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CVE in the US — does more harm than good

Jul 27,2015 - Last updated at Jul 27,2015

Congress is currently considering legislation that would create a whole new bureaucracy within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to deal with “countering violent extremism” (CVE). According to the proposed bill, DHS will be required to reallocate funds for a new office with expanded powers to coordinate CVE efforts.  Because the programmes proposed in the legislation have already been tried and found wanting, it might seem strange that Congress has decided to double down on a failed effort. But, it’s not surprising at all since CVE, despite its faulty premises and well-known weaknesses, has become all the rage in Washington spawning a “cottage industry” of practitioners who sell their wares to foundations and grant-dispensing government agencies.

While CVE is new, the idea of adopting programmes and practices that may sound good but have no empirical justification, is tragically par for the course — especially when it comes to dealing with Arabs and Muslims as threats to national security.

We saw it in the Clinton administration when, for a short time, they allowed subjective profiling of Arab and Muslim looking passengers at airports. After 9/11, the Bush administration greatly expanded profiling, introducing a “special registration programme” which, in effect, rounded up over 100,000 Arab and Muslim immigrants and visitors to the US.

In 2010, the Obama administration issued an order that, for a time, required all passengers boarding flights from Arab and Muslim countries to disembark and be subjected to special scrutiny. They also introduced the billion dollar SPOT programme, which claimed to train security personnel to be able to identify potential terrorists by using the questionable “science” of facial and behavioural recognition.

The net result of all these practices, other than their enormous costs, has been a total failure. No terrorists were caught or identified, but the impact on the affected communities was devastating. Arabs and Muslims were traumatised by the treatment meted out to them. And, because these entire communities were singled out by law enforcement for “special treatment”, the government validated the suspicions of the broader public that Arabs and Muslims were, in fact, groups to be feared. The practices were inspired by the public’s fear of Arabs and Muslims and, in turn, fed that fear.

Now comes this latest fad to capture the fancy of lawmakers. Like the efforts that preceded it, CVE is framed as “Muslim”. It argues that violent extremism is inspired by radical ideas that lead to violence. And so CVE directs law enforcement agencies to “seek out drivers and indicators of radicalisation and recruitment to violence” and find approaches that “directly address and counter the violent extremist recruitment narrative”. Like so many of the programmes that preceded it, CVE is a misdirected waste of money that does more harm than good.

Already, multiple government and law enforcement agencies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a variety of CVE programmes that target the American Muslim community in ways that compromise them and endanger their basic rights. The FBI and local police departments have “mapped” Muslim neighbourhoods identifying places of worship, social clubs, restaurants and other popular businesses. In addition, there are as many as 16,000 paid informants and spies now operating in Muslim communities.

CVE makes Muslim communities suspect in an environment where they are already at risk of anti-Muslim sentiment and it risks alienating young Muslims who feel targeted, not protected, by law enforcement.

CVE relies on facile and often comical studies that define “indicators” of radicalisation — that are, in fact, rather normal behaviours, not unique to young Muslims like: growing a beard, becoming religious, or becoming “sullen or withdrawn”.

And because CVE wrongly assumes that ideas are the principal drivers of radicalisation, it assumes that the key to countering it lies in finding the “right message” and the “right messenger” to “defeat” the “bad ideas” that are at the root of the problem.

The reality is quite different. The problem of violent extremism in the US is significantly broader than the Muslim community and the root cause is not “bad ideas” but the social and personal problems that make individuals prone to latch onto violent ideas to validate their feelings of anger and alienation from the broader society in which they live. By focusing almost exclusively on Muslims, CVE diverts attention from broader and more serious social ills that pose greater threats to our nation’s security.  

As studies by Southern Poverty Law Centre, the Brennan Centre, the Centre for American Progress and a number of university research programmes have demonstrated, we have a problem with violence in America that goes well beyond the Muslim community.  For example, since the 2012 murders in Aurora, Colorado, there have 78 mass killings in the US, in which 387 were killed — only a handful of these were carried out by Muslims. Annually, we have over 300 acts of “mass violence”, involving the use of guns — in which four or more are killed or wounded. And since 2009, 63 “lone wolf” actions were carried out or stopped by law enforcement agencies. The overwhelming majority of all of these involved non-Muslims. Most were inspired by an anti-government animus or race hate. And yet, there is no CVE effort being designed to deal with these. Instead, law enforcement efforts and funding focuses almost exclusively “Muslim” acts and actors.

When we take a deep dive into the official data trumpeting the success of terrorist arrests, we can clearly see the weakness in the argument for targeting Muslims. Of the reported cases of so-called “Muslim terror” arrests that have been made since 9/11, one-half have involved use of informants who, as court records make clear, actually led psychologically vulnerable individuals into criminal behaviour. For example, 30 per cent of the cases of “Muslim terrorism” law enforcement officials claimed to have stopped, involved individuals who were supplied weapons and were prodded to plan violent acts by the very law enforcement agencies that then arrested them. Reading the records of these cases shows that the targets were unstable individuals with a history of mental illness who were susceptible to informant encouragement.

In addition to these cases, there are those instances where young, alienated individuals have sought self-esteem or a thrill by fighting for a foreign cause — whether in Somalia or Syria or elsewhere. These are problems, to be sure, but the issue that should be addressed is why they became alienated from their lives here and sought validation elsewhere. Again, this is not a uniquely Muslim problem because we’ve seen it before with the lure of other foreign ideologies and causes in earlier periods of our history.

What CVE tells us is that we need to focus on countering the radical messages that lead individuals into violent acts, while the attention should be focused on why these individuals become susceptible in the first place. And when the radical messages are those that are fed by law enforcement informants, the entire argument takes on a different hue.

In fact, the focus should not be on the supply side (the ideas) since the real problem is on the demand side of the ledger. The main question we should be exploring is why marginalised, alienated, socially dislocated, and angry individuals seek out alternate identities or act out in anti-social ways — whatever form that radicalisation takes: anti-government, race hatred, or religious-inspired violence. Providing these angry folks with “good messages” will not meet their needs; addressing the root causes of their alienation just might.


Targeting the Muslim community with CVE not only won’t solve America’s broader problem of anti-social violence, but by targeting Muslims, we risk creating more alienation among some young Muslims laying the predicate for hate crimes and discrimination.

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