Experts hope Biden will adopt new US approach to countering violent extremism

U.S. President Joe Biden, joined by and Vice President Kamala Harris (left) and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (right), tours the Pentagon Wednesday, Feb. 10. 2021, in Arlington, Virginia. Photo by: Adam Schultz / The White House

On Jan. 6, when a violent mob led by white supremacists stormed the U.S. Capitol building, people who work in the field of countering violent extremism looked on in horror — and in anger.

“Many of us who work in countering violent extremism are apoplectic by this week's events because we've been sounding the alarm for years … Furious,” one of them, who asked not to be named, wrote to Devex two days later.

With now-former President Donald Trump’s departure from office, his impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives for inciting the riot on Jan. 6, and President Joe Biden vowing to confront violent extremism, the threat is front and center.

On Monday, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres weighed in, calling white supremacy and neo-Nazi movements a “transnational threat.”

In depth for Pro: 'No tea for terrorists': How counterterror laws hamper NGOs

U.S. counterterrorism laws that dictate what constitutes "material support" haven't been amended since after 9/11, despite having adverse impacts on development and humanitarian programming in fragile contexts.

“Far too often, these hate groups are cheered on by people in positions of responsibility in ways that were considered unimaginable not long ago,” Guterres told the U.N. Human Rights Council.

“We need global, coordinated action to defeat this grave and growing danger,” he said.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, peace builders and development experts have attempted to show it is possible to counter violent extremism through means other than just arresting or killing would-be terrorists. Those efforts ran into stiff resistance from a Trump administration that looked skeptically at CVE. They have also struggled for years to gain traction in the face of U.S. policies that favor a more militarized approach, and limit the space for engaging with communities where extremism is a problem.

Some experts hope that Biden’s pledge to find greater coherence between U.S. domestic and foreign policy could benefit a CVE agenda that has often been undercut by America’s own actions. The U.S. government’s involvement in conflicts overseas is seen as a driver of extremism. At the same time, America’s failure to deal effectively with domestic extremism undermines its international credibility on the issue.

“If we don't come at it with a similar compelling alternative vision and pathway, then we, of course, are going to fail.”

— Kyle Dietrich, director of the peace-building and transforming extremism practice, Equal Access International

Now, the question is whether the U.S. government and its partners will absorb the lessons that agencies and organizations working on CVE have learned in the last two decades.

‘Soft side’ of counterterrorism

The U.S. Agency for International Development has led the effort to bring U.S. development assistance to bear on problems of violent extremism. But the agency holds limited influence over the U.S. government’s CVE agenda compared to better-funded national security agencies, such as the Department of Defense, said Kyle Dietrich, director of the peace-building and transforming extremism practice at the nonprofit Equal Access International.

“CVE is supposed to be kind of the soft side of [counterinsurgency] or counterterrorism. And yet it's still very driven by a framework that is threat-focused,” Dietrich said, adding that violent extremist attacks and recruitment have continued to increase.

The threat-focused approach to CVE has limited organizations’ ability to engage directly with communities where extremism exists — or with extremists themselves, a prospect that is severely restricted by the U.S. government’s laws against providing “material support” to anyone who may be affiliated with terrorist groups. Many in the peace-building community find them overly strict.

“While these laws were not designed to limit programs designed to end conflict, reduce violence and build sustainable peace, they are having that effect,” reads a joint brief from the Alliance for Peacebuilding and the Charity and Security Network.

Peace-building advocates — as well as humanitarian groups whose relief operations are also hindered by these laws — are lobbying hard for the Biden administration to find a better balance between security concerns and effectiveness.

Limited in how directly they can engage with communities, CVE efforts struggle to respond to the factors that actually pull people toward extremism, such as the desire for social change or group belonging, Dietrich said.

“If we don't come at it with a similar compelling alternative vision and pathway, then we, of course, are going to fail,” he added.

‘An approved policy that we weren’t supposed to use’

During the Trump administration, USAID undertook a major effort to refine its approach to CVE based on two decades of experience, but a thin record of major successes.

One of Mark Green’s last actions as USAID administrator last year was approving a new agency document called the “Policy for Countering Violent Extremism Through Development Assistance.” One of its key messages was that strengthening local institutions is more likely to be effective than trying to address specific drivers of extremism.

USAID’s team consulted widely with the peace-building and CVE community, ensured the new policy aligned with Trump’s National Security Strategy and the National Strategy for Counterterrorism, and got signoff from other agencies involved in national security. It represented a significant step forward in how the U.S. government understands the “softer” alternative to counterterrorism.

“The people that put this draft together are real conflict experts and have been working on this for decades, and really did a great job in terms of putting the analysis together of what we know, where our gaps are, and working with the … implementing partners to get this right,” said Liz Hume, acting president and CEO at the Alliance for Peacebuilding.

Then nothing happened.

Despite Green’s official approval, after he stepped down from USAID in April, the new policy was quietly shelved with none of the public rollout that would typically accompany a document of its significance and effort. The message to USAID officials working on CVE — never officially communicated — was that the new policy did not reflect Trump administration thinking, and its implementation was not a priority.

“It put us in the community of practice in this very difficult position of having an approved official policy that we weren’t supposed to use,” a current USAID official told Devex on the condition of anonymity.

The Trump administration’s skepticism of CVE was nothing new. Earlier in Trump’s tenure, members of the president’s national security council undertook a review of foreign assistance strategy and priorities, a draft of which cast doubt on the efficacy of CVE programs.

“End foreign assistance programs designed to address the supposed socioeconomic causes of terrorism,” read one bullet point of an internal draft, which Devex obtained. The final review was never released.

Some of the more aggressive figures in Trump’s orbit, such as Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, saw CVE through development as a naive distraction from a problem they associated with Islam.

Organizations that worked in peace-building and CVE sought to make clear that framing CVE as an Islamic issue would be a “red line,” Hume said.

“You could do that, but you'd have nobody to implement your programs,” she said.

The risk that CVE efforts would all be recast as an overmilitarized campaign against “radical Islamic terrorism” seemed to subside with the departure of some of those controversial figures, Hume said. While Green managed to shield USAID from much of the White House’s political agenda, the agency’s technical experts carried on trying to understand how the U.S. government’s relatively small-scale efforts in CVE could be more effective.

One of the aims of the new policy, which has still not been publicly released, was to get away from the sector’s tendency to blur the line between general development efforts and targeted CVE initiatives — for example, by making broad claims about how poverty reduction or job creation could prevent people from becoming terrorists. USAID’s own political leadership sometimes made the task more difficult.

John Barsa, who took over as USAID’s acting administrator after Green’s departure, muddied the waters when he told the American Enterprise Institute in October: “You could make the argument that about 90% of what USAID does, outside of the humanitarian sphere, is actually counterterrorism.”

The vast majority of what USAID does is not CVE, and framing the agency’s work that way risks putting its partners in danger, while also setting back efforts to add rigor to the CVE agenda, the current official said.

Over there and over here

While USAID was working to update its own policies and approaches to CVE, awareness about the threat of violent extremism inside the U.S. was also building. CVE experts voiced increasing concern about the threat of domestic white nationalism and right-wing extremism, while Trump and those aligned with him pointed at movements on the left, such as Black Lives Matter and Antifa.

“It's not so much about what you do over there and it's not so much about who they are. It's about who we are and what you do over here.”

— Jesse Morton, founder, Parallel Networks

USAID does not typically play a major role in domestic national security. But any hope the agency’s expertise in CVE might have informed the U.S. government’s approach to this growing problem at home would likely have collided with an administration that did not acknowledge the threat in the first place.

Still, experts are wary of giving the impression that the U.S. government’s struggle to effectively counter violent extremism was the result of the Trump administration’s approach to CVE.

“It's very easy to sit around and complain about a president that you don't like and that you disagree with, and then to assume that a new administration comes in from the opposite side of the political aisle and everything will be OK, as if it's four years of Donald Trump that destroyed our system,” said Jesse Morton, founder of the countering extremism organization Parallel Networks, and a former jihadist who served time in prison.

“I would argue that our system has been slowly dismantling and destroying itself from within since 9/11,” he added.

“It's not so much about what you do over there and it's not so much about who they are. It's about who we are and what you do over here,” Morton said.

He added it is difficult to tell other countries how to deal with extremism, “when they're looking at QAnon ascend to the pulpit of your congressional center,” referring to the pro-Trump conspiracy theory that some of the Capitol Hill rioters espoused.

Some groups that have worked on CVE internationally are taking that message — and the expectation it will be accompanied by funding opportunities — to heart.

“A lot of our members that worked on violent extremism overseas are now working in the U.S. and getting grants from the Department of Homeland Security,” Hume said.

CVE experts believe they have valuable insights to share about what drives people to violent extremism, and how to steer them toward different opportunities, but many are unconvinced the U.S. government has the capability or credibility to put those lessons into practice.

“We still have to be open to the idea that we are learning by doing, and there are positive developments,” Morton said. “I just don't know if it's too late. I don't know if we can sell anything abroad any longer.”

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.