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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Thursday, August 4, 2011

White House Strategy On Violent Extremism: Full Of Sound And Muted Fury

The first thing that leaps out at you when you read the strategy to "prevent violent extremism" rolled out by the White House yesterday is the extraordinarily high ratio of words to ideas. In a document with only eight pages of text, one finds very little content.

There are very few action verbs to be found, and absolutely no research cited in support of the documents many underlying assumptions.

The concept of fighting the radicalization of Americans at the "idea" level has grabbed Washington by the throat, and there is precious little prospect that it will loosen its grip any time soon. At virtually every level of government, people and teams have been tasked to battling radicalization.

The White House document reflects much of the conversation about radicalization inside the Beltway. Everyone urgently believes that something has to be done, but no one is quite sure exactly what. And the current bipartisan philosophy of American government emphasizes immediate action over considered strategy in any given situation.

What little remains after deleting the torrent of unfocused rumination runs into many of the problems I have previously identified with counter-radicalization at the government level. To its credit, the White House strategy document acknowledges several of these issues. Unfortunately, its response is to soldier on anyway.

There are a handful of basic proposals here.

One section calls for "Enhancing Federal Engagement with and Support to Local Communities that May be Targeted by Violent Extremists. "Targeted" here means "targeted for recruitment," which should have been clearer. This section makes no mention of the word "Muslim," which was a deliberate but misleading choice by the White House which I will address later on.

Under this heading, the White House lays out a very broad range of possible problems in communities which should be addressed under the theory that they somehow contribute to radicalization. These include "jobs, education, health, and civil rights."

There is no evidence that the first three factors substantially contribute to radicalization. If I am understanding the document correctly, the idea is that engaging at-risk communities with these services is important because it means those communities are not ONLY interacting with the government as the subject of investigations. In other words, the federal government should be Nurturing Mother, in addition to its roles as Disciplinarian Father and Watchful Big Brother.

Another section calls for "building expertise" in preventing violent extremism. I would be interested to know who has such expertise, because there aren't many successful initiatives in this space to which one can point. The bright spot in this section is the following sentence:
Misinformation about the threat and dynamics of radicalization to violence can harm our security by sending local stakeholders in the wrong direction and unnecessarily creating tensions with potential community partners. We also are working to support and expand community oriented policing efforts by our state, local, and tribal partners, and to assist them in enhancing cultural proficiency and other foundations for effective community engagement
That is jargonese for "no more Walid Shoebats and Robert Spencers training law enforcement," which is a good, if obvious, move.

Under the heading "Countering Violent Extremist Propaganda While Promoting Our Ideals," the White House puts forth a fairly confused set of principles which don't seem to move the needle much. Again, the obvious point is the most successful here -- continuing to communicate through government messaging that the U.S. is not at war with Islam. Of course, that theme has been a constant element of our messaging for a decade now, and yet it still finds plenty of traction for reasons that are the subject of another analysis on another day.

Promises to focus on communicating "clearly about al-Qa’ida’s destructive and bankrupt ideology" presume that government understands this ideology well and how it contributes to violence by extremists, which is a pretty questionable presumption.

Under the guiding principles, a series of bold-face statements really begin to get into the weeds of concepts that don't work and/or are likely to become political hot potatoes. For instance, there is an assertion (expanding on the element noted above) that providing social services to communities can help prevent radicalization. Ask Norway how that approach is working out for them. And I repeat, there is absolutely no hard evidence to suggest jobs, health care or education are statistically significant factors in radicalization. What studies do exist suggest just the opposite -- that these issues have no meaningful impact on the problem.

The principles also touch on the question of civil liberties and civil rights. Unlike the aforementioned, there is some support for this as a factor in radicalization based on what radicals tell us in their own words. I explore this more fully in my book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam. Unfortunately, this issue isn't as cut and dried as one might hope. Civil rights are sometimes part of the fabric of what leads someone to violence, but not always, and how radicals perceive their civil rights in America does not always correspond to the reality of their civil rights. This is also a topic for more detailed discussion another day.

The guiding principles end with some uplifting talk about what should not be considered part of the violent extremism paradigm. The statements as formulated are correct (i.e., opposing U.S. policy doesn't make you a violent extremist), but they also smack of artificial limitations on how we should talk about this issue, which are probably not helpful. While opposing U.S. policies doesn't make you a violent extremist, most violent extremists do oppose U.S. policy, so it's not exactly a non-issue here.

All of these points are orbiting a central problem with the approach outlined in the White House strategy, which is that it is focused on the poorly defined problem of "violent extremism" rather than the clearly defined problem of "violence by extremists."

While it might appealing to fight the "ism" as the perceived source of the "ist," we're talking (to some extent) about the same distinction the Obama Administration made between a war on terrorism and a war against terrorists. The administration chose the "ist" over the "ism" in that calculation, and the same general principle applies here.

Stopping those who attempt to commit violence is an achievable goal. Stopping the ideas that fuel violence is not. If Al Qaeda's ideology is "bankrupt," it will collapse in the free market of ideas and become even more isolated on the fringes of society than it already is.

Our role as a society is to hold the line responsibly until that collapse in complete and avoid playing the role of "enemy of Islam" that Al Qaeda has written out for us.

On that front, a final note: The White House sought to stress that the principles in this document are not focused primarily on Muslims but can be applied to all sorts of violent extremism. I am hard-pressed to see how this strategy of engagement and community relations could be applied to white supremacists or the sovereign citizen movement. And Al Qaeda ideology is the only ideology discussed in the report.

The report explicitly states that efforts to fight extremism should not isolate communities as targets of government scrutiny. If that's really the goal, the White House should try to produce a product in this space that isn't transparently targeting Muslim extremism above all else.

Or even better, they can make the credible, non-religious, non-bigoted case for why Al Qaeda-related extremism deserves a special focus compared to other forms of extremism (primarily their emphasis on mass casualty attacks).

Make the case and be blunt about it. There's more than a whiff of hypocrisy in this document, and that smell easily ruins the bouquet.

For more about the radicalization of Americans, check out J.M. Berger's new book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, on sale everywhere.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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