In the aftermath of Orlando, many in Congress are rightly looking for ways to deal with the problem of homegrown Islamist terrorists in the U.S. After all, of the 86 Islamist terrorist attacks and plots aimed at the U.S. homeland since 9/11, 75 involved individuals who radicalized while in the U.S.
The Senate held a hearing last week on the topic of Islamist terrorism, the Obama administration’s refusal to state the nature of the threat, and the focus of countering violent extremism (CVE) efforts. While CVE is a term that started as a way to avoid using the term Islamist terrorism, it is now part of the regular lexicon of the U.S. government and others around the world.
On the whole, CVE programs face significant challenges and have so far failed to achieve their objectives. To revamp counter radicalization efforts, there are several things we should not do.
Do Not Allow Counter Radicalization Efforts to Be Captured by Ulterior Motivations. There are well-organized Islamist groups trying to enter the system in order to shut down conversation about the ideological and theological roots of terrorism and make it all about grievances, root causes, and U.S. foreign policy. This was the case in the U.K., with such groups—even Muslim Brotherhood front groups—being funded by the state. There are many self-appointed “community leaders” desperate for government contracts and patronage who, in reality, represent no one but themselves, accurately labeled “pretenders” by one study. Furthermore, measuring the effectiveness of counter radicalization initiatives is extremely difficult. So if any kind of counter radicalization initiative is to be attempted, then advisers must be carefully vetted. That does not mean that any adviser or partner has to be a government stooge or cheerleader for U.S. foreign policy, it just means there has to be a basic adherence to American principles and a belief in democracy, equality, tolerance, freedom of speech, and the rule of law.
Do Not Avoid Hard Truths. Furthermore, what we do not need is a counter radicalization program full of garbled and obfuscatory language defining the nature of our ideological adversary. This obsession with whitewashing the theological aspects of Islamist terrorism—as one of us recently wrote in National Review—is counter-productive. Claiming that religion has no role in Islamist terrorism may be less offensive to some Muslim sensibilities, but that is by no means the case across the board. For example, the Quilliam Foundation’s Maajid Nawaz recently wrote the following:
Many on the liberal left…took to limiting the problem to “violent extremism” only, using nauseating and insipid phrases such as “al-Qaeda-inspired extremism” to refer to what was clearly an ideology. No, it was not al-Qaeda that “inspired extremism”; it was extremism that inspired al-Qaeda.
Vague platitudes that this has nothing to do with Islam are as unhelpful as saying that this is what Islam is all about. Extremism certainly has something to do with Islam.… The task ahead of us is to name this ideology, isolate it and then discredit it while supporting those who seek to reform Islam today.
This administration’s insistence that Islam has nothing to do with Islamist terrorism makes it seem deluded at best and dishonest at worst.
Do Not Lose Focus of the Main Threat. There will be a temptation for the government—in the pursuit of equality—to say that we can only deal with Islamism if we deal with the threat of the far-right and other terrorist groups. This presents a false choice. Of course there are other terrorist threats that must be vigorously addressed, but there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to every ideology, and the greatest threat posed to national security is from Islamist terrorists. Indeed, despite sloppy rhetoric, it is apparent from the placement of CVE programs in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Boston, Houston, and other cities that primacy of the Islamist threat is at least somewhat understood in practice. So what could be useful is a counter radicalization strategy with limited scope that recognizes (among other factors) the ideological and theological aspects of this conflict and defines the adversary as being Islamist in nature.
For this to work the U.S. must focus on the real threat from Islamist terrorism. Generic counter radicalization programs make no sense. Islamist terrorism is the only form of terrorist threat today that rises to the level of a national security threat. Any program, if truly needed, should be limited to Islamist-related terrorist activity and focused on diminishing the threat of terrorist activity as defined by statute (as opposed to any other form of public activity or expression). Such programs should be focused to deal with particular threats as opposed to a general information campaign with appropriate review and sunset provisions to ensure the programs are used only as long as they effectively support law enforcement activity and are needed.
A limited and focused strategy to open up lines of dialogue between local Muslim communities, local government, and the police, or offers pathways for those heading down a violent path—especially the young—to speak to those who may be able to dissuade them could be effective and certainly worth the effort. Unfortunately, CVE in its current form is not that approach.
At present, the administration has not devoted sufficient attention to such issues. It should begin immediately.