslim” to make sense of Major Nidal Hasan’s 2009 Fort Hood shooting. For Varadarajan (2009), “going Muslim” signified the “turn of events where a seemingly integrated Muslim-American—a friendly donut vendor in New York, say, or an officer in the U.S. Army at Fort Hood—discards his apparent integration into American society and elects to vindicate his religion in an act of messianic violence against his fellow Americans” (para. 2). The concept of “going Muslim” framed all Muslims as both duplicitously feigning assimilation and always already on the verge of “messianic violence.” Such provocative narratives resonate with the U.S. public, who come to fear all Muslims, including their friendly donut vendor.
To stage this argument, Varadarajan (2009) borrowed the phrase “going postal” used to describe a phenomenon whereby overworked U.S. Postal Service workers attacked their managers and coworkers through a series of violent incidents. Varadarajan (2009), however, argued that Hasan did not “go postal”—“snap and gun down his colleagues”—and denied a “psychological snapping point” in the case of the “imminent violent Muslim” (para. 1, para. 3). Instead, “going Muslim” referred to the cultural process through which U.S. Muslims reject integration in a fit of murderous rage. “Going Muslim” involves a “calculated discarding of camouflage—the camouflage of integration—in an act of revelatory catharsis” (para. 3).
In this framework, “going Muslim” means “becoming violent,” a reductionist conclusion that misses “the racist harassment that Hasan faced in the [U.S.] army [and] the emotionally debilitating pressure of his job as an overworked psychiatrist” (Kumar 2012, 162). In this view, “all Muslim Americans are ‘imminently violent,’ and while they appear to be integrated into American society, they are in fact ticking time bombs who will inevitably explode into violent murderous rage” (Kumar 2012, 162). This conclusion, however, belies decades of research that “found only a limited likelihood of attacks by homegrown terrorists” and “no evidence that American Muslims were becoming more radical” (Patel 2011, 5–6). Despite the public commitment to “ideologically ecumenical” approaches to countering violent extremism, high-level CVE actors further institutionalized anti-Muslim racism, creating policies, norms, and practices that reasserted the image of the Muslim terrorist, evident in the disproportionate funding of CVE programs in Muslim and other nondominant communities.
Despite the primacy of the “going Muslim” thesis on the national stage, some practitioners emphatically contested the anti-Muslim logics that organized local programs, noting the harm some CVE initiatives inflicted on Muslim communities. Practitioner Bassem Ali, for example, rejected the “going Muslim” thesis, concluding that the perceived problem of “Islamist extremism” was “overstated,” especially “compared to the violence of the Klan” (participant observation, November 10, 2016). Ron Stuart similarly worried that the “going Muslim” concept led law enforcement to disproportionately pursue “Islamist extremism” while “neglecting” mounting white supremacist violence. Stuart further reported that “we’re focused in on ISIS like a laser beam and we can’t look at anything else” even though “local law enforcement consistently ranks far-right extremists at either the top or near the top” of its threat assessment. Although local police “see white supremacy and jihadists as equal threats,” federal agents used “rhetoric that’s much more focused on the jihadi” (interview, February 17, 2017). Stuart’s comments illustrate how local interpretations of pressing security threats often conflicted with national rhetoric that reinforced the “going Muslim” thesis, ultimately creating a demand for “jihadi”-focused CVE programs. As local practitioners like Ali and Rahman developed programs inclusive of all forms of violent extremism, national initiatives and vocabularies often overshadowed these “ideologically ecumenical” efforts.
Responding to growing calls to widen CVE’s scope to address white supremacist violence, critics warned against an “ideologically ecumenical” approach. As Fatema Ahmad concluded, “We aren’t looking for equal opportunity surveillance,” especially given CVE’s reliance on “debunked theories of radicalization that end up criminalizing First-Amendment-protected rights” (as quoted in Southorn 2017). A coalition of community organizations similarly argued that the “inclusion of white supremacist-focused groups would not decrease or redistribute the damage done to Muslim communities as a whole through this type of surveillance” (“Statement: AMEMSA Groups Oppose Expansion of the Countering Violent Extremism Program” 2017, para. 2). Critics contested the exploitation of growing concerns about white supremacist violence to justify CVE since this national security approach disproportionately targeted Muslim communities and used scientifically flawed indicators to identify individuals vulnerable to violent extremism.
Some CVE actors, however, used the problem of white supremacy to reframe CVE as an inclusive program that addressed all forms of violent extremism. The 2016 White House Strategic Implementation Plan, for example, announced a partnership with Life After Hate/ExitUSA to study “the reasons why individuals from the white power movement participated in violent activities” and examine “cases of those who voluntarily choose to leave the movement” (White House 2016, 12). Created by former white supremacists, Life After Hate/ExitUSA helps white supremacists leave a life of hate by disengaging from the white power movement. To do so, Life After Hate staff work with self-identified white supremacists who reach out for support. This strategy has insulated white supremacists from one of the more controversial aspects of CVE: detecting individuals vulnerable to or in the process of radicalizing using disproven indicators, risk factors, and warning signs.
In 2016, Life After Hate applied for a DHS CVE grant to target both “far-right extremists” and “jihadists.” To do so, Life After Hate proposed abandoning its prior practice of working with self-identified white supremacists. Instead, Life After Hate (2016) sought to use Moonshot CVE’s Digital Shepherds technology to “automate the process of identifying individuals at risk of radicalization, assessing vulnerability against databases of indicators of risk, and assigning each user a risk score” (2). To do so, Digital Shepherds “uses publicly available data posted on Facebook to identify individuals at risk of falling into the orbit of extremist organizations” and then assigns Facebook users a “risk score based on a unique risk assessment algorithm which weights variables such as identification with violent extremist ideology, frequency and depth of engagement, connectivity and environment of each user” (Life After Hate 2016, 4). Although a “human analyst” later verified Digital Shepherds’ findings, the use of “online identifiers” like “keywords, links, images, and groups” to “build a bespoke database of U.S.-specific far-right and Jihadist extremist risk factors online” has never been scientifically proven as effective or accurate (5).
Applying military doctrine to domestic operations, Life After Hate sought to identify people and threats “before their deadly potential [was] realized, at a point when they [were] effectively indistinguishable from the wider urban populace” (S. Graham 2010, xii). The proposed algorithmic assessment framed this identificatory process as an objective science, without questioning the data used to calculate and assign a risk score. In its first known effort to address both far-right extremism and jihadism, Life After Hate proposed undertaking a scientifically disproven task it had never used: identifying individuals vulnerable to radicalization and assigning these individuals a risk score based on their Facebook activity.
Given the concerns about growing white supremacist violence following the election of President Trump, Life After Hate experienced an upsurge of financial, political, and personal support. Critics, however, questioned the use of rising white supremacist violence to justify CVE programs like Life After Hate’s, contending, “You can’t fight Trump-style hate with the surveillance state” (Southorn 2017). Organizer Debbie Southorn (2017) argued that “by rallying around CVE, some progressives are promoting law enforcement collaborations through a counter-terror lens—thereby undermining anti-racist struggle and the well-being of Muslims across the United States” (para. 4). Despite good intentions, the ongoing support of CVE programs targeting white supremacist violence shores up the very institutions and processes that harm communities of color. Expanding CVE to include white supremacists has not mitigated its impact on Muslim communities or solved its faulty science (Patel, Lindsay, and DenUyl 2018b). As one community organizer concluded, “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.”
In addition to strengthening the U.S. security state, this “ideologically ecumenical” approach has equated white supremacist violence with jihadism. This false equivalence erases how whiteness has organized the ideological structures, political processes, and legal frameworks in the United States, including the slave patrols and Indian constables that led to modern-day policing in the United States. Pathologizing individual white supremacists provides an alibi for the embedded societal racism that, by design, produces premature death in communities of color through hyperincarceration, restrictive housing covenants, limited educational and health-care opportunities, and state and vigilante violence. Lumping together ecoterrorists, white supremacists, jihadists, and other nonparallel groups obfuscates the differences in political goals, (state) power, and tactics.
As these examples illustrate, CVE actors struggled to define what constituted an “ideologically ecumenical” approach to CVE. To do so, they reached for dominant narratives, discourses, and tropes like “going Muslim” to make sense of, organize, and justify their daily work. Government forums like the senate hearing provided a platform for some Muslim leaders who sought to narrow CVE’s focus on “Islamist extremism” and urged “politically moderate Muslims” to contribute to CVE efforts. In addition, these federal forums amplified anti-Muslim racism and corresponding national security policies that presumed all Muslims were uniquely susceptible to violence. Local CVE practitioners therefore struggled to differentiate their “ideologically ecumenical” programs from “government-led” initiatives that targeted Muslim communities. Some critics, however, rejected these inclusive programs given the continued use of disproven warning signs to identify individuals vulnerable to violent extremism and disproportionate focus on “Islamist extremism.” Despite local debates about CVE, higher-level bureaucrats like David Greene crafted a coherent national security narrative that smoothed over these tensions, clarified the utility of CVE, and performed a commitment to the civil rights of Muslim communities.
Astroturfing: The Conscription of Muslim Leaders into the Domestic War on Terror
In this charged context, some Muslim leaders willingly developed CVE programs to protect their children from terrorist influences, despite fierce opposition. Abdirahman Mahdi, for example, “worked together with the government” because “there are some kids who are radicalized, and they are radicalizing fast.” Mahdi, however, reported that his own CVE efforts generated derision from community members who told him, “You have no soul. You’re selling out our community.” Despite constant threats, Mahdi remained committed to CVE, arguing that “it’s better off with us at the table than someone else being at the table. . . . Anti-CVE people don’t want to engage at the table. If they see you sitting at the table, they ban you.” Mahdi referred to these “anti-CVE people” as “ostriches” because “they plant their heads deep in the ground and they don’t see reality” of “young people actually planning to join ISIS” (interview, April 13, 2017). Like other Muslim leaders, Mahdi viewed CVE as a progressive national security approach that protected youth from terrorist radicalization without relying on coercive counterterrorism tactics like entrapment. Mahdi’s contentious experiences reveal how the perspectives of Muslim leaders could conflict with how their constituents understood CVE, sometimes in ways that could not be managed.
Given these conflicts, some community members accused CVE actors of “astroturfing,” a political tactic to “create an impression of widespread grassroots support for a policy, individual, or product, where little such support exists” (Bienkov 2012, para. 2). To create this impression, federal policymakers relied on select Muslim leaders to publicly endorse CVE, even if the broader community rejected this national security approach. As Mahdi explained, “If I’m at the table, that could give a policy a brand of legitimacy that, if I weren’t at the table, it wouldn’t have” (interview, April 13, 2017). Mahdi understood that his presence in community meetings could legitimize CVE as a community-led national security initiative, particularly in the face of ongoing opposition to it.
In Minneapolis, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger convened a fifteen-person Somali American Task Force, which contributed to and therefore legitimized local CVE efforts. Minneapolis organizer Bashir Cilmi conceded that “Luger saying that this is what your community wanted is semi-true” because the task force publicly endorsed CVE. From Cilmi’s perspective, however, Luger used the task force to exploit community leaders “willing to yield to dictatorship practice and implement programs that single out the Somali community” in exchange for political prestige, career advancement, and financial gain (participant observation, April 21, 2017). Although this hand-selected task force included local leaders, Cilmi argued that it did not represent the many Somali families that objected to CVE. Citing similar concerns, CVE practitioner Aedan Warabe referred to this task force as the “Luger Boys,” who worked at the behest of the “top law enforcement official” to gain “money, political power, and clout” often withheld from Muslim, Black, and immigrant communities (interview, April 13, 2017). Yusuf Elmi similarly reported that, although some community leaders said, “No, this is a table we don’t want to be at,” others “knew the value of the power they may gain by aligning themselves with law enforcement and government affairs” (interview, April 14, 2017). Seeking legitimacy, government officials called on willing Muslim leaders to publicly endorse local programs, even if this meant “pushing what communities don’t want and don’t need” (participant observation, April 21, 2017). Some Muslim leaders cooperated with the U.S. government to protect their children from terrorist radicalization, rein in the domestic war on terror, and gain access to political power and community resources.
In this context, some CVE critics objected to the U.S. security state’s appointment of “Muslim lords” or a “special class of Muslim leaders” to work on its behalf through partnerships like the Somali American Task Force (Muslim Matters 2016; Kazi 2017). In this view, CVE strategically “divide[d] the Muslim community between the ‘engagers’—those who will do law enforcement’s bidding—and the non-engagers, which comprises of everyone who disagrees with the government’s preferred narrative about the Muslim community” (Muslim Matters 2016, para. 10). In addition, “the creation of ‘engagers’ sometimes involved use of ‘astroturfing’ by funding ‘Muslim leaders’ that claimed to be independent, but upon further inspection, turned out not to be” (para. 10). Rather than celebrate the rise of Muslim leaders to key political roles, critics argued that the U.S. security state used these leaders to legitimize and enhance the policing of Muslim communities. “Engagers,” however, defended their cooperation as the necessary means to fight the domestic war on terror on the community’s own terms.
Referencing U.S. slavery, South African apartheid, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Muslim Matters (2016) contends that “all oppressive systems have people from within the targeted group that benefit from the oppression” and that “there are always people from within the targeted group who serve as apologists for the system, justifying the fraudulent frame of dangerousness of their own group and profiting from the popular narrative they help nurture and sustain” (para. 11). To enact CVE, the U.S. security state has relied on Muslim leaders to circulate damaging narratives, policies, and programs, even if these leaders admitted that such practices were “awful” (para. 12). In this way, CVE is “not merely a government program, but a system where newly constituted Muslim nobility [are] deputized by law enforcement to push a harmful narrative of the Muslim community and divide it” (para. 16). Although some Muslim leaders contributed to CVE in exchange for “money, political power, and clout,” others viewed their CVE work as “protecting the community” (Mahdi, interview, April 13, 2017). The U.S. security state therefore used community fears of racial profiling, preemptive prosecutions, and FBI stings to advance CVE as a progressive alternative to coercive policing.
Given these complex reasons for participating in CVE programming, critics encouraged Muslim leaders to reject CVE and engage in political resistance in ways that united, rather than divided, their communities. Elmi, for example, advised that to “stop the government, you challenge the government. You don’t challenge your own people because the more you challenge your own people, now your own people will organize against you and now you have an internal war. . . . All that would’ve fed internal destruction” (interview, April 14, 2017). Elmi urged community organizers to resist the government rather than demonize Muslim leaders who endorsed CVE. Instead of blaming Muslim leaders for their participation in CVE programming, Elmi indicted the U.S. security state for creating an impossible dilemma that forced Muslim families to contribute to the domestic war on terror as a way to recuperate their social value and gain access to community resources, human dignity, and political and cultural recognition.
As public objections to CVE intensified, the U.S. security state also has turned to community organizations to legitimize its efforts and mask its involvement in local programming. HSAAC (2017), for example, recommended that DHS distribute CVE grant funds through “third party intermediaries” like community organizations (17). The delivery of DHS funds through “trusted partners in the community” protected recipients from “stigmatization” by concealing their collaboration with DHS (17). In Minneapolis, for example, the U.S. Department of Justice launched its 2014 CVE pilot program in partnership with a local community organization, Youthprise. Youthprise distributed $216,000 to Somali-led community organizations to undertake local CVE programming, making it more difficult for community members to trace these federal funds and their intended purpose.
The Brennan Center for Justice reports that “the actual recipients of [DHS] CVE funds are frequently obscured because about half of the funds allocated are earmarked for pass-through organizations, consultants, or contractors. Just under half of the funds earmarked for these entities (approximately 45 percent) will be distributed to unidentified groups and individuals” (Patel, Lindsay, and DenUyl 2018c). The U.S. security state has used community organizations to endorse, legitimize, and even hide local CVE programming funded through federal grants issued by DHS and DOJ. Critics contested these “astroturf groups” for “claim[ing] they are independent while in fact being severely compromised by financial rewards and government endorsement” (Muslim Matters 2016, para. 11). Aware of these tactics, community organizers devised strategies to follow these complex funding routes and warned anti-CVE community organizations about any possible funding conflicts.
As media began reporting which community organizations received federal CVE funding through Youthprise, targeted youth expressed fear, outrage, and disbelief. For example, when a young person learned that a popular community organization received federal CVE funds through Youthprise, he feared for his own safety, writing on social media: “I’m scared to attend their events. Does this program spy on our community? Will the [community organization] turn over to the FBI sign-in lists or dissenting questions because of their participation in the program?” As news of this funding traveled across Minneapolis, some families refused to use the organization’s services.
In an email, a representative from this organization admitted that “the language of CVE is offensive, and any funding attached to the Dept. of Justice is tainted in the eyes of Minnesota’s Somali community. Their caution is warranted.” The organization’s president also conceded that, given the community response to CVE, “the money just was not worth it.” As some youth contested local CVE programs, this organization shifted its stance, eventually refusing any involvement in CVE because of its harmful logics and criminalizing impact.
Despite these palpable fears, Youthprise president Wokie Weah defended her acceptance of CVE grants, arguing that such funding could “advance racial equity and youth leadership in Minnesota” (as quoted in Mercer 2016). In May 2016, Youthprise collaborated with the Minnesota legislature to raise an additional $1.45 million for “Somali youth development.” Combined with its initial DOJ “pilot city” CVE grant, Youthprise’s “Somali Youth Development Fund” swelled to nearly $2 million. Although Youthprise continues to use its Somali Youth Development Fund, it maintained that it “will not seek or accept funding from sources focused on anti-radicalization of Somali youth, including funds attached to CVE” (personal communication, April 13, 2017). Although Youthprise denied any continued involvement in the CVE policy world, it still used funds earmarked for CVE and even applied for a 2016 DHS CVE grant for a proposed $1 million project. Weah viewed these funds as a viable mechanism “to position the Somali community for bigger and better things” (as quoted in Mercer 2016). For Weah, collaborating with the U.S. security state helped ensure that “all youth thrive.”
For activist organizations like the Young Muslim Collective, however, Youthprise had colluded with the U.S. security state and harmed Somali youth. If Youthprise wanted to “make meaningful and honest atonement for supporting and profiting from CVE,” it needed:
- 1. Public statement outlining the ways in which you’ve harmed Somali youth and continue to harm with your affiliation with CVE/CIE in the form of a press conference
- 2. A detailed outline of the ways YouthPrise seeks to repair and restore relationships broken by participation in CVE/CIE and must be approved by anti-CVE/CIE activists and elders
- 3. Submit a public letter to the Department of Justice, Trump Administration, and Homeland Security rescinding your support and condemning the program and your previous participation
- 4. Immediate resignation of President Wokie Weah
- 5. A full audit of the Somali Youth Development Fund to confirm no other funding from radicalization programs/DOJ/terrorism-related funding
- 6. Pledge to refuse all future funding aimed at de-radicalization of Somali community
- 7. Pledge to include community in all future decisions/programs regarding community funding and engagement
- 8. Public community forum to answer all community grievances about past, current and future
- 9. Make public how CVE/CIE funds have been/are being allocated within 6 recipient organizations who received it
- 10. Make public all groups, organizations, individuals and government which you have worked with related to CVE/CIE (Young Muslim Collective, public Facebook post, July 14, 2017)
As these demands indicate, the Young Muslim Collective called on Youthprise to make amends for its past harm and to sever all ties with CVE funding, government organizations, and programs. Although some community leaders viewed CVE as a community-led strategy to protect children from terrorist influences, the Young Muslim Collective argued that CVE reaffirmed harmful anti-Muslim narratives and reinforced the criminalization of Black Muslims.
Although federal policymakers have partnered with Muslim leaders and organizations capable of legitimizing local CVE programming, communities often have contested these collaborations. To incentivize participation in this charged context, federal policymakers have rewarded Muslim leaders with additional funds, job promotions, and public appraisals. Minneapolis CVE practitioner Abdimalik Mohamed, for example, rose from program director of a community organization to community outreach specialist for the U.S. Attorney’s Office to community engagement specialist for DHS. Through their public objections, anti-CVE organizers criticized Muslim leaders like Mohamed for collaborating with federal law enforcement officials, advancing the criminalization of their communities, and personally benefiting from these collaborations. Despite these community contestations, federal policymakers used select Muslim leaders and organizations to portray CVE as a “community-led and -sourced” national security strategy. Some Muslim leaders like Mahdi agreed to advance CVE both for personal gains and to protect children from terrorist recruitment.
In this controversial context, Elmi indicted the U.S. security state for stoking social conflict to maintain its power and authority. Rather than contribute to their “internal destruction” that only strengthened the U.S. security state, Elmi urged the Somali community to unite in the fight to “stop the government” and guard against “deceptive solutions.” In his own organizing, Elmi sought to reveal how the U.S. security state used community concerns about past abuses to offer CVE as a viable alternative and conscript Muslims into carrying out its daily operations.
Elmi’s advice follows previous Muslim civic engagement in the United States, which refused to conform to the prevailing interests of the U.S. political establishment. In the 1990s, for example, Muslim leaders “challenge[d] dominant views seeking to marginalize and stigmatize their constituency and instead assert[ed] counter-narratives that uplift the experiences of an otherwise voiceless minority community” (Al-Arian and Kanjwal 2014, para. 9). This political engagement unfolded in a “piecemeal fashion and largely on the community’s own terms, which necessarily meant that certain doors were closed to particular groups who carried the unfortunate baggage of representing a community with policy concerns that often conflicted with the accepted line inside the DC beltway” (para. 9). In this context, Muslim leaders advanced a more progressive political project, sometimes generating fierce opposition from the political establishment.
After September 11, Muslim institutions in the United States “sought to expand their cooperation with the American political establishment, confront the dominant narrative on Islam and Muslims, and build bridges with other communities” (Al-Arian and Kanjwal 2014, para. 11). Because domestic and foreign operations work together to advance U.S. empire, Muslim leaders were “forced to sync with a highly contested set of foreign policy positions while contending with the rise of a new national security culture at home” (para. 11). During this time, the United States outlined a strategic plan to engage “moderate Muslims.” In 2007, for example, RAND Corporation published a report, “Building Moderate Muslim Networks,” that encouraged U.S. politicians to develop an international database of possible Muslim partners and a plan for developing these partnerships, with an eye toward “moderate Muslims” like secularists, liberals, and moderate Sufis (Rabasa et al. 2007). Like Lenczowski’s senate testimony, the RAND report argued that “the creation of moderate Muslim networks would provide moderates with a platform to amplify the message of moderates, as well as some protection from extremists” (Rabasa et al. 2007, xii). Since the U.S. government cannot engage directly in ideological projects, “moderate Muslim networks and institutions” could facilitate the inculcation of moderate views, beliefs, and norms. By conforming to the “moderate Muslim” archetype and allowing the U.S. security state to define the rules of this engagement, these Muslim leaders have become “implicated in the ideology and practices of a U.S. empire that has increasingly set its sights on the world of Muslims during the past two decades” (Al-Arian and Kanjwal 2014, para. 1). The U.S. security state has relied on “moderate Muslims” to legitimize and advance, not soften, its imperial formations, evident in the community endorsements of CVE. Muslim leaders, meanwhile, have engaged the U.S. government in a concerted effort to keep their children safe from terrorist influences and rein in the domestic war on terror.
Abdullah Al-Arian and Hafsa Kanjwal (2014) warn that “while many may consider the increasing involvement of Muslims in the corridors of U.S. empire to be a positive development for American Islam,” little has changed for ordinary Muslims across the globe (para. 16). In fact, “cosmetic appearances of acceptance notwithstanding, one can scarcely point to any substantive policy changes over the past decade in relation to foreign or domestic issues that historically have been of importance to Muslim communities” (para. 16). Although CVE actors argued that increasing Muslim cooperation in the domestic war on terror could rein in governmental overreaching, the U.S. security state has continued to use FBI stings, constant surveillance, and other coercive counterterrorism tactics in pursuit of national security. Some Muslim communities therefore rejected CVE and refused to engage governmental agencies that historically have pursued, profiled, and prosecuted their loved ones in the name of national security.
Furthermore, the continued disinvestment in immigrant communities has meant that local leaders have sought political office to garner financial, social, and cultural resources to support young people. Cash-strapped, some local leaders have turned to CVE as a viable mechanism to provide social services, culturally relevant counseling, and educational programming. As Aysha Khoury concluded, the provision of these “good governance” services “had not been done and they’re now being done but they’re being called CVE” (interview, January 27, 2017). By implementing CVE initiatives, local leaders gained access to financial support and political power otherwise absent in their communities. Muslim leaders used these monies to fund sorely needed programs, like youth soccer leagues and arts education, often provided on the assumption that Muslim children were “ticking time bombs” (participant observation, April 21, 2017). The state thus used its disinvestment to pressure Muslim leaders like the “Luger boys” to pursue CVE funding and related political positions.
Critical of these concessions, CVE practitioner Aedan Warabe concluded that these Muslim leaders were “Luger tools” who served the interests of the anti-Muslim political establishment instead of their own communities (interview, April 13, 2017). Elmi, however, warned that directing outrage and opposition toward Muslim leaders fueled an “internal war” that strengthened the U.S. security state. Organizers thus needed to “challenge the government,” which continued to treat Muslim communities as internal threats to U.S. national security. The contestations over the ethics, efficacy, and impact of CVE reflects deeper debates about the best methods to transform systems of oppression and reduce racial profiling, political exclusion, and coercive policing.
The Fourth Way: Community-Led CVE as an Alternative to Coercive Counterterrorism
Given the uneven implementation of CVE, the role of law enforcement in local programming varied across the United States. As Bassem Ali reported, in Chicago, “a young person ended up getting the social services he needed” without “getting referred to law enforcement” at the same time nine Somali youth “got arrested” in Minneapolis on terrorism-related charges (interview, March 16, 2017). As news of these types of arrests circulated, targeted communities worried about how CVE facilitated the surveillance, monitoring, and incarceration of Muslim youth. CVE actors used different strategies to manage these public concerns, like offering conflicting accounts about the role of law enforcement in local CVE efforts, reframing their work as “community-led,” and minimizing their collaborations with policing institutions.
In Minneapolis, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger led a polarizing CVE initiative to “deradicalize” Somali youth after a series of preemptive prosecutions led to the conviction of nine Somali youth for conspiring to provide material support to ISIS and to commit murder abroad. U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis sentenced three of the young men to thirty or more years, arguing that these long prison sentences would deter future terrorists. Although CVE practitioners used these prosecutions to justify their work as an alternative to these punitive solutions, they generated palpable fears that CVE intensified the criminalization of Somali youth. Given this context, community organizer Absame Omar distrusted Luger, explaining, “Your job is to prosecute crime. You’re not going to worry if kids get their juice boxes” (participant observation, April 21, 2017). As a federal prosecutor, Luger struggled to convince Somali families that CVE protected, rather than criminalized, their children.
In response to local resistance to CVE, law enforcement official David Greene traveled across Minnesota to demonstrate his commitment to protecting Somali youth and their civil liberties. As he worked to manage community concerns, Greene offered contradictory narratives about the role of law enforcement in local CVE programming. In an August 2016 speech, for example, Greene reported, “I’ve been working with other religious and community leaders to build a prevention program that has absolutely nothing to do with law enforcement but has to do with building community resilience here in Minnesota against terror recruiting. . . . These are intervention programs that are community-led, not led by the government, and have nothing to do with law enforcement.” Yet, Greene also stated that ongoing collaborations between “our civic society, our Somali community, and our law enforcement partners” protected youth from “terror recruiting.” Greene suggested that local CVE efforts both had “nothing to do with law enforcement” and involved “law enforcement partners” (participant observation, August 18, 2016, emphasis added). As this speech indicates, Greene offered conflicting accounts about the role of law enforcement in local CVE efforts. Facing mounting resistance, Greene struggled to convince communities that CVE served as an alternative to, rather than a new form of, policing predicated on the assumption that Somalis were uniquely susceptible to violent extremism.
Given the contentious community response to Minneapolis’s model, some CVE actors defined their work in direct opposition to efforts that involved law enforcement. To do so, these actors distinguished “community-led” programs from “government-led” ones. For example, when I reported Greene’s conflicting comments, Baker responded by saying, “One thing, right off the bat, is that it’s David Greene doing that.” Given the central role of “the top law enforcement official” in local initiatives, Baker argued that “first and foremost there needs to be recognition between civil society-/community-sourced and -led CVE efforts versus government-led and -sourced CVE.” This distinction could help “ameliorate legitimate concerns” about CVE’s role in surveilling, monitoring, and arresting youth. The involvement of “the top law enforcement official” acted as a “structural barrier” to solving “legitimate” community concerns about the criminalization of Muslim youth in the United States. Baker concluded that community-led CVE initiatives more effectively addressed “non-state ideologically-motivated violence” without relying on law enforcement (interview, January 27, 2017). In this view, current community-led CVE initiatives had learned from the failures of past government-led projects like Luger’s and Greene’s.
Aysha Khoury expressed a similar commitment to maintaining a “demilitarized” space for CVE work. From her perspective, instead of “certain types of initiatives being led by military or law enforcement, the civil society should be engaging that space, especially when it comes to dealing with ideas because we do not want the government to be telling people, ‘This is the only way you can think or believe, at all’” (interview, January 25, 2017). Given her concerns with police-led CVE, Khoury advocated for “civil society–led” CVE as an effective and ethical alternative. Like the use of the term “CVE-relevant,” practitioners used the community- or civil society–led CVE classification to distance themselves from initiatives centered on law enforcement interventions and interdictions.
Given these distinctions, community organizations committed to CVE sought to establish “civil society–led” programs that minimized the role of law enforcement. The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) (2014), for example, developed its Safe Spaces Initiative “as an alternative to both heavy-handed law enforcement tactics and government-led countering violent extremism (CVE) programs” (7). “Rather than accept the notion that the only way to deal with terrorism is through tactics such as widespread surveillance and the use of informants,” the Safe Spaces Initiative “relies on community-led and community-driven programs that communities and mosques will benefit from beyond the national security context” (7). These efforts include “ramping up social media as a vehicle for a counter-message to ideological violence and supporting communities in maintaining our collective security” (7). MPAC (2014), however, also argued that “mosque leaders should build relationships with public officials and law enforcement in order to have a presence and role in the affairs of the broader community” (27). Given these collaborations in pursuit of a more community-driven CVE initiative, Muslim Matters (2017) branded MPAC as a “security contractor acting against the wishes of the Muslim community and at the behest of the DHS, which has awarded it a grant for its services” (para. 11). For some critics, the creation of “community-led” CVE programs still advanced the U.S. security state’s agenda, relied on DHS funds, and reaffirmed the dangerous notion that Muslims were uniquely vulnerable to violent extremism. Others, however, viewed such work as a welcomed alternative to government-led programming by reducing, though not eliminating, the role of law enforcement.
At the federal level, CVE actors developed new practices and narratives to minimize the actual and perceived role of law enforcement. Daniel Glickman, for example, defined CVE as “the fourth way,” offering an alternative to three options: FBI sting operations, labor-intensive surveillance, and “doing nothing.” As “the fourth way,” CVE supported community engagement efforts that addressed the “pre-criminal dilemma,” whereby individuals have radicalized but have not yet committed a crime. Because “being radical isn’t a crime,” the United States could not “arrest people for their thoughts.” By engaging “relevant communities” in deradicalization efforts, CVE offered an alternative, nonpunitive approach to the “problem set” of violent extremism (participant observation, March 29, 2017).
In offering an example of this nonpunitive approach, Glickman pointed to a “big data” CVE method that did not involve the U.S. government or local police. In this example, video-sharing website YouTube, technology incubator Jigsaw, and technology startup Moonshot CVE collaboratively developed the Redirect Method to counter online extremist content. The Redirect Method deployed algorithms to determine when internet browsers selected ISIS videos on YouTube. As with many YouTube videos, this new technology redirected viewers to watch an advertisement before their selected ISIS videos. The Redirect Method forced YouTube viewers to watch an anti-ISIS advertisement with an “ISIS feel to it” before their selected ISIS video. This technological approach sought to reduce the power of ISIS recruiters by offering antiterrorism video content. For Susan Bailey, the Redirect Method was one “fourth way” strategy to fight ISIS, as it did not involve law enforcement in any capacity (participant observation, March 29, 2017). This approach, however, assumed that consuming and subscribing to radical ideas could lead to violence.
Even though the Redirect Method distanced itself from the U.S. government, some warned that it normalized the practice of using money and influence to determine, monitor, and police the online content internet users encountered. Although Bailey viewed the Redirect Method as “making the internet safer,” Kieron O’Hara (2016) asked if “putting people off ISIS” through this technique could “be done without undermining the other important tenets about how we live together and organize ourselves, including free expression and access to information?” (para. 11). Worried about increased internet surveillance, one college student posted a photo of an internet search for “ISIS (but chill this is for class)” with the caption: “When you’re doing research for your ‘radical Islam class’ but don’t want to be on a FBI watch list.” Given the U.S. government’s use of “tangible things” like internet browsing patterns in the prosecution of terrorism cases, targeted youth feared that their internet searches could lead to their arrest (Martin 2013). Other critics worried that managing Google searches and YouTube viewership introduced another set of ethical, practical, and political questions related to ideological policing, freedom of expression, and open access to information. The Redirect Method, however, was markedly different from other CVE programs that relied on community-police relationships to identify, report, and work with individuals perceived to be vulnerable to violence.
In response to these concerns, some federal policymakers argued that only independent companies like Google could undertake these projects without violating the constitution. DHS policy advisor Jaylani Darden and FBI senior advisor Matt Rogers both noted that the U.S. government cannot “directly” engage CVE because “that’s an ideological project.” Given constitutional protections like freedoms of speech, religion, and association, the U.S. government could not undertake ideological campaigns that directed people on how or what to think (participant observation, October 7, 2016). These constitutional limitations compelled the U.S. government to offload the ideological project of countering violent extremism onto community organizations, corporations, and schools. From this perspective, constitutional concerns partially drove the shift from government-led to community-led CVE, meaning “third-party intermediaries” took on the ideological work the U.S. government could not.
Given both the use of “third-party intermediaries” to distribute CVE funds and conscription of other organizations into CVE work, some community organizers argued that “all groups with Muslim constituencies should disclose all contracts with the government, their application with the narrative for why they asked for the money, as well as the proposed budget. They should also disclose all correspondence with the government, including emails” (Muslim Matters 2017, para. 18). Because targeted communities worried that organizations hid their relationships with the U.S. government in their implementation of “community-led” CVE initiatives, constituents demanded transparency. Even though community organizers demanded more transparency in CVE programming, they also called on the U.S. government to provide resources that support healthy communities without applying an antiterrorism lens and without collaborating with law enforcement.
In response to these demands, some CVE practitioners readily announced their relationship with law enforcement. In Maryland, WORDE publicized its ongoing partnership with local law enforcement to address the problem of violent extremism. This partnership facilitated the creation of WORDE’s Building Resilience Against Violent Extremism (BRAVE) initiative, “a community-led public safety model” used to “generate public awareness about the risk factors of violent extremism and empower the appropriate figures to intervene with vulnerable individuals before they choose a path of violence” (World Organization for Resource Development and Education 2017b, para. 1, emphasis in original). Despite the centrality of “community-led prevention programs” in “building resilience against violent extremism,” WORDE employee Nazanin Zaghari advised:
We shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking it could be done without the support of law enforcement. [This] program would never have been possible without the Montgomery County Police Department. The limited number of terrorist attacks in the United States are owed in part to the brave men and women who protect this nation. The American people, our government officials have a zero tolerance for terrorism. And programs for radicalized persons who present a threat to public safety will require even more law enforcement matter and involvement than those in the prevention space. (participant observation, August 18, 2016, emphasis in original)
For Zaghari, law enforcement officials were central to the BRAVE initiative, which was branded as the quintessential community-led program. In fact, I observed local, state, and federal leaders herald BRAVE as an exemplar that could serve as a blueprint for “community-led” programs nationwide. Initiatives like BRAVE therefore could include law enforcement while still maintaining the “community-led” label.
Like Zaghari, some CVE practitioners announced the role of law enforcement in their local efforts to manage community concerns. Tanvir Rahman reported that he was “very transparent about who I am, what I do, my associations.” He regularly updated his social media accounts to communicate his latest meetings, especially when they involved law enforcement: “I posted on my Facebook page: I was at the NCTC today. You know, today I was at the FBI office. Tomorrow I’m at this church.” Rahman also encouraged community members to record him and file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, insisting that these actions could hold him accountable. Given these efforts, Rahman proffered that “I’m not aware of anything else that I could do, other than to be as transparent as possible” to address concerns related to policing, surveillance, and intelligence gathering. If these measures did not “assuage concerns,” Rahman concluded, then “there’s nothing anybody can do to overcome that level of fear” (interview, November 10, 2016). Through these communications, Rahman sought to minimize community concerns about his relationship with law enforcement and their role in local CVE programming. As these examples illustrate, some CVE practitioners like Rahman tried to be transparent about their work with law enforcement officials.
Although CVE practitioners offered strong statements about their collaborations with law enforcement, they sometimes held conflicting opinions about the role of law enforcement in countering violent extremism. Rahman, for example, objected to the FBI sting operation that led to the arrest of Adel Daoud in Illinois, arguing, “I can’t believe that the only solution is to use a sting operation: go ahead and take him from Point A to Point B, and then arrest him, and then put him in jail. There’s got to be a better way.” Rahman also reported that a father had “reached out to the FBI and said, ‘Hey, my son is saying things that I’m really concerned about.’ I mean, the man turned his son in and said, ‘Help me!’ And what did they do? They conducted a sting operation, and now he’s in jail. I think all that is what has created that toxic nature, or that toxicity to the term CVE.” Despite his concerns with these FBI stings, Rahman asked, “If your kid is doing something to get the attention of the FBI, like tweeting nonsense stuff or going along with the informant, aren’t they doing something at least a little bit wrong?” Rahman also argued that FBI stings were successful because they “get people susceptible to violence” and “send a signal to people not to do violent extremism.” Given these conflicting accounts, Rahman pursued a “better way” to address the problem of violent extremism by collaborating with law enforcement officials willing to facilitate community-led alternatives to coercive policing (interview, November 10, 2016). As an employee of a state law enforcement agency and recipient of a DHS grant to educate communities on the warning signs of radicalization, Rahman struggled to distinguish his work from other DHS-funded initiatives exclusively targeting Muslim communities.
Abdirahman Mahdi similarly offered conflicting analyses, arguing that “if the DOJ is willing to fund afterschool programs, welcome them! Basically, welcome them! If they ask us for surveillance and they say, ‘We need you to do this—x, y, z,’ we’ll tell them point blank, ‘We are Americans just like everyone else so bullshit. Get out.’” Yet, Mahdi also asked, “Is there a better tool” for terrorism prevention than FBI stings and entrapment? “No, seriously,” Mahdi implored, “if you have a better tool, now is the time to come up with an answer. And that’s the problem I have with anti-CVE people. They don’t have any!” (interview, April 13, 2017). “Anti-CVE people,” however, worked to build alternative forms of safety and security independent of the institutions that historically have criminalized communities of color. As these statements indicate, CVE actors held sometimes contradictory understandings about the role, utility, and impact of local, state, and federal police in preventing violent extremism.
Because “the term CVE itself has become polarizing and automatically associated with certain practices and behaviors with law enforcement,” some practitioners rebranded local initiatives (Baker, interview, January 27, 2017). CVE practitioner Masoud Kaleel, for example, reported that it was “well-known” that “people do not want to hear CVE, even just the acronym.” Rather than discuss CVE, Kaleel talked to community members about “building resilience against the lure of violent extremism” (participant observation, November 10, 2016). Similarly, Boston renamed CVE as “Promoting Engagement, Acceptance, and Community Empowerment” (PEACE) while Minneapolis traded CVE for “Building Community Resilience.” For some CVE practitioners, rebranding their programs resolved the issue of toxicity and distanced their work from “certain practices and behaviors with law enforcement.”
Legal scholars, however, warned that CVE programs “change their names regularly, often in the face of community opposition or other public criticism, which thwarts accountability and obscures the nature and purpose of renamed programs” (Patel, Lindsay, and DenUyl 2018d, 1). Bashir Cilmi similarly cautioned that “CVE by any other name is still CVE” (participant observation, April 21, 2017). For critics, this rebranding offered mere window dressing, rather than more substantive changes, to CVE programs and policies.
Despite clear evidence to support community concerns related to racial profiling and police surveillance (Patel and Koushik 2017), some CVE actors rejected these analyses as “unintelligent,” “misinformed,” and “basic.” For example, when I relayed Somali concerns about CVE’s role in intelligence gathering outlined in the FBI’s own documents, Rahman declared this a “not smart” and “conspiracy theorist” analysis. Baker similarly was exasperated that “people are talking about this issue and don’t even have a baseline understanding of what are the stats and how to come up with definitions and basic standards.” Although Baker affirmed that “there are some very, very genuine concerns that people have about their liberties, about their privacy, about their civil rights,” he also proffered:
In my opinion, the narratives and the descriptions of what people—especially a lot of CVE critics—have described as CVE . . . they’re tantamount to alternative facts. And I don’t like saying that, though, Dr. Nguyen. I’m serious. I really, really don’t, because a lot of the folks who are saying these things are former colleagues of mine from advocacy. And I’m a little bit, sort of, astonished at times because these are people who I would think otherwise know better, and I would think that, as leaders, they would help to direct the conversation in a more productive manner. But they don’t. (interview, January 27, 2017)
In this instance, Baker described CVE critiques as “alternative facts” so divorced from reality that it “astonished” him. Rather than engage these critiques as serious appraisals, Baker reduced community concerns to “hyperbolic rhetoric,” forgoing any reflexive recalibration or dismantling of CVE. These charged responses illustrate the intensity of CVE debates, which often generated hostility and conflict in local communities.
Although these CVE actors sometimes relied on a painfully demeaning tone, I do not dismiss their analyses, interpretations, and concerns as nefarious. They clearly demonstrated a commitment to solving the perceived problem of violent extremism while addressing community concerns related to the abrogation of civil rights and civil liberties. Alejandro Beutel, for example, offered that while “some of my fellow community members may completely disagree with my analysis and takeaways,” he could “at least take personal comfort in knowing that communities are making better informed decisions by hearing from more than one particular narrative” (public Facebook post, May 23, 2017). Instead of only engaging in heated debates, CVE practitioners like Beutel sought to better inform local communities through formal presentations, informal conversations, and policy briefs. In this view, CVE offered a viable alternative to coercive counterterrorism by increasing community oversight and decreasing the role of law enforcement.
In addition, I recognize that the role of law enforcement in CVE programming varied across contexts; not all initiatives relied on the police in the same way. In Minnesota, local police, FBI agents, and the U.S. Attorney were central in executing CVE policies. Bassem Ali, however, noted that his own work in Illinois to deradicalize youth through religious training never involved the police. Because CVE actors differentially engaged law enforcement, those who sought to minimize police collaborations struggled to distinguish their work from “government-led” programs and faced similar public opposition.
Given the variable role of law enforcement, grant reporting mechanisms, and history of anti-Muslim surveillance, community members often met CVE actors with suspicion, distrust, and even hostility. In this context, Muslim leaders have pursued what they viewed as ethical programs responsive to community concerns, even amid accusations of astroturfing, racial profiling, and criminalizing their own communities. They have managed these community concerns using different strategies, like refusing to work with police, making their work with law enforcement transparent, developing “ideologically ecumenical” programs, and/or dismissing these concerns as “unintelligent” or “basic.” Some Muslim leaders have welcomed the opportunity to engage CVE as an alternative to conventional counterterrorism tactics while others have viewed “community-led” CVE as a perceptively liberal but equally damaging national security strategy by calling on social service providers to act as terrorist watchdogs using disproven indicators, risk factors, and warning signs of violent extremism. As these examples illustrate, CVE actors offered competing understandings, practices, and justifications for their work.
Rejected: Trump and the Drive to Counter Radical Islamic Extremism
The 2016 election of President Trump challenged the very strategies CVE actors had used to manage public objections to their work. Shortly after the 2017 presidential inauguration, for example, the Trump administration suggested it would rebrand Countering Violent Extremism as Countering Violent Islam (CVI) or Countering Radical Islamic Extremism (CRIE) (Ainsley, Volz, and Cooke 2017). Such a rebranding would fulfill a campaign promise to address “Islamic extremism.” Trump’s proposal generated fierce debates across the political spectrum about the legitimacy, legality, and constitutionality of such a rebranding. Struggling to gain community trust, CVE actors responded to Trump’s plan in different ways, from refusing to engage CVE, to waiting to see if Trump executed this plan, to welcoming the rebranding. Like the concept of “ideologically ecumenical” CVE, these strategies sought to manage public objections that threatened the vitality of CVE under a Trump administration both praised and criticized for its targeting of Muslim communities in its antiterrorism efforts.
Given these debates, researcher Ron Stuart held conflicting opinions about Trump’s desire to rebrand CVE as CVI or CRIE. On the one hand, the proposed rebranding would make the anti-Muslim impetus behind CVE programming “more honest.” On the other hand, a “countering violent Islam” initiative would further “neglect” the “problem of white supremacist violence.” For Stuart
The situation remains kind of optimistic in the sense of, well, now DHS will be, if this ends up happening, they’ll be doing what they’re already doing, but it’ll be more honest. Because it’s already totally slanted, right? But they just say it’s not, you know? And there are people, well-intentioned people in DHS that want to more broadly attack the problem and all that, and we can certainly recognize that. But clearly, there’s a bias already. And so now you say, “Well, at least it’s transparent, the bias!” Right? Nobody can argue it’s not biased. But on the other hand, obviously, it’s outrageous and it’s going to really potentially do some detriment. We’re already neglecting the problem of white supremacist violence, and now it’ll just guarantee that neglect continues and even get worse, which now it’s really striking, given the extent of the problem and the long-standing nature of the problem. (interview, February 17, 2017)
Although Stuart viewed the “CVI” label as a “more honest” description of a “totally slanted” policy framework, he worried that this renaming would continue to direct attention away from the “long-standing” problem of white supremacist violence and reaffirm the concept of radical Islamic extremism. Raising these concerns, however, required admitting that CVE was “totally slanted” and “biased,” a concession that ruptured prior framings of CVE as “ideologically ecumenical.”
Researcher Adrian Baker also expressed concern that Trump’s proposed rebranding would intensify CVE’s focus on Muslim communities and, more sinisterly, “revert back to counterterrorism” and “double-down on that.” Because he understood CVE as “not CT,” Baker warned that CVI could renew a commitment to coercive policing practices like FBI stings, preemptive prosecutions, and entrapment, although these practices did not stop with the formal introduction of CVE into the domestic war on terror. Baker worried that this approach would refuse any efforts to collaborate with Muslim communities (interview, January 27, 2017). Unlike Stuart’s assessment, Baker’s commentary reaffirmed CVE as an alternative to counterterrorism with a more “ideologically ecumenical” approach.
Despite these concerns, Rahman refused to worry about Trump’s proposal, even after a “community effort to lobby [him] to reject the money” he received from DHS under the Trump administration. Instead of rejecting these CVE funds, Rahman wrote an executive summary of his grant proposal to detail “here’s what we plan to do with the money.” By making his plans transparent, Rahman sought to assuage concerns about the Trump administration’s control over local CVE programming and its impact on targeted communities. In this justificatory statement, Rahman explained that he “recognized that extremism comes in many different forms including the extremist right.” He also indicated plans to “build a training to address all of those forms” of violent extremism through ongoing collaborations with community organizations and “different faith communities.” “Muslims,” Rahman concluded, “are just one piece of it.” Given this personal autonomy over local efforts, Rahman reported that “until the government tells us, ‘Here’s the money but you can only focus on Muslims,’ we’re not going to take any steps to preemptively reject the money. We’re a state agency that looks to help the community. . . . It would be irresponsible to reject that. But I’m not going to do anything that stigmatizes the Muslim community” (interview, November 10, 2016; informal conversation to correct research findings, March 20, 2017).
From Rahman’s perspective, he had a duty to accept all government funds that could “help the community.” He even questioned how “reasonable people” disagreed with him for taking money from DHS since organizations also “take money for Medicaid or disaster relief that come[s] from the state and DHS.” For Rahman, the funding source did not contribute to his decision-making process, in part because he felt communities would accept funding from DHS for other forms of support like disaster relief. By positioning himself as autonomous from the dictates of federal funders, Rahman remained unfazed by the Trump administration’s approach to terrorism, dehumanization of Muslim communities, and support for institutions that have treated Muslims as incipient terrorists. He also sidestepped community concerns related to the role of law enforcement in the design and implementation of local programming and the continued application of an antiterrorism lens to their constituents.
CVE practitioner Yasir Ahmed optimistically hoped that the Trump administration would rectify “what went wrong under the Obama administration” in Minneapolis. Ahmed saw possibility in the introduction of “new players” into the CVE policy environment who could “cultivate new relationships with the community.” “If they have a new Somali liaison,” Ahmed explained, “they could have trust, with credibility, and that can be fair and neutral.” Through these new partnerships, “CVE can be successful” (informal conversation, April 12, 2017). For Ahmed, Trump’s inauguration ushered in an opportunity to reevaluate the current state of CVE in Minneapolis, which could guide future programming and regain community trust. To do so, Ahmed encouraged federal and local actors to include new community leaders in the CVE process, rather than rely on “old players” with no credibility in the Somali community. Ahmed’s commentary fueled common assertations that the new generation of CVE programs could “learn from past mistakes.”
Contravening some CVE actors, four community organizations rejected their 2016 DHS CVE grants, citing the Trump administration’s proposed rebranding as a key factor in their decision. These organizations still supported CVE, but worried that Trump’s focus and rhetoric could harm their community constituents and jeopardize the integrity of their work. In Minneapolis, Somali youth empowerment organization Ka Joog rejected its $499,998 DHS CVE grant, explaining, “Our nation’s new administration and their policies . . . promote hate, fear, uncertainty, and even worse, an unofficial war on Muslim-Americans and immigrants” (Abdollah 2017). As an early CVE participant and advocate, Ka Joog’s refusal indicated intense concerns about the Trump administration’s approach to countering violent extremism.
In Michigan, Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities (LAHC) also declined a $500,000 DHS CVE grant, citing the “current political climate” (Abdollah 2017). In California, the Claremont School of Theology rejected its $800,000 DHS CVE grant after a 7–1 board vote. Claremont president Jihad Turk reported that while the decision was difficult, “the context is too acrimonious now, and the rhetoric against Muslims too alarming to work with this administration” (Ali 2017). In Virginia, Unity Productions Foundation of Potomac Falls rejected its $396,585 DHS CVE grant “due to the changes brought by the new administration” (Abdollah 2017). Although these organizations contributed to CVE programming during Obama’s tenure, they worried that the Trump administration would require increased collaboration with law enforcement and a narrowed focus on Muslim communities, conditions that compelled them to reject highly coveted resources. By exceptionalizing the Trump administration, these rejections treated CVE as a viable national security strategy under more progressive leadership rather than an anti-Muslim initiative always already imbued with and institutionalizing anti-Muslim racism.
Given their prior commitments to CVE, community organizations that rejected this specific DHS grant did not always regain community trust, despite Ahmed’s optimism. Minneapolis residents speculated that political goals, rather than concerns about Trump’s “unofficial war on Muslim-Americans and immigrants,” fueled Ka Joog’s rejection. One community leader surmised that Ka Joog returned the money because families had boycotted the organization, meaning Ka Joog “didn’t have any kids” and “if you don’t have the kids, you don’t need the money.” In addition, executive director Mohamed Farah was considering a run for city council at the time Ka Joog rejected its CVE grant, a political move met with suspicion.
Referencing the rapid political ascendency of Farah and his colleague Abdimalik Mohamed, college student Axado Isnino concluded that the “Islamophobic and anti-Black push [for CVE] helps make political careers and non-profits.” Isnino argued that rejecting federal funds could not make amends for Farah’s role in introducing CVE to Minneapolis and pushing racist narratives about Somali youth radicalization. Absame Omar also criticized Ka Joog, noting that “when shootings happened in Cedar-Riverside, Ka Joog wasn’t around. When we needed money for basketball, Ka Joog wasn’t there.” For some critics, Ka Joog’s fluctuating commitment to CVE reflected a deeper desire to gain political power and prestige rather than address the pressing concerns raised by the Somali community. Some Somali community members thus viewed Ka Joog’s rejection of its DHS CVE grant as a political, rather than ethical, move. Because Minneapolis’s Somali community “became starkly divided over CVE,” the rejection of federal grants aroused suspicion among critics who distrusted local leaders who previously contributed to CVE programming (Hirsi 2017, para. 31).
Despite these four rejections of the DHS CVE grant, Baker’s concerns about an intensified focus on Muslim communities and “doubling-down” on conventional counterterrorism efforts came to fruition in June 2017. Although the Obama administration announced the 2016 DHS CVE recipients on January 13, 2017, President Trump immediately froze the funds after his January 20 presidential inauguration. After reevaluating grant applications, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly announced a revised list of recipients who subsequently were required to “affirm acceptance of the grants and agree to terms and conditions, such as providing performance data” (Department of Homeland Security 2017). This reallocation of grant funds “nearly tripled the amount of CVE funding that flows to law enforcement agencies (from approximately $764,000 to $2,340,000)” (Patel, Lindsay, and DenUyl 2018c). Furthermore, 85 percent of the funded projects “explicitly target minority groups,” including Muslims (Patel, Lindsay, and DenUyl 2018b).
As a part of this reallocation, the Trump administration increased funding for police departments in Denver, Boston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Houston. It also awarded additional law enforcement applicants, including police departments in California, Minnesota, and Massachusetts. To provide funding for these new grant recipients, the Trump administration cut initial grantees like Music in Common, Coptic Orthodox Charities, Project Help Nevada, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Life After Hate, and the Muslim American Leadership Alliance (Department of Homeland Security 2017). The redistribution of funds revealed the Trump administration’s preference for CVE programs that collaborated with law enforcement and that focused primarily on “Islamist extremism.”
Departing from a language of countering violent extremism, Secretary Kelly described this grant program as an effort to “advance America’s capacity to counter terrorist recruitment and radicalization in the United States through community-driven solutions” (Department of Homeland Security 2017). Secretary Kelly further explained that “grantees were selected in part because of their potential to support law enforcement and other frontline defenders, to demonstrate programmatic effectiveness, and to use taxpayer resources efficiently to create independently sustainable programs.” As an original grant awardee removed from the revised list, for example, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (2017) reported it “was excluded because we did not meet the criteria of working with law enforcement to counter violent extremism” (para. 7). Despite its grant rejection, MPAC (2017) reaffirmed its commitment to confronting “all forms of domestic terror” through “community-led” interventions “without law enforcement involvement” (para. 6). As these statements illustrate, Secretary Kelly centered the support of “law enforcement and other frontline defenders” in evaluating the provision of DHS CVE grant money. By privileging the support of law enforcement in evaluating CVE grant applications, the Trump administration affirmed its commitment to “government-led” initiatives willing to engage in conventional counterterrorism methods, intensifying community fears of anti-Muslim surveillance, entrapment, and arrests under the banner of “community-driven solutions.”
Policymakers, practitioners, and researchers differentially made sense of and responded to the Trump administration’s approach to CVE. For some practitioners like Yasir Ahmed, Trump’s inauguration ushered in the opportunity to learn from the grave mistakes of President Obama’s approach to countering violent extremism. Others welcomed Trump’s proposed rebranding of CVE, arguing that “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism” was a “more honest” representation of this national security work. CVE practitioner Tyler Mathers, for example, reported that his trips to Washington, D.C., revealed “it’s Islam all the time,” meaning the CVE policy framework always had minimized white supremacist violence in favor of “radical Islamic extremism” (interview, December 27, 2016). The name “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism” more accurately characterized this national security approach. In addition, some practitioners like Amy Kerns worried that Trump’s election handed white supremacists a “mainstream platform” as the new administration “skated over domestic extremism” by white supremacist groups in its proposed Countering Radical Islamic Extremism approach (interview, January 5, 2017). These variable conclusions demonstrate how CVE actors differentially interpreted and enacted CVE policies, practices, and politics under the new administration.
The inauguration of President Trump initiated a series of changes that disrupted the carefully crafted narratives used by CVE actors to manage public objections to their work. In response, CVE actors developed new methods to respond to community concerns, whether by rejecting grants under the Trump administration, arguing that the new administration offered the opportunity to “learn from past mistakes,” calling attention to CVE’s “bias,” and warning that new priorities could “double down” on counterterrorism. Through these methods, CVE actors positioned their work as a progressive alternative to past practices and as a viable way to keep their children safe from terrorist influences, even under the Trump administration. Like my own family’s patriot acts, cooperating with the U.S. security state—to “deal more effectively with the threat of violent extremism emanating from within” by “teach[ing] Muslim children that being a good Muslim and being a patriotic American go hand in hand”—militated against popular images of the Muslim as an impossible subject, perpetual foreigner, or incipient terrorist (Afeef 2015, paras. 7–8).
Refusing a Politics of Representation: Toward Alternative Forms of National Security
To protect their children and gain political power, some Muslim leaders diligently cooperated with the U.S. security state to reform the domestic war on terror through increased community control and oversight. Junaid Afeef and Alejandro Beutel (2015), for example, applauded “community-driven” CVE as an effective strategy for “preventing targeted violence on the community’s own terms” (para. 7). DHS senior policy analyst Jaylani Darden similarly supported CVE, arguing that this initiative was in “Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian communities” because “there’s a willing community” that “wants to do something about the issue” and “will step forward and do whatever they can to make sure that they create resilience against violent extremism” (participant observation, October 7, 2016). Darden explained that CVE flourished because communities wanted to gain local control over domestic security practices, protect their children from terrorist radicalization, and defend their civil liberties and civil rights.
For Darden and other CVE actors, the shift to community-led CVE achieved “affirmative recognition and institutional accommodation of societal and cultural differences” (Coulthard 2014, 3). After decades of political marginalization, community-led CVE recognized Muslims as a partner in the domestic war on terror rather than a threat to be excluded. Through CVE, Muslim leaders had a “seat at the table” and could direct domestic security initiatives “on the community’s own terms.”
College student Hodan Hassan, however, argued that “CVE is the politics of representation that presents a face that looks like you but is a mouthpiece for the government” (participant observation, April 21, 2017). In this critical view, the incorporation of Muslims into the domestic war on terror through community-led CVE initiatives has shored up support for the very security agencies that historically have criminalized communities of color and deputized social service providers as the police through their new role in identifying, reporting, and off-ramping individuals perceived to be at risk of violent extremism. Furthermore, CVE policies have conscripted Muslims as terrorist watchdogs without attenuating the use of “government-led” antiterrorism programs like FBI stings, which continue today through increased cooperation between communities and law enforcement. By complementing and enhancing hard and soft technologies of control, CVE has strengthened, not reined in, the domestic war on terror, while appearing to address governmental overreaching, racial profiling, and coercive policing (participant observation, April 21, 2017).
Given these debates, Coulthard (2014) reminds us that “when delegated exchanges occur in real world contexts of domination, the terms of accommodation usually end up being determined by and in the interests of the hegemonic partner in the relationship” (17). This means that the colonized must reject the “objectifying gaze and assimilative lure of colonial recognition” by “turning away” from the discourses and structures of state power through the refusal of “greater inclusion into the institutional matrix of the larger settler state and society” (45, 99). In their call to “turn away” from the anti-Muslim discourses and structures advanced by the U.S. security state, community organizers framed CVE as a colonial venture done in “the furtherance of the American project, which is violence.” One organizer, for example, warned that “CVE is the head of the spear”—the beginning of new forms of anti-Muslim violence carried out by community leaders on behalf of the U.S. security state (participant observation, April 21, 2017). Rather than seek greater inclusion into the political establishment through their participation in the domestic war on terror like their elders, young adults refused to capitulate to the U.S. security state and pursued alternative forms of safety that did not depend on the very structures and institutions—including community organizations conscripted into CVE work—that have criminalized their communities for decades.
To protect their peers from the “assimilative lure” of colonial recognition, community organizers created political education forums to discuss and debate CVE and its organizing logics. At one forum, for example, college students introduced the public audience to the work of local CVE practitioner Mohamed Ahmed (known as “Average Mo”), a Minneapolis gas station manager who produced animated videos to counter terrorist recruitment. Before viewing one such video, one organizer described Average Mo as “an example of internalized colonialism,” as he came to identify with and adopt the colonial narratives that position Muslim youth as a civilizational threat and therefore in need to CVE programming to “civilize your savage.” In this forum, Average Mo served as an instructive case study to understand the assimilative lure of CVE projects and the need to resist the “colonial discourses that creep into people’s minds” (participant observation, April 21, 2017). The “long-term stability of a colonial system of governance,” after all, “relies as much on the ‘internalization’ of the forms of racist recognition imposed or bestowed on the Indigenous population by the colonial state and society as it does on brute force” (Coulthard 2014, 31). Rather than embrace the political recognition conferred through their participation in the domestic war on terror and collaboration with the U.S. security state, community organizers took on the challenge of imagining and creating alternative forms of public safety “on their own terms, without sanction, permission, or engagement of the state” (Simpson 2011, 17).
To incubate these freedom dreams, community organizers studied the internalized colonial logics that organized the technologies of control employed by their own elders in the name of national security. To demonstrate the “utter garbage” of CVE narratives and learn more about internalized colonialism, for example, organizers screened Average Mo’s “The Bullet or the Ballot” video. In this one-minute video, Average Mo (2015) asked Muslim youth, “the bullet, the bomb, the knife, or the ballot, which do you prefer?” To encourage youth to reject violence, Average Mo (2015) taught “all you young Muslims” that “we have a choice. It is the ballot. Democracy. We are not a bullet. Not a bomb. Nor a knife. We are Muslims, not fools.” The organizers rejected this reductive narrative that assumed Muslim youth needed to be taught to prefer the ballot rather than bullet. Given his internalization of racialized tropes, Average Mo created videos premised on the belief that his own community was uniquely vulnerable to violent extremism and needed to learn to embrace Western democratic practices.
Average Mo’s “A Muslim in the West” video similarly implored young Muslims to “walk in both worlds,” following both the “traditions of Islam” and the culture of the “new world.” Rather than follow ISIS’s demand to “reject the new world,” Average Mo encouraged young Muslims to “straddle” both cultures. In doing so, Average Mo endorsed and acted on radicalization theories that framed Muslims in the United States as imminently violent because of these cultural negotiations (Patel, Lindsay, and DenUyl 2018b).
In this video, Average Mo assumed that young people straddle “incompatible cultural divides,” an approach that “risks reinforcing notions of a fundamental clash between cultural systems” (Abu El-Haj and Bonet 2011, 35). Instead, viewers must “resist a picture of Muslim and American . . . identities as existing on two ends of a continuum rather than thinking of them as overlapping fields within which young people position themselves differently, at different moments in time” (Abu El-Haj and Bonet 2011, 40). Average Mo’s description of “walking in both worlds” reinforced the clash of civilizations thesis and ignored how young people actively construct transnational identities that defy binaries. Although Average Mo did not collaborate with law enforcement in the making of these videos, community organizers rejected this approach because it recited familiar narratives that justified the global war on terror and positioned Muslim youth as ticking time bombs.
The assumption that youth “walk in two worlds” organized many CVE programs, especially school-based projects like “global citizenship education.” Through the social construction of Muslim youth as a “generational threat,” CVE actors have ushered in a new set of educational policies and programs to discipline children as “good Muslims” and “deserving citizens” willing to comply with, not turn away from, the U.S. security state. It is to these educational initiatives, and their chilling effects, to which I now turn.