- By Spencer Ackerman and Noah Shachtman
The day after Islamic extremists attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the nation’s top counterterrorists hosted something of a brainstorming session on how to keep violent extremism down in the long term. While the consulate burned, 100 or so intelligence analysts, military officers, prosecutors, academics and civil rights experts gathered in the McLean auditorium of the MITRE Corporation, a federally funded research center, for a conference on “Countering Violent Extremism / Community Engagement.” Some of the invited speakers, like Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, couldn’t make it because of the crisis. Still, the attendees included high-ranking officials from the White House, the State Department, and the National Counterterrorism Center, which serves as the government’s lead analytical agency in the fight against terrorists and played host for the two-day think session. Afterward, according to a draft agenda obtained by Danger Room, attendees were invited to a nearby mall for a happy hour at Coastal Flats, a restaurant known for its crab cakes.
On the second day of the conference — scheduled long before the Mideast unrest — the attendees got into classified discussions on countering al-Qaida’s narrative and measuring the effect of counter-radicalization programs. But on the first day, at least, some of the conversations were more broadly based. A State Department official, Shahed Amanullah, ran through the ways effective al-Qaida propagandists spread their message on the internet, and described how a program he runs, called Viral Peace, seeks to troll the online radicals. Along with the NCTC’s Dan Sutherland, one of the government’s point people on stemming the appeal of al-Qaida, Amanullah took counterterrorists on a basic tour of the online extremist horizon and walked them through a few of the things the government does to confront it. It was 11 years and a day after 9/11, and the day after arguably the biggest intelligence and security failure of the Obama administration.
During those 11 years, the U.S. has become exceptional at hunting and killing Islamic extremists. But it still does not know how to undercut the basic appeal of Islamic extremism. Until it does, all the drone strikes and commando raids can do is keep terrorist attacks at bay. So experts inside and outside the government are working on an inchoate effort to supplement counterterrorism called CVE, for Countering Violent Extremism. It seeks a durable end to al-Qaida, through dissuading people from becoming terrorists in the first place.
“With CVE, the spectrum starts at prevention, with the regular Joe on the street,” explains Humera Khan, who runs a number of such prophylactic programs and who spoke at the Sept. 12 event. “The idea is to increase the barriers to entry, so that he never goes down that radical path.”
The problem is no one in or outside of the government is quite sure how to accomplish that task, and even some CVE advocates doubt whether the government will ever be able to do so.
A national security priority of the Obama White House, CVE is supposed to work by using the various government security branches to “empower” Muslim communities at home and abroad. The idea, its advocates explain, is that the U.S. government can’t actually provide a resolution to the problem of Muslim extremism; Muslims communities themselves, with the indirect support of the government, have to do that. Much of the energy behind CVE work comes from outside government — these days, from an initiative spearheaded by Google. The government version of CVE seeks merely to provide cash and other resources for anti-radical “education.” Or, as a White House strategy document put it, “Foster community-led partnerships and preventative programming to build resilience against violent extremist radicalization by expanding community-based solutions.”
If that sounds vague to you, you’ve got plenty of company in Washington. There’s nothing wrong with ambitious, long-term thinking, especially about how to bring the war on terrorism to a successful conclusion. But “community-based solutions” can mean everything from after-school programs to moderate Islamic rap to viral videos. It’s tempting, U.S. officials say, for security bureaucrats to repackage their routine outreach efforts with Muslim community leaders as CVE in order to placate the White House. Measuring the success of CVE is difficult. So is tallying the money spent on it. Inside the government, CVE advocates lament that Washington talks a lot more about CVE than it actually does; and critics contend that CVE is all messaging and no substance. There’s also an unmistakeable air of political correctness to it, with practitioners defensively insisting that their focus stretches beyond Muslim extremism.
There are also major legal issues, especially when the government engages in counter-radicalization at home. Countering al-Qaida’s message means countering al-Qaida’s theology. It means, in effect, calling one branch of Islam authentic and another one bogus. Which is a problem, since taking sides in theological disputes runs headlong into First Amendment’s prohibition against establishing a religion. “The U.S. is not going to pontificate on excerpts from the Quran,” explains Juan Zarate, a deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism in George W. Bush’s White House and an early CVE advocate. “It’s an impediment — a necessary one, given our Constitution.” But the CVE workaround is to indirectly promote alternative Muslim voices, which is arguably not much different.
So it’s no wonder that the National Counterterrorism Center felt the need to take stock of CVE. Its strategic importance could be enormous. But for now, it remains a well-meaning but immature discipline, with its leading figures readily admitting that they’re still feeling around in the dark. And conspicuously, CVE avoids discussing any change to U.S. policies in the Islamic world that spur Muslim anger. The only thing uniting everyone involved in the CVE debate is that any solution CVE yields won’t manifest for a long, long time. Better order another round of crab cakes.
Within the Obama administration, CVE has become a staggeringly vast enterprise. Agencies including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools (.pdf) are now part of the CVE push. A team in Foggy Bottom makes parodies of al-Qaida’s online advertisements and creates mobile-friendly digital videos that mock the radicals. The U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom spoke at a notoriously extremist London mosque in the name of CVE; the year before, al-Qaida propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki preached from the same pulpit. One adviser to the U.S. military tells Danger Room that he considers joint exercises with other countries’ special forces to be CVE, since it builds relationships between forces for stability. Another officer says that developing the economy of Yemen is a top CVE priority — the country’s got an extremely active al-Qaida affiliate, after all — and the Pentagon needs to take a more active role in it.
The State Department has even sent an Islamic rap group to various Muslim countries as goodwill ambassadors. The group, Native Deen, sometimes worries about seeming like “puppets,” as one of its members told The New York Times. A major government collection of thinking floats ”the use of rock and roll to counter violent Salafi extremism.” (.pdf)
However, the point people for many CVE efforts are not rockers, rappers, or school teachers. They’re U.S. attorneys, FBI agents and homeland-security officials, who are often the highest-ranking federal officials in a given area. As part of the White House’s instructions on “enhancing engagement,” they meet with Muslim and other leaders, listening to grievances, explaining their actions and generally putting a face to the government. The White House concedes that it’s not reinventing the wheel here: “Our approach is tailored to take advantage of current programs,” reads a December 2011 CVE implementation plan.
These programs often resemble educational chats. Sutherland, a former Department of Homeland Security official now at NCTC, is an example. As part of Sutherland’s community outreach efforts, he gave a talk last year in Gaithersburg, Maryland, on strategies used by propagandists like Awlaki to convince American Muslims they needed to wage war against their neighbors. According to an account of the meeting, Sutherland didn’t come bearing money or a five-point plan to enlist Gaithersburgians in a government anti-extremist effort, but rather, he explained, “how the government can help connect them to public and private foundations that can fund counter-radicalization initiatives.”
Inside the government, the watchwords for CVE programs are “building resiliency” with “community partners.” As the White House framed it in a pair of 2011 policy papers, “well informed and equipped families, local communities, and institutions” (.pdf) are the “best defense” against jihadis gaining influence within Muslim enclaves inside and outside the United States. In practice, that means a lot of outreach initiatives, aimed to convince Muslims that the U.S. government is here to help, providing “entrepreneurship, health, science and technology, educational exchanges, and opportunities for women.”
That also describes some of the government’s CVE programs that take place far from American soil. In addition to Viral Peace, Amanullah runs another program for the State Department, called Generation Change. While it’s just beginning, in the spring, Generation Change sent sent American Muslim artists, writers and activists to countries like the Philippines and the Maldives this spring to tutor local activists on advocating effectively for their issues, often online. In the Philippines, that meant coming up with after-school programs as an alternative to the local extremism Madrassas. In the Maldives, it meant amplifying moderate Imams’ messages through social media. It’s considered to be a down payment on those voices drowning out the radicals, at some undetermined point. And it’s not something the government considers itself possible to police, beyond getting people into a room for a quick tutorial.
“One metric — one guideline that’s essential for CVE programming — is that it has to be local. You have to live there, know the community, know the context. If you’re coming from the outside and you tell them what they ought to do — it doesn’t work,” adds Khan, who works on both the Generation Change and Viral Peace programs.
But some CVE proponents fear that leads government officials to content themselves with ad hoc outreach efforts that do little besides spread a feel-good message that al-Qaida is bad and the government is here to help, rather than convening programs to get spur active community movements against radicals. And when government officials come bearing little beyond rhetoric, frustrated officials complain, it can be ignored.
Alternatively, critics inside and outside government, think it’s absurd for the government to talk up its “health, science and technology” and “educational exchange” opportunities with Muslim leaders by sending law enforcement, counterterrorism and homeland security officials. Sutherland and others get high marks for their nuanced understanding of Islam and the demonization Muslim communities face. But they’re security officials, not educators. The White House’s August 2011 CVE plan warns against “narrowly” building relationships with local communities “around national security issues alone,” but the officials who build those relationships, however well meaning, overwhelmingly come from the parts of the government that can surveil, arrest and prosecute people.
Implicate the Government
Sutherland and other CVE officials see themselves, justifiably, as the opposite of the anti-Islam crowd that has sometimes been invited to tutor the FBI and the U.S. military about the dangers of Islam and average Muslims. The problem, as some see it, is that they’re unwittingly playing the same game as the Islamophobes, from the flip side: They’re implicitly making choices about whom within Muslim circles to promote as beneficial and authentic. In the U.S., that not only opens the door to the Sharia panic crowd. It may not even be legal.
The Bill of Rights forbids the Congress from making any law establishing a religion. But CVE is unavoidably about promoting a moderate brand of Islam. That makes it a Constitutionally questionable action for U.S. officials to take, argues Samuel Rascoff, a professor at New York University School of Law and the founder of the New York Police Department’s intelligence analysis division. “When you implicate the government in a debate about what’s acceptable and what’s not under Islamic law, it tends to push the bounds of the First Amendment,” Rascoff says.
If Washington isn’t careful, it could find itself with the American version of the British government’s well-intentioned “Prevent” CVE strategy. It ran aground after it gave government backing to particular mosques in the hope of building up a moderate Islamic bulwark to radicalism.
There are ways to minimize some of the legal issues involved, Rascoff adds. Overseas CVE isn’t quite as problematic as the domestic stuff, and introducing Muslims to meet moderate figures is preferable to preaching to them. “It’s a whole lot better than the government pronouncing on these issues itself. But being a backseat driver doesn’t absolve the government of strategic or legal risk,” Rascoff says.
There’s another problem: No one seems to able to explain how much money the government actually spends on CVE. “I don’t know the exact number,” says Zarate, who oversaw some of the first CVE programs at the White House. When including existing programs that CVE “leverages,” Zarate puts the annual haul at hundreds of millions of dollars — a substantial amount of money, but dwarfed by what the U.S. spends every week in Afghanistan. A more precise tally of CVE money is unavailable. (The Obama White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
“In many ways,” Zarate laments, CVE is “not the role of the U.S. government and that’s a huge challenge.” In response, over the past year, a private network has started trying to play the role that official channels can’t. The most important player behind that network is, surprisingly, Google, which seems to have shifted its Don’t Be Evil mantra to a fight-evil mentality. But it’s not clear that a blueprint for effective CVE is Google-able.
Don’t Be Violent
In late June 2011, Google’s in-house think tank, GoogleIdeas, convened a set of meetings in Ireland called the Summit Against Violent Extremism. The conference was an extension of an initiative that GoogleIdeas founder Jared Cohen had in his previous life at the State Department: unite former extremists from all over the world with victims of terrorism; and connect them all to people with juice in the business, new media and philanthropic communities.
To defense wonks, talk about CVE treads over familiar territory, and some might be skeptical that assembling a coalition of former thugs is such a great idea. But to those outside that narrow community, hearing ex-extremists talk about cultivating a movement of moderates in places riddled with terrorism — and how ordinary Americans could help — provided a jolt of civic self-esteem. Many attendees had previously considered terrorism a faraway problem, and still speak of the conference with awe.
“Whether they were al-Qaida or skinheads or gang members, they told a similar story — they were young, looking for belonging and identity, and their norms shifted to violent extremism,” recalls Aaron Bare, the founder of a digital strategy firm in Arizona and a summit participant. “It was to the point of seeing Palestinians and Jewish people hugging each other. It’s a pretty wild experience.”
Perhaps appropriately for a conference that linked tech executives with gang members and philanthropists to al-Qaida veterans, there was an element of the absurd. As the conference at the Hotel Gibson was winding to a boozy, heady close, in walked Skyblu and Redfoo, the frontmen for the pop group LMFAO. The buffoonish popstars were staying at the hotel while playing a show nearby, and they evidently didn’t expect to see Google representatives chatting with Somalis who spent wayward youths in the radical ranks of al-Shebab. “LMFAO was fascinated by the fact that we were putting on this conference, there were all different people gathered together,” Bare remembers. Party rock was in the house that night.
It’s been over a year since the Summit Against Violent Extremism, and the celebrity cameos are over. But since it ended, GoogleIdeas has built a collaboration with a philanthropic collective called the Gen Next Foundation, a collection of young business executives that GoogleIdeas invited to the conference. Along with a London think tank, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, the partnership seeks build a global movement of “Formers,” a term for people who broke from the terrorist groups or gangs they used to belong to. The theory is that Formers are the most credible, viable voices to convince at-risk youth not to be about that life.
That movement, still in its infancy, resembles a counter-gang program applied to the problem of terrorism, and on a global scale. The Formers play the role of community activists, starting organizations like London’s Quilliam Foundation, a de-radicalization think tank founded by Noman Benotman, a Libyan ex-jihadist. Members of the GoogleIdeas alliance provide minimal start-up capital, like money for leasing office spaces, and technical assistance like website hosting or design or help with setting up accounting systems. They describe it as a low-investment strategy with the potential to yield large dividends.
“Kids in London are susceptible to gang violence, so we Skyped in an ex-gang member from L.A.,” explains Ross Frenett of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “That can be done with former al-Shebab members, too. By facilitating ideas, best practices get passed along and makes everyone effective, because those voices can be translated across state lines for no resources at all.” (A GoogleIdeas representative deferred comment to other members of the coalition.)
But just because an idea comes from the GoogleIdeas network doesn’t mean it’s much different from the messages the government spreads. Bare, a member of the network, is involved in creating a digital marketing campaign for a forthcoming video created by the Muslim Public Affairs Council. The video, which isn’t public yet, promotes the Syrian filmmaker Moustapha Akkad, who helped produce theHalloween franchise as well as Hollywood films that showed Islam in a positive light, like 1977′s The Message with Anthony Quinn. Akkad was killed in a 2005 Jordan bombing — which the video uses to underscore al-Qaida’s tendency to kill Muslims. That was a message the government spread when it released selected musings of Osama bin Laden found during the raid that killed him. (Bare says the NCTC introduced him to the Muslim Public Affairs Council, but otherwise didn’t have anything to do with the project.)
Private-sector CVE shares another key attribute with the government version. Neither can clearly measure whether they’re successful. When a drone releases its missile, it either leaves dead bodies or it doesn’t; kills the right people or it doesn’t; and prompts a backlash or it doesn’t. CVE proponents tend to discuss success in terms of whether their programs continue, rather than the results they yield. Zarate, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, looks at whether there are “more groups forming, more conferences,” indicating a grassroots movement against extremism, and how extremist messaging shifts in response. Frenett says ”the success metric is to change and influence the dialog.”
An adviser to the U.S. military is more blunt. When asked how to measure CVE, he answered, under condition of anonymity: “You don’t, immediately.” Any victories will take decades to materialize. “If we’re really playing the long game, we have to play long.”
War of Ideas
Cohen’s private CVE network had something of a beta test when he was inside government. He was among a community of apolitical Bush administration officials who considered the “war of ideas” an endgame to counterterrorism — but couldn’t quite define what that should mean.
In 2005, Zarate and others inside the White House tried to figure out how it deny al-Qaida a new pool of recruits. It was an urgent concern: Al-Qaida was profiting from the Iraq war; Abu Ghraib was a fresh memory; and Osama bin Laden felt bold enough to release a lengthy boast about “bleeding” the U.S. into “bankruptcy.” To understand the question, he brought in a researcher from outside government named Quintan Wiktorowicz, who had studied radicalization extensively throughout the Middle East.
The two quickly found they saw things similarly. “Part of challenge here was, how do you foment a grassroots countermovement to al-Qaida?” Zarate remembers. “How do you enlist and empower credible voices?” They had few answers. George W. Bush frequently called the war on terrorism a “war of ideas” as much as a shooting war, but the shooting war sucked the bureaucratic oxygen out of the war of ideas. As Zarate and Wiktorowicz found, the government didn’t know how to prosecute a war of ideas, and its efforts became the job of a successive series of State Department public-diplomacy specialists, who tried — and largely failed — to rebrand America as a place that believed Muslims were A-OK.
In 2007, a new public-diplomacy undersecretary at the State Department, James Glassman, put a different spin on it. Public diplomacy would fail if it was about branding America, since foreigners rolled their eyes when they heard Americans talking up the greatness of America. Public diplomacy, Glassman thought, should be about ripping al-Qaida’s brand apart. The problem, as Zarate and Wiktorowicz found, was finding the “credible voices” who could do that. Glassman had a secret weapon: a 20-something phenom named Jared Cohen, who made the quick jump to a plum job on State’s policy-planning staff.
Cohen had one possible way to square the circle: a youth summit. He could bring together survivors of extremist conflicts around the world — eliding the controversial question of whether Islamic extremism was the problem — to kickstart a countermovement that placed the U.S. on the side of dynamic youth who rejected violence. “We’re getting behind other people who are doing good things,” Glassman said a 2009 interview, rather than doing those things themselves, which had the virtue of eliding the U.S.’ thorny credibility problems. The result was an unusual confab in New York, which linked the survivors with representatives from social networks like Facebook and HowCast and got the backing of MTV.
The summit, called the Alliance of Youth Movements, didn’t coalesce into the “countermovement” that Zarate and Wiktorowicz wanted. It also punted on the harder questions: what exactly the government could do to kickstart one; how to judge its success; how to turn it from a boutique, gimmicky event and into a movement, with government support — but not so much that the official backing would prove counterproductive.
Still, several likeminded officials, including Bush veterans who rose in the new Obama administration, thought there was a worthy germ of an idea: partner with local communities to help them solve their own problems. Cohen, after becoming a media superstar by quietly convincing Twitter to remain active during Iran’s 2009 Green Uprising, defected for Google, which he thought could do more than government could. But Wiktorowicz got a job working for the most powerful U.S. official in counterterrorism circles: John Brennan, Obama’s chief counterterrorism aide.
Brennan is most known for his role overseeing U.S. drone strikes around the world, but he’s also spoken against demonizing Muslim communities. “Because you are American Muslims, you have suffered the consequences of this violent extremism in a way the rest of us will never know,” Brennan told the Islamic Center at NYU in 2011. Brennan, who has often expressly argued that terrorism is un-Islamic, lamented that American Muslims have “frequently been forced to defend and define your faith, and this can be especially hard because so many people develop such a distorted view of Islam.” Accordingly, Brennan put Wiktorowicz in charge of a new White House office, started in January, called Community Partnership, to flesh out a White House goal of helping at-risk communities — seemingly a euphemism for Muslim neighborhoods — “protect themselves” from violent extremism. Nine months later, Wiktorowicz was one of the featured speakers at the National Counterterrorism Center’s Virginia CVE conference.
Propaganda of the Deed
We know al-Qaida is losing the battle of ideas when it changes its message. But that message doesn’t shift in response to U.S. official narratives or government-sponsored community meetings. It shifts in response to setbacks on the ground: Osama bin Laden’s death, its self-inflicted loss in Iraq, the shockwave of the Arab Spring. As the anarchists say, the propaganda of the deed speaks loudest.
And that’s may be the biggest shortcoming in this whole CVE campaign. It only tackles the way the U.S. and its extremist adversaries market themselves. It doesn’t address what the two sides actually do. The one thing the U.S. has never considered in the 11 years after 9/11 is an overhaul of its heavily militarized policies in the Muslim world. That gets into complex geopolitical conundrums about support for dictators, torture, rendition, occupation, oil, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and more — including, now, the drone strikes Brennan oversees while his deputy Wiktorowicz talks nicely about helping Muslim communities. There is more continuity on those policies between Bush and Obama than partisans of either care to admit. But when discussing “why they hate us,” successive U.S. officials tend to elide the actual, policy-based grievances that people in the region state over and over again.
Which means CVE is even harder than it would at first appear, because it’s got to compete with American drone strikes and commando raids. If there’s a way of accomplishing that task, the U.S. hasn’t found it yet. What it has instead are Dublin conferences crashed by pop stars, faith in the healing power of hip hop, and seminars on extremist web usage that are overshadowed by the burning husk of a Benghazi consulate.