In the wake of the Oct. 31 terrorist attack in New York City, it’s clear that time has run out for the Trump administration to develop, articulate and implement a real strategy to deal with domestic radicalization. Due to politics, bureaucratic wrangling and a lack of resources, the United States is falling behind in combating the fastest-growing part of the terrorist threat.
After Sayfullo Saipov killed eight people in his massacre in Lower Manhattan, President Trump blamed weak immigration policies. But all the evidence suggests that the Uzbek-born Uber driver was radicalized after he entered the United States. During Trump’s campaign and presidential transition, his team railed against the Obama administration’s “countering violent extremism [CVE]” policies and promised to radically change the U.S. approach. But almost one year later, a plan is still missing in action.
Former officials and experts say the Trump administration is dismantling parts of the Obama-era initiative, especially those that involve working with Muslim groups, without anything to replace them.
“The attack on the West Side Highway is evidence of the current threat environment in which we live,” former homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson told me. “It’s critical that the U.S. government engage those communities in the homeland from which terrorist organizations may seek to recruit. I’m concerned that these efforts are atrophying.”
While he was Homeland Security secretary, John F. Kelly initiated a full review of counter-radicalization policies. He shifted some of the $10 million worth of grants under the DHS Office of Community Partnerships from community engagement toward law enforcement. The Trump administration’s 2018 budget doesn’t fund the grant program at all. Kelly also cut the OCP office staff and downgraded its authority.
The leader of that office, George Selim, quit in July after clashing with Trump political appointees, including Katharine Gorka, wife of former White House official Sebastian Gorka, who has waged a rhetorical jihad against “countering violent extremism.” Selim was tarred by the far right as an “Obama administration holdover known for engaging fringe Islamic radicals,” even though he was a conservative Republican viewed skeptically by Muslim groups.
Another conservative Republican, Rep. Michael McCaul (Tex.), was attacked by the far right for supporting CVE programs when his name was floated to lead DHS. On the left, CVE also faces criticism from civil liberties groups that see the effort as targeting young Muslims who have never committed crimes.
“There are no built-in advocates in the United States for CVE,” said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. “As a result, we are five years behind Europe on this.”
Trump is entitled to set his own priorities, a former Trump administration DHS official said, but not having a strategy is unacceptable. The Obama administration was slow to organize on the issue, but the Trump team no longer has the luxury of time.
Almost one year in, “there’s been zero articulation of policy, zero demonstration of resources on these issues, and there’s no leader on this issue,” the official said.
Two current DHS officials disputed that account. They said that a new strategy on countering radicalization was in the works. Meanwhile, DHS is committed to increasing, not decreasing, efforts in the space.
“The last administration was focused on strategy documents, we’re focused on action,” one DHS official said.
Their first step was to rebrand CVE as “terrorism prevention.” In September, acting DHS secretary Elaine Duke laid out that vision, testifying to Congress that programs must be risk-based, intelligence-driven, proven effective and focused on front-line actors. Congressional officials called that reasonable but lamented the lack of details and visible implementation.
Absent federal leadership, local communities are moving forward. Dealing with terrorist recruits who have been prosecuted but will be released is a huge concern. Last week, a federal judge in Minnesota released a Somali man, Abdullahi Yusuf, who tried to join the Islamic State. Yusuf participated in the nation’s first pretrial jihadi rehabilitation program.
There’s no silver bullet for stopping people from becoming terrorists, but there’s a clear need to drastically increase federal support for education and for tools that help communities spot the signs of radicalization and report them to authorities. The FBI can’t surveil every suspect forever. There must be a plan to intervene with potential militants before they are fully indoctrinated. And there must be a system for helping those who are prosecuted but will eventually get out of jail.
The United States cannot bomb, arrest and prosecute its way out of Islamist radicalization and recruitment. Trump may point to immigration, but unless his team gets serious about domestic radicalization, the threat of New York-like attacks will continue to rise.
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