National Security & Defense

How Not to Fight Terrorism

An Iraqi soldiers walks past an ISIS emblem during fighting north of Mosul, Iraq, January 2017. (Khalid al Mousily/Reuters)
Many efforts to prevent terrorism focus on terrorists who have already embraced violence, and not on the extremists who engender this violence and are busy radicalizing the next generation.

Despite media attention currently being focused firmly elsewhere, it is desperately important to remember that multiple terrorist attacks by both Islamist and far-right fanatics have killed and injured numerous Americans over the last year, and there is certainly no shortage of other terrorist plots in the works. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that in March the Trump administration quietly brought back the Obama administration’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, three years after the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) effectively shut it down.

While an enormous amount of national media outrage accompanied the initial closure of CVE, no media outlet seems to have noticed that it has now been re-established, except for two Qatari regime-linked publications, the Middle East Eye and Al Jazeera. Both outlets argue that the new program, named Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention, or TVTP, is identical to the CVE program it has replaced. They are right. The only difference is a shiny new name. And as with its predecessor, it is deeply flawed.

Trump’s TVTP, Obama’s CVE, and countless other programs countering extremism across the globe all operate on a long series of faulty premises. They operate without data or metrics for success. And they carefully avoid facts that are patently uncomfortable.

In a new white paper from the Middle East Forum, “Rethinking Counter-Extremism,” I investigate the fallacies peddled by the global CVE industry and explain why they are so dangerous. The paper explains what government should be doing instead, beyond law enforcement’s counter-terrorism work, to counteract Islamist radicalization.

Extremists at the Helm

Currently, government efforts to prevent terrorism focus on terrorists who have already embraced violence, and not on the extremists who engender this violence and are busy radicalizing the next generation. In other words, the government spends its time fighting the symptoms, and not the cause. This is not an oversight; it is the CVE industry’s prescription. And the Trump administration’s TVTP program, as with every other Western government’s CVE program, appears committed to this ineffectual course of treatment.

One of the most interesting and damaging reasons for this nonsensical approach is the conviction, peddled by CVE advocates around the world, that there is no link between ideology and ideological violence. The vast majority of the CVE industry rejects the common-sense “conveyor belt” theory of radicalization, which — at its most simplistic — holds that those who espouse radical beliefs are more likely to commit radical acts. It is true that nonviolent extremists may not directly advocate violence. But they are nonetheless a key part of the radicalization process because they teach a worldview from which violence may emerge, and in which violence can always be justified.

The CVE industry does not accept this. In one prominent September 2016 report funded by the European Union, its authors claim, while discussing Islamist terror, that there is “no causal, predictive link between ideology and violence,” advise against using the word “Islamism,” and warn against “alienat[ing] potential allies, including Salafi and Wahhabi religious orientations.” They even argue “non-violent Islamists” are “a vital asset in the struggle against violent extremism.”

Who, then, are these non-violent Islamists who might ostensibly be able to help us in the fight against, well . . . Islamism? Among an array of proffered Islamists, the authors particularly recommend the work of Tahir ul-Qadri, a prominent Pakistani cleric from the Barelvi sect, who recommends that blasphemers should be “murdered and kicked like a dog into hellfire.” In fact, Qadri introduced Pakistan’s current capital-punishment laws for blasphemy, which are used to persecute (and kill) Pakistan’s minorities. The 2016 report also endorses Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, a Syrian cleric who has endorsed attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq. The CVE industry authors neglect to mention these clerics’ well-known views.

Perhaps the inclusion of Qadri and Yaqoubi is not merely an oversight. One of the report’s authors is Abbas Barzegar, who currently serves as the director of research at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a prominent Islamist-founded civil-rights group named by federal prosecutors in 2007 as an unindicted coconspirator in America’s largest terror-finance case. Barzegar is an unabashed supporter of Jamil Al Amin, a violent Islamist currently serving a life sentence for the murder of a black police officer. And while Barzegar has condemned the West for not engaging with “democratically elected Hamas,” the genocidal terrorist organization, he has elsewhere attacked a Muslim student group for daring to engage in interfaith dialogue with a branch of America’s largest Jewish student organization.

Although Islamist anti-Semites such as Barzegar and CAIR claim to be also critical of the CVE industry, many have long been closely involved in its development — carefully encouraging and exploiting CVE academics’ delusion that Islamist violence has nothing to do with Islam or even Islamism. There may be no actual internal discord at work here. It appears that Islamist participants in CVE and Islamist critics of CVE often work in tandem, with a single radical network both enjoying the value of government rewarding them with funds and legitimacy while also being seen by their own supporters as opposing an ostensibly “Islamophobic” industry.


CVE industry academics have repeatedly embraced these ideas unquestioningly. One widely cited report by the Brennan Center for Justice, found on DHS’s own website, nonsensically argues that “extremist beliefs do not cause terrorism.” The report does not bother to explain much further, instead simply offering a few equally uninformative, two-bit quotes from other CVE voices.

It all seems to boil down to this: Because there may be other factors driving someone to terrorism; or because not all extremists become terrorists; or because not all terrorists understand the extremist ideas they are now fighting for — because of all this, we should reject the relevance of extremist beliefs to terrorism. But this is nonsense. As inquiries by European governments have concluded, and as simple common sense tells us, extremist beliefs absolutely lead to terrorism. As British prime minister David Cameron explained in 2015: “When you look in detail at the backgrounds of those convicted of terrorist offences, it is clear that many of them were first influenced by what some would call non-violent extremists.”

To help avoid discussion of ideology, most CVE publications carefully avoid mentioning Islam or Islamism at all — a policy adopted by the Obama administration in its own rhetoric on the issue. One of the few prominent CVE studies that does touch on Islamism, a study commissioned by the federal government, states there is “no conveyor belt from [Islamist] activism to terrorism.”

Outside the CVE industry, studies of the links between Islamism and Islamist violence reach rather different conclusions. In 2017, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change published a study that found 77 percent of a random sample of 113 British Islamist terrorists had been “associated with non-violent Islamist groups and networks before turning to jihadism.”

There are additional internal inconsistencies. The CVE industry applies all its dogma to other sorts of terrorist threats far less often. Few CVE professionals claim that white-supremacist ideology does not lead to white-supremacist violence. No one suggests partnering with a lawful fascist movement to temper the threat of violent neo-Nazis. And no one suggests the best way to challenge the growing number of far-right terrorists is to improve the “resilience” of white communities.

Turning to Islam

While the CVE industry denies the link between ideology and ideological violence, much of it operates on the confusing, wistful belief that terrorism is an inexplicable aberration that can nonetheless be tackled with better political or theological “messaging.” This is one of the CVE’s industry’s most curious features. Despite denying the relevance of Islamism to Islamist terror, much of the CVE industry is keen to treat the Islamic faith as a fundamental part of the solution, focusing on issues such as “religious literacy” and “theological counter narratives.” In doing so, this moves attention away from Islamism and onto Islam itself, turning a clear-cut threat of a totalitarian political ideology into a vague theological question — all while trying to avoid mentioning Islam in the first place.

All this delusion suits lawful, nonviolent Islamists just fine. Organizations tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, along with hardline sects such as the Salafis and Deobandis and South Asian Islamist movements such as Jamaat-e-Islami (all thoroughly active and organized across the United States), are happy to provide the “theological counter-narratives” and “religious literacy” programs that CVE asks of them, especially as it affords them credibility and distracts attention away from their own extremism.

Recognizing Failure

In practice, all this delusion produces unsurprisingly pathetic results. In Minnesota, for example, one CVE program backed previously by federal monies allows violent extremists to have “completed” a deradicalization program merely by taking part in the course. It came as little surprise when one of its products went on to radicalize children at a local Islamic school.

Similar examples can be found around the world. In just the last few years, Usman Khan murdered two people at an “offender rehabilitation conference” in London, after completing two deradicalization programs. Khairi Saadallah, who launched a deadly knife attack in Reading, England, was “assessed” by the British CVE program and found to pose “no danger.”

As former Al-Qaeda operative Aimen Dean has noted, how can we possibly believe anyone has been “deradicalized” if they haven’t “sung like a canary and provided damaging intelligence on the networks that recruited them”? And yet CVE programs require no such contributions from their subjects.

When the CVE industry’s self-reporting is disregarded, and CVE programs are judged at least somewhat objectively, one study by the British government found that 95 percent of government-funded programs were “ineffective.” One of the cited reasons for such failure was that program officials often refused to discuss the question of ideology.

CVE legitimizes Islamists as representatives of Western Muslim communities, thus sidelining genuine moderates. CVE perpetuates radicalization by ignoring or even rewarding the extremists that contribute to the threat. CVE lets government boast of a careful, thoughtful effort, independent of law enforcement, to preempt the threat of terrorism, despite decades of identical programs and hundreds of millions of dollars achieving almost nothing. CVE is an international, multi-million-dollar delusion, in which Western governments, Wahhabi Arab states, the European Union, the United Nations, and far too many sociologists and other “soft science” academics have long been complicit.

We can only fight the dangers of extremism and radicalization when we acknowledge that radicals, moderates, and the considerable array of Muslim sects and movements in-between all actually exist. By denying Islamism, CVE denies the diversity of Islamic thought. In doing so, they deny moderates and reformists the ability to speak out, to gain back control of their communities. CVE denies Muslims the chance to contribute to the fight against the extremists who have hijacked their faith — some armed with a Kalashnikov, others with a fiery sermon, and still others in a suit, with an extensive D.C. address book and an invitation to yet another taxpayer-funded CVE luncheon in their pocket.

Editor’s note: This article has been edited since its original publication. 


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