Advancing the Conversation on CVE

Discussing CVE on ImanWire

The Debate Over Countering Violent Extremism | The Danger of Imams Being Involved in CVE | CVE, Afghanistan, and the Theological Castration of Muslims | The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and Quraysh’s CVE Program | Advancing the Conversation on CVE

By Alejandro J. Beutel with Asma Shah and Mimi Yu

In a previous article, I noted that from my perspective as a researcher on CVE who happens to be a Muslim, there is a lack of clarity from American Muslim thought leaders as to “what is CVE.” I put forth a definition and description of CVE as a concept to hopefully inject greater clarity into community conversations on the topic.

In that piece, I noted that CVE is first and foremost a concept for how to prevent ideologically-motivated violence that informs the development of policies and practices seeking to provide alternatives beyond surveillance, arrest, and prosecution of suspects. In more specific and practical terms, it involves five lines of effort:

  1. Engagement. Building relationships between communities, civil society organizations, and government agencies for the purposes of preventing violence.
  2. Prevention. This line of effort involves community-wide implementation of programs, policies and activities to mitigate the risk of any individual’s movement into violence by creating healthy environments that reduce the appeal of extremism. Examples range from instruction on civics and religious education to creating “safe space” forums where people have healthy outlets on sensitive topics without the fear of stigma or shame.
  3. Intervention. Similar to “crisis counseling,” this is about dissuading at-risk individuals seeking to engage in violence, but who have not yet taken any significant steps to fulfill that intent. In other words, this line of effort is a non-arrest option that seeks to enter at-risk individuals into counseling rather than into handcuffs, when possible.
  4. Interdiction. Unfortunately, prevention efforts or attempts to intervene with specific individuals may have failed or may be too late. In those cases where individuals are taking significant steps toward violent action, are already engaged in violence or are facilitating other illicit actions in support of violence, government policing actions may be necessary. However under a CVE framework, these government policing actions are intended to be a measure of last resort, rather than the immediate go-to solution.
  5. Rehabilitation/Reintegration. As the name of these activities suggests, they are intended to help specific individuals get back on their feet as law-abiding, productive members of society.

As a follow-up to that earlier article, in this post I want to address five of the most common criticisms, concerns, and misconceptions about CVE. My intent in this article is to advance a deeper and more nuanced discussion of the issue among American Muslim thought leaders and communities.


First, CVE is not just practiced by government agencies. In fact, CVE can be—and many cases is—led and sourced by communities and civil society. Understanding the difference between community vs. government-led/sourced CVE is extremely important.

Unfortunately, when it comes to debating and discussing CVE, particularly by its critics, there is often a lack of an explicit distinction made between community-led/sourced and government-led/sourced efforts. For example, immediately following the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding’s debate on CVE, two of the panelists wrote about the shortcomings of government-led and -sourced CVE efforts, but never explicitly distinguished them from community-led and -sourced efforts.

While such critics of CVE are obviously looking to protect our communities from government excesses, their glaring omission has its own harmful unintended consequences.

I don’t say those words lightly.

Contrary to popular belief, lone-actor violent extremists (sometimes also called “lone-wolves”) are often very bad at hiding their intentions and plans. In fact, like school shooters, lone-actor terrorists tend to disclose or “leak” their intentions to friends, family and peers because they want others to know why they are committing an act of violence. The problem is that friends, family, and peers often fail to speak up and report troubling behaviors and statements to the right people who can provide the appropriate assistance.

Overcoming these “bystander” effects requires two components: 1) building a climate of trust and 2) establishing communication with local communities. The trust-building part of that equation means creating programs where communities are leading the efforts to create emergency safety nets so that troubled individuals can be put into counseling rather than handcuffs.

Not surprisingly, as a CVE researcher, my reading of the evidence suggests the programs and practices most likely to build that trust are community-led and community-sourced efforts that have well-defined and arms-length relationships with government actors. To be blunt, these community efforts remain critical of government policies and their work tends to be privately-funded.

To be successful, the communication component requires that community members need to know alternative programs exist. This is where the current discourse on CVE, especially by its most strident critics, can become problematic. By failing to explicitly distinguish between these two basic types of CVE, they are inadvertently creating a misleading climate that fails to point communities toward resources to protect individuals from extremist recruiters without being forced to immediately turn to law enforcement.

In moments of crisis where time is of the essence, community members should not agonize over a false choice between being a bystander to their peer or loved one going down a dangerous path, or notifying law enforcement, possibly criminalizing a person’s misguided views.

Second, efforts to counter violent extremism are not limited only to Muslims. When American Muslim CVE critics and supporters talk about how government actors only focus on Muslim communities, such as the “pilot cities” programs, they are referring to problems with how Engagement has been practiced. However, as noted earlier, Engagement is one part of a larger spectrum of efforts. Moreover, CVE Engagement efforts are broadening beyond Muslims. There are several reasons for this.

One reason is because government officials are learning from the early mistakes of others. For example, in Denver, Colorado, (a non-“pilot city”) from the get-go federal officials are engaging multiple faith, ethnic, and civic communities to address multiple violent extremist movements, including ISIS and Al-Qaeda, violent anarchist, violent militia, and violent Sovereign Citizen extremists. At a state level, Illinois has a program that not only takes the same ideologically ecumenical approach, but also drops the “CVE” label in favor of “targeted violence,” and frames its efforts in the language of “public health.”

Engagement is also broadening beyond Muslims due to the increased involvement of non-Muslims who see the value in CVE for their audiences. Christian Piccolini, co-founder of Life After Hate, a group that helps people exit from violent U.S. and Canadian racist movements, recently noted that, “We've made great strides in helping balance the CVE focus and bring attention to a growing domestic extremism problem."

Beyond Engagement activities, well before 9/11, American Christian communities were engaged in what would otherwise be described in CVE terms as Prevention activities. Church leaders with experience in pastoral counseling have long had to address contentious social problems ranging from extremism to race, sex, and divorce – just like many Muslim communities are doing. In fact, during the height of Ku Klux Klan terrorism against the Civil Rights Movement, in 1966, Wayne Edward Oates, one of the pioneers of modern pastoral counseling, wrote a book with that near-exact title, “Pastoral Counseling in Social Problems: Extremism, Race, Sex, Divorce.” Other pastoral counselors like David Moss published their decades-long experiences engaging KKK white supremacists.

In 1999, the official journal of the Southern Baptist Convention, SBC Life, published an article discussing the dangers of online violent extremism. The article gave tips for churches on how to teach their congregants, especially youth, how to be savvy consumers of online information, similar to what many Muslims communities are doing today.

Other congregations have practiced pastoral-led Intervention activities to keep individuals from going down a pathway into violence. For example in 2003 the pastors at the Christian congregation of would-be violent extremist Stephen John Jordi had attempted on multiple occasions to counsel Jordi from attacking an abortion clinic and nearby gay bars. After failed attempts to persuade him, church leaders notified law enforcement, which shortly thereafter arrested Jordi.

Stories like Jordi’s closely parallel attempts--many successful, some not--by imams to counsel individuals away from entering a pathway into ideologically-motivated violence.

Finally, groups such as Life After Hate also seek to rehabilitate and reintegrate former members of violent racist far-right movements. Composed of former violent white supremacist extremists, LAH seeks to act as a lifeline for individuals seeking to permanently leave behind a life of hate and violence. As LAH’s co-founder, Christian Piccolini, points out, “Life After Hate has always been, and remains, 100% run by ‘Formers,’ or former extremists.”

Third, CVE programs do NOT seek to "predict" who will be a violent extremist and who won't. The most promising CVE practices I have studied take existing tools used to prevent gang violence and mass shootings in K-12, university, Church, and workplace institutions, and apply them (with modification) to violent extremism. Those safety net mechanisms engage in prevention, not prediction.

The difference goes beyond semantics.

Violence prediction and violence prevention can be understood using an analogy: Doctors cannot precisely say when a person is going to have a heart attack (prediction); however they can confidently identify when someone is at serious risk for one and what steps can be taken to lower that risk (preventive).

Predictive efforts focus on determining the accuracy of whether or not an individual will commit a future act of violence. Preventive measures focus on 1) developing a rapid and context-specific analysis of a potential threat posed by an individual and 2) connecting the person of concern to protective resources that will mitigate their specific issues driving them toward violence.

Fourth, CVE is distinct from counter-terrorism (CT), in concept and practice, in at least two ways. First, as noted earlier, CVE seeks to prevent ideologically motivated non-state violence through a wide range of measures beyond law enforcement actions such as surveillance, arrest, prosecution, and incarceration. Second, CVE provides a conceptual framework and policy space where communities and civil society actors, not just law enforcement agencies, can be solution providers.

Many of the current critiques levied at CVE, such as surveillance abuses like wholesale wiretaps and controversial uses of informants, are actually critiques directed at CT. There’s plenty of room to critique those kinds of policies and practices (and I would count myself among those critics). What is problematic is that those same critiques get carelessly thrown at CVE, which in many ways is an attempt to provide an alternative to more surveillance, arrests, prosecution, and incarceration.

At the same time, I’m not suggesting CVE is suddenly and magically absolved of any challenges that are associated with CT based on the wave of a conceptual wand. After all, Interdiction, which requires law enforcement action, is still a part of CVE.

However, in my opinion, there is an important takeaway from distinguishing between CVE and CT. For those who wish to do so, they may take a dual-track approach in which communities and their advocates can provide their own solutions to internal challenges, while simultaneously maintaining a critical view of counter-terrorism policies and practices. Being supportive of CVE (or whatever one chooses to call it) and being critical of counter-terrorism policies, including foreign policies, does not necessarily have to be a zero-sum game.

Finally, CVE is especially relevant in light of the recent election results. As I noted earlier, there is a difference between community-led and community-sourced CVE vs. government-led and government-sourced CVE. The rhetoric of President-elect Donald Trump suggests that any government funding and support for countering violent extremism is likely to dry up.

There are some downsides to this likely outcome, such as a reduced willingness from law enforcement to cooperate with community-led efforts to prevent individuals from going down dangerous paths. In addition, in the absence of greater non-governmental funding from sources such as private businesses and foundations, the lack of available funding will leave many efforts strapped for resources.

The upshot is that this is an opportunity for communities to further distinguish (and distance) their efforts from government-led and government-sourced attempts at CVE. Nevertheless, some critics may argue that CVE should simply be discarded altogether and communities should focus their efforts on dealing with violent extremism and hate crimes coming from violent far-right actors.

My response to those critics is two-fold.

First, be careful what you wish for. President-elect Trump’s rhetoric suggests a wholesale government shift away from CVE which means doubling down on more CT-driven surveillance, arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of individuals. His proposal to revive the ineffective and counter-productive National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (aka Muslim registry) is likely to be only one small part of a deeper and looming scrutiny of Muslim communities.

Second, this position rests on a false dichotomy. It suggests that Muslims cannot simultaneously fight the hate and violence of both the violent far-right and the small, but dangerous number of Al-Qaeda and Da’esh-inspired violent extremists in the United States. If anything, our thought leaders need to be especially ambidextrous at time when Al-Qaeda and Da’esh violent extremists have stated their intent to exploit the social volatility coinciding with the recent U.S. election and its aftermath.

Notwithstanding important differences in context, UK Muslims provide one example for us all to consider. In response to a deeply unpopular and counter-productive government-led CVE effort, local Muslim communities in the UK have announced their intention to launch their own alternative “grassroots” community-led effort. Keep in mind that this announcement was made after the UK voted in favor of its own type of xenophobic populism – the Brexit vote – which has coincided with its own sharp rise of domestic violent far-right extremism.

Some of my fellow community members may completely disagree with my analysis and takeaways. They may continue to maintain that CVE is a fundamentally flawed concept and set of practices.

While I may not agree with such conclusions, at least for now, if they arrive at the decision after having engaged in deeper conversations based on relevant arguments and facts, I can at least take personal comfort in knowing that communities are making better informed decisions by hearing from more than one particular narrative.

Alejandro J. Beutel is a researcher for Countering Violent Extremism at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). He is also a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. Views expressed here are solely those of the author and not necessarily the views of START and ISPU. START interns Asma Shah and Mimi Yu assisted in the research.

Listen to the conversation between the author Alejandro Beutel and Mohamed Ghilan, a critic of CVE, on the ImanWire podcast


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