The Generational Threat
Youth Radicalization and the Domestic War on Terror
On July 7, 2016, U.S. media reported that twenty-five-year-old military veteran Micah Johnson opened fire in downtown Dallas, Texas, tragically killing five police officers. After hours of negotiation, Dallas Police Chief David Brown detonated a “bomb robot” in the evacuated building where Johnson had taken refuge. The blast killed Johnson. As news of the bomb robot spread, legal scholars raised concerns about the increased militarization of the police, denial of due process, and abrogation of constitutional rights and international law. Community organizers compared the police killing of Johnson to the calm arrest of Dylann Roof.
Reporting on the Dallas shooting, CNN cited Johnson’s internet browsing history, which included “dozens of sites that focused on injustices committed on the Black community,” as evidence of his rapid online radicalization. Friends and acquaintances pointed to Johnson’s expertise on “the history of the Martin Luther King assassination” and study of Malcolm X as additional signs of radicalization (Griffin, Fitzpatrick, and Devine 2016, para. 5). Soon after, the FBI (2017a) established a new terrorist category known as the “Black Identity Extremist” (BIE). With the rise of the nonviolent Movement for Black Lives, the FBI argued that “perceptions of police brutality against African Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement” by “Black Identity Extremists” like Johnson (2). In its report, the FBI blamed “BIE ideology” for propelling Johnson toward violence, although security experts worried that this conclusion simply reinvigorated the FBI’s “decades-long targeting of Black activists as potential radicals” (Winter and Weinberger 2017, para. 20). In the FBI’s view, the online radicalization of Johnson signaled a broader domestic terrorist threat that needed to be managed by the U.S. security state.
The Black Identity Extremist label aligns with popular psychiatric practices advanced in the 1960s by Walter Bromberg and Frank Simon, who described schizophrenia as a type of “protest psychosis” that afflicted Black men. According to these psychiatrists, protest psychosis generated “hostile and aggressive feelings” in Black men who listened to Malcolm X’s speeches on Black liberation or joined organizing groups like the Black Panthers (Metzl 2009, xiv). In this clinical approach, Black men who “espoused African or Islamic” ideologies or adopted “Islamic names” demonstrated a “delusional anti-whiteness” that required psychiatric intervention to protect the United States from homicidal violence (Metzl 2009). The racist concept of protest psychosis continues to inform the coercive policing of community organizers of color as threats to national security, especially Black Muslims policed both as Blacks and as Muslims.
Drawing from these logics, the FBI (2017a) argued that “BIE violence peaked in the 1960s and 1970s” during the civil rights movement, thereby equating Black political dissidence with terrorism (6). Exploiting Johnson’s violence, the 2017 BIE designation renews these early efforts to represent and police Black and Muslim organizing as a threat to U.S. security, liberal democracy, and national unity. Anchored by this history of pathologizing Black and Muslim organizers and criminalizing psychiatric disabilities, the contemporary interpretation of what counts as “terrorism,” the dominant narrative that Johnson radicalized through his online study of Black liberation, and the deadly militarized police actions to prevent “Black Identity Extremism” reveal the discursive, political, and material responses to the perceived rise in homegrown terrorism by nonwhite actors.
Referred to by the U.S. Homeland Security Advisory Council as the “generational threat,” young adults like Johnson increasingly have been at the center of debates about violent extremism in the United States. The FBI (2016c), for example, reported that “violent extremists of all kinds [are] attempting to radicalize and mobilize the youth of America and even lure them overseas” (para. 1). Clinical psychologist Saher Fatima more specifically warned that Muslim youth have struggled to “reconcile home values with the values of larger society,” a developmental conflict that has led to a “crisis of who I am” conducive to terrorist recruitment (participant observation, November 10, 2016). Subscribing to traditional understandings of youth development, this approach views youth as uniquely vulnerable to “ideological influences” and therefore susceptible to “predatory” recruitment by extremist groups (Aly 2014, 373).
Like the “Black Identity Extremist” designation, the concept of the “Islamic terrorist” has generated policies and practices presuming that Muslim youth are more vulnerable to violent extremism than white children. A Texas substitute teacher, for example, called the police because she believed her six-year-old student, Mohammad Suleiman, was a terrorist. Although the teacher insisted that Suleiman repeatedly said “Allah” and “boom,” Suleiman’s parents reported that their son was nonverbal (Wallace 2017). Using racial clues to conduct an extemporaneous threat assessment, this teacher interpreted the six-year-old student as a national security risk. Given these racialized assumptions about Muslim youth, many CVE programs specifically have targeted Muslims, Somalis, refugees and immigrants, diasporic communities, and others “facing disenfranchisement by society” (Denver Police Department 2016). In this context, some CVE actors mobilized local educational resources to protect disenfranchised youth from terrorist influences and enhance “homeland and hometown security” (Dearborn Police Department 2016). Prefigured in contemporary U.S. society as a “threat to the moral and social order” of the nation (Patterson 1985, 103), disenfranchised youth differentially have participated in, and contributed to, these educational programs.
In this chapter, I examine the strategic efforts to “inoculate young people from the ideology of violence” and how targeted youth experienced, interpreted, and responded to these efforts. As President Obama (2015a) explained, to prevent violent extremism, “the world has to offer today’s youth something better,” particularly through “economic, educational, and entrepreneurial development” (para. 10). Following counterinsurgency’s population-centric approach to fighting the global war on terror, CVE-oriented educational services have contributed to the “campaign to prevent people around the world from being radicalized to violence,” which is “ultimately a battle for hearts and minds” (para. 14). To examine this domestic battle for hearts and minds, I investigate (1) global citizenship education programs that supplemented traditional public schooling to prevent violent extremism, (2) school-based CVE initiatives, and (3) a higher education program to produce the next generation of CVE workers and digital innovations.
Through this analysis, I argue that although educational initiatives have worked to protect youth from predatory recruitment, these efforts have subjected targeted youth to constant criminalization, surveillance, and cultural erasure. Drawing from literatures on the securitization of humanitarian aid, I also contend that these practices have further politicized and securitized the provision of social services like public education and culturally responsive counseling. Youth spaces like schools therefore have served as key geopolitical sites through which the U.S. security state has intervened to advance its global war on terror agenda.
Building Resilience: Global Citizenship Education
The urgent national narrative of a “generational threat” provoked local demands to shield youth from terrorist radicalization. Community leader Masoud Kaleel, for example, described how “young people get these messages and they get confused when they’re asked to join” terrorist groups. Given his concerns about youth radicalization, Kaleel always asked, “What can we do to protect young people?” Kaleel’s desire to “help the community” and “protect young people” drove his participation in and commitment to CVE (informal conversation, January 20, 2017). Like the concept of the “coming of the super-predator” that amplified the criminalization of “frightening” youth of color (DiIulio 1995), the narrative of the “generational threat” marshalled a series of CVE programs to deter Muslim youth from terrorist radicalization in the name of public safety. Community leaders like Kaleel engaged these CVE programs to protect their children.
Given this understanding of the generational threat, CVE actors viewed education as a key tool to “build resilience” to radicalization and reduce violent extremism. According to this paradigm, “quality education in itself can play a critical role in helping young people distance themselves from extremism and resist the ‘pull factors’ that may drive them to recruitment” through “awareness raising, generating respect for others, and creating and maintaining cultures of peace and dialogue” (Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation and Hedayah Center 2013, 1). Educational initiatives also can minimize cultural isolation and alienation, additional factors believed to “push” young people toward violent extremism. Concerned about the perceived rise of youth terrorists, CVE actors developed a portfolio of educational programs to buffer Muslim youth from the push and pull factors that could draw them closer to violent extremism (see also Moffett and Sgro 2016).
As a part of this educational portfolio, CVE actors established global citizenship education programs to “socially engineer a more integrated identity like the global citizen” resilient to violent extremism (participant observation, October 8, 2016). In a workshop, CVE practitioner Petra Kovac defined global citizenship education as a “human security approach” and a “defensive measure” organized around sociologist Ulrich Beck’s cosmopolitan theory. In his scholarship, Beck (2011) argues that the “global other is in our midst” because “everybody is connected and confronted with everybody—even if global risks afflict different countries, states, and cultures very differently” (1348). Shared global risks—nuclear, ecological, human, territorial, technological, and economic—formulate the basis of newly emerging imagined cosmopolitan communities that “break up and overcome the container conception of the national” in the service of warding off global threats (1355). In the presence of global risks like economic crises and terrorist attacks, “the imagined community of cosmopolitanism becomes essential to survival” (1349). Global risks demand cosmopolitan solutions, including cosmopolitan communities, global identities, and global governance. Global citizenship education could contribute to the development of cosmopolitan solutions to the perceived global yet intimately local problem of violent extremism.
Guided by Beck’s cosmopolitan theory, Kovac argued that a “global citizen mindset . . . surpasses national identities, surpasses any of these smaller pieces of clearly identified identities and so global citizenship education must induce a transformative process in students.” For Kovac, this “cognitive, behavioral, and emotional development of young people as global citizens” effectively prevented violent extremism by “rebuilding individual and group resilience through this process.” By fostering the “integrated identity” of the global citizen, global citizenship education created more flexible spaces of belonging and counteracted identity-based groups like Muslim Student Associations (MSAs).
This approach views the accommodation of cultural differences and the drive for pluralism as “contributing to social division” and therefore incompatible with social cohesion (Keddie 2014). The cultivation of cultural identities through educational venues like Muslim Student Associations generates deep cultural divides between students, thereby eliminating the possibility of developing a sense of common humanity and cross-cultural solidarity useful for fighting homegrown terrorism and fostering peace. Instead, global citizenship education programs have promoted global identities that transcend cultural, religious, and racial affiliations believed to be exploited by terrorist recruiters. As a CVE tool, global citizenship education has encouraged young people to subordinate their racial, cultural, and national differences to an identification with the global (or cosmopolitan). From the perspective of CVE advocates like Kovac, this transformative process militates against social exclusion, alienation, and bullying that could facilitate the turn to violent extremism. This approach, however, stigmatizes cultural institutions like MSAs developed in response to ongoing cultural erasure and state-sponsored violence.
A Center for Strategic and International Studies report on CVE similarly urged the United States to “work with likeminded countries and the United Nations to advance initiatives, like global citizenship education, that encourage governments to revise curricula, textbooks, and other instructional materials to reflect the diverse experiences, backgrounds, and composition of society itself” (Green and Proctor 2016, 34). Such collaborations could “stem the spread of extremist ideologies and intolerance in education systems” and cultivate global identities resilient to terrorist recruitment (34). UNESCO’s Teacher’s Guide on the Prevention of Violent Extremism also called for an investment in Global Citizenship Education (GCED) programs to strengthen the education sector’s response to violent extremism. Similar to Kovac, UNESCO (2016) argued that GCED could “nurture a sense of belonging to a common humanity,” which can “help raise the defenses of peace against violent extremism” (15). In this view, global citizenship education programs could safeguard children from terrorist influences.
Informed by these recommendations, community organizations have developed global citizenship education programs to prevent violent extremism. In Maryland, WORDE’s Global Citizen Forum trained Muslim students “on recognizing and assisting peers who might be experiencing isolation, personal crisis, or bullying” (Williams, Horgan, and Evans 2016, 17). By teaching Muslim students to recognize and use the “early warning signs of distress or crisis,” the Global Citizen Forum worked to “empower youth” to “assist vulnerable individuals in seeking support services,” thereby developing their global leadership skills like cross-cultural communication, peer intervention, and conflict resolution (World Organization for Resource Development and Education 2017a, para. 3). As a “peer gatekeeper program designed to improve youth’s help seeking behaviors to overcome challenges they may experience in their lives,” the Global Citizen Forum approached Muslim youth as susceptible to “destructive and violent behaviors” and therefore in need of positive youth development programming (para. 1). In doing so, the forum approached peer intervention—the identification and reporting of vulnerable individuals—as an inarguable feature of global citizenship.
As the Global Citizen Forum example demonstrates, the concept of global citizenship is understood to be universal and shared. However, utilitarian simplifications—“dismembering an exceptionally complex and poorly understood set of relations and processes in order to isolate a single element of instrumental value”—cannot be made universal and therefore imposed uniformly everywhere (Scott 1998, 21). In this case, “global citizenship” is a utilitarian simplification, not a universally shared construct. Global citizenship therefore is “a challenging concept in that it demands both understanding of the interconnectedness of life on a finite planet while at the same time accepting that this interconnection cannot be based on a universalism that denies and denigrates difference” (Abdi, Shultz, and Pillay 2015, 1, emphasis added). Typically imposed rather than developed multidirectionally, this view assumes a universal consensus about the rights, duties, norms, and obligations that constitute global citizenship, even though “there is by no means agreement about what these should be” (Dower and Williams 2002, 5).
Global citizenship education programs unilaterally can determine which epistemic, ethical, and moral paradigms should organize teaching and learning in school contexts that typically prioritize dominant cultures that “do not work for everyone” (Abdi 2015, 18). Although global citizenship education can nurture youth as social actors with a sense of global rights, responsibilities, and social justice, it also can impose a Western-centric schooling that erases and denigrates local cultures, knowledges, and practices. When placed in a CVE context, global citizenship education programs approach cultural, religious, racial, and religious differences as threats to social cohesion and therefore drivers of violent extremism. To enhance both local and global security, communities must work to eliminate these forms of difference and encourage children to report peers who appear vulnerable to terrorist influences. Global citizenship education therefore can be, and has been, used to induce a “transformative process in students” that cultivates a “global citizen mindset” that “surpasses national identities.”
CVE advocates have argued that global citizenship education initiatives “can be models for promoting social cohesion in diverse communities,” particularly among learners perceived to be “poorly connected to, or misinformed about, international events” (Green and Proctor 2016, 32; UNESCO 2016, 16). Education therefore could serve as a viable antidote to the “paucity of knowledge and understanding about other faiths and cultures” in “some Muslim-majority countries and communities” where “religious education promotes the idea that all nonbelievers are infidels” and “legitimizes violence against non-Muslims or Muslims from different sects” (32). CVE actors have suggested that education programs can counteract divisive religious education and “paucity of knowledge” in Muslim communities that have fostered social conflict, a “leading indicator of whether violent extremists will be able to find traction” (32). Research studies, however, demonstrate that there are no scientifically proven indicators of violent extremism and that Islamic schools are not “incubators of violent extremism,” “Taliban factories,” or “ticking bombs” (Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law 2015; Patel 2011; Kundnani 2014; Horgan 2008). Instead, the representation of religious schools as terror factories works to “advance and rationalize the imposition of state-funded, NGO-run programs” that complement U.S. military drone strikes on schools (N. Nguyen 2014, 17). In this way, education operates as geopolitical and ideological tools through the inculcation of Western epistemologies and the discursive construction of Islamic schools as hotbeds of extremism, thereby authorizing military, humanitarian, and educational interventions that advance Western interests.
Although UNESCO framed youth as misinformed, one college student reminded me that “there’s a war going on,” a necessary context to understand why a small number of U.S.-based youth sought to travel to Syria to “take out” Bashar al-Assad, a “bad guy” (informal conversation, December 2, 2017). Rather than assume youth were misinformed or duped into terrorism, this young person encouraged me to view these “foreign fighters” as political actors with a firm understanding of the interplay between global and local social forces.
Although nurturing “a sense of belonging to a common humanity as well as respect for all” is a worthwhile goal for educators, this process must not facilitate the criminalization or elimination of cultures distinct from Judeo-Christian, Anglo-Saxon, and/or European traditions in the name of national security (UNESCO 2016, 15). As observed in Kovac’s comments, the cultural narratives that have driven CVE-oriented global citizenship education evoke the colonizing logics that justified Indigenous boarding schools across North America. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these boarding schools acted as “an agent for Indigenous social engineering and cultural transformation,” thereby protecting settlers from Indigenous attacks (de Leeuw 2007, 342). By framing Indigenous resistance to colonization as evidence of inherent barbarity, European settlers sought to civilize, pacify, and control Indigenous populations. In this context, Indigenous boarding schools worked to eliminate Indigenous cultures perceived to threaten national security.
Across North America, Indigenous boarding schools functioned as “confined and specific sites” used to “transmit and enact” colonial ideologies believed to be both universal and superior (de Leeuw 2007, 342). Directed by federal legislation, government officials forced Indigenous children to attend residential schools away from their homes with the expressed goal of “assimilating” and “civilizing” putatively “savage” youth. To do so, residential schools destroyed children’s connections to their homes, transmitted stories of Indigenous inferiority, conditioned children’s bodies to European cuisine through imposed diets, replaced Indigenous dress with European clothing, sexually assaulted girls, and scrubbed clean children’s dark skin. This “intimately corporeal” colonial project of cultural genocide pressed upon Indigenous children so that they would “come to embody the expectations of colonial expectations” (de Leeuw 2007, 347). Although young people continually resisted the colonial project of residential schools, studies of Indigenous experiences register a slow violence at work in and through these schools and youth cultures, bodies, and psyches in the name of national security.
The logics that compelled the creation, implementation, and persistence of Indigenous boarding schools endure today, generating new demands for educational arrangements that diffuse the threat of difference through cultural assimilation and elimination by “socially engineering a more integrated identity like the global citizen.” As Ann Stoler (2016) instructs, “Colonial pasts, the narratives recounted about them, the unspoken distinctions they continue to ‘cue,’ the affective charges they reactivate, and the implicit ‘lessons’ they are mobilized to impart are sometimes so ineffably threaded through the fabric of contemporary life forms they seem indiscernible as distinct effects, as if everywhere and nowhere at all” (5). These colonial connectivities bear on the present, cuing racialized tropes of the dangerous Other to be controlled by eliminating social difference through the production of the “global citizen.” Like Indigenous boarding schools, some CVE-infused global citizenship education programs have worked to subordinate cultural, racial, and religious differences for an identification with the global in the name of national security.
By “socially engineering a more integrated identity like the global citizen,” CVE practitioners have sought to develop social cohesion resistant to terrorist influences. Although CVE programs have invoked a liberal language of child protection, they also have instantiated an illiberal impulse to pacify, discipline, and regulate Muslim youth through educational programming that can counteract the role of cultural institutions like Muslim Student Associations. Global citizenship education programs certainly can, and have, promoted cultural sensitivity, mutual respect, and shared understandings. When applied to antiterrorism agendas, however, these programs risk denigrating difference in the name of national security.
Educators must be aware of and guard against the cooptation of their work in ways that harm rather than support nondominant communities, particularly in times of war. Critical global citizenship education, for example, challenges the concept of universality, questions the meanings associated with the global, and offers “something better than monocultural knowledge categories” to promote the “sharing of socially more inclusive ideas and multi-locational perspectives which should facilitate our humanist desires to live together, learn from one another, and from there, co-construct new possibilities of redeemable and viable citizenships that indemnify the lot of both the individual and the community” (Abdi 2015, 20). Rather than demonize difference as a driver of violent extremism, these decolonizing approaches value epistemic pluralism and polycentric knowledge construction as the foundation of global citizenship education, questioning the very concept of “the global.”
#ThinkAgainTurnAway: Tweeting at Terrorists
Despite the growing popularity of global citizenship education programs, some CVE actors worried that this approach was too “resource- and time-intensive” and suggested that social media campaigns could amplify the reach of these efforts while reducing local costs (participant observation, October 8, 2016). Other CVE actors argued that social media campaigns amounted to “tweeting at terrorists,” an unproductive use of time and resources, especially in local communities (participant observation, May 16, 2017). The debates about the role of social media in countering violent extremism reveal how CVE actors struggled to define “best practices,” diffuse the “generational threat,” resolve the disconnect between national demands and local needs, and gain political prestige and resources useful to their communities.
Initial CVE social media campaigns floundered, causing practitioners to rethink their approach to combatting terrorism online. The U.S. State Department, for example, launched Think Again, Turn Away, a social media initiative to “expose the facts about terrorists and their propaganda” through Facebook and Twitter. Because terrorists increasingly recruited online, the State Department tasked its analysts with “post[ing] messages on English-language websites that jihadists use to recruit, raise money, and promote their cause” (Schmitt 2013). To do so, analysts shared counter-messaging articles and directly interacted with prominent terrorist accounts using the hashtag #ThinkAgainTurnAway.
Shortly after #ThinkAgainTurnAway’s 2013 English-language launch, the State Department admitted that the campaign failed. Foreign Policy reported that “not only was the campaign ineffective, but it actually became a platform for different extremist groups promoting violence to engage each other” (Omar 2015). Through the initiative, “groups were able to reach out to a new target audience of youth as well as improve and build on shared rhetoric” (Omar 2015). Given these flaws, TIME magazine dubbed the campaign to “tweet counter messaging material and address prominent jihadist accounts” an “embarrassing” venture (R. Katz 2014). State Department representative Tom Williams admitted that #ThinkAgainTurnAway failed, in part, because it was not a “research-based or evidence-based campaign” (participant observation, October 8, 2016).
Aysha Khoury urged me to “dismiss” social media campaigns as ineffective. From her perspective, “you can’t just throw a message at someone and that’ll be done with it. Humans don’t work that way. They want to talk about things. It’s an easy checkmark. You use social media and [organizations] can say, ‘Yes, this was done’” (interview, January 25, 2017). Nazanin Zaghari also admitted that she was “not really a believer” of social media’s role in refuting the high volume of ISIS content (participant observation, August 18, 2016). Despite increasing federal, state, and local social media campaigns to counter terrorist propaganda and stymie terrorist recruitment, some local CVE practitioners questioned the utility of such cursory interactions with people online.
To supplement these digital efforts, the United States has engaged in social media “takedowns” to combat terrorist recruitment and protect vulnerable youth. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have established standards to identify, evaluate, and remove accounts that engage in terrorist activity, thereby reducing the influence of terrorist recruiters. These platforms also have blocked user content if they promote or encourage terrorism.
CVE practitioners and critics alike have questioned the efficacy and ethics of the takedown approach. The Brookings Institution, for example, reported that “while the suspensions raise the barrier to joining the social network—in the sense that they reduce the number of invitations ISIS can successfully broadcast—they do not by any means make joining impossible. The interior of this network is changing as a result of the suspensions, making it a much louder echo chamber” (Berger and Morgan 2015, 58). Although account suspensions may “discourage some new members of the network from remaining,” there also “is a risk that the more focused and coherent group dynamic could speed and intensify the radicalization process” (58). In addition to these concerns, the Brookings Institution asked: “Is it ethical to suppress political speech, even when such speech is repugnant? Do suspensions destroy valuable resources of intelligence? Do suspensions have a detrimental effect on targeted networks?” (53). Despite increasing calls for social media takedowns, the Brookings Institution raised serious questions about the ethics of silencing repugnant speech and the effectiveness of these tactics in dismantling terrorist networks.
Today, U.S. schools increasingly rely on software to monitor students’ internet activity, drawing directly from earlier iterations of CVE social media campaigns and gang suppression tactics. Impero Software, for instance, piloted “anti-radicalization” software to monitor the internet activity of students in five U.S. schools. An Impero spokesperson explained that “the system may help teachers confirm identification of vulnerable children, or act as an early warning system to help identify children that may be at risk in [the] future. It also provides evidence for teachers and child protection officers to use in order to intervene and support a child in a timely and appropriate manner” (as quoted in D. Taylor 2015). To identify vulnerable children, Impero’s (2016) software used an “anti-radicalization keyword library” to detect students who used search terms like “jihadi bride,” “war on Islam,” and “Message to America” (an ISIS propaganda video) (para. 5). Once Impero’s software detected the use of flagged keywords, it “alerted those responsible for ‘safeguarding’ issues within the school such as counselors and captured a screenshot or short video to provide context,” enabling those alerted to “analyze the activity and determine if it is a true threat or if there is another explanation (such as suicide research for a class assignment on Romeo and Juliet)” (Impero Software 2016, para. 5). In addition to the detection of these keywords, Impero’s software could “block students from accessing the internet or certain websites and view screenshots and timelines of student activity. Administrators can create reports and export data on student or class activity, or on trending phrases” (para. 6). By using Impero’s software, schools sought to identify students vulnerable to radicalization and reduce violent extremism.
Despite these aims, communications expert Pam Cowburn warned that “teachers should not be expected to spy on their pupils but to encourage them to learn about, discuss, and challenge different ideas” (as quoted in Burgess 2015). Given the increased criminalization of Muslim youth, Cowburn argued that “we need to be careful that these measures aren’t counter-productive, making some children feel stigmatized, alienated, and that they are being watched” (as quoted in Burgess 2015). Although Impero Software emphasized its role in “safeguarding,” not spying on, children, critics worried that these practices amounted to ideological surveillance, which can chill intellectual exploration, classroom conversation, and political debate.
Like their critics, CVE practitioners worried about the impact and implications of these surveillance practices in schools, especially when “61 percent of Americans [have] expressed unfavorable views of Islam” (Telhami 2015, para. 5). Khoury detailed how U.K. “security agents” questioned a Muslim first-grade student for “hours” after he mentioned that some people used the label “ecoterrorist” to describe individuals who use violence to protect the environment. This example illustrates how these monitoring practices can criminalize curiosity and limit student learning. From Khoury’s perspective, “if you make it part of the responsibility of schools or educators to do that monitoring, without training, it can be very problematic.” Given the difficulty in discerning between signs of “struggling with life” and signs of radicalization, Khoury worried about tasking “quite influential teachers” with monitoring student behaviors in this way (interview, January 25, 2017). Arun Kundnani similarly warned that “the great risk” of CVE programming has been “creating an atmosphere of self-censorship, where young people don’t feel free to express themselves in schools, or youth clubs, or at the mosque” (as quoted in Khaleeli 2015). Constant surveillance through internet tracking software and teacher monitoring has generated deep fears such that children have refrained from discussing political issues in the classroom and conducting online searches about terrorist radicalization (Abu El-Haj 2015). This self-censorship inhibits classroom debate and eliminates safe spaces for youth to test out new ideas and learn from past mistakes.
Critics also reported that such ideological monitoring and reporting ineffectively targeted Muslim students, noting that 80 percent of referrals in the United Kingdom were rejected as unsubstantiated and that 90 percent involved Muslim youth (R. Price 2016). Moreover, scientific studies demonstrate that “the majority of people holding extreme views never commit violent acts and many who engaged in terrorism did not previously demonstrate strong ideological attachments” (German 2016, para. 3). This means that policing extremist thought is insufficient in preventing violent extremism. In fact, “even with all of the FBI’s investigative tools and intelligence capabilities, it cannot reliably predict who might be violent in the future, as much as we may wish otherwise” (para. 3). Given the FBI’s repeated failure to detect violent actors like Omar Mateen, CVE critics questioned the capacity of teachers to undertake this work and the potential harm of deputizing teachers as law enforcement agents who come to view their students through an antiterrorism lens. From racial profiling to chilling political discussion, these school surveillance practices have criminalized, demonized, and alienated Muslim students while calling on teachers to monitor and report their students if they express extreme views or use vocabularies that arouse suspicion, whether mispronouncing “cucumber” or Googling “ISIS.” Despite stated intentions to protect children from terrorist influences, these tactics have intensified the school-prison nexus rather than provided alternatives to it.
“Not Bombs, Bullets, and Drones”: Securitizing Universities to Counter Violent Extremism
Given the limitations and possibilities of these digital approaches, Tom Williams viewed the merging of social media campaigns and global citizenship education programs as the “next frontier of CVE.” This merging took advantage of social media’s reach and global citizenship education’s depth. Williams pointed to the Peer 2 Peer: Challenging Extremism (P2P) program as a leading example of how CVE partners have combined the cumulative potential of both social media and global citizenship education while avoiding the flaws of each approach. Through P2P, university students worldwide have competed to develop the next generation of innovative CVE approaches by harnessing the power of social media, youth activism, and millennial sensibilities (participant observation, October 8, 2016).
To develop the P2P program, the White House National Security Council and State Department approached EdVenture Partners (EVP), a company that established student opportunities to solve local business problems. After the BP oil spill, for example, EVP explored the development of a “social media strategy to educate millennials about energy realities in America.” To solve these business problems, EVP brought its clients to university classes, “providing genuine learning opportunities for [students] while they’re in the university environment, so basically bringing the experience into the classroom, where students have a real client, who has real problems, who gives the students real money to spend but also says, ‘Hey, I expect some results’” (Scott Sacco, interview, February 17, 2017). Rather than send students to EVP for internships, university professors integrated clients into their classrooms.
As a part of their classroom learning, students worked with these clients to meet their business needs, whether related to marketing, branding, or employee recruitment. Following this model, the National Security Council approached EVP in 2014 as a client wanting students to “develop a campaign against ISIL and extremism.” From EVP employee Scott Sacco’s perspective, “Government clearly is not the most credible messenger with developing a counternarrative to these guys. . . . Who better to create the counter-message to counter extremism and hate speech than the very same audience extremists are trying to recruit?” (interview, February 17, 2017). As a client, the National Security Council sought to collaborate with EVP so students could develop effective counter-messaging campaigns to combat violent extremism. These efforts coalesced into the Peer 2 Peer: Challenging Extremism initiative, initially funded by the U.S. government and later Facebook.
The White House (2016) reported that “the objective of P2P is to engage university students, who earn academic credit, to create authentic narratives on social media that challenge violent extremist recruitment” (14). Following this objective, P2P students “develop a social and digital media initiative, product, or tool to push back on extremism. They get to decide what extremism means to them on their campus, their community, their state, their country, globally. We don’t put any parameters or boundaries on how they interpret how they want to develop the initiative, product, or tool.” Students also “get to decide one of four target audiences: (1) the at-risk, (2) the silent majority (typically Muslims who don’t speak out against extremism), (3) the uncommitted population that research indicates have a higher propensity to radicalize as they go through that searching phase, or (4) the civil-minded students who create movements and mobilize over social issues of the day.” EdVenture Partners viewed this P2P approach as “hyper-localized problem-solving” that called on nearby university students to “dismantle violent ideologies by creating these positive counter-narratives” (Scott Sacco, interview, February 17, 2017).
To minimize constitutional concerns related to the government’s role in shaping ideology, the State Department slowly distanced itself from P2P by publicizing Facebook’s role in the initiative and dividing the competition into two: one for U.S. participants and one for international participants. As a part of this process, the State Department rebranded the international competition as P2P: Facebook Global Digital Challenge. As one P2P participant explained, “Facebook picked up the international teams and it’s the sponsor for the international program and that’s why the competition is now split. The name Facebook just translates better for international teams. It’s a little dicey when you’re talking about international teams working on a project for the U.S. government” (Sarah Hughes, interview, January 31, 2017). EdVenture Partners took the “U.S. government brand off of Peer 2 Peer” because “a lot of countries were mighty skeptical of the U.S. government” (interview, February 17, 2017). To minimize the perceived role of the U.S. government in this ideological project, the State Department reorganized and renamed the P2P competitions. Critics, however, worried that this rebranding strategically concealed, rather than addressed, the U.S. government’s role in the P2P competition.
At the time of my fieldwork, EdVenture Partners involved more than 10,000 students from 100 universities across the United States and 250 universities in 70 other countries. As a key tool in the “CVE industry,” P2P “introduced legions of young people to the possibility that they can actually make a living and change the world at the same time” (interview, February 17, 2017, emphasis in original). In this way, P2P combined the power of global citizenship education with the reach of social media campaigns.
Several CVE actors applauded P2P’s “education-CVE nexus,” especially because the initiative brought social media into the classroom to address terrorist recruitment. Sacco viewed P2P as “the best program the government has ever created, and it is absolutely not bombs, bullets, and drones. This is soft power, changing hearts and minds. It’s credible because it’s developed by young people. It’s the platform that people use to get information and build communities” (interview, February 17, 2017). Given these affirmations, the U.S. government continues to funnel resources to the program, amplifying the role of students and social media in fighting terrorism without “bombs, bullets, and drones.”
To support university professors in implementing the P2P program, the National Counterterrorism Center provided participants with “a ton of secondary resources from around the world.” “If your students don’t know anything about extremism,” Sacco explained, “we have some very select documents that we say, ‘Read this and you’re gonna pretty much know what you need to know to do a good job with this project.’” These materials explored “different kinds of extremism,” including “white supremacists, nationalists, and sovereign citizens in the U.S.” P2P participant Sarah Hughes, however, reported that “it was an easy direction to decide on [ISIS],” figuring “that’s the direction we were supposed to go anyways because a lot of the research that we were provided with was research on ISIS” (interview, January 31, 2017). P2P professor April Brewer also confirmed that “the brief tells you that you have to go pretty much in the direction of violent extremism perpetuated by ISIS. . . . The brief says violent extremism, but I know the research papers that you get are ISIS-oriented” (interview, February 14, 2017). The research briefs developed by the State Department directed student teams toward anti-ISIS projects.
Despite these ISIS-related materials, Sacco reported an increasing student focus on white supremacy. In addition, two schools “pulled out of this current  semester because of the direction the new [Trump] administration might go,” like exclusively targeting Muslim communities for CVE programming (interview, February 17, 2017). By selecting and distributing student materials, the State Department managed how students thought about and responded to the perceived problem of violent extremism, effectively erasing other threats to public safety, like ongoing war, economic displacement, and state violence. The selected focus on ISIS narrowed classroom debates in ways that legitimized the U.S. security state. These materials, however, were not overdetermining as some students created projects to combat white supremacy and some schools stopped participating in the program because of their concerns about a disproportionate focus on Muslim communities.
Working with a group of her peers, Hughes developed an anti-ISIS social media campaign targeting the “silent majority,” meaning “people who kind of know extremism’s wrong but don’t really know what to do or how to help, or maybe they just don’t know enough about it.” In the process, students developed a clear set of principles, emphasizing that they “did not want to use fear as a motivator” and “thought that just preaching to people about the dangers of ISIS would push people away and turn them off because it’s a very uncomfortable thing for a lot of people to talk about. It’s very scary.” Instead, her team created “positive counter-messaging” that sought to raise awareness about violent extremism as well as the experiences of Muslims in the United States (interview, January 31, 2017).
As they developed their project, Hughes and her team recognized that “being Americans, we didn’t really feel as though we had the first-hand knowledge [of violent extremism], so we wanted to go find those people that do and find the people that are experiencing this and suffering this. So, we conducted interviews with people that were best involved in this topic,” including refugees and U.S.-born Muslims (participant observation, October 8, 2016). Students assumed that their status as “Americans”—meaning white and non-Muslim citizens—distanced themselves from the problem of violent extremism so they consulted with Muslims and refugees perceived to have more “first-hand knowledge.”
With an operating budget of $2,000 sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security and $400 in Facebook ad credits, Hughes’s team used this “first-hand knowledge” about what targeted communities “are experiencing and suffering from” to develop a social media campaign to raise awareness about “ISIL, Islam, refugees, and how ISIL uses social media.” In the process, students interpreted the provided informational resources on violent extremism and acted on them in their own ways, rejecting demands to use fear or rely only on secondary materials to develop their CVE project.
Like other P2P projects, Hughes’s team developed an innovative social media campaign that informed the “silent majority” about the problem of violent extremism and increased public awareness about the difference between Islam and extremism. Viewing her work as a type of public education, Hughes reported that the social media projects developed through P2P have “reached over twenty million people since it started in 2015,” making it “the largest collective surge on extremism that the world has ever seen.” Another P2P participant described the program as “letting a thousand flowers bloom” (participant observation, August 18, 2016). In this view, P2P amplified the reach of time- and resource-intensive education initiatives like global citizenship education.
Hughes also reported that even after the competition’s conclusion, “our campaign essentially becomes the Department of State, so they can take it and use it as examples, so we’re always tied to them.” In the P2P model, the State Department was Hughes’s client, meaning she designed a CVE product for use by the State Department. As both State Department products and social media campaigns, P2P projects continued to reach young people after the competition’s conclusion.
Despite state pressure to focus on ISIS, Hughes and other participants heralded P2P as a necessary program to “empower the next generation” and “do good for the world as a whole” through “the most amazing and innovative campaigns and tools.” In the process, students “got that experience in the marketing field” and created “an actual product” useful for the job market (interview, February 17, 2017). As a marketing professor, Brewer viewed P2P as an important “digital marketing internship” opportunity for her undergraduate students in her social media marketing class. For students seeking a job in digital marketing, P2P was a “hot thing” that gave students a “leg-up over students that have not done internships or anything in digital media” (interview, February 14, 2017). Like other CVE actors, students engaged P2P in search of career advancement, prestige, and political power while “doing good.”
Popular media and university partners often praised P2P for its commitment to countering violent extremism through innovative technologies. In its review of P2P, the New York Times declared that “students are the newest U.S. weapon against terrorist recruitment,” noting that “the Department of Homeland Security is enlisting American college students in its efforts to stop the radicalization and recruitment of young people, mostly immigrants, by foreign terrorist groups” (Ron Nixon 2017, para. 1). This review portrayed “American college students” as the solution to the radicalization of immigrant youth.
Celebrating its third-place team, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell similarly affirmed how the P2P competition “tap[ped] college students’ social media skills to counter the influence of extremists and terrorists in their own communities, from white supremacists in the U.S. to ISIS and homegrown terrorist cells in troubled countries” (Ryan 2016, para. 2). Its students developed Operation250, a “website showing preteens and teenagers how extremist organizations—in particular the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or DAESH)—use social media to find, befriend, convert, and isolate young people, and then recruit them as members” (Webster 2017, para. 6). As a third-place finisher, this student team received a $1,000 award in addition to two angel investors, including former National Security Council member and counterterrorism expert Roger Cressey. With these investors, Operation250 developed a robust portfolio of materials to “educate children, parents, and teachers about online safety and how to most effectively protect themselves from coming into contact with online violent extremist material and individuals.” Targeting ISIS-inspired terrorism, Operation250 also began offering classroom visits and presentations, seminars for parents and teachers, and reading materials to encourage “critical thinking within children around the topics of terrorism, online safety, and radicalization.” As Operation250 indicates, P2P projects sometimes turned into full-scale campaigns that advanced CVE programming across the United States.
As the “next CVE frontier,” politicians, universities, and popular media applauded P2P’s youth-oriented social media campaigns. In fact, Senator Cory Booker sought to further institutionalize the P2P model through his proposed (but unpassed) Countering Online Recruitment of Violent Extremists Act of 2016, which would “authorize the Secretary of Homeland Security to establish university labs for student-developed technology-based solutions for countering online recruitment of violent extremists” (S. 2418, 114th Cong. ). As this bipartisan bill indicates, both liberal and conservative politicians heralded “technology-based CVE solutions” led by university students.
Despite the overall praise for P2P’s approach, some have expressed concern that these practices have militarized and securitized schools. U.S. military and intelligence agencies historically have “funneled large sums of money into universities to advance their interests,” thereby incentivizing militarized research projects (Gonzalez 2010, 37). Following World War I, for example, the 1916 National Defense Act initiated the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) to develop the next generation of military recruits and to “train the popular public mind to the necessity and needs of defense” through the U.S. public school system (Coe 1927). Prompted by the Soviet launch of Sputnik during the Cold War, Congress also passed the 1958 National Defense Education Act that funded college students in the areas of foreign languages, regional studies, and science, arguing that “the defense of this Nation depends upon the mastery of modern techniques developed from complex scientific principles.” These initiatives worked to gain public support for military action and to train students to contribute to different war efforts, whether as soldiers, scientists committed to advancing nuclear weaponry, or linguists capable of espionage. State-sponsored initiatives to combat violent extremism in and through universities reactivate these Cold War institutional arrangements that effectively securitized U.S. schools.
In this historical context, the P2P program directed faculty expertise and classroom resources toward countering violent extremism, a transformative process that has enhanced the university’s role in the global war on terror. To entice faculty to participate in and support the P2P program, the State Department provided ready-made curricula while the Department of Homeland Security supported student projects. When military and intelligence agencies fund teaching and learning, however, “knowledge is subtly militarized and bent in the way a tree is bent by a prevailing wind. The public comes to accept that basic academic research on religion and violence ‘belongs’ to the military; scholars who never saw themselves as doing military research now do,” like Brewer (Gusterson 2008, para. 12). In addition, academics may “wonder if their access to future funding is best secured by not criticizing U.S. foreign policy,” stymieing “the kind of critical thinking a democracy needs” as “the priorities of the military further define the basic terms of public and academic debate” (para. 12). This securitizing process limits classroom debate, chills dissent, normalizes dominant understandings of violent extremism, and rewards faculty for aligning their teaching and research with the demands of the war on terror. Although EdVenture Partners and P2P faculty expressed a commitment to combatting homegrown terrorism, the introduction of P2P into universities also synchronized classroom learning with the needs of the U.S. security state.
Uh-Oh Feelings: Gut Reactions as Force Multipliers
Although social media campaigns reached large audiences, CVE actors have established more holistic practices by calling on teachers, guidance counselors, mental health professionals, and other social service providers to take an active role in preventing violent extremism in their own communities. As a part of this work, CVE actors have trained social service providers to identify youth vulnerable to terrorist radicalization and to refer these children to various intervention services, including culturally responsive counseling, religious training, and after-school programming. Through this process, CVE actors have sought to deradicalize youth and minimize the risk factors “associated with” violent extremism, like disaffection and alienation.
Reinforcing the notion of a generational threat, the FBI (2016d) argued that as violent extremism “evolves and more youth embrace extremist ideologies, it places a growing burden on our educational system to provide appropriate services to students who view hatred or targeted violence as acceptable outlets for their grievances. To complicate matters, youth possess inherent risk factors making them susceptible to violent extremist ideologies or possible recruitment” (3). From the FBI’s perspective, “countering these prevailing dynamics requires a fresh approach that focuses on education and enhancing public safety” (3). Given the perceived threat of violent extremism and the unique vulnerabilities of youth, the FBI suggested that “our educators are in a unique position to [e]ffect change, impart affirmative messaging, or facilitate intervention activities due to their daily interactions with students” (3). The FBI’s 2016 findings generated a new commitment to establishing new CVE practices in schools to identify youth vulnerable to violent extremism, address the perceived risk factors that facilitate the radicalization process, and counter terrorist propaganda.
To conscript teachers and schools into the CVE industry, the FBI (2016d) and other national security agencies developed training materials to “educate school personnel about at-risk behaviors and activities that assist students with reducing social and psychological commitment to violence as a method of resolving a grievance” (4). Responding to these demands, the Rochester Institute of Technology’s (2016) DHS CVE grant application proposed workshops for educators “to learn more about violent extremism and how to help students combat it” (3). The City of Los Angeles Mayor’s Office of Public Safety (2016) similarly sought to build a “referral system” so that teachers and other social service providers could conduct “field assessments” to identify individuals who may be radicalizing and then refer these individuals to specific services “needed for positive social outcomes” (5). In Maryland, the Building Resilience Against Violent Extremism (BRAVE) model focused on “generating public awareness about the risk factors of violent extremism and empowering the appropriate figures to intervene with vulnerable individuals before they choose a path of violence” (World Organization for Resource Development and Education 2014, 2). Through BRAVE, teachers, youth workers, and school resource officers could refer an individual to the local police department’s Crisis Intervention Team, which then directed the individual “to the community partner best suited to counsel him or her away from the path of violence” (2). These different CVE programs centered on training social service providers like teachers to identify and then report youth perceived to be vulnerable to radicalization to the local police department.
Like BRAVE, the FBI (2016d) recommended that schools develop crisis intervention teams, pointing to Virginia’s 2013 House Bill 2344, which “mandate[s] the creation of threat assessment teams and procedures for intervention with students whose behavior poses a threat to the safety of school staff or students” (25). To support these efforts, the FBI encouraged states to “consider legislative action or similar measures to curb the spread of extremism within their local communities” in ways “consistent with constitutional rights and freedoms” (25). In addition, the FBI planned to develop teacher trainings to “educate school staff on the intervention process and its role in disengagement” (25). The FBI justified these trainings by framing teachers as “crucial partners in identifying at-risk youth and initiating the disengagement process” (25). Guided by the FBI, this CVE approach has deputized teachers as law enforcement officials who identify “pre-criminal” students exhibiting concerning behaviors before they commit a crime or act of violence.
The FBI’s school guidelines to identify and report vulnerable youth have supported longstanding behavioral threat assessment processes used to detect early warning signs of violence or other criminal activity in U.S. schools. Some states, for example, require colleges and universities to participate in behavioral threat assessments trainings. My own academic institution maintains an Office of Preparedness and Response, which regularly conducts a “campus risk assessment” to evaluate any possible “threat events.” These offices, assessments, and associated trainings increasingly have incorporated CVE initiatives or logics to combat all mass casualty threats.
Given the growing fears of a terrorist attack targeting children, school districts, local departments of homeland security, and law enforcement agencies have provided behavioral threat assessment trainings for teachers and school administrators. One institute’s training manual argued that “schools have an obligation to provide a safe environment for learning,” including “the ability to prevent violence by evaluating potentially violent students.” Given this obligation, the manual supported “strategies for improving planning, preparedness, and violence prevention capacity of schools.” To do so, the institute’s trainings helped “increase the capacity of schools to identify students with concerning behaviors and intervene before an attack or act of violence occurs.” Through these trainings, participants learned to identify threatening students, develop appropriate interventions to reduce the risk of violence, and create mechanisms to circumvent student privacy laws like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in the service of school safety (participant observation, February 9, 2017, and March 20, 2017).
Consistent with the FBI’s guidelines, several behavioral threat assessment trainers explained that they taught participants to focus on behaviors, not profiles. Kyle Eagan, for example, acknowledged that “there is no accurate or useful profile of a ‘school shooter.’” In the absence of this school shooter profile, Eagan encouraged participants to “focus on behavior that suggests potential for harm or need for assistance.” With this focus on behaviors, co-trainer Robert Edwards argued that “the single best predictor of violence” is disciplinary records. Edwards suggested that using disciplinary records “is not profiling because we’re looking at behaviors” (participant observation, February 9, 2017). The FBI (2017b) also encouraged behavioral threat assessment teams to use school records, which can provide “clues to targeting, research and planning, preparation, emotional leakage, and more” (46). According to the FBI, “patterns of emotional decline or improvement over time can be observed via performance, attendance, or behavioral changes if records are available for a lengthy period” (46). From the perspective of these trainers, threat assessments focused on behaviors eschewed the racial and religious profiling of students. School records therefore could provide objective insight into these behaviors as well as changes in behavior over time.
This approach, however, ignores growing academic studies that demonstrate that students of color, students with disabilities, and queer students are more likely to be disciplined than their white, heteronormative, and able-bodied peers for the same behaviors. School discipline records thus reflect racialized, gendered, and ableist practices that disproportionately punish nondominant students. Relying on these discipline records as “the single best predictor of violence” reinforces these inequitable practices. The shift to “behaviors not profiles” does not eliminate racial profiling in schools; it merely masks these racialized practices.
A two-year ethnographic study at a public middle school, for example, revealed that Black girls were more likely than their white or Latina peers to be punished for acting “unladylike” or being loud while in school, even though few “created disruptions in classrooms” (E. W. Morris 2007, 506). One teacher referred to Black girls as “loudies,” effectively punishing their Black femininity by castigating their behavior (being loud). A Government Accountability Office (2018) report similarly determined that teacher discretion “can result in certain groups of students being more harshly disciplined than others” (4). One case study revealed that “Black girls were disproportionately disciplined for subjective interpretations of behaviors, such as disobedience and disruptive behavior” (4). Another study used eye-tracking software “to show, among other things, teachers gazed longer at Black boys than other children when asked to look for challenging behaviors based on video clips” (4–5). In this way, using behaviors or behavioral records as “clues” about a propensity for violence is always already a racialized and racializing process that unevenly marks certain bodies as defiant or deviant. Trainers even admitted that despite their focus on “problematic behaviors” rather than “profiles or stereotypes,” they tended to treat violent extremism as a “Muslim problem.” Despite individual efforts to minimize racial profiling, a “Muslim bias” often inflected the practice of identifying potential threats (Elliot Adams, informal conversation, November 8, 2016). Race functions as a proxy, or shorthand, for risk and therefore a sufficient trigger for suspicion.
Threat assessment trainers also conceded that “there’s always a first time,” meaning some school shooters had no recorded incidents of misbehavior. Furthermore, there are “no data on all the cases where friends or family members noticed something ‘off’ about someone but no violence resulted (i.e., there is no control group)” (Patel and Koushik 2017, 17). This means that it is only in retrospect that school officials assign meaning to past behaviors, suggesting but not knowing if certain behaviors indicated, or contributed to, an imminent threat. Despite these limitations, trainers insisted that using discipline records and monitoring behaviors offered a more liberal and less racist approach to threat assessments.
To support these behavioral threat assessment efforts, trainers called on school staff to “look out for” early warning signs of violence. Edwards encouraged school administrators to “put your English and art teachers on alert” because several mass shooters reportedly wrote poems or drew pictures that indicated an imminent attack. This approach aligns with radicalization research, which suggests that violent extremists “leak” information regarding a planned attack. Given this perceived practice, the FBI (2016d) urged school staff to look for “leakage,” a “common warning behavior for students advocating violence” that “occurs when a student intentionally or unintentionally reveals clues to feelings, thoughts, fantasies, attitudes, or intentions that signal an impending act” (17). These clues “emerge as subtle threats, boasts, innuendos, predictions, or ultimatums and are conveyed in numerous forms (e.g., stories, diaries, journals, essays, poems, manifestos, letters, songs, drawings, and videos)” (17). The FBI concluded that “leakage is one of the strongest clues prefacing a violent act” (17). Given these guidelines, one teacher admitted that her school administrator checked Facebook every day, a process through which the school “gathered a lot of intelligence, a lot of information.” Under these logics, school staff like English teachers were well-positioned to encounter and identify such leakage in their classrooms.
As a part of these efforts, schools developed campus behavioral threat assessment teams (TATs) to identify and monitor potential security risks. Given the controversial nature of these threat assessment teams, one school sponsored dances and passed out brochures about its TAT to garner support. Other schools established a Youth Taskforce or Students of Concern Committee to brand their TATs as a friendly alternative to coercive policing (participant observation, March 20, 2017). These threat assessment teams evaluated students and determined who could be at risk of harming themself or others using a checklist of “warning signs (indicators and red flags) associated with school shootings in the United States” (Depue, n.d.). Through these outreach efforts, behavioral threat assessment teams sought to frame their work as a liberal mechanism to prevent violence without racially profiling students.
To assist communities in these efforts, CVE actors, think tanks, and federal agencies have developed protocols to evaluate potentially vulnerable individuals. In a 2014 guide for practitioners, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) asked communities to “rate risk and resilience factors” and “assess balance of risk and protective factors” to evaluate an individual’s vulnerability to violent extremism. To do so, the NCTC (2014) provided a rating rubric that allowed community members to tally a numeric score used to produce a graph that “present[s] a picture of the balance between risk and protective factors” (18). Communities then used this graph to “identify community resources that could be applied to mitigate risk and bolster resilience based on the ratings for risk and protective factors, as well as gaps in community resources and possible options to address the gaps” (18). As a part of the public health model of CVE, the NCTC assessment provided a tool for communities to determine local risk factors and the resources that could mitigate these risk factors.
Using a 1–5 Likert scale, the NCTC risk and resilience assessment rated indicators like “trust in institutions and law enforcement,” “discrimination,” “neighborhood safety,” “experiences of trauma,” “parental involvement in child’s education,” “family connection to identity group,” and access to health care, social services, educational resources, and recreational resources. A calculated score ranging from zero to twenty-four indicated “high risk,” meaning an individual in need of interventions to reduce risk factors and increase protective factors.
The NCTC presented this approach as an objective way to assess an individual’s “risk and resilience” to violent extremism by focusing on behaviors rather than profiles. These indicators, however, affected a broad range of young people, especially in poor neighborhoods of color subjected to police violence, discrimination, and limited access to health care and educational opportunities. Although these anticipatory risk assessments appear to be race-neutral, these indicators automatically register poor youth of color as more prone to violence than their white counterparts because of the social and economic conditions that shape their everyday lives. Framed as an objective science, these risk assessments deputize community members as national security workers who can identify possible future threats and intervene accordingly.
Political scientist Mark Salter (2008) argues that “risk management has been adopted by a host of state agencies and private corporations as the gold standard in dealing with the new terrorist threat” by “focusing on a pragmatic assessment of the possible and likely sources of danger for an organization” (233). Through these pragmatic assessments, risk management is “offered to civil liberties groups as being more objective, neutral, and expert-led than the potentially discriminatory and prejudicial decisions” typically deployed by law enforcement (Amoore and de Goede 2008, 8). According to these logics, the use of a mathematical risk assessment sidesteps the “discriminatory and prejudicial” problems that have defined previous attempts to identify violent extremists before they commit a crime. Framing these risk assessments as an objective science, however, misses the use of racialized indices as well as the racialized logics used to interpret these data (S. Ahmed 2000; Lyon 2003; Browne 2015). By positioning threat assessments as objective, rather than interpretive, instruments, CVE actors have justified their work as race-neutral, eschewing prior problems of racial and religious profiling. “Channeling law enforcement resources into investigating people based on a potpourri of unproven indicators,” however, “isn’t likely to snare criminals, but rather to draw scrutiny to individuals whose speech or beliefs are outside the mainstream” (Patel and Koushik 2017, 2–3). By deputizing teachers as proxy national security agents who look for students at risk of terrorist radicalization, CVE has intensified the school-prison nexus.
Despite a commitment to using observable behaviors to identify potential violent extremists in schools, trainers also suggested that teachers could rely on their gut instincts. Sarah Earhart, for example, encouraged participants to use “our heads and our hearts” as a guide to screen potential threats. Earhart explained that “I believe every one of you seated here can feel it in your gut. You know when you meet someone. It’s the same thing that we tell little people: It’s that uh-oh feeling! Ladies and gentlemen, this is not complicated! We all know and perceive when behavior changes.” From Earhart’s perspective, our gut instincts were useful in the behavioral threat assessment process. As an example, Earhart described how she recently looked in a colleague’s eyes and noticed “something’s different.” She approached her colleague who explained that he was a new father adjusting to a new sleep schedule. Earhart concluded that we can “know and recognize there’s changes in people. Sometimes it’s how they look. Sometimes it’s different behavior. But what we’re talking about here, ladies and gentlemen, is a collection of changes of behavior over time. It is not profiling.” For Earhart, our uh-oh feeling could guide our extemporaneous threat assessments (participant observation, February 9, 2017, emphasis in original). Prevailing racial formations, cultural histories, and social memories, however, calibrate our “uh-oh feeling” to certain racialized, gendered, and ableist cues that signal an imminent threat and stimulate fear.
Even though Earhart encouraged participants to use our uh-oh feeling to identify potential threats, she also suggested that teachers “aren’t good to have on the threat assessment team.” Earhart warned that teachers’ “bias” and “closeness of relationships” meant that they “don’t believe the facts” and “have blinders on.” Given these limitations, Earhart urged teachers to enlist an “unskewed eye” that could “seriously look for threats,” like police officers. From her perspective, law enforcement “is the golden nugget in our backpack” for educators. By working with law enforcement officials, teachers could minimize their bias and amplify their school’s capacity to identify imminent threats by using their uh-oh feeling.
These contradictory logics that both used “gut instincts” as a resource and as an indication of “bias” ignore the cultural histories that shape the social perception of danger. Prevailing social, cultural, and political contexts, after all, calibrate “our eyes and ears” to recognize certain signs, behaviors, and bodies as threats. David Campbell (1992) explains that “those events or factors that we identify as dangerous come to be ascribed as such only through an interpretation of their various dimensions of dangerousness” rather than objective risk assessments (2). A former FBI agent, for example, described how the U.S. government portrayed ISIS as “so great at recruitment” with an active online presence on social media platforms like Twitter. White supremacist websites, however, enjoyed larger audiences that the FBI simply “did not monitor or care about.” According to this agent, “contrary to public perception, terrorist deaths are much lower than the 1970s and 1980s and extremist violence does not come close to 1% of overall violence.” As an interpretive process, threat assessments privilege some risks like “ISIS-inspired terrorism” over others like homicide and white supremacist violence, irrespective of their actual rate of occurrence. Informed by enduring social, cultural, and political histories, these interpretations calibrate our eyes to identify Muslims and Muslim-looking populations as potential terrorist threats.
Furthermore, the differential valuing of racialized lives means that the U.S. public reads the bodies it encounters for terrorism clues and even uses the body as a sign of imminent violence. Mimi Thi Nguyen (2015) explains that “locating the apprehension of criminality in clothes”—from the hoodie to the hijab—“does not constitute any sort of departure from racial optics that target the body as a contiguous surface of legible information about capacity and pathology” (799). In this way, “profiles that include these other surfaces—clothes, and also tattoos, hairstyles—teach us how to see race both with and without skin as an anchor” (799). In fact, most anti-gang laws profile gang members though such signs and symbols. CVE similarly targets these racialized indicators, whether “growing facial hair” or wearing “traditional Muslim attire.” Through these identificatory practices, “racial optics conceive the profile through the abstraction of contiguous surfaces blurring the distinction between surplus (the tattoo or hoodie as detail) and the ontological (the flesh as essence) that in turn teaches us to see in racial others the unseen truth of criminality” (800). Posed as an objective science, these racial optics generate an “ontological confusion between subject and object” such that the hijab “provides cover for racism’s slide into lethal structures that claim to assess and predict threat with disinterest” (800). Although trainers like Earhart suggested that they policed “behaviors not profiles,” the terrorist is “rendered knowable though visible signs and screens fully schematized by racism” (801). Rather than standing outside of power relations, the early warning signs of a vulnerability to violent extremism are always already rooted in racial hierarchies that direct the eye to recognize certain bodies, and the contiguous surfaces of “traditional clothing” and political thought, as dangerous.
Shared Responsibility Committees: Securitizing Social Services
After the identification of vulnerable youth, CVE actors encouraged communities to develop “multidisciplinary committees” that could “off-ramp” young people from the perceived pathways to violent extremism. Adrian Baker, for example, explained that rather than “reinvent the wheel,” CVE practitioners could turn to the “lessons learned” from other violence prevention practices, including the “very, very promising approach” of “multidisciplinary teams” (interview, January 27, 2017). In the CVE policy world, a multidisciplinary team convened a “culturally-competent but trauma-informed group of trained professionals” who provide “wraparound services for those vulnerable individuals” (Zaghari, participant observation, August 18, 2016). Rather than rely only on law enforcement, these multidisciplinary teams have included social workers, teachers, guidance counselors, religious leaders, and community members, who can identify, report, and work with youth perceived to be vulnerable to terrorist radicalization.
From Zaghari’s perspective, these multidisciplinary teams engaged a “whole of society approach” by “bringing together people of diverse backgrounds purposefully and strategically.” Community leader Masoud Kaleel similarly affirmed multidisciplinary teams as an alternative to punitive counterterrorism approaches by involving “people who felt obligated to help the community” and “expressed concern about what was happening in terms of young people potentially radicalizing in the community” (informal conversation, January 20, 2017). CVE actors framed multidisciplinary teams as an effective community-driven tactic to reduce radicalization without stigmatizing Muslim communities or relying on law enforcement.
Despite these affirmations, some Somali youth in Minneapolis perceived these committees as “outsiders” to their community, even if they were composed of Somali elders. Reflecting on his own experiences in high school, community organizer Absame Omar concluded that these committee members “know nothing about us. And they want to come to our school and tell us how to walk and talk and what to do. America wants you to act a certain way and if you don’t, they’re not having it” (participant observation, April 21, 2017). Although CVE actors viewed the use of multidisciplinary teams as a way to empower local communities, some community organizers questioned the intentions and motives of these “outsiders” who encouraged them to assimilate to dominant U.S. norms.
Critics also warned that these multidisciplinary teams facilitated intelligence-gathering practices in Muslim and other diasporic communities. In 2016, the Intercept obtained a letter that described the FBI’s clandestine use of “Shared Responsibility Committees” (SRCs), secret multidisciplinary teams tasked with deradicalizing individuals perceived to be on the path toward violent extremism. These SRCs facilitated the “social and psychological process whereby an individual’s commitment to violence is reduced to such an extent that he/she is no longer at risk of using violence as a solution to a grievance” (Federal Bureau of Investigation n.d., 1). To do so, the SRCs “enlist[ed] counselors, social workers, religious figures, and other community members to intervene with people the FBI thinks are in danger of radicalizing—the sort of alternative to prosecution and jail time many experts have been clamoring for” (Currier and Hussain 2016, para. 2). This approach assumes that psychological pathologies drive the turn to political violence and that mental health interventions can correct these pathologies.
To carry out this initiative, the FBI (n.d.) referred individuals to a “voluntarily formed” local SRC, which then designed and implemented an individualized intervention plan (1). Intervention plans included “mentoring support, life skills, anger management, cognitive or behavioral therapies, constructive pursuits, education skills, career building and support, family support, health awareness, housing support, drug and alcohol awareness and treatment, engagement and exposure with perceived adversaries, and mental health care” (1). The FBI pitched this SRC approach as an alternative to conventional counterterrorism measures, noting that it would not “use the SRC as a means to gather intelligence on the subject or his/her potential connections to terrorism” (1). The FBI, however, retained the right to “share any information the SRC provides with other law enforcement agencies, members of the U.S. intelligence community, and foreign government agencies as needed” (2). In addition, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies could “use their law enforcement and prosecutorial authorities in appropriate circumstances without prior notification to the SRC” (1).
Even though the FBI could report and act on the intelligence it received from an SRC, the FBI required SRC members to sign confidentiality agreements that forbid them from “disclosing information regarding referred individuals outside of the SRC” and “consulting with outside experts regarding an intervention plan on behalf of the SRC for an FBI-referred individual without written permission from the FBI” (2). Despite the FBI’s claim that it would not use the SRCs to collect intelligence, it could use information SRCs gathered to take prosecutorial action while limiting public oversight of the SRCs’ activities.
Pointing to the recent prosecution of Somali youth on terrorism-related charges, law enforcement official David Greene applauded local multidisciplinary teams in their collaborative efforts to combat terrorist recruitment and radicalization. More specifically, Greene called on Minneapolis’s Somali community to “work with community leaders—imams and experts—who can help at-risk youth.” Greene affirmed the mobilization of these multidisciplinary teams for the purposes of countering violent extremism, noting that “a network of community resources built by community leaders is now available to assist friends and family members who are concerned about someone who’s going down the wrong path toward radicalization” (participant observation, August 18, 2016). In this discussion, Greene suggested that CVE could stop violent extremism “before it becomes a criminal matter,” thereby protecting youth from prosecution and defending the community from the “generational threat.”
To organize their work on these multidisciplinary teams, CVE actors turned to the “theory of community resilience and protective resources,” which suggests that “in the face of adversity, social and psychosocial factors at the level of a community can inhibit, stop, delay, or diminish negative outcomes” (Weine, Younis, and Polutnik 2017, 27). CVE actors argued that multidisciplinary teams like SRCs could amplify these protective factors and help individuals “who might be in crisis or otherwise experiencing isolation, discrimination, or bullying” (Williams, Horgan, and Evans 2016, 68). SRCs deployed protective, not punitive, resources to support positive youth development, a process that arguably could prevent violent extremism.
Despite the growing use of multidisciplinary teams, CVE actors offered conflicting and sometimes contradictory understandings about the relationship between mental health and mass violence. Daniel Glickman affirmed the inclusion of “mental health professionals” in CVE programming while explaining that “terrorists have a lower rate of being ‘mentally ill’ than the general population” and that terrorists “are not likely to be mentally ill.” Still, Glickman encouraged communities to develop multidisciplinary teams staffed with “psychologists, counselors, and sometimes police” as an “alternative to police” (participant observation, March 29, 2017). Zaghari also concluded that “there’s no evidence to suggest that terrorists have higher levels of severe mental illness in the general population.” Yet, she also reported that “psychological conditions, such as cognitive, mental, or emotional disorders, can also contribute to one’s propensity to violent extremism. In addition, mental illnesses, in particular post-traumatic stress disorder, are posited as another major factor” (participant observation, August 18, 2016). Rahman similarly surmised that although people with “mental illnesses” were “not necessarily violent,” mental illness was an “underlying cause” of violence (informal conversation, November 28, 2016). Even though “the state of the evidence on radicalization and on the interaction with mental health problems is undeveloped,” CVE actors suggested that “psychological conditions” could contribute to the radicalization process (Weine, Eisenman, Jackson et al. 2017, 335). By associating mental health with violent extremism, CVE logics criminalized psychiatric disabilities, particularly in Muslim communities.
Contrary to public perception, “mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides. In contrast, deaths by suicide using firearms account for the majority of yearly gun-related deaths” (Knoll and Annas 2016, 81). Moreover, “perpetrators of mass shootings are unlikely to have a history of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization” and thus “databases intended to restrict access to guns and established by gun laws that broadly target people with mental illness will not capture this group of individuals” (82). Even though “mass shootings cause endless public speculation regarding causes and motives,” these rare cases “are the result of many complex factors,” irreducible to simplified explanations like a “mad or bad” shooter (83). Although mass shootings are “extremely rare events,” the constant “outpourings of public horror and outrage” through media generate ineffective public safety approaches and apply scarce resources to infrequent yet highly charged sources of insecurity (82). According to this research, criminalizing mental health ineffectively addresses the problem of mass violence in the United States and harms individuals with psychiatric disability labels.
In addition to clarifying these misconceptions about the relationship between psychiatric disability labels and the production of violence, some mental health professionals have questioned the increasing use of social service providers for national security purposes. Psychologists Alice LoCicero and J. Wesley Boyd (2016), for example, defined CVE as “the new COINTELPRO,” a contemporary counterterrorism program that called on mental health professionals to report to law enforcement “on kids who they just think (note, without any knowledge of what the actual signs are) might be on a path toward extremism” (para. 5). Rejecting the conscription of mental health professionals into the domestic war on terror, LoCicero and Boyd declared in Psychology Today:
We will not be participating in any CVE programs, and we strongly encourage other mental health professionals to also refuse for the following reasons: We will not spy on our patients. We do not read minds, and we know that none of us can predict the future. We know of several non-punitive approaches to helping ALL kids resist ALL recruitment to violence. They are not high tech and they do not involve the FBI. They involve listening and talking to kids, mentoring kids, educating kids and helping them find paths to meaningful lives, honoring their communities here and any communities they are connected within the US or elsewhere, and taking their grievances seriously. (paras. 11–14)
In this public statement, LoCicero and Boyd refuted the assumption that “would-be terrorists” shared a “psychological profile of someone who might ultimately commit violent acts” and questioned the use of psychologists to identify and report these “would-be terrorists” (para. 7). Whether practitioners applied the CVE label to these efforts, LoCicero and Boyd warned that deputizing psychologists in this way “turn[ed] health care professionals into government informants” (para. 15). Rather than provide an alternative to coercive policing, the integration of mental health treatment and monitoring into CVE efforts could lead to arrest, prosecution, and incarceration. Psychologists therefore refused to apply an antiterrorism lens to their clients and, instead, provided resources that support healthy individuals and communities independent of law enforcement logics and interventions.
The inclusion of mental health professionals into CVE programming can compromise patients’ right to privacy through the disclosure of confidential information to law enforcement. For example, when “mental health professionals refer patients deemed ‘vulnerable to radicalization’ to multidisciplinary teams involving law enforcement, they may disclose information obtained in confidential mental health treatment settings” (Morgan 2018, 804). Furthermore, the use of multidisciplinary teams can “erode confidentiality protections, particularly when law enforcement officials inject themselves into a patient’s mental health treatment” (804). CAIR-LA director Hussam Ayloush more directly stated, “We are extremely offended by this program that says American Muslims should get mental health services through the Department of Homeland Security’s counter-terrorism program, like we are criminals or potential terrorists” (as quoted in Bharath 2018). Some critics objected to the securitization of mental health professionals through their inclusion in CVE programming. Others demanded access to culturally relevant counseling as deserving citizens rather than as ticking time bombs.
In 2016, for example, eighteen-year-old Mahin Khan was arrested and charged with plotting to commit terrorism in support of the Taliban and ISIS after receiving mental health services through the FBI for three years. The FBI first contacted Khan after he sent a threatening letter to a teacher, which prompted a forty-five-day evaluation at an inpatient psychiatric facility “under the directive and supervision of the FBI” (Khan’s parents, as quoted in Truelsen 2016). Over the next three years, the FBI reportedly met with Khan “every few months under the pretense of mentoring him and coordinating his mental health care” (Morgan 2018, 791). Struggling to meet Khan’s needs, his parents consented to this health-care arrangement with the FBI.
Given his developmental disabilities, Khan’s parents reported that they “didn’t let him have a phone” because they “didn’t trust him with one.” Yet, after Khan’s arrest, his parents learned that “he had been using a phone given to him by the FBI,” which he allegedly used to communicate with an undercover informant, indicating a willingness to commit terrorism (as quoted in Hussain 2016). While offering Khan mental health services, the FBI sent an undercover informant to encourage Khan to plan and conduct a terrorist attack.
Although Khan’s parents demonstrated their son’s inability to plan, finance, and commit an act of terrorism, Khan currently is serving an eight-year sentence in an Arizona state prison. Given this and similar arrests, CVE critics have worried that the cooptation of mental health services to monitor and report “suspicious” youth was “an affront to the basic tenets of professional ethics, threatening privacy and exacerbating health disparities” (Morgan 2018, 815). Rather than serve as an alternative to conventional FBI stings, the integration of mental health professionals into the management of Khan led to his contact with an undercover informant, arrest, and incarceration.
Given academic, professional, and community concerns related to securitizing social services, spying on youth, and stigmatizing mental health, the FBI announced the suspension of SRCs in October 2016. Some CVE critics, however, questioned if the FBI’s intervention program was “really cancelled” (McCarthy 2016). One community member, for example, admitted to serving on an SRC after the 2016 suspension. Others pointed to the FBI sting arrest of Khan as evidence that the FBI had not “effectively implemented” the cancellation of the SRCs in local communities (McCarthy 2016, para. 9). Prior to his arrest, Khan had met with “the FBI, mental health professionals, academic tutors, and community mentors for years,” intervention methods the SRCs “sought to formalize” (para. 7). CVE critics worried that, like other rebranding strategies, the U.S. government simply initiated new interventions by another name. Even if the FBI suspended its SRC initiative, its ideas, infrastructure, and tools continued to inform public health approaches to CVE that sometimes relied on multidisciplinary teams.
Despite the reported suspension of SRCs, the ongoing securitization of social services impeded community efforts to support young people. Communities, however, developed strategies to provide social services without the intrusion of security agencies. As a community organizer in Minneapolis, Axado Isnino sought to provide “mentoring and money to counter the organizations taking CVE money.” Given CVE’s stronghold on the Somali community, Isnino struggled to “figure out how to provide the services that had been securitized under CVE, with no attachments to CVE” (participant observation, August 20, 2017). Because CVE had infiltrated local funding streams, community organizers like Isnino diligently worked to provide social services and other resources disconnected from CVE.
Another college student questioned the use of social service providers to determine if a student poses an “imminent threat” to a school or community, asking:
Who is making those decisions? I cannot emphasize enough how many teachers I have had—counselors, various leaders who were supposed to help me—who looked at me as a potential threat or someone who needed to be saved or educated, someone who needed to be Americanized. So, I’m sorry, but I’m tired of jumping through the hoops that other people have set for us to prove that we’re worthy of these social services. (participant observation, August 20, 2017)
Rather than celebrate the mobilization of community resources to fight violent extremism in collaboration with the FBI, critics warned that these multidisciplinary teams deputized mental health professionals as the police who look for, report, and work with youth perceived to be vulnerable to violent extremism. In this view, this approach encouraged targeted youth in disinvested communities to participate in these CVE programs to receive social services and used mental health professionals to enhance police power, fortify racialized hierarchies, and legitimize this national security initiative. Even though social service providers like teachers engage in social control as a part of their daily work, deputizing trusted adults in this way has compelled them to view their clients, students, and patients as potential terrorist threats, reaffirming the carceral logics that organize the school-prison nexus and the use of caring institutions to advance policing in the United States.
Like other forms of carceral care work, psychosocial CVE programs have contributed to the U.S. security state’s “therapeutic governance,” a form of governance rooted in social risk management that “makes the link between psychological well-being and security” (Pupavac 2005, 161). This type of governance is organized by the assumptions that “humans have a psychological nature, that this psychological state can be more or less ‘healthy,’ that particular (‘therapeutic’) methods can improve psychological dysfunction, and that it is in society’s best interest to encourage and protect psychological well-being” (Rehberg 2014, 7). In this view, managing psychological health is a matter of good governance and national security rather than a private concern. Therapeutics therefore “manage psychological and emotional conduct in ways that align with the aims of the government” (Haney 2010, 117). Through anticipatory, probabilistic, and preventative interventions organized by white cultural norms, the U.S. security state governs through the management of individual psychology by offering “therapeutic corrections” informed by radicalization research that indicts psychological pathologies in the turn to violence (116).
Through CVE programs, mental health professionals and other social service providers treat deviations from dominant norms as threats to national security and therefore provide therapeutic interventions to prevent violent extremism. To do so, social service providers use mental health as a proxy for risk and as a means to reprogram youth according to dominant psychological, cultural, and social norms conducive to state governance. Through this purposeful patrolling and psychosocial programming that require “non-state actors to play a much more proactive role in citizens’ lives,” CVE practitioners and their community collaborators have contributed to the therapeutic governance of their communities, offering new forms of control with a softer, friendlier face (Pupavac 2001, 361).
Learning to Resist the Temptations of Extremism: CVE Curriculum in Schools
In addition to monitoring and reporting student behavior, the FBI (2016b) urged schools to “initiate disengagement activities or craft affirmative messages that dissuade youth from dangerous paths” (25). More specifically, the FBI called on high schools to “incorporate a two-hour block of violent extremism awareness training as part of their core curriculums for grades 9–12” to educate youth on “the perils of violent extremism and the effect on their lives, families, and communities” (216). UNESCO’s A Teacher’s Guide on the Prevention of Violent Extremism provided direction on how to manage classroom discussions on violent extremism, noting that “young people need relevant and timely learning opportunities to develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that can help them build their resilience to such propaganda” (2016, 9). Although UNESCO encouraged a global citizenship education approach to countering violent extremism, it also recommended classroom discussions that investigate “local manifestations of violent extremism,” explore how young people “can make a difference if they make the right choices within their immediate context,” and examine the “real risks and consequences of violent extremism” (16). Before discussing these controversial issues, teachers must “connect the issue of violent extremism to content in the local curriculum”; “understand the social, cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity of the local context”; “include minority-group perspectives in the discussions”; and “identify the right timing, since controversial issues should not be discussed haphazardly” (16). This approach has strengthened the education sector’s response to the problem of violent extremism, working to diffuse the perceived factors the drive terrorist recruitment and radicalization through classroom teachings.
To support these efforts, the FBI (2016d) suggested that schools could mobilize high school alumni as role models who “impart affirmative messaging to the student body” and discuss “best practices for coping with the daily stressors from high school while promoting cognitive and physical development” (27). Such efforts could “help students resist the temptations of extremist messages and their violent agendas” and “diminish the likelihood of schools becoming potential nodes of radicalization or recruitment hubs for violent extremists” (25, 4). In this approach, school alumni played a central role in preventing violent extremism.
To complement these classroom activities, the FBI encouraged schools to establish a holistic approach to combating violent extremism. The FBI (2016d), for example, called on schools to cultivate positive student development through “extensive afterschool programming such as sports or club activities” (25). In this view, “what happens after school hours can be critical to sustaining the lessons taught in the classroom” and so teachers should develop “educational programming that goes beyond the school day to teach and involve families and communities” (Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation and Hedayah Center 2013, 7). Communities therefore invested in athletics programs as “an important positive outlet for youths as it fosters teamwork, social, and leadership skills, and promotes goal-setting and instills a sense of identity and belonging—many of the factors that violent extremists prey on to recruit youths into their organizations” (5). One CVE practitioner pointed to his own soccer league as an example of how his community protected youth from radicalization, noting that “playing soccer and getting strong” ensured local Somali boys did not engage in “bad things” and helped improve their academic progress (Aeden Warabe, informal conversation, April 13, 2017). Rather than “paying attention to social media” where terrorist recruiters lurked, the boys focused on playing soccer with their friends. After-school programming like soccer leagues or arts classes supplemented in-school CVE activities.
Despite the popularity of these rare sports programs in diasporic communities, some young adults lamented that law enforcement “co-opted” their after-school sports programs in the service of “the CVE industry.” For example, college student Bashir Cilmi described how an Ohio basketball tournament “got re-coded as a CVE effort as the media began reporting that people who put this together did this to stop terrorism and gangs.” Echoing Cilmi, Absame Omar criticized the continual “branding of sports as CVE” for political gain. From his perspective, “Sports is a part of our culture. Ball is life. They use that as a taken: ‘He’s not going to be a terrorist because I gave him a 5x5 tournament every Sunday.’ Now they’re flagging kids who don’t want to play soccer. That has nothing to do with terrorism.” By positioning soccer programs as central to achieving antiterrorism goals, the introduction of CVE in Minneapolis “securitized social service providers the way we securitized humanitarian aid”: To distribute resources like “coaches and equipment” typically denied to disinvested diasporic communities, CVE practitioners relied on “gatekeepers” like local law enforcement who “decided who gets the aid and who participates and what the participation requires” (participant observation, April 21, 2017). By tying much-needed resources like sports programs to CVE, national security practitioners incentivized community participation, including collaborating with local law enforcement.
Since September 11, 2001, local law enforcement agencies have relied on police-sponsored sports leagues to facilitate community policing practices. The New York City Police Department (NYPD), for example, created the NYPD Cricket Cup for South Asian youth. NYPD deputy inspector Amin Kosseim explained that, through community outreach efforts like the cricket league, “you’re going to be able to counter radicalization, counter extremism. You want [community members] to come to you with information, and that’s not going to happen unless you have that rapport” (as quoted in Tharoor 2013). The NYPD applied a community policing approach to the problem of violent extremism, fostering relationships with communities to gather information on Arabs and South Asians.
As a part of this community policing project, NYPD officers “were encouraged to join adult soccer and cricket leagues as players. They kept lists of places where Arabs and South Asians gathered to play and watch sports” (Tharoor 2013, para. 17). Using this human intelligence, the NYPD Demographics Unit authored a “Sports Venue Report,” which listed the “eighteen cricket fields and forty other venues where South Asians congregate in New York” (para. 17). After mapping these sites, the NYPD “conducted fieldwork, in the form of visits, to these locations to ascertain the required information” (New York City Police Department n.d., 2). Under the guise of community outreach, the NYPD used its participation in soccer and cricket leagues to map Arab and South Asian communities and gather information on popular sports venues, without ever informing its participants. These secretive intelligence-gathering practices led organizations like the Arab American Association of New York to withdraw their sponsorship of various sports leagues across the city (Zirin 2013). Given the NYPD’s record, young adults like Cilmi and Omar questioned all CVE-related sports programs, fearing surveillance, monitoring, and intelligence-gathering practices. They also challenged gaining access to these resources as potential terrorists rather than as deserving citizens.
Although practitioners viewed this approach as a way to protect youth from terrorist recruitment without law enforcement, young people worried that these sports programs could facilitate the identification and reporting of individuals perceived to be vulnerable to violent extremism. One athletics center, for example, provided Somali youth with free passes to use its facilities. These youth “played soccer three times a week,” “went to the gym four days a week,” and attended “arts programming.” To develop a social network map of their associates, the center gave youth guest passes. Through these guest passes, CVE practitioners “knew who their friends [were]” and collected “good data,” including their progress in school, how often they visited the center, and “which friends they bring with them.” This athletics center provided its typical social services while also developing practices to gather “good data” useful in preventing terrorist radicalization and recruitment (Aedan Warabe, informal conversation, April 13, 2017). Youth organizers challenged the co-optation of their sports leagues on the assumption that Muslim children were incipient terrorists who needed additional support to diffuse this generational threat as well as the required reporting of program participants to federal funders like DHS (Arab American Action Network 2017). Given their experiences with CVE, youth felt under constant surveillance by adults who came to view them through a radicalization lens.
The surveillance function of these youth-oriented CVE practices calls into question the purpose of education, the role of teachers, and the ethics of incentivizing research, teaching, and after-school programming aligned with the needs of the U.S. security state. Increasingly concerned about the “generational threat,” communities reconfigured their schools and curricula to address the perceived problem of violent extremism, often through community-police partnerships. By reorganizing to meet the state’s prevailing geopolitical goals, public schools actively contributed to the domestic war on terror.
Although some youth rejected these tactics, many community members viewed this approach as an effective intervention and alternative to conventional counterterrorism methods. Given these contravening conclusions, CVE often divided communities, instigating intense debates about how to protect youth and from what. These contestations strategically narrowed the terms of debate, forgoing other ways of radically reimagining public safety and national security.
“A Liberal, Fascist Program”: The Slow Violence of CVE Programming in Minneapolis
Although politicians and practitioners like Scott Sacco framed CVE as an alternative to “bombs, bullets, and drones,” some young people experienced CVE as a deeply violent intervention. Throughout my fieldwork, I observed some college students describe CVE as a policy framework that intensified, not mitigated, the constant criminalization of their communities, political organizing, and religious practices. From their perspective, the liberal language of CVE masked the illiberal practices that defined this national security approach. In this view, struggles to bring liberalism to domestic antiterrorism regimes through CVE has increased the surveillance, monitoring, and criminalization of Muslims in the United States through teachers, mental health professionals, and schools. Rather than usher in new ways of supporting racialized communities and destabilizing the organizing logics of conventional counterterrorism, CVE actors rehearsed familiar narratives that have framed Muslim youth as more vulnerable to terrorism and deputized social service providers as the police who identified, reported, and worked with individuals vulnerable to violent extremism.
In Minneapolis, community organizers reported that the introduction of CVE into their city heightened surveillance, suspicion, and policing in their neighborhoods, schools, and mosques. In 2015, for example, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) announced a new DOJ initiative that hired “experienced youth workers” to monitor school cafeterias and non-classroom settings where they could “spot identity issues and disaffection” perceived to be “root causes of radicalization” (Kiernat 2015). Although significant research studies by both CVE proponents and critics demonstrate that there is no single profile of a violent extremist, no single pathway toward violent extremism, and no portfolio of “root causes” of violent extremism, MPS promised “intervention teams” staffed by youth workers, mental health professionals, and parents who could address “identity issues and disaffection,” particularly among Somali youth (Kundnani 2014; Shah 2014b; Schanzer 2012; Denoeux and Carter 2009; Sageman 2015; Chang and Kim 2016; Obama 2015b; Bjørgo 2011; Horgan 2008). Although MPS officials and local politicians applauded these efforts as an alternative to coercive policing, critics viewed these efforts as intensifying anti-Black and anti-Muslim surveillance by deputizing school staff as the police. Experiencing “identity issues and disaffection”—common among youth in the United States—marked Somali students as potential future terrorists. These critiques also surfaced in Illinois where community organizers questioned efforts to educate communities in identifying and working with individuals exhibiting “warning signs of radicalization to violence.” Although CVE practitioners viewed this approach as a progressive alternative to FBI stings, community organizers rejected all programs that relied on disproven social science, collaborated with law enforcement agencies, and provided social services on the presumption that disenfranchised youth were vulnerable to terrorist influences.
Given the conflicting assessments of CVE’s harms and benefits, Minneapolis politicians, practitioners, and youth struggled to gain narrative authority in describing CVE’s impact on their communities. David Greene and other officials managed the image of CVE by framing this national security approach as an alternative to law enforcement. Some youth, however, contested this image by educating their peers about how CVE intensified criminalizing practices already underway in their communities. These competing narratives generated distrust, confusion, and anger across Minneapolis. Given the credibility, power, and prestige of key CVE advocates like Greene, media often ignored youth or minimized their concerns, despite a cogent analysis anchored by empirical evidence.
Given this silencing, in this section I explore how some targeted youth understood and experienced CVE firsthand, defining for themselves what constituted ethical national security, public safety, and community-building practices in Minneapolis. I examine how youth came to view CVE as a “liberal, fascist program” that demonized and harmed their communities, despite its humanitarian facade. Lastly, I consider how the implementation of CVE in schools and other youth spaces has securitized the provision of social services to advance U.S. interests, much like the securitization of humanitarian aid to achieve geopolitical goals. Although this analysis looks specifically at CVE in the Twin Cities, it is instructive for thinking through how CVE programs can be designed as, or devolve into, intelligence-gathering activities.
In 2017, community organizers hosted a panel aimed at “decoding radicalization policy.” By convening Somali families and allies, the panelists sought to inform their communities about CVE practices in their schools and communities, provide an analysis of these practices, and develop strategies to protect each other from CVE programming. As a part of this political education session, the community organizers distributed information cards that defined CVE as “an insidious surveillance program that seeks to incriminate, surveil, and alienate young Muslims under the guise of social service.” This information card also noted that CVE “exists to create a system that funnels Muslims into the prison industrial complex” and “is based on the belief system that there are indicators that distinguish who is prone to ‘terrorism’ or ‘terrorist’ reqruitment [sic]” even though “there is nothing to prove that such [indicators] exist.” Organized by Somali college students, this panel worked from the premise that CVE criminalized Black, Muslim, and diasporic communities using scientifically disproven indicators of violent extremism. Unlike other events I observed in Minneapolis, this panel offered Somali students a space to critique CVE and organize proactive responses to this national security approach. The community organizers therefore livestreamed and archived this event for public viewing online.
Community organizers identified serious flaws with CVE, sometimes calling for a complete withdrawal of CVE programs from their schools and neighborhoods. Absame Omar, for instance, described the introduction of CVE into his Minneapolis public high school as “adding to the barriers we’re already facing” as Black Muslim youth. He also reported that CVE practitioners attended Jummah (Friday prayer) “to see who is going and who is not,” a type of surveillance that “made it hard to get things done” and eventually led some young men to stop frequenting the mosque because they felt criminalized when they worshipped. Other former students worried that Minneapolis Public Schools curated an “internal database of students who were concerning.” Some MPS graduates therefore viewed CVE actors as “coming after our safe spaces we’ve created for ourselves.” In practice, CVE generated deep fears among Somali youth in Minneapolis, who experienced intensified criminalization in their everyday lives, whether in their schools, mosques, or neighborhoods.
Although some local practitioners often reduced these concerns to the panicky paranoia of young people, obtained documents support student concerns related to racial profiling and intensified police surveillance. In 2009, for example, the Saint Paul Police Department (SPPD) (2009) launched a new initiative called the African Immigrant Muslim Coordinated Outreach Program (AIMCOP), funded by the U.S. Recovery Act Grant Program and U.S. Department of Justice (1). Citing the “particular concern” of “the demonstrated radicalization of 20 youth from our area who have left for Somalia to fight for the terrorist organization Al-Shabaab,” AIMCOP sought to reduce violent crime through “community outreach” (1). AIMCOP forged strategic partnerships between the FBI, U.S. Attorney, Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, Muslim American Society, St. Paul Intervention Project, Somali Community Council, St. Paul Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), and SPPD. These partners worked to “gain the trust of Somali immigrants” by “attend[ing] community meetings in targeted areas and refer[ring] youth to the [Police Activity League] and YWCA programs” (4). By building a strong relationship with the community, the AIMCOP team planned to “use established criteria that will stand up to public and legal scrutiny” to “establish a list that identifies radicalized youth, gang members, and violent offenders” (4). Using disproven indicators of violent extremism, the AIMCOP strategy required team members who interacted with identified youth to “submit a contact report” that would be stored in a database shared with AIMCOP partners (4). As these documents demonstrate, AIMCOP exploited community outreach to gather intelligence on the Somali community in the Twin Cities under the banner of national security.
The AIMCOP grant proposal revealed that “the effort of identifying the targets” helped “increase law enforcement’s ability to maintain up-to-date intelligence on these offenders, alert team members to persons who are deserving of additional investigative efforts” and “serve[d] as an enhanced intelligence system to alert team members to the fact that they are interacting with an individual who poses a greater risk to personal and public safety” (Saint Paul Police Department 2009, 4). After this intelligence-gathering phase, SPPD officers “move[d] to the enforcement mode using the information they gained from the prevention period as well as automated intelligence and reporting systems already in place to identify ‘hotspots’ for crime” (5). By developing community relationships, the AIMCOP team sought to gather actionable intelligence to enhance its policing functions under the rubric of countering violent extremism.
To address these concerns, St. Paul Police spokesperson Steve Linders claimed that “the intelligence aspect never came to fruition. The program evolved away from that” (as quoted in Currier 2015). Muslim American Society of Minnesota executive director Asad Zaman, however, reported that his organization hired a police liaison using AIMCOP funds. The police department asked Zaman to “turn over a list of people at the programs,” but Zaman refused (as quoted in Currier 2015). The intelligence aspect “never came to fruition” because of community resistance. AIMCOP, however, had established other avenues for intelligence gathering through its community outreach and contact reports.
Initiated in 2009, AIMCOP worked to combat radicalization in Minnesota five years before the Obama administration launched CVE pilot programs in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Boston. AIMCOP departed from previous community outreach activities conducted by the St. Paul Police Department that “allowed the development of credible training and afforded previously unavailable access to sensitivity trainers” without engaging in deradicalization or intelligence gathering (Jensen 2006, 81). Increasing concerns about homegrown terrorism shifted the SPPD’s tactics, leading to new efforts to gather intelligence through community outreach activities (M. Price 2015). Set in motion by new terrorism studies research, fears of radicalizing youth fueled a paradigm shift in local policing. The AIMCOP initiative paved the way for additional CVE programming, with an emphasis on identifying and off-ramping radicalizing Somali youth across the Twin Cities.
In 2015, the St. Paul Police Department applied for, and received, a State Department of Homeland Security Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention (LETP) grant for $100,000 to fund the overtime pay of SPPD officers working on the “Countering Violent Extremism program” (Saint Paul Police Department 2015, 7). In its grant application, the SPPD (2015) reported that after its AIMCOP grant funding ended in 2012, it “has continued to do outreach in the East and West African community with on-duty personnel” and “would like to enhance what we started in the original AIMCOP by focusing on outreach programs for East & West African youth and engagement programs for East & West African elders” (1). Citing a “whole of community approach,” the SPPD (2015) continued to refer youth to the YWCA, 180 Degrees, Neighborhood House, and St. Paul Parks and Recreation for “needed services” (1). In addition to these community organizations, the SPPD (2015) outlined several mosques as “partners in our community outreach,” including Masjid Al-Ihsan Islamic Center, Minnesota Da’wah Institute, Somali American Center, Prayer Center on Pedersen Street, and Prayer Center on McKnight Road. AIMCOP therefore served as an early blueprint for police-led CVE initiatives across the Twin Cities, particularly in “East and West African” neighborhoods.
Through these community collaborations that target “East and West African youth” as uniquely susceptible to terrorist radicalization, SPPD’s “outreach strategies” have included: a junior police academy to foster interest in law enforcement careers and build trust between youth and police, summits to promote wellness and teach social media safety, community forums to establish positive community relations, and recreational and tutoring services to develop positive police/youth community relations (2015, 1–2). The SPPD (2015) argued that these community programs could “reduce and/or prevent our youth from disenfranchisement which can lead to radicalization into terror groups like ISIS and al Shabab,” “increase access to and use of the criminal justice system,” “improve perceptions of law enforcement within East African communities,” and “develop individual relationships between immigrant youth, their families, the community and law enforcement” (2). The SPPD therefore framed its community engagement as a way to protect youth and increase public safety. In this view, enhancing community-police relationships through community outreach programs has facilitated information sharing useful in addressing local problems.
Despite the ongoing expansion of community outreach initiatives, student organizers rejected these efforts, labeling them a “liberal, fascist program inaugurated under Obama.” Because they experienced CVE as a criminalizing project that enhanced coercive policing in their community, some Somali organizers framed CVE as a form of violence that denied them their humanity and blamed them for their “Muslim problem.” They rejected police-led “community outreach” programs as seductive tools to gather information on community members and therefore facilitate preemptive arrests. Although they lived in a disinvested community, Somali organizers objected to the provision of social services on the premise that they were “ticking time bombs” rather than community members deserving of resources, support, and political power (participant observation, April 21, 2017).
Even though local practitioners conceptualized CVE as an alternative to conventional counterterrorism measures, the AIMCOP initiative reveals how federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies have gathered actionable intelligence through community engagement. An FBI (2015b) memorandum summarizing the 2015 White House Summit on CVE, for example, reported that “countering violent extremism (CVE) has been a centerpiece of this Administration’s counterterrorism strategy” (1). In 2015, the FBI Office of Partner Engagement convened a Countering Violent Extremism Conference for agents and analysts “who have oversight of or involvement in counterterrorism matters” (2015, 1). In a summary of its conference objectives, the FBI stated that its CVE efforts “strengthen our investigative, intelligence gathering, and collaborative abilities to be proactive in countering violent extremism by addressing catalysts leading to radicalization and mobilization” (2). For the FBI, the “four pillars of the CVE paradigm” consisted of “Partnerships, Engagement, Prevention, and Intervention” (2). Organized around these pillars, the FBI CVE strategy “buil[t] on existing, and increasingly new, trusted partnerships with law enforcement and community organizations” (2). The FBI also described intentions to “develop a community-led committee who will share the responsibility to provide an off ramp in order to discourage individuals from going down the path of targeted violence” (3). The conference training sought to “inform field office management about how to set up, resource, and conduct intervention teams with their communities” (3). Contrary to how local practitioners conceptualized CVE, these federal memoranda and convenings clearly positioned CVE as an intelligence-gathering project involving FBI agents.
As CVE practitioners sought to distance themselves from police-led initiatives, these federal commitments and local community-policing practices cast suspicion on all CVE programs, regardless of their actual relationship with law enforcement. In this charged context, CVE practitioners like Junaid Afeef struggled to demonstrate how their own efforts to train mental health professionals to identify and work with individuals vulnerable to violence had learned from these toxic practices. The Arab American Action Network (AAAN) (2017), for example, warned that local communities should “not be deceived by a softer, gentler CVE” offered by Afeef (para. 1). More specifically, AAAN explained that “the problem for members of our communities is not that we are becoming radicalized; the problem is that we are victims of hyper-surveillance, of being constantly marked as the embodiment of the enemy of the United States, of rampant harassment and entrapment” (para. 7). Although Afeef (2018) argued that cooperating with the U.S. security state to address “all forms of targeted violence” could safeguard civil liberties, reduce the criminalization of Muslim communities, and protect youth from terrorist influences, organizations like AAAN refused to engage with local CVE efforts, even the new generation of programs that sought to remedy past mistakes. Instead, AAAN rejected CVE’s organizing logics and sought to protect children from the U.S. security state.
Like AAAN, some community organizers argued that CVE unfairly criminalized Muslim youth, denied them their humanity, and demolished their “safe spaces.” In a public statement, Muslim college students across the United States affirmed that they “completely condemn the CVE program,” citing how it “has marginalized and Otherized the Muslim community,” “assumes that we as Muslims are inherently criminals,” and “tries to infiltrate our communities.” A Somali community organizer similarly criticized his elders for participating in the “CVE industry,” warning that “the fire lit by hypocrites will burn the believer too” (participant observation, April 21, 2017). Informed by their experiences with local programming, some youth rejected CVE’s organizing assumptions and the policing practices these assumptions authorized.
Other youth organizers placed CVE within a broader framework of colonial conquest and enduring colonial narratives that have justified U.S. empire as a humanitarian project. College student Hodan Hassan, for example, credited CVE’s popularity with the strategic advancement of a “colonial discourse” that suggests that CVE can “civilize the savage” and that Somali youth should gratefully say, “Thank you for bringing us to America and civilizing us and putting pants on us.” Rather than “venerate whiteness,” Hassan encouraged her peers to recognize that they were “fully human” by rejecting CVE and its organizing logics that positioned Muslim youth as ticking time bombs, only deserving of social services to enhance national security.
Through these critiques, youth organizers revealed how CVE articulated with global operations of U.S. empire by conflating internal and external enemies and rehearsing colonial narratives of the “civilizational threat” putatively posed by Muslims. In this view, CVE itself was organized around damaging assumptions about political violence that harmed targeted communities. As Cilmi reported, CVE logics influenced local social service providers who came to view Somali through a radicalization lens. Regardless of the role of law enforcement in local CVE programming, youth organizers challenged the concept of violent extremism and the use of social service providers to identify, report, and work with youth perceived to be vulnerable to violent extremism.
Rather than conceptualize CVE as a more humane global war on terror strategy, some youth organizers experienced (and resisted) CVE as a type of social death, the systematic process by which individuals are denied their humanity. Although CVE did not always produce the spectacular violence of FBI stings or police killings, CVE inflicted a slow violence on “Muslim-looking” youth through constant criminalization, surveillance, and monitoring. These practices have intensified police power, both its mundane and spectacular expressions.
Mothers and Sisters: The First Line of Defense
This “whole of community” CVE approach also mobilized women, using feminist discourses to position “mothers and sisters” as both agents of change and victims of violent extremism. Zaghari, for example, explained that “it’s important to see women as change agents and heroes, not just victims. So, women and mothers and sisters and family members may be that first line of defense. In other words, in this country and in other countries, while fathers are out earning a living and may not be home as often, it is the mother that would first recognize those warning signs [of violent extremism].” From Zaghari’s perspective, women served as “an accompaniment to the male aspect of [CVE]” and “important leaders and change agents in radicalization and countering violent extremism” (participant observation, August 18, 2016). Drawing from dominant gender norms, CVE practitioners affirmed women’s role as protectors and caregivers in the fight against homegrown terrorism.
Mustafa Hawari also affirmed that, in the CVE context, “family is really the central focus” and that “the mother is even more important than the father because the kids listen to their mother while they obey their father.” Because “Arab and Muslim children obey their father, but they listen to their mother about almost everything, the mother plays a bigger role in this society.” Given this domestic role, Hawari argued that “giving support to the mother is perhaps more helpful and more powerful than, say, to the father. It’s just something to put some emphasis on the mother and give her the kind of support she needs” like “social services and anything you can give to the mother” (participant observation, October 7, 2016). By framing the “family context” as the woman’s domain, CVE actors charged women with preventing violent extremism, thereby securitizing their homes.
Following these heteropatriarchal norms, some CVE practitioners developed programs explicitly aimed at mobilizing women to combat violent extremism. The organization Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE), for example, “designed and implemented a locally-tailored [set] of what are called Mothers Schools.” Through the Mothers Schools, SAVE “identified a group of key women influencers in the community and trained them in how to, in a family context, recognize possible signs of radicalization and be able to give them culturally-appropriate, locally-resonant techniques for how to deal with that. Again, from a family context.” SAVE schooled mothers in how to identify the warning signs of radicalization and to “deal with” the problem of violent extremism in their homes (Williams, participant observation, October 7, 2016).
To conscript women into this gendered national security work in the United States, CVE actors circulated tragic narratives about children who joined terrorist groups. In 2013, the Midaynta Community Services and the Somali Action Alliance Education Fund began an initiative called the Broken Dreams Project. The Broken Dreams Project involved “mothers who came together and said, ‘We want to talk [to] the community about what we felt when our children left to join a terrorist organization.’” Through this narrative campaign, mothers retold the devastating details of losing their children to terrorist recruiters. One mother detailed “how she found out about the death of her child” by watching CNN. She also evocatively described the “pain of losing him” (Emily Evans, participant observation, October 7, 2016). The resultant Broken Dreams documentary “showcases the plight of families whose sons had joined Al-Shabaab” (Jama, Niyozov, and Yusuf 2015, 3). After screening the film, researchers reported that “the stories of the grieving Somali mothers and fathers” effectively “moved community members in our audience” and “awoke many to the grim reality of violent extremist groups preying on our youth” (4).
By exploiting the pain and loss of mothers, the Broken Dreams Project convinced its viewing audience of the urgency behind countering violent extremism and reaffirmed that terrorists “preyed” on youth. In doing so, the Broken Dreams Project sought to mobilize “programs and groups that will come out of the community and give that space to be creative” and to establish “proper outreach” (Evans, participant observation, October 7, 2016). Yusuf Elmi similarly reported that U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger “took the mother of one of the kids who was arrested all over [Minnesota] to preach the message that my kid was a terrorist . . . so we have to work with the law enforcement” to prevent future arrests (interview, April 14, 2017). These provocative narratives have justified CVE as a necessary project to protect youth from the tragedies exacted through terrorist recruitment. Mothers’ grief both justified and advanced the CVE policy framework, turning the home into a key battleground in the fight against terrorism.
The cinematic memorialization of Somali youth fused individual losses with collective grief. These stories, however, articulated with a “hierarchy of the dead” such that these painful losses were important insomuch as they could set in motion a national security response to protect deserving lives (Sturken 2002, 383). Individual losses evoke collective grief because the dead signal the acute insecurity that blankets the United States and stir the emotional demand to prevent future losses. By coupling grief with national security, “national civic identity has been experienced as a trauma that conflates patriotism, suffering, and abhorrence for what is construed as oppositional to ‘America’” (Berlant 1997, 1). These governing narratives of a “traumatized identity” have “dramatically reshaped the dominant account of U.S. citizenship,” such that the “good citizen” both mourns those who “go missing” and militates against those who could inflict such trauma in the future (1). It is not an individual loss of a Somali child that stirs the United States to action; it is the fear of what could be lost—our own corporeal vulnerability—that mobilizes the U.S. public to action, participating in racialized efforts to reduce the social conditions that generate violence and to punish those who threaten the nation. These grief-stricken narratives render a “cartography designed to bring relief to ‘us’ while bringing ‘them’ into relief; at once a therapeutic and a vengeful gesture, its object was to reveal the face of the other as other” (Gregory 2004, 49). This affective campaign both denied Somali youth of their humanity and exploited their deaths to justify CVE programming in local communities.
The stories of heroic and traumatized “mothers and sisters” articulate with other feminist narratives mobilized in the service of the global war on terror. As pictures of burqa-clad Afghan women circulated in U.S. media immediately following 9/11, “the task of liberating Afghan women was . . . conveniently grafted onto the war agenda” (Chishti and Farhoumand-Sims 2011, 122). This epistemic project engages “colonial feminism,” a feminism “used against other cultures in the service of colonialism . . . tailored to fit the particular culture that was the immediate target of domination” (L. Ahmed 1992, 151). First Lady Laura Bush (2001), for instance, argued that U.S. “military gains” across Afghanistan helped “fight against terrorism” and “fight for the rights and dignity of women.” Given the perceived success of U.S. military operations, Bush concluded that Afghan women were “no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment.” Bush thus humanized war by framing it as a feminist mechanism to secure the rights of dispossessed Muslim women and creating a “gendered imperative” that produces a “greater rationale for war” (M. J. Alexander 2005, 98). CVE actors have extracted these colonial feminist narratives and applied them to domestic communities by positioning CVE as a feminist national security approach that both protected U.S.-based Muslim women from future trauma and called on them as “heroic women” who could undertake this work from their homes. By activating feminist discourses, CVE actors framed this gendered work as a culturally responsive and progressive retooling of the war on terror. This is how “CVE is done in the furtherance of the American project, which is violence” (Axado Isnino, participant observation, April 21, 2017).
Slow Violence: New Forms of Shock and Awe
Isnino’s analysis of CVE points to a deeper set of imperial power relations that generate daily violence through the ongoing surveillance, monitoring, and policing of Muslim communities as internal threats to national security. Despite the intensified focus on FBI stings or police killings, political geographer Simon Springer (2012) explains that “the material ‘act’ of violence itself is merely a nodal point, a snapshot of oppressive social relations” (138). Rather than register violence only in its spectacular forms, social scientists must examine the banal, embodied, and visceral geographies of war that exact a gradual and incremental violence on targeted populations. Such an approach captures the multiple specters that targeted youth like Isnino have confronted, rendering a more complex analysis of state violence.
Indigenous scholars have centered these slow violences in their study of and resistance to settler colonialism. Drawing from her study of child welfare policies that disrupt Indigenous homescapes, political geographer Sarah de Leeuw (2016) maps the “biopolitics of colonialism acting through legal mechanisms that are used by government representatives such as social workers, police officers, and judges to enact this slow and everyday violence of Indigenous erasure” (20). Through child welfare policies, for example, the state removes Indigenous children from their homes, an unspectacular form of violence that “slowly but very surely” kills Indigenous cultures, families, and their relationship with land (21). These “quotidian defamations of personhood inflected at an insistent pace” inflict a slow and steady violence on Indigenous communities (Stoler 2016, 8). Rather than only focus on the deaths of Indigenous children under the care of the state, we must register how child removal policies exact a slow violence aimed at eliminating Indigenous cultures, families, and peoples.
Calling attention to these gradual and attritional forms of violence, Robert Nixon (2011) contends that violence is not always “spectacular nor instantaneous” but instead “incremental and accretive” (2). Reversing Clausewitz’s famous dictum that “war is politics by other means,” Colleen Bell (2011) argues that “civilian interventions integral to counterinsurgency render policy as a war by other means” (311–12, emphasis added). This reversal “accounts for the way in which civilian power relations—and in this context, those power relations at play within the institutions of liberal modernity—are themselves invested in the forces of war” (312). By complementing calibrated violence, counterinsurgent tactics, like racialized surveillance and the strategic provision of social services, have inflicted a slow violence on targeted populations.
Through the recasting of community spaces like schools and mosques as critical national security sites to thwart the “generational threat,” Muslim youth came of age under constant surveillance. Community organizers like Isnino described these criminalizing experiences as a type of social death slowly inflicted on their communities. One community organizer, for example, reported that “as a Muslim American,” CVE “makes me feel criminalized. It makes me feel like because of my religious identity, I will be viewed through the lens of national security. It makes me feel like I am viewed as a potential terrorist first, a counterterrorism tool second, and an everyday, normal American citizen entitled to their constitutional freedoms last” (participant observation, August 20, 2017). For young adults like Isnino, CVE worked from the premise that their “humanity is subpar” and that Muslims were “savage,” racist discourses that authorized the “civilizing” of Muslim communities through psychosocial, religious, and cultural reprogramming. Cilmi rejected educational initiatives that contributed to cultural genocide and epistemicide, asking, “How can I assimilate into a racist culture?” By calling attention to these “quotidian defamations of personhood inflected at an insistent pace,” targeted youth framed CVE as a type of violence aimed at Muslim erasure.
In response to these dehumanizing processes, youth of color sometimes acted as “subversive beings” who contested the policies and programs that criminalized their bodies, religions, beliefs, thoughts, imaginations, and cultures (paperson 2017, xiii). Community organizers, for example, questioned the use of social services funded by CVE, noting that “the money is coming from the same police that racially profile us on the streets.” Another organizer asked:
When we say that we’re trying to identify who is susceptible to violence before they commit anything, who is it that’s deciding who those people are that are susceptible? Is it the same police who decide to shoot Black people who are selling a cigarette or a young Black child who has a toy gun in a park? ‘Cause if you’re working with those same institutions, I don’t trust that they are able to identify who is susceptible to violence when time and time again we have said that these theories have been debunked. (participant observation, August 20, 2017)
Rather than rely on “the same institutions” that criminalize, brutalize, and murder Black children, these community organizers began developing structures and supports independent of the U.S. security state, ultimately redefining the concept of security.
By placing CVE in relationship to anti-Black and anti-immigrant policing, Muslim youth began forging alternative futures that radically reimagined prevailing notions of public safety, national security, and freedom. As one organizer concluded, “true power—and where justice will come from and where freedom will come from—is the power of people. It’s not going to be based on money that is coming from a government that we have seen oppress people through various methods” (participant observation, August 20, 2017). It is to these co-constitutive power relations and the freedom dreams they have inspired that I now turn.