DHS-Commissioned Report Offers National Approach to Terrorism Prevention

As part of an overall re-examination of terrorism prevention (superseding the programs and activities previously known as countering violent extremism [CVE]) policy, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) asked the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC), operated by the RAND Corporation, to report on how to build an effective and practical national approach to terrorism prevention.

The comprehensive report highlights various areas of terrorism prevention, including:

  • Successful community education efforts by DHS;
  • Countering terrorist narratives through public-private partnerships;
  • Robust systems inside government for suspicious-activity reporting, and the need for a uniform mechanism for making interventions for referral by the public;
  • How spending on terrorism prevention in the U.S. compares with other countries;
  • The role of state, local, nongovernmental and private organizations in leading prevention efforts, with support from the federal government; and,
  • The importance of addressing domestic as well as international terrorism in prevention programs.

CVE programs have been a component of many nations’ strategies to reduce the threat of terrorist attack from individuals who have traveled to conflict zones to fight or who have mobilized to support terrorist groups or carry out violence at home.

CVE efforts have been controversial, and that controversy persists with respect to terrorism prevention activities. Serious concerns persist regarding CVE and terrorism prevention efforts’ potential to impinge on constitutionally protected rights because these efforts often focus on activities that occur before any crime has been committed. Because there are no unambiguous early indicators of future violent behavior, the performance of risk assessment tools and methods to distinguish individuals who appear to be threats from those who actually do pose a threat is limited, meaning that individuals to whom terrorism prevention efforts are intended to respond might not commit any future violence, even if no action is taken.

Past CVE efforts have been criticized for focusing disproportionately on Muslim communities—creating both stigma and prejudice—given national trends in ideologically motivated violence and terrorism. Critics have accused the government of using these programs as veiled surveillance to support enforcement action, in large part by encouraging community members to spy on one another.

These arguments, combined with reactions to aggressive counterterrorism investigation and enforcement in some communities, have significantly damaged trust in government, and particularly in federal CVE efforts and, by extension, terrorism prevention efforts going forward. Others have argued that, whatever their intent, past CVE efforts have had limited scope and effect. Indeed, federal investment in programs and initiatives has been modest, mostly coming from reprogramming existing funds rather than a true national CVE initiative. The shift to terrorism prevention also has not been associated with an increase in federal funding to date.

The level of investment devoted to terrorism prevention in the United States is small, and is more consistent with an effort that is still experimenting and identifying policy approaches rather than implementing programing at scale. Compared with other Western nations, U.S. spending is at or below the bottom of funding ranges calculated based on levels of threat and well below the low end of ranges based on population.

Addressing radicalization

According to the New America report on terrorism in America, which provided the most up-to-date data available at the time of this study, 185 people have been killed in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil from late 2001 to 2018. This corresponds to approximately ten people killed per year as a result of terrorism, although as previously noted, the number of injuries caused by attacks is usually higher than the number of fatalities.

The relatively low number of total deaths associated with attacks in the United States reflects the recent rarity of large-scale, mass-casualty events since 9/11, a period during which there have been incidents with more than 100 fatalities in other countries.

Because the goal of terrorism prevention is to respond to radicalization to violence and not to completed terrorist attacks, a better measure of threat for the purposes of designing terrorism prevention policy would be how many individuals were at risk of radicalization and mobilization to violence in different geographic areas of the country. Because many aspects of radicalization (e.g., sympathy with extremist ideas) are both legal and potentially unobservable (with the exception of the online sphere), rigorous and reliable measures are not readily available.

Work by multiple researchers has shown that trying to assess radicalization through polling is difficult and fraught with analytic challenges. Moreover, distinguishing between people who passively or “harmlessly” hold extremist beliefs and those who are likely to act violently based on these beliefs is even more complex.

In an effort to address the need for insight into radicalization levels and processes, the START PIRUS database gathers publicly available data on individuals who have radicalized and have taken violent or other illegal supportive action. Based on those data, there were 943 such individuals in the United States in the period of 2002–2016, with 382 (roughly 40 percent) of these cases occurring in 2012 or later.

The rate of radicalization in the United States, like the increase in the overall numbers and frequency of attacks in recent years, went from an average of 56 per year from 2002 to 2011 to 76 per year from 2012 to 2016. Instances of radicalization documented in PIRUS have occurred in virtually all 50 states, in both high– and low–population density areas.

Although certain communities or populations in the United States may be more susceptible to radicalization based on factors like poverty and lack of education, radicalization in the United States is more evenly distributed than it is in Europe, where identifiable pockets or neighborhoods are highly problematic and poorly integrated into the rest of society.

The numbers of investigations, arrests, and prosecutions for terrorism-related activities in the United States are useful metrics for determining both the level of radicalization and the number of potential terrorist attacks that have been prevented. According to George Washington University (GWU) researchers’ data as of May 2018, there have been 161 arrests related to individuals connected to ISIS in the United States since March 2014, yielding an average of approximately 40 arrests per year.

For comparison, New America’s survey of cases related to jihadist terrorism found that there were 408 individuals killed or charged with jihadist terrorism–related offenses between 2001 and 2018, with a high of 80 individuals charged in a single year. Over approximately the same period as that covered by the GWU data, New America’s data suggest an average of approximately 45 cases per year.As a result, depending on the relative contributions of other ideological sources of violence (e.g., applying data from PIRUS discussed above), these sources would suggest average numbers of incidents between 50 and 100 per year.

Examination of past cases of radicalization and attempted attacks has shown that what “on a path that will lead to violence” means is difficult to define. This ambiguity reinforces the need for options other than aggressive investigation and prosecution, but it also means that terrorism prevention efforts must be designed with an eye to their effects on the individuals who become subject to them, because a significant number of those individuals are likely to be “false positives” who would not have carried out future violence.

Countering online propaganda

Among the report’s interviewees, there was consensus that a federal role in countermessaging is necessary, as online propaganda is a central driver of terrorist threats in the country from all ideological sources. Coordination is also critical, since having many federal actors reaching out to the same players in the technology community was viewed as confusing and potentially alienating for those receiving the outreach.

The CVE Task Force, which coordinated multiple interagency engagements with private technology companies, is less able to do so since its personnel and resources were diminished. The absence of a substantial U.S.-focused messaging effort was viewed by some interviewees as a serious gap because it is an important tool for terrorism prevention that is essentially not applied at the federal level. However, even those who support federal messaging efforts were circumspect about how controversial those efforts could be because of trust and credibility issues.

As a result, in direct countermessaging, interviewees had different views on useful federal roles. For example, if advertisements can be targeted based on profiles, why not do the same with government-disseminated counternarratives (as is being done in NGO and private efforts)? But even proponents of more-robust activity cautioned that federal involvement would be complex, given privacy concerns.

One possible suggestion was substantial government funding of an outside entity to take on U.S.-focused countermessaging that would “firewall” the data involved in such activities from the government, but would still be able to coordinate concerns between U.S.-focused and international messaging as needed.

Interviewees expressed concern that there is no good way to connect individuals to offline help, an important component to a holistic terrorism prevention strategy. Given the volume of private-sector efforts to produce and disseminate counternarratives, there is a need to evaluate these initiatives more systematically, and a desire for some federal role in this area.

“What happens when they get out?”

Across the interviewees, there was a consensus that there is a need for recidivism-focused programming and that current efforts are not sufficient to meet it, particularly with increasing numbers of individuals slated to be released from custody. Although the main population cited to support this need was post-9/11 jihadist-inspired offenders who will be reaching the end of their sentences within a few years, a similar argument would apply to individuals inspired by other ideologies.

This assessment has been reflected in past public statements from DOJ itself. “What happens when these folks start getting out?” asked John Carlin, who [headed] the Justice Department’s national security division. “There are programs for drug addicts and gang members. There is not one with a proven track record of success for terrorism.”

Although there are clearly efforts at the federal level at the developmental stage, national capability to address this need is currently limited. The early-stage efforts being explored at the federal level both directly and through grant-funded efforts could provide seeds for broader capability building across the country, but the status of these efforts is in the experimental or pilot stage.

Next steps

The report identifies three key themes running through terrorism prevention. First, federal government must rely on outside organizations, and, therefore, willingness to participate in initiatives related to terrorism prevention is necessary for success. Second, maintaining the trust of members of the public and communities is critical to realizing the potential benefits of terrorism prevention, in both terrorism risk reduction and minimizing the costs associated with enforcement-focused approaches. Finally, addressing a national-level problem that presents locally in different ways is a challenge that requires building a diversity of approaches that meet local needs.

Given these challenges, what is the right strategy for the federal government and for DHS in particular? The answer to that question varied somewhat across the different facets of terrorism prevention, but the most effective path cited was for the federal government to support state, local, NGO, and private actors rather than building capabilities itself. There was strong consensus across interviews at all levels that efforts have to be locally designed, managed, and driven.

There was also relatively strong, although not total, consensus among interviewees that reinvestment in federal field staff—i.e., personnel located around the country who have a stake in their areas and the expertise to perform key terrorism prevention roles and facilitate local initiatives—was a very promising option. Someone who is based locally but who is aware of the federal picture could help to build relationships, strengthen trust, and act as an on-the-ground facilitator of local terrorism prevention efforts. This was viewed as a path that could both deliver immediate results and help to build for the longer term.

In interviews across the HSOAC study, one of the ideas that came up again and again was the simple value of providing credible information to agencies and organizations that were seeking to implement terrorism prevention efforts. Interviewees described a need for objective threat information by technology companies to guide their efforts and for risk-assessment information for corrections staff to manage programming intended to manage recidivism risk. Interviewees praised the Community Awareness Briefings and Community Resilience Exercises from a number of directions as examples of successful efforts to deliver such information, and viewed as a good role for the federal government to continue.

Other recommendations made by the report include building and maintaining the bench of expert practitioners, and strengthening investment in evaluation.

Read the complete report at RAND

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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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