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SPECIAL — The Countering Violent Extremism Act: Combating Home Grown Radicalization at its Roots?

In the wake of a new wave of domestic terrorist attacks, including the attack on nine parishioners at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina just weeks ago, the House Committee on Homeland Security passed controversial legislation which would create a Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Office within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Earlier this month the committee held a hearing that examined whether the government is doing enough to counter international and domestic terrorism, and how to improve the nation’s ability to identify, respond and mitigate terrorist attacks.

“Americans are worried about a heightened threat environment and for good reason,” said committee chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas). “The number of post-9/11 homegrown terror plots in the United States has surged. In fact, there have been more US-based terror plots in the first half of 2015 than any full year since 9/11. In particular, Islamist terror groups are on the march. The attack disrupted this week marks the 50th ISIS-linked terror plot against the Western world since early last year—and the 12th inside America.”

Concerns over the uptick of domestic terrorist attacks are exacerbated by ISIS’ success in luring foreign fighters — including Americans and other Westerners — abroad to receive training in Iraq and Syria. Homeland Security Today reported several months ago that a United Nations report revealed the number of foreign fighters leaving their home nations to join extremist groups in Iraq, Syria and other nations has hit record levels, with estimates of over 25,000 foreign fighters from nearly 100 countries.

In addition, at the end of 2014, 1,000 profiles of foreign fighters were recorded in INTERPOL’s databases. That figure increased to 4,000 profiles six months later, demonstrating a growing understanding by member countries of the importance of sharing information to counter this threat.

"All across Europe, security services have become increasing candid about the threat their nations face from terrorism linked to Syria and Iraq by the establishment of the Islamic State (ISIS). Their openness about the scale of the problem they face is clear," Homeland Security Today Contributing Writer Dave Sloggett wrote in his August, 2014 report, Migration of Radicalized European Muslims to Syria to Engage in Jihad Widespread Problem, Study Shows. They are trying to prepare Europeans that another terrorist atrocity cannot be prevented in the West. The problems with preventing people from traveling overseas and potentially returning ready to conduct acts of extreme violence — as leaders of [ISIS] have claimed they will do — are simply too huge.

Days after Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, two radicalized Muslims and Phoenix, Arizona roommates killed Sunday in an avowed jihad attack on a civic center in Garland, Texas where an art exhibition and contest was being held for the best cartoon of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad –an act punishable by death under Islamic law — FBI Director James Comey soberly said there are "hundreds, maybe thousands," of Muslims or new converts inclined to accept radical Islam’s call to jihad across the nation. Moreover, they may be receiving recruitment approaches, perhaps even directives, to attack targets in the US from jihadi organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Homeland Security Today reported in August that social media-influenced Islamist jihadism had already taken place on US soil, some successfully, and noted that many others were thwarted. Still, the fear of counterterrorists and intelligence officials today is that so many more Muslims are being radicalized by ISIS and other jihadi groups’ sophisticated social media efforts.

"I know there are other Elton Simpsons out there," Comey said. "But I also know there are Elton Simpsons out there I cannot see."

FBI Counterterrorism Division Assistant Director Michael Steinbach agreed. Referring to the threat to the homeland by Americans who’ve trained or fought with jihadi organizations like ISIS, he told the House Committee on Homeland Security in February that, "It would not be true if I told you that we knew about all of the returnees … We know what we know.”

Moreover, he disturbingly warned, “We don’t have it under control … It’s not even close to being under control.”

This past week, Comey said ISIS poses a much bigger threat to the United States than Al Qaeda, and compared ISIS Islamist jihadists to finding needles in a haystack of needles.

As foreign fighters continue to travel abroad, raising concerns they will return to their home countries to conduct an attack, lawmakers worry the US is not doing enough to combat the radicalization at the root of Islamist jihadism.

“That is what countering violent extremism—or CVE—is all about,” McCaul said. “It is about warning communities, helping them spot signs of radicalization, training state and local law enforcement, combating extremist propaganda and developing ‘off-ramps’ to radicalization so we have an alternative to simply arresting young people who are preyed upon and recruited by terrorists. This is the crucial ‘prevention’ aspect of counterterrorism.”

After the hearing, the committee unanimously passed by voice vote the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Act of 2015 (HR 2899), introduced by McCaul. The legislation calls for an amendment to the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to create an Office for Countering Violent Extremism.

HR 2899 also significantly elevates CVE as a key priority at DHS, streamlines the department’s CVE efforts under an assistant secretary who reports directly to the DHS secretary and provides $10 million dollars per year out of existing funds to ramp up DHS efforts to prevent Americans from being radicalized and recruited by terrorists. It was also amended to include, for the first time ever, a counter-messaging grant program to push back against extremist propaganda domestically.

“In the face of mounting threats, our government is doing far too little to counter violent extremism here in the United States,” McCaul said. “Whether it is the long reach of international terrorists into our communities or the homegrown hate spread by domestic extremist groups, we are ill-equipped to prevent Americans from being recruited by dangerous fanatics.”

Opposition to HR 2899

Although the bill was voted through the Homeland Security Committee with bipartisan support, it’s been met with resistance in other quarters.

The Brennan Center for Justice, along with 47 other human rights, civil liberties and community-based organizations sent a letter to the leadership of the committee expressing concerns that the “effort is misguided” and could further isolate American Muslim communities by unfairly targeting religious practices as terrorist behaviors.

Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, voiced concern that there is no evidentiary basis for concluding that CVE programs result in reducing terrorism.

Moreover, they could actually alienate the very communities they are seeking to influence, Patel said.

“The House committee should reject this misguided $40 million proposal,” Patel said. “While CVE efforts may be well-intentioned, there is simply no proof of their effectiveness. Years of federally-funded research have failed to yield any reliable indicators about who will commit an act of terrorism. Nor is there any evidence that government-sponsored messaging is at all effective. Spending federal dollars to create a new office dedicated to these tasks is a waste of money and will only perpetuate the widespread targeting of American Muslim communities.”

Dr. Erroll Southers, director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at the University of Southern California; President Obama’s first nominee for Assistant Secretary of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA); and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Deputy Director for Critical Infrastructure in the Office of Homeland Security, believes the creation of a CVE office is well-intended, but isn’t the right move.

Southers noted that the CVE program is reminiscent of the Preventing Violent Extremism Strategy (Prevent) initiative introduced in the United Kingdom in 2003 which failed in its initial form.

According to Southers, the CVE office, as currently envisioned by Congress, may follow the same path as the UK’s Prevent program for the following reasons:

  • The office will need to clearly define “violent extremism” and what motivates it, which includes ideologies based on race and issue-orientation (such as an anti-government ideology), as well as religion;
  • The office must clearly articulate how it intends to identify and reach “at risk” communities. The Prevent program looked exclusively at the UK’s Muslim communities, counting all Muslims as equally “at risk” while also ignoring other groups engaged in extremist activities. Already we see similar errors in US efforts. For example, the CVE pilot programs in Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles have engendered backlash because the perception is that CVE is focused exclusively on Muslim populations; and
  • The appropriate reporting milestones and associated metrics should be considered and defined before opening a CVE office. Those objectives should invite feedback from the communities the program is intended to protect and support.

“Unless the CVE office is clearly focused on all extremist motivations (race, religion and issue-orientation), it will reinforce the perception that CVE efforts are narrowly focused on Muslim communities,” Southers explained. “In turn, that perception could potentially create an environment ripe for extremist recruitment, which would capitalize on community resentment.”

Southers emphasized the importance of working with communities to enhance the nation’s security posture in the face of homegrown violent extremist (HVE) attacks. This requires what Southers calls a “Mosaic of Engagement” — an approach that holds all of the stakeholders as equal partners.

“Efforts to reduce the risk of HVE are best accomplished when incorporated into the community’s existing public safety framework, not as a separate component,” Southers said. “Success means, in part, employing existing programs that protect the entire community by addressing crime and violence.”

However, McCaul worried that postponing the legislation would send the wrong message to terrorists. According to McCaul, since the beginning of 2014 the US has arrested or charged more than 60 ISIS-inspired suspects in 19 states and that the FBI said it’s opened ISIS-related investigations in every state.

“Every day we wait, we cede more ground to our adversaries,” McCaul said, adding, “I will not stand on the sidelines—asking for more reports and studies—while terrorists plot inside our communities, while people are murdered in their places of worship, and while violent extremists seek to divide our nation.”

“I did not want to put this on the floor with Republican and Democrats fighting each other as the enemy watches us do that. I think that is the wrong message to the terrorist, whether they be domestic or international,” McCaul added.

The Brennan Center for Justice’s letter also took issue with the possibility that CVE programs will be abused and used as a cover for intelligence gathering and surveillance of the American Muslim communities they target.

“Previous iterations of CVE have been thinly veiled attempts at gathering intelligence,” said center fellow Mike German. “This has led to strong opposition from within targeted American Muslim communities who say CVE stigmatizes them as suspects rather than as partners in the fight against terrorism.”

Although the Countering Violent Extremism Act of 2015 includes a requirement that “all activities related to countering violent extremism fully respect the privacy, civil rights and civil liberties of all Americans,” some are not convinced.

“Given the history of and ongoing abuses in federal counterterrorism policy, these words alone are not sufficient,” German said. “Concrete safeguards for speech association and religion must be put in place to ensure that constitutional rights are not burdened by CVE programs.”

The legislation itself does not differentiate between different types of extremism. In his opening remarks prior to the hearing, however, McCaul stressed that the hearing was convened to confront the viral spread of violent extremism “whether inspired by Islamist terror or white supremacy,” and that it’s a “fiction” that the bill does not extend to all forms of extremism.

“These assailants share one trait in common: they want to attack the innocent, intimidate our population, and coerce us in order to achieve their insidious goals,” McCaul added.

Ranking committee member Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) also disagreed with moving forward with the bill. Although he agreed with McCaul that the threat of domestic terrorism is real and must be a priority, he disagreed with moving forward with the hearing because no one from the federal government was available to testify on DHS’s efforts.

In the wake of the deadly shooting in South Carolina last month, Thompson asked that federal witnesses be invited to appear before the committee to testify about the threat from domestic terrorism and what the federal government is doing to counter the threat of extremist violence.  Without their testimony, Thompson did not feel comfortable embracing the $40 million dollar investment the legislation requires.

“It is important that we find ways to counter violent extremism, from both domestic and foreign terrorist organizations,” Thompson said. “The administration has tried to pursue this avenue, but unfortunately, we still are unclear on what is being done, particularly at DHS. DHS refused to provide testimony, and without hearing directly from the agency about its vision and needs, I cannot support HR 2899, the legislation this committee is poised to consider later today.”

“I cannot embrace the bureaucratic solution that chairman McCaul is offering to the homeland security challenge of extremist violence,” Thompson stated.

Defining the enemy: How the term ‘CVE’ muddies the waters

HR 2899 is the culmination of years of incremental US government concessions to a well-organized Muslim Brotherhood influence operation, according to Clare Lopez, a former decades-long CIA officer and expert on Islam who is vice president for research and analysis at the Center for Security Policy.

According to the Center for Security Policy, “The Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy for realizing its mission of ‘destroying Western civilization from within’ was described in an undated 1991 Muslim Brotherhood document titled, ‘Phases of the World Underground Movement Plan.’”

While the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, the Department of State noted that the designated foreign terrorist organization Hamas “came into being in late 1987 at the onset of the first Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, as an outgrowth of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

In 2013, Egypt declared the brotherhood as a terrorist group.

Lopez told Homeland Security Today, “CVE” is a meaningless term manufactured by the Muslim Brotherhood and insinuated into US national security leadership—especially the National Security Council (NSC), White House and DHS—by local Brotherhood reps to expunge all reference to the Islamic ideology that inspired the 9/11 attacks from the terminology used to describe jihadists.

Examples, Lopez said, include Imam Mohamed Magid, former president of the Islamic Society of North America and the top advisor to the NSC and member of the DHS CVE Working Group; as well as Mohamed Elibiary, appointed in October 2010 to DHS’s Homeland Security Advisory Council.

“The purpose of this term is to empty its meaning and to neuter any government effort to confront the Global Jihad Movement — and to make it impossible to employ accurate terminology to describe that jihad,” Lopez asserted. “Without accurate terminology, it will also be impossible to formulate or implement an effective national security policy to confront and defeat it … which, of course, is the whole idea.”

The DHS website defines “violent extremists” as “groups and individuals inspired by a range of religious, political or other ideological beliefs.”

But Lopez stated, “As you can see, ‘violent extremism’ means precisely nothing.”

Lopez further explained that the Brotherhood’s strategy to reorient US national security away from focusing on shariah-inspired jihad first succeeded in removing accurate descriptor words like “Islam,” “Muslim,” and “jihad” from the official government lexicon.

The Brotherhood manufactured terms like “Islamism” and “Islamist” to divert attention away from Islam. Consequently, using these terms plays right into enemy hands, distracting from the fact that, “It is Islam itself—its doctrine, law and scripture—that authorize and obligate Islamic terror.”

“Those who obey the Islamic obligation — as defined in the shariah — to wage jihad, must never ever be called ‘extremists’ or ‘radicals,’” Lopez stressed. “They are devout Muslims, obeying the commandments of their faith. We’d never think of calling a devout, practicing Christian who obeys the 10 Commandments and emulates the life of Jesus Christ a ‘Christianist,’ or an ‘extremist,’ would we? Then why would anyone discriminate against Muslims this way and call them names just because they aredevout practitioners of their faith?”

Consequently, Lopez said, the term CVE has obscured this discussion, making it difficult to fight the enemy in any meaningful way.

In February 2015, the White House held a “Countering Violent Extremism” conference featuring attendees with Muslim Brotherhood connections. Lopez said this summit provided final confirmation of institutionalization of [the] CVE concept, language and strategy for ignoring Islamic connections to terrorism.

Homeland Security Today previously reported that the Obama Administration came under intense scrutiny for omitting “Islamic” from the title of the summit. In turn, press secretary Josh Earnest fended the decision, saying, “It’s not just Islamic violent extremism we want to counter.”

In response to the White House’s summit, senior Intelligence Community and counterterrorism officials raised concerns that failure to address the ideology behind these terrorist organizations would prevent the US from curbing the threat of global jihadism.

“You cannot defeat an enemy you do not admit exists,” asserted former Defense Intelligence Agency Director and recently retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn while speaking to a group of Special Forces members earlier this year. He stated the Obama administration is unwilling to identify an enemy that’s “committed to the destruction of freedom and the American way of life.”

“It does us no good to refuse to admit what is plainly true," Flynn said. “So long as we lack the intellectual clarity to accurately define our enemies we will also not have the necessary capacity to defeat them. You cannot defeat an enemy you do not admit exists.”

Ultimately, refusing to identify Islamist extremists for what they areis counterproductive. Not only is it an attempt to appease and propitiate radical Islamists by not identifying them for who they are, it also does not give courage to those Muslims who reject the radical interpretation of Islam, according to John Lenczowski, founder and president of The Institute of World Politics who formerly served as President Reagan’s principal adviser on Soviet affairs in the NSC.

“This effort to avoid mentioning the word ‘Islam’ has left us with only a couple options when it comes to countering Islamist terrorism,” Lenczowski said. “And that is the military option and whatever might be done through intelligence means. But all of those options that have to do with fighting the war of ideas and fighting the war non-militarily in the moral and ideological battle space have been effectively removed from the table by this unilateral intellectual and rhetorical disarmament by this administration. That is the fundamental strategic problem here.”

Lopez said Muslim Brotherhood influence culminated in this bill, bringing the nation to a point where it is increasingly impossible not only to name the enemy, but to fight that enemy in any meaningful way, either domestically or abroad.

“If it’s impossible to describe the enemy accurately, it’s impossible to fight that enemy effectively,” Lopez warned.

“Check mate. Game over," she said.

Editor’s note: To learn more about the threat from Islamist jihadists, check out our "Counternarcotics, Terrorism & Intelligence" focused topics department.

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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