In a Washington Post op-ed last week, former National Counterterrorism Center director Nicholas Rasmussen and former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council Joshua Geltzer, appealed to President Trump to not overlook the importance of counterterrorism. “For all the haze obscuring President Trump’s real foreign policy agenda,” they write, “one element is increasingly clear: He wants to get past terrorism and focus on other national security challenges… But indulging that impulse to move on from terrorism is a recipe for aggravating the very terrorist threats that Trump hopes to leave behind.”
Indeed, Rasmussen and Geltzer argue, even as other threats and issues arise in a rapidly changing national security landscape, counterterrorism must remain a constant investment that the United States makes to provide safety and security to its people and its interests. This investment takes the form of counterterrorism funding for the military, increased research and development for explosive-detection technologies, broadened partnership with other law enforcement agencies and maintenance of American leadership in resolution of conflicts in terrorist hotbeds.
These efforts are no doubt key to sustainably combatting a terrorist threat that appears able, for at least the foreseeable future, to sustain itself. However, Rasmussen and Geltzer’s critique of Trump’s eagerness to leave the fight against terror behind sidesteps an integral question: How does the United States actually counter terror? While advances in technology, increases in funding and deepening of partnerships provide law enforcement the infrastructure critical to foil plots, or, in worst-case scenarios, mitigate the effects of possible attacks, these measures do not make the enemy less interested in terror.
Preventing the development of violent extremism at the source then, must be included as an essential part of the toolkit the United States employs in its counterterrorism mission. This is not a new concept. In 2011, President Obama initiated the National Strategy for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States which sought to prevent
“violent extremists and their supporters from inspiring, radicalizing, financing, or recruiting individuals or groups in the United States to commit acts of violence… by (1) enhancing engagement with and support to local communities that may be targeted by violent extremists; (2) building government and law enforcement expertise for preventing violent extremism; and (3) countering violent extremist propaganda while promoting [American] ideals.”
While the three pillars for preventing violent extremism (PVE) outlined by Obama’s White House were good on paper, they proved hard to implement. Initially, the programs conceived by the National Strategy languished partially due to underfunding. In 2013 however, when the Boston Marathon bombing increased interest and funding for PVE programs, law enforcement agencies running the programs were accused of using PVE as a façade for increasing intelligence gathering among already heavily policed communities. This accusation turned out to have merit, and supported claims that PVE programs unfairly targeted Muslim and minority groups for disproportionate surveillance, rather than seeking to prevent radicalization.
This incongruity – between stated mission and practice – demonstrates a difference between the commonly-used “countering violent extremism (CVE)” and “preventing violent extremism,” which is used here. The first seeks to more effectively counter extremism – through increased surveillance or law enforcement. The second seeks to prevent the extremism before it becomes criminality.
Given the thin line between PVE and CVE, concerns about misuse of PVE programs and unfair targeting are well founded. Too specific a focus on ideology – particularly radical Islamist thought – has resulted in such programs being narrowly oriented to the point of uselessness. In 2017, far-right, not Islamic extremists, were responsible for nearly sixty percent of extremism-related deaths in the U.S. The FBI and other groups have noted that radicalization is a nuanced path, and that preventing it needs to be a similarly multifaceted project. Particularly under this administration, which Rasmussen and Geltzer point often values simplicity over subtlety when it comes to issues of national security, assertions that PVE programs might be ineffective or misused are fair. However, prosecuting counterterrorism without making smart investments in the prevention of extremism, is foolhardy.
As ISIL, al-Qaeda and other terror groups increasingly rely on the internet to spread their propaganda, the necessity of PVE programs has grown commensurately. If law enforcement focuses on infiltrating the so-called “virtual caliphate,” those in the process of being swayed by terrorist propaganda might be presented with other options and other information before radicalization takes place.
At an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Monday, former jihadi extremist Jesse Morton discussed his own radicalization: “one of the things they’re starting to learn more about is the role of trauma,” he said, “I certainly had a traumatic upbringing, ran away when I was sixteen as a result of child abuse. It’s not an excuse for becoming what I became, but it opened me up to [radicalization]. I became a seeker, searching for something to latch onto.” PVE programs have the potential to identify those seekers and help them latch onto something other than violent extremism.