Countering Violent Extremism Under the Trump Administration: The True Focus is Minority Communities, Not Domestic Extremism

By Mackenzie Walz

Associate Editor, Vol. 24

PF_17.07.26_MuslimAmericans_lede_640x320Through the Homeland Security Act of 2002, Congress established the prevention of domestic terrorist attacks as one of the Department of Homeland Security’s primary missions and appropriated ten million dollars “for a countering violent extremism (CVE) initiative to help states and local communities” combat these threats.[1] Pursuant to the Act, in 2011 the Obama Administration created and implemented the “first national strategy” to prevent domestic violent extremism, entitled “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.”[2] Taking a community-based approach, the program was designed to distribute federal funds to local organizations – educational institutions, non-profits, or law enforcement agencies – which would provide community members with the requisite resources and education to identify signs of extremist radicalization.[3] The ultimate goal was for community members and local leaders to develop relationships of trust through this engagement, which would empower community members, once educated, to report any identified signs of extremism.[4]

While the program was designed to combat all types of violent extremism, in operation and effect it targeted Muslim-American communities.[5] Instead of building relationships of trust between community members and these local leaders, as it was intended to do, it bred mistrust, as the program in some communities “appeared to be doubling as a means of surveillance.”[6] This mistrust made some members of the Muslim-American community hesitant to reach out to law enforcement officers to report signs of radicalization,[7] rendering the outreach program less effective.

President Obama attempted to address these critiques and concerns, emphasizing that building trust with Muslim-Americans to help reduce radicalization and counter violent extremism requires efforts beyond law enforcement outreach: “[D]ealing with [Muslim Americans] solely through the prism of law enforcement…only reinforces suspicions, mak[ing] it harder for us to build the trust that we need to work together.”[8] As this speech suggests, the Obama Administration recognized the need for the federal government to divert more funding to non-governmental organizations, as well as for local community efforts to focus on all types of violent extremism –not solely violence arising from Islamic extremism.

However, President Trump has had a starkly different outlook since taking office in early 2017. President Trump has retained the community-based approach of the CVE initiative,[9] but his rhetoric and policies have changed the program’s priorities and effects.

Shortly after ascending to the presidency, President Trump proposed the idea of renaming CVE as “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism.”[10] Many feared this rebranding would “serve to alienate more than three million Americans who practice Islam peacefully,” particularly those who were already skeptical of the Administration due to President Trump’s racist rhetoric and anti-Muslim policies.[11] Ultimately, the Administration dropped this proposal and instead rebranded CVE as “Terrorism Prevention.”[12]

“Terrorism Prevention,” like “Violent Extremism,” is broadly defined and has the potential to combat a vast range of extremist radicalization and violence.[13] However, similar to the flaw of the CVE initiative under the Obama Administration, the initiative under the Trump Administration continues to disproportionately target Muslim-Americans, and minority communities more generally. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 85% of the CVE grants explicitly target minority groups – Muslims, the LGBTQ community, Black Lives Matter activists, immigrants, and refugees – reinforcing the “unsupported assumption that diversity and the experience of discrimination in America are suggestive of a national security threat.”[14] Additionally, the Trump Administration does not appear to share the Obama Administration’s outlook that relying on law enforcement agencies for the bulk of the outreach is a bug. Rather, the Trump Administration seems to find a heavy law enforcement presence to be a feature, as it has tripled CVE funding to law enforcement agencies from $764,000 to $2,340,000.[15] Based on the results and critiques of the CVE initiative under the Obama Administration, the current combination of targeting minority communities based on unfounded assumptions and disbursing grants primarily to law enforcement agencies is likely to render the Trump Administration’s program less effective, as it will continue to breed mistrust and deter community members from reporting signs of radicalization.

By focusing on preventing extremism by minority communities, the program fails to focus on preventing extremism by majority communities, such as white supremacists and neo-Nazis. In order to provide additional funding to organizations that combat minority group extremism, the Trump Administration had to withdraw or refuse funding to organizations that focus on combating white supremacy. Around the time the Administration floated the idea of renaming CVE as “Countering Islamic Extremism,” it rescinded a $400,000 grant that DHS disbursed at the tail end of the Obama Administration to Life After Hate, an organization “dedicated to helping right-wing extremists move away from radical ideas.”[16] The Trump Administration continues to prioritize extremism by minority communities over that by majority communities despite evidence from the FBI and DHS that “white supremacist organizations were responsible for more homicides between 2000 and 2016 than ‘any other domestic extremist movement.’”[17] Currently, out of the 26 organizations receiving grants, only one identifies part of its focus as combating white supremacy: the Denver Police Department.[18]

Choosing to focus the CVE initiative on extremism by minority groups has prominent negative effects on the members of those groups. Furthermore, choosing to do so in the face of strong evidence that minority group extremism is not the most dangerous type of extremism in America today sends a stark, unsubstantiated message to society: simply being a member of a minority group makes one more likely to be radicalized, and more likely to commit acts of terrorism.


[1] Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Dep’t of Homeland Sec., Effectiveness of the Program to Prepare Communities for Complex Coordinated Terrorist Attacks and Countering Violent Extremism Grant Program 11 (2018) (citation omitted), available at https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/18_0822_cve_FEMA-effectiveness-of-CCTA-and-CVE-grants.pdf.

[2] U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Building Community Resilience 2-4 (2015), available at https://www.justice.gov/usao-mn/file/642121/download.

[3] Id. at 2-5.

[4] See id.

[5] This effect was unsurprising to some individuals, since the program was created in direct response to the growing domestic radicalization and global terror attacks by ISIL and Al Qaeda. Michael Crowley, Obama’s ‘Extremism’ Language Irks Both Sides, Politico (Feb. 18, 2015, 8:18 AM), https://www.politico.com/story/2015/02/barack-obamas-extremism-language-irks-both-sides-115304.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] See Terrorism Prevention Partnerships, Dep’t of Homeland Sec. (last updated Aug. 14, 2018), https://www.dhs.gov/terrorism-prevention-partnerships (“TPP aims to address the root causes of violent extremism by providing resources to communities to build and sustain local prevention efforts…” (emphasis added)).

[10] Julia Edwards Ainsley, et. al., Exclusive: Trump to Focus Counter-Extremism Program Solely on Islam-Source, Reuters (Feb. 1, 2017, 6:17 PM), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-extremists-program-exclusiv-idUSKBN15G5VO.

[11] Jenna Johnson & Abigail Hauslohner, ‘I Think Islam Hates Us’: A Timeline of Trump’s Comments about Islam and Muslims, The Washington Post (May 20, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2017/05/20/i-think-islam-hates-us-a-timeline-of-trumps-comments-about-islam-and-muslims/?utm_term=.19c9a04543a1.

[12] See Federal Emergency Management Agency, supra note 1 (“’Terrorism prevention’ is the current term to describe activities employed to render terrorism ineffective as a tactic in the United States…”).

[13] For a definition of domestic terrorism, see 18 U.S.C.A. § 2331(5) (Westlaw). For a definition of “violent extremism,” see Brennan Center for Justice, Chart: CVE Lexicon, 6, available at  https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/CVE%20Chart%20Lexicon_final.pdf (including also a list of organizations or ideologies the FBI considers as violent extremists).

[14] Faiza Patel, et. al., Countering Violent Extremism in the Trump Era, Brennan Center for Justice (June 15, 2018), https://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/countering-violent-extremism-trump-era.

[15] Id.

[16] Editorial Board, Trump’s Homeland Security Department Gives Right-Wing Extremists a Pass, Washington Post (Aug. 31, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trumps-homeland-security-department-gives-right-wing-extremists-a-pass/2017/08/31/a0164ab4-8455-11e7-ab27-1a21a8e006ab_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.5194b2e53d97.

[17] Jana Winter, FBI and DHS Warned of Growing Threat From White Supremacists Months Ago, Foreign Policy (Aug. 14, 2017), https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/08/14/fbi-and-dhs-warned-of-growing-threat-from-white-supremacists-months-ago/ (citing the FBI’s report that white supremacists were responsible for 46 homicides and 26 attacks in the United States in 2016, and citing from the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute that terrorist plots and attacks by far-right movements from 2008-2016 outnumbered those by Islamists by almost 2 to 1).

[18] Office of Terrorism Prevention Partnerships, Dep’t of Homeland Sec., Quarterly Update on Programmatic Performance FY16 CVE Grant Program Quarter 1-2 (2018), available at https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/Q1-Q2%20CVE%20Grant%20Program%20Summary%20508%20Compliant%20%28002%29_0.pdf; Office of Terrorism Prevention Partnerships, Dep’t of Homeland Sec., Quarterly Update on Programmatic Performance FY16 CVE Grant Program Quarter 3 (2018), available at https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/Q3%20CVE%20Grant%20Program%20Summary%20Final%20508%20Compliant_1.pdf.

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