Senior U.S. officials reveal exclusive details on changes to the department’s counter-extremism apparatus.
- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
The State Department is revamping its floundering efforts to curb recruiting by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, senior U.S. officials tell Foreign Policy, in response to growing dissatisfaction in the White House and Congress at existing attempts to stop the spread of the extremists’ ideology.
The changes ordered by Secretary of State John Kerry, which have not previously been reported, shift significant power to a single bureau at the State Department tasked with coordinating all counter-extremism efforts. The bureau’s countering violent extremism staff will roughly triple in size and gain control of tens of millions of dollars in newly-appropriated funds from Congress. Combined with its current responsibilities, the bureau will become a hub for terror prevention efforts on everything from counter-propaganda, terrorist rehabilitation programs, aviation security, terrorist financing, and detention and judicial reforms.
The office, currently known as the Bureau of Counterterrorism, will become the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism. The name change seeks to play up the importance of non-military programs aimed at eliminating the root causes of terrorism — programs referred to in government-speak as CVE.
The new overhaul, which was presented Friday to a select group of lawmakers, brings some clarity to a Jan. 8 White House announcement to reform U.S. efforts to deny the Islamic State “fertile recruitment ground” following the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.
The initial White House rollout was criticized for appearing to promise a bureaucratic reorganization rather than a substantial increase in resources or a new strategy to improve earlier efforts.
“It’s not just a bureaucratic effort, although that is an important part,” said a senior State Department official who was authorized to discuss the new plans on condition of anonymity.
He said the estimated $219 million that the bureau manages in foreign assistance is expected to almost double for the next fiscal year, boosted by an additional $175 million that Congress approved in a December spending bill.
Some of that money will go toward traditional counterterror efforts, such as preventing Western fighters from linking up with Islamic State in Iraq or Syria. Another slice of the funding will help build foreign governments’ capacity to bolster law enforcement and corrections programs to deradicalize and reintegrate captured foreign fighters.
The State official refused to say which countries would be helped by the expanded CVE efforts — foreign governments often do not want to publicize that they receive U.S. assistance to combat Islamic extremism — but singled out as “high priorities” the “Sahel,” a region of North Africa south of the Sahara, the “Levant,” the eastern part of the Mediterranean, and southern and Southeast Asia. That would likely include countries such as Mali, Niger, Pakistan, Indonesia, Jordan, Malaysia, and Turkey, among others.
Many of those countries are dealing with the challenge of rehabilitating fighters who are returning home from the civil war in Syria. The United States also wants to help those countries ensure prisons don’t become a “breeding ground for additional radicalization,” said the official.
The changes seek to address longstanding criticisms that the federal government’s various initiatives aimed at countering extremism are uncoordinated and scattered across offices and bureaus throughout the departments of State, Justice and Homeland Security, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
But it remained unclear how in practice the bureau would effectively coordinate the work of other key offices, especially under-performing divisions such as the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. The center, best known for trolling cyber jihadists on Twitter and producing English-language counter propaganda videos, has been widely derided as ineffective. As a part of the overhaul announced earlier this month, it has stopped producing videos in English and engaging Islamic State fanboys on Twitter. It will instead focus on helping foreign governments run counter-messaging centers such as one in the United Arab Emirates, or new ones in Malaysia and Nigeria. The localized approach is expected to produce better results than a communications war room operating out of Washington.
But the center, newly-branded as the Global Engagement Center, will not report directly to the bureau, according to officials. It will continue to report to the under secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Its new leader is Michael Lumpkin, a former U.S. Navy officer who previously served as assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. Despite its lack of demonstrated effectiveness, the center’s annual budget of $5 million is expected to increase by at least $2 million. The president’s budget request for the next fiscal year is expected to be made public next week.
Some former officials said they worried that the Bureau of Counterterrorism’s new mandate is in name only. They say the bureau is heavily micromanaged by the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Sarah Sewall– a dynamic that has caused tension and discord between Sewall and Tina Kaidanow, the coordinator of the Bureau of Counterterrorism. “If they want it to function the way they say it’s going to function, then the under secretary needs to step back and let the bureau do it’s job, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said a former State Department official.
Tasking one bureau to lead the entire U.S. government’s foreign-facing CVE programs also, ideally, seeks to give policymakers a better understanding of what works — and what doesn’t.
“While there’s a lot of support for [CVE] on the Hill, there’s also a lot of suspicion so we have to be organized … so we can demonstrate some impact over time,” said the State official.
A key frustration is that even as the United States has ramped up counter-extremism efforts, the Islamic State’s recruitment has spread, and the group’s demonstrated ability to wage attacks outside the Middle East has grown, not shrunk.
Many of the initiatives were kicked off a year ago at a White House summit on extremism in Washington that hosted delegations from 60 countries. In September, the president brought countries together again during the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Yet officials continue to shrug when asked how they measure the effectiveness of programs or collect data to determine trustworthy partners in local communities to counter extremist messages.
“It’s hard in some cases to prove that a program prevented someone from being radicalized,” said the State official. “We’re very conscious to the reasonable demands for monitoring and evaluation. It’s not always easy.”
Other government offices, by comparison, have concrete and easily-explainable methods for measuring policy challenges such as “rule of law” or “drug demand reduction.”
The State official said the Obama administration seeks to draw smart conclusions from the U.S.-funded consortium RESOLVE Network, which connects academics and think tanks around the world to understand what fuels violent extremism.
On the domestic front, a task force at the Department of Homeland Security will lead the government’s counter-radicalization efforts, the White House announced last month. In theory, that task force will work in coordination with the State Department’s new Office of Countering Violent Extremism led by a soon-to-be-named deputy coordinator.
The changes at the Bureau of Counterterrorism have also raised concerns among some international aid and development groups, which have long been seen as partners in reducing extremism.
Groups such as Mercy Corps and the Brennan Center for Justice worry that the ramped up CVE authorities will put too much of the department’s focus on security concerns.
Madeline Rose, a senior policy adviser at Mercy Corps, said the internal change resembled post-9/11 efforts to put international development missions under broader counterinsurgency (COIN) goals in Afghanistan and Iraq. In her view, many of those programs suffered from tepid investments in youth and conflict prevention programs. Mercy Corps wants clarification there will not be a blurred authority between the government’s security and development arms.
In the coming weeks, the State Department is expected to begin briefing lawmakers and nongovernment organizations about details of the new changes.
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