When Fighting Domestic Terrorism, You Get What You Pay For
The Trump administration has gutted the budget for fighting far-right extremists, making it harder to stop attacks like the Pittsburgh massacre.
The recent anti-Semitic attack in Pittsburgh—the deadliest of its kind in U.S. history—is part of a steady increase in hate crimes in the United States in recent years. The synagogue massacre offers yet another stark reminder of how the United States lags far behind other Western democracies in terms of preventing extremist violence. This should come as little surprise; Washington gets what it pays for.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s first national counterterrorism strategy, released this month, trumpets how the United States will lead efforts to create a “global [terrorism] prevention architecture with the help of civil society, private partners, and the technology industry.” These efforts should start at home, where no such architecture exists. The United States continues to rely almost entirely on the police to stop attacks like the one in Pittsburgh or jihadist-inspired attacks in Orlando or San Bernardino.
Much has been written about how the Trump administration eviscerated former President Barack Obama’s limited efforts to put in place the building blocks for this architecture. This included a $10 million federal program to support locally led efforts to prevent and counter all forms of violent extremism.
Unfortunately, Trump’s Department of Homeland Security budget has eliminated money for that initiative, thanks to former DHS Secretary John Kelly’s decision to withdraw funding for organizations focusing on right-wing domestic extremists.
The Trump team also slashed the funding and staff for the small countering violent extremism community partnership office and disbanded the interagency task force that had created space for critical nonsecurity federal actors such as the Departments of Health and Human Services and Education to get into the game. And finally, the name of the small office at DHS was changed from Countering Violent Extremism to “Terrorism Prevention Partnerships.” The name change only further complicates the goal of building trust and partnership between the federal government and key communities that are best-placed to identify individuals vulnerable to extremist propaganda.
Finally, the White House continues to ignore the congressional requirement to submit a “comprehensive, interagency national strategy for countering violent extremism,” which was due in June. Apparently the White House now thinks the just-released national counterterrorism framework, which eschews the term “countering violent extremism” and devotes little attention to the domestic situation, does the job. It does not. The fact is that Washington has provided neither funding nor a comprehensive strategy to prevent violent extremist attacks in the United States.
Compare this to the situation of some of America’s closest allies such as Canada and the European Union. Many U.S. allies have long experience managing the threat from extremist violence from across the political and ideological spectrum. All have comprehensive strategies in place and have recognized that the most effective way to prevent jihadist-inspired violence at home is not to treat it as a special breed of violence but through policies, programs, and institutions that address all forms of extremist violence. They all include support for local prevention programs, networks, or hubs that reach a wide swath of non-law enforcement professionals and create an added layer of defense against such violence.
In 2017, Canada launched a national center on community engagement and the prevention of violence to support and network existing local initiatives to counter violent extremism, as well as develop new ones at the provincial and city level. These involve a wide range of activities, including support for a number of city-level, multiagency “situation tables” in places such as Ottawa and Toronto. These hubs aim for early identification of individuals at risk of radicalization and provide tailored interventions to address the threat. The center, which includes a grant-making function, has a budget of $35 million over the first five years and then $10 million annually thereafter.
However, there are many other examples of effective policies, should Trump decide to respond to attacks like the Pittsburgh shooting with more than dog whistles, media-bashing, and calls for armed guards in places of worship.
In Europe, the Scandinavian countries have taken the lead. Denmark’s schools, social work, and police early intervention programs in cities such as Aarhus and Copenhagen, generously supported by municipal governments and the national center for the prevention of violent extremism, make up one of the most widely praised local intervention models.
Earlier this year, Sweden opened a national center on preventing violent extremism, with an initial budget of $3 million, to provide support to and enable the networking of municipal-led violence prevention efforts across the country. In addition, municipalities have now appointed local prevention coordinators, which can access national funding for prevention programs.
And Finland’s Anchor model is a multiagency program geared toward early intervention in juvenile delinquency and domestic violence that, since 2015, also focuses attention on violent extremism. Anchor teams in each Finnish municipality include a social worker, psychiatric nurse, youth worker, and police officer, as well as teachers and NGOs as needed.
The European Union’s Radicalisation Awareness Network helps share information and best practices with everyone from local police and prison authorities to teachers and health care professionals, who work with people who have been or are vulnerable to being radicalized. For three years, the Network has helped guide policymakers seeking to prevent violence from both the far-right and jihadists.
The first step to keeping Americans safe is to address jihadist-inspired violence as part of a wider effort to combat extremism. Second, Washington must create a network of local professionals and practitioners to work with concerned community members to help identify and steer individuals off the path of extremism. Third, the federal government must provide generous national-level funding and guidance to locally-led efforts to develop violence prevention initiatives framed around the concerns of specific communities.
Based on the White House’s response so far, it seems unlikely that last week’s attack will lead to a thoughtful set of policy proposals and resource requests that will allow the United States to begin to build a multilayer prevention architecture at home. The Trump administration continues to ignore the evidence that violent extremism in the United States is not an immigration problem or a Muslim problem—it’s a domestic one.