After the Sept. 11 attacks, the US government began to surveil and infiltrate Muslim American communities to find people planning more violence.
Those activities were part of a larger strategy that, at one point, was called Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE. It basically called for the recruitment of community leaders, social workers, teachers and public health providers to help identify people who might commit acts of terrorism.
“CVE was based on the approach that individuals who are high risk were coming from specific religious and ethnic communities."
“I have to say, and I've been saying this publicly, and I know it's going to raise some eyebrows, that while there were great intentions, some of the assumptions we based that approach on were flawed,” said John Cohen, an assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention at the Department of Homeland Security, who spoke in June at George Washington University. “CVE was based on the approach that individuals who are high risk were coming from specific religious and ethnic communities. That's one of the things we found to be not true.”
Yet, the Biden administration’s new plan to combat domestic extremism includes a version of CVE — working with social service organizations and mental health and education professionals to identify potential terrorists. Cohen said this time, though, they’ve made a crucial change: Instead of focusing on people of a particular religion or ethnicity, they’ll look for people with certain behavioral characteristics.
“What we're doing now is very different,” he said. “We’re leveraging what is more like a public health approach, where we understand that there are behavioral characteristics, there are social characteristics, there are individual characteristics that make them more vulnerable to being influenced by extremist content that they're seeing online, [that] makes them a higher risk of using violence to express their anger.”
But the government’s own studies have found that it’s really tough to narrow down the characteristics of people who might commit acts of terrorism, said Harsha Panduranga of the Brennan Center’s Liberty & National Security Program in New York.
“A lot of the conditions that are identified ... are conditions that millions of Americans experience."
“A lot of the conditions that are identified, whether it's being socially alienated, having a grievance, being depressed, having mental health issues, these are conditions that millions of Americans experience,” he said. “I think that to the degree that the potential flagging of people as those who could turn violent is so open-ended, that's inevitably going to lead to a bias seeping into the process. And we know who's typically affected by that.”
Panduranga authored a recently released report that found that the Biden administration is giving $77 million to state and local governments to combat domestic violent extremism in the fiscal year 2021, and it wants to up that to $131 million in the fiscal year 2022.
Meanwhile, US courts are still struggling with the legal issues posed by CVE. In 2008, Muslim Americans in Southern California told law enforcement about suspicious new mosque members promoting violence. They turned out to be FBI informants. Three Muslim Americans sued, attempting to get the FBI to share information it had gathered to prove that they were targeted because of their religion. That battle is ongoing — just last month, the US Supreme Court agreed to weigh in on the case.
"This surveillance and the spying wasn't based on any sort of suspicion of criminal activity."
“These actions, this surveillance and the spying wasn't based on any sort of suspicion of criminal activity or anything like that,” said Amr Shabaik, managing civil rights attorney at the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Los Angeles. “It was really simply for the fact that these individuals were Muslim.”
CVE was also criticized for entrapping people with mental health problems. But the strategy evolved, said Javed Ali, who held senior counterterrorism positions at the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.
“There were cases in the 2010s where the bureau, having opened up some kind of investigation on someone who potentially could have been radicalized, instead of just arresting that person, they actually thought about offramps to arrest, and perhaps getting those persons help that they needed,” Ali said.