Most Americans can agree on at least one thing: They want the threat from Islamist terrorism to diminish. How to achieve that, however, is much more contentious. Case in point: the federal government's Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE, program.
George Selim, the director of the Office of Community Partnerships, has described CVE as, "the first federal assistance program devoted exclusively to providing local communities with the resources to counter violent extremism in the homeland ... to support new and existing community-based efforts to counter violent extremist recruitment and radicalization to violence."
This sums up the Obama administration's preference for local, community-led initiatives to CVE. In the last days of the Obama administration, the Department of Homeland Security announced $10 million worth of CVE grants for 31 organizations that reflected this preference.
Yet with the Trump administration seemingly more skeptical of CVE's worth, re-evaluations took place based on these groups' track record of effectiveness and potential for delivering results. The outcome of these deliberations was recently revealed when the DHS approved $10 million worth of grants to 26 organizations to carry out CVE work.
Homeland Security stated this "will advance America's capacity to counter terrorist recruitment and radicalization in the United States through community-driven solutions." In this, the DHS was employing CVE language very familiar to the Obama team.
However, when the grants are examined, it appears Secretary John Kelly is trying to re-calibrate CVE away from a community-driven approach and towards law enforcement. Boston Police Foundation, the City of Houston Office of Public Safety & Homeland Security, Denver Police Department and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department had their budgets increased. Hennepin County Sheriff's Office (Twin Cities area) and Alameda County Sheriff's Office (San Francisco area) were not included in the Obama-era grants but now are getting almost an extra million dollars between them.
Furthermore, those who could offer greater accountability were apparently prioritized over feel-good community projects. For example, one grant that was completely cut was for Music in Common, which says it "empowers diverse cultures and faiths to discover common ground through collaborative songwriting, multimedia and performance." Worthy aims, perhaps, yet it is hard to argue they should be taxpayer-funded, and harder still to argue that it will make America safer from terrorism.
Another group Homeland Security is now choosing not to back is the Muslim Public Affairs Council, or MPAC. This was perhaps the most controversial of the original DHS grants, considering MPAC's historic ideological sympathies towards the Muslim Brotherhood and equivocal attitude toward the terrorist group Hamas.
One of the group's founders, Salam al-Marayati, took to the airwaves after 9/11 to say Israel should be considered a suspect behind the attack and has described Hezbollah military operations as "legitimate resistance." MPAC statements are also often critical of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, which the council has sought to cast as a war on Islam itself.
That some of the groups the DHS chose to financially back were slightly different was also not always DHS's choice. Of the 31 identified by the Obama administration, four dropped out, seemingly unwilling to work alongside the Trump administration. This included Ka Joog, whose ambition is to "create a better world by providing community-based, culturally specific programs and services to Somali youth and their family," and Unity Productions Foundation, which aimed to "counter bigotry and create peace through the media."
This apparent shift away from a community-led approach is close to heresy for some CVE professionals, both in the U.S. and in Europe. Yet we do not really know that a "community-led" response is better, or reduces trust in government, because conceptually it is so hard to measure satisfactorily CVE's efficacy. And without those satisfactory metrics, the temptation will be for governments across the world to just keep chucking money at the problem and hope or presume it is doing some good.
For now, however, Homeland Security appears to have adopted a more hardheaded approach to CVE – and made at least some headway in bringing greater accountability to its spending.
This piece originally appeared in The Sacramento Bee