Terrorism is an age-old tactic that people will use as long as they feel a sense of injustice and powerlessness to legally combat that injustice. The threat of terrorism and violent extremism will only grow in the face of global inequality and instability. The increasing accessibility of affordable technology, weapons, and travel are other contributing factors.
In 2011 the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United States Department of State published a Strategic Implementation Plan for countering violent extremism (CVE) efforts in the US. Some elements of the plan, including its focus on reducing push and pull factors that drive people to radicalize as well as its emphasis on building community resistance to extremism, are praiseworthy. However, the Implementation Plan falls short of being a perfect strategy.
Currently, the Implementation Plan does not discuss the serious lack of trust between many communities and the US government. It also lacks success metrics. Finally, the Implementation Plan is extremely narrow, focusing almost exclusively on international threats and naming al-Qaida as the largest U.S. terrorist threat. This focus on the Middle East not only demonizes and further alienates that population, but it ignores the far deadlier threat of terrorism at home.
Homegrown terrorists are individuals who were born and raised in the U.S. that commit acts of violence against the country where they grew up. Attacks by homegrown terrorists have become increasingly deadly over the past decade. Since September 12th, 2001 there have been at least 235 fatalities as a result of domestic violent extremists, over 100 of which were as a result of far-right terrorism.
Policies like the Implementation Plan that target specific groups as enemies are counterproductive. Not only can they tip the scales for some on the edge of radicalization, but they alienate community members that could be the U.S.’ greatest allies in the fight against violent extremism.
Fighting domestic radicalization is the first step to reducing incidents of violent extremism. In order to better reach at-risk constituents, the government and its partners need to engage with a broader range of community members. It is essential to partner with a diverse range of leaders, from the religious to business and the artistic community. If the United States wants to reduce the risk of violent extremism at home, it must develop constantly in order to combat the constantly evolving threat. The best way to do that is to work with as diverse a population as possible and address head-on the push factors these communities are facing.
Fighting domestic radicalization is the first step to reducing incidents of violent extremism.
Engagement with the community can take many forms. One tactic to increase civilian trust in local law enforcement is to send uniformed police officers to visit schools and other community events. Another is to establish internet literacy courses for local adults. An important element of building trust is treating every interaction between the community and the organization (or the government) as an opportunity to demonstrate the organization’s commitment to respect and equality.
Alongside capacity building projects like academies for community members focusing on the specific needs of sub-populations like young men, women, or the elderly, local government offices can organize town halls or meet with members of the community. These meetings can occur one-on-one or in groups to solicit feedback and learn from the community itself what it needs and wants.
Important elements of these outreach programs include listening to and recognizably responding to the community’s wants. This obvious call and response encourages trust and establishes rapport between the government and the community. Not only will the programs themselves increase a community’s resilience to radicalization, but the increased trust fostered between the community and the government will enable community members to report at-risk individuals to authorities when grass-roots efforts have been ineffective.
Community reporting serves as an early warning system and prevents radicalization that might otherwise have gone unreported and unnoticed. These outreach programs are likely to be more effective in and of themselves. Additionally, in the program development process, the police departments foster stronger relationships with community members. This reduces the magnitude of many push factors, such as feelings of social marginalization and a sense of poor government representation.
Success measurements are vital to ensuring a project keeps momentum and achieves results. The Implementation Plan lacks any framework for progress assessment. Targets and benchmarks allow agencies to prove that their use of public funds was purposeful and contributed to increasing U.S. security. This process ensures funding goes to programs that have proven successful and moves away from failed or less effective projects. Furthermore, agencies are less likely to lose motivation if they have definite targets. Measurable outcomes make planning and executing programs easier by providing direction and standards by which to measure progress. Definitive targets also enable departments to collaborate more effectively. A more definitive and transparent policy would galvanize creative interagency partnerships and streamline programming.
The U.S. CVE effort has many flaws. Numerous analysts have pointed out the lack of assessment criteria to measure the success of agency efforts to complete their CVE tasks. Without concrete goals or success rubrics, it is difficult for departments to commit to actions because they lack guidance and incentive. The plan also neglects to discuss the serious lack of trust and communication between the government and the communities it serves. Finally, the implementation plan’s focus on external threats ignores and downplays the much more immediate dangers at home.
Miranda Sieg is a second-year master’s student at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs studying Security, Development and Conflict Resolution. She is primarily focused on education and cross-cultural violence issues in East and Southeast Asia, but she has recently developed an interest in post-conflict development and the integration of refugees and at-risk migrants. Miranda spent two and a half years studying and working in Japan and traveling extensively in East and Southeast Asia. She currently works for the International Education Program at The George Washington University