Home / Articles / Confronting America’s Violent Extremists: A Terrorism Prevention Strategy for the Homeland
Violent extremists in the United States represent one of the most significant threats facing the homeland. This was brought into stark focus last month with a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh killing 11, the worst anti-Semitic attack in the nation’s history, while another domestic extremist mailed pipe bombs to former high-ranking government officials in one of the nation’s largest assassination attempts. There were also reminders of the persistent jihadist threat with individuals in Chicago, Ohio, and Alabama being charged with terrorism-related offenses for providing material support to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
The ability of federal authorities to deal with the violent extremist threat in the homeland has a significant vulnerability that was acknowledged in the recently released National Strategy for Counterterrorism: “Over the past seventeen years, we have built a robust counter-terrorism architecture to stop attacks and eliminate terrorists, but we have not developed a prevention architecture to thwart terrorist radicalization and recruitment.” It went onto identify the need to “institutionalize a prevention architecture to thwart terrorism” as a key priority action. Despite an array of challenges associated with overcoming the legacy of previous preventative efforts, the nuances of the threat environment, and a potentially complex legislative landscape, establishing a terrorism prevention strategy has strong and motivated bipartisan support. The recently published Terrorism Prevention in the United States proposes a non-partisan framework of institutional and policy recommendations for such a strategy. This article highlights some of its key features to provide insights into its logic and strategic-policy nuances.
A Strategic-Policy Void, Not a “Clean Slate”
The architects of a terrorism prevention strategy will need to consider the opportunities and challenges that inevitably emerge from the interplay of three factors: policy context, the threat environment, and legal considerations. Policy context refers to the legacy of preventative efforts, both here in the United States and beyond, which will shape how practitioners and communities interpret and respond to any approach. In the United States, this history can be traced to the George W. Bush administration’s 2006 National Security Strategy that acknowledged prevention as an important component of its counter-terrorism approach. However, it was not until the Barack Obama administration that this principle of prevention was implemented, under the banner of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), in its August 2011 Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States. This was followed, four months later, by its first implementation plan and the launch of pilot programs by 2015 across Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Boston. When a second implementation plan was released in October 2016, it may have seemed that momentum was building behind CVE in the United States.
Yet, the Obama administration’s CVE strategy was facing criticisms at the time that broadly mirrored those that had emerged in other Western countries. Community representatives, such as those from Los Angeles and Minneapolis, questioned the strategy’s myopic and seemingly arbitrary focus on Muslims while warning that such initiatives risked being counterproductive. Civil society advocates expressed concerns about the strategy’s constitutionality and evidentiary basis, while experts raised concerns about funding deficiencies, departmental responsibilities being diluted across multiple agencies, and the absence of a cohesive overarching strategy. The Donald Trump administration has abandoned the Obama-era strategies and the term “CVE,” but has done little to fill the ensuing vacuum. In recent years, the challenges associated with prevention have arguably been exacerbated by a combination of an unfilled strategic-policy vacuum, inflammatory rhetoric, and the removal of funding for community programs. This policy context matters because it points to a mix of substantive and optical considerations that will shape how practitioners (i.e., those responsible for implementation) and communities (i.e., the subjects of such a strategy) are likely to interpret and ultimately support the strategy.
Next is the violent extremist threat environment within the homeland, which can be succinctly assessed as diverse, fluid, and volatile. The picture that emerged from the National Strategy for Counterterrorism was of a range of threats, motivated by a mix of ideologies, almost all of which were exploiting the internet and new technologies to maximize their reach and impact. The two biggest concerns are the threat from the extreme right, which is the most common and appears to be increasing in frequency and lethality, and the homegrown jihadist threat that persists and, on a per action basis, remains the most lethal. However, the diversity of ideological motivations driving violent extremists in the United States is itself a significant challenge. This diversity means that there is no typical demographic profile of an American violent extremist. That diversity also contributes to a volatility within the national security environment as the threats posed by certain groups and actors (e.g., the extreme right) contribute to the radicalization of other groups and actors (e.g., the extreme left) in a “counter-movement” dynamic. This volatility is further exacerbated by the actions of foreign state and non-state actors either directly supporting or surreptitiously influencing American violent extremists. Any preventative strategy will need to take this diversity, fluidity, and volatility into account not only during formulation and implementation, but also during the recalibration of its strategic-policy posture over time.
Finally, there are important legal considerations that need to be taken into consideration by the strategic-policy architects of a terrorism prevention strategy in the United States. Perhaps the most fundamental of all is that at the heart of any government-led preventative strategy will be a system of pre-criminal interventions, which are intrinsically challenging for democratic governments and particularly contentious for the United States given its constitutional protections. Moreover, a government-led terrorism prevention strategy must not only be complementary to counter-terrorism efforts but also synergistic with broader national security and public policy priorities. After all, while terrorism is a relatively rare category of crime, the threat is—and will remain—an ongoing concern for 21st century governments. To facilitate a steady, long-term policy posture to match the nature of this threat, a mature and sober approach to terrorism prevention must be proportional and fiscally responsible.
A Terrorism Prevention Architecture
In Terrorism Prevention in the United States, “terrorism prevention” refers to a spectrum of government-led activities, at the center of which is a multi-tiered system of interventions, enacted to prevent individuals from breaking United States’ terrorism, hate crime, and related laws, i.e., engaging in or supporting ideologically motivated violence. On this basis, government-led preventative interventions would occur under the conditions of “reasonable suspicion” (i.e., objectively justifiable suspicion based on facts and/or circumstances) that an individual may commit terrorism (under 18 U.S.C. §§2331-2339), hate crime, and criminal civil rights offenses (under 18 U.S. Code § 2241-49) as defined in the United States Code. This broad definition covers related (but more generic) federal and state offenses.
Reasonably and consistently distinguishing between individuals who should be treated as terrorism prevention targets versus those “elevated” to criminal subjects, especially given the standard of “reasonable suspicion,” would need to be based on the specifics of each case and the precedence established over time to inform such decisions. In contrast to CVE approaches in other countries, the proposed terrorism prevention approach narrows the focus of government interventions and grounds it in rule of law rather than more ambiguous notions of “extremism” and “radicalization.”
This narrowing of the scope of federal government intervention activities is designed to not only be constitutionally sound, but also to give greater space, flexibility, opportunities, and responsibilities for state and local government as well as non-government interventions (e.g. civil society and the private sector). Acts of political violence should be met with severe punishments given a central facet of democratic political and legal systems is the protection of non-violent pathways for political change (e.g., via elections) and non-violent expressions of dissent (e.g., via freedoms of speech). Additionally, any “preventative” activities that involve democratic governments intervening in citizen’s lives before a crime is committed must ensure that those freedoms and rights enshrined to facilitate non-violent political engagement are protected. Put simply, democratic governments have unique responsibilities not to engage in certain activities. Importantly, this opens opportunities and responsibilities for other levels of government and non-government actors to appropriately address those preventative requirements. Additionally, a narrower focus grounded in more tangible foundations may enable a more rigorous approach to empirically measuring the effectiveness and efficiency of preventative efforts.
It is upon these foundations that the terrorism prevention framework proposes a suite of strategic-policy recommendations that include:
Three legislative considerations were identified in the policy paper. First, the addition of criminal statutes to “domestic terrorism” offenses in the United States Code would broaden the tools available to practitioners, strengthen the legal foundations necessary to more robustly prevent and counter “domestic terrorism,” and help to negate criticisms that Muslim communities are disproportionately targeted by such activities. Second, the provision of “Good Samaritan” status to non-government initiatives to assist with legal cover was identified as a pragmatic means to facilitate more proactive engagement by select non-government actors in intervention activities. Third, the list of proscribed foreign terrorist organizations should be expanded to cover a range of ideologically motivated violent groups (e.g., extreme right) to provide terrorism prevention and counter-terrorism authorities with access to a full spectrum of tools to pursue violent extremists especially those supported by foreign state and non-state actors.
Federal Departmental Responsibility
At the federal level, a lead government agency should be assigned responsibility for the overarching implementation and coordination of a terrorism prevention strategy for the homeland. Such an approach concentrates accountability and transparency. Given the rule of law based approach proposed in the policy paper, the Department of Justice emerges as the obvious choice given that much of the bureaucratic and jurisdictional reach necessary for a terrorism prevention strategy is captured in the agencies and offices within its remit (e.g. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Federal Bureau of Prisons). Constitutionally, participation in a federal intervention program would need to be voluntary. However, there are countless ways in which individual cases may be handled. For instance, federal terrorism prevention authorities may assess that an individual’s case is best handled as a counter-terrorism case. Alternatively, counter-terrorism authorities may recommend an individual for intervention. In either hypothetical situation, for which precedence already exists, an individual could take advantage of opportunities to (a) demonstrate a willingness to participate in an intervention program, (b) potentially opening opportunities for trade-offs with the judicial system, and (c) demonstrate a willingness to participate in future intervention initiatives to lessen their sentence or even avoid charges. The Department of Justice is probably best positioned to exercise such levers.
Empowering Communities and Non-Government Actors
Communities have an essential role to play in the success of preventative strategies as both identifiers of at-risk individuals and facilitators of intervention programming. Consequently, at the foundation of the multi-tiered intervention system proposed in the terrorism prevention strategy is a “community safety campaign.” This would involve a federal government-led initiative to provide training that equips “frontline” professionals with the knowledge to identify individuals who may be at-risk of engaging in self- or other-directed violence. This awareness effort should not be specific to terrorism, but rather have a broader focus. For instance, a recent FBI report identifies a range of pre-attack behaviors characteristic of active shooters, and such information would be highly valued in many communities in the homeland. This “community safety campaign” should also inform practitioners about available support services and intervention initiatives—both government and non-government—to tap into pre-existing programs addressing a range of psychosocial issues not just violent extremism. In sum, rather than narrow the focus of community members onto the relatively rare offense of terrorism, this initiative would seek to “broaden the net” at the community level thus positioning terrorism within the context of other societal problems to the wider benefit of creating safer communities.
The narrowing of federal government preventative activities opens opportunities but also greater responsibilities for non-government actors. For example, there will be greater opportunities for civil society and private sector actors to implement programs that target individuals at a much earlier stage of the radicalization process. It will be imperative for federal authorities to ensure that non-government actors are held to account. Regarding private companies such as tech and social media firms, the policy paper suggests that governments should avoid over-imposing directly onto the private sector, but rather use a balance of policy and regulatory mechanisms—both carrots and sticks—to shape how markets engage with responsible versus irresponsible companies.
The proposed terrorism prevention strategy assigns public outreach, particularly strategic communications, a central and multi-faceted role. The aims of an overarching public outreach strategy would be to keep the public informed of the strategy’s intent and activities, raise awareness about the range of programs available to drive capacity building, and to confront the appeal of violent extremists via proactive strategic communications activities and support.
A Crucial Vulnerability
The dynamic that is sought by this proposed mix of strategic-policy components is a synchronized narrowing of government interventions, an expansion of non-government interventions, and a broadening of community awareness programs. The desired affect of this approach should be a quicker identification of at-risk individuals, their channeling into appropriate intervention programs, and (at a more macro level) eroding violent extremist narratives of government overreach, persecution, and the arbitrary dilution of democratic protections for some over others. The perpetual challenge facing any administration will be how to balance various strategic-policy components and government and non-government activities all the while remaining committed to the protection of democratic freedoms and rights promised by law. The latter is not only important for effectively confronting violent extremists, but also a significant step towards creating a more resilient and functional democracy.