Countering Violent Extremism in the US

Are We Safer Now?

Destroyed World Trade Center two days after the 9/11/01 terror attacks
Ground Zero Two Days After World Trade Center Terror Attack. Chris Hondros / Getty Images

Acts of violent extremism have been perpetrated in the United States by both foreign and domestic or “homegrown” violent extremists for decades. What steps does the U.S. federal government take to counter violent extremism and how effective have they been?

What is Violent Extremism and Who Does It?

Violent extremism is generally defined as acts of violence motivated by extreme ideological, religious, or political beliefs. In the United States, acts of violent extremism have been perpetrated by anti-government groups, white supremacists, and radical Islamists, among others.

Recent examples of such attacks include the 1993 bombing of New York City’s World Trade Center by radical Islamists, in which 6 people were killed; the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City by far right anti-government individuals, in which 168 people lost their lives; and the 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California by a radical Islamist couple, which took 14 lives. Of course the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, carried out by radical Islamists and killing 2,996 people, stands as the most deadly attack resulting from violent extremism in U.S. history.

Detailed lists of all attacks carried out by violent extremists from September 12, 2001 through December 31, 2016, that resulted in fatalities can be found in the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report GAO-17-300.

The Impact of ‘Homegrown’ Extremism

While the September 11, 2001, attacks were perpetrated by foreign violent extremists, data from the U.S. Extremist Crime Database (ECDB) as reported to the GAO show that from September 12, 2001 through December 31, 2016, attacks conducted by violent extremists “homegrown” in the United States resulted in 225 deaths.

Of those 225 deaths, 106 were killed by homegrown far right wing violent extremists in 62 separate incidents, and 119 were victims of radical Islamist violent extremists in 23 separate incidents. According to the ECDB, no fatalities resulted from the activities of far left wing violent extremists during the period.

According to the ECDB, fatalities resulting from attacks carried out by far right wing extremists have exceeded deaths from attacks by radical Islamists in 10 of the 15 years since September 12, 2001, and were the same in three years.

What Drives Violent Extremists?

The ECDB characterizes far right violent extremist attackers as having beliefs including some or all of the following:

  • Fiercely nationalistic;
  • Fiercely anti-global or international;
  • Suspicion of the federal government’s intentions and authority;
  • Extreme reverence for individual rights, such as gun ownership or freedom from taxation;
  • Belief in conspiracy theories that result in grave threats to national sovereignty or personal liberty;
  • Belief that the government is attacking or has already taken their “way of life.”
  • Belief in a need to prepare for such attacks by taking part in paramilitary preparations and training or survivalism.

The ECDB also reported to the GAO that many far right extremists support some version of white supremacy, such as the Ku Klux Klan, and neo-Nazism.

Based on their statements made before, during, or after their attacks, or evidence gathered by police, the ECDB reports that violent radical Islamists generally express a belief in or allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), al Qaeda, or other radical Islamist-associated terrorist group.

How the U.S. Counters Violent Extremism

The Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and National Counterterrorism Center are responsible for carrying out the 2011 Strategic Implementation Plan for preventing violent extremism in the United States.

As the GAO notes, countering violent extremism is different from counterterrorism. While counterterrorism focuses on gathering evidence and making arrests before attacks occur, countering violent extremism involves community outreach, engagement, and counseling to prevent individuals from becoming radicalized to violence.

A Proactive Approach

According to the GAO, the government takes a proactive approach to countering violent extremism by thwarting efforts by extremists to recruit, radicalize, and mobilize new followers.

The three parts of this proactive effort are:

  1. empowering communities and community leaders;
  2. messaging and counter–messaging; and
  3. identifying and addressing the causes and driving forces of radicalization.

While traditional counterterrorism efforts include activities such as collecting intelligence, gathering evidence, making arrests, and responding to incidents, the government’s effort to prevent violent extremism focus on preventing individuals from finding or acting out on a motive for committing violent acts.

Focus is on Local Communities

In February 2015, the Obama administration released a fact sheet stating that countering violent extremism requires combining the preventative aspects of counterterrorism with community and individual intervention to reduce the attractions to violent extremist movements and their ideologies that encourage violence.

In addition, the Obama administration specified that the government’s efforts to counter violent extremism are not to include gathering intelligence or performing investigations for the purpose of criminal prosecution. Instead, noted the White House, the government should address the root causes of violent extremism by:

  • Building community awareness: For example, the U.S. Attorney’s and the Department of Homeland Security host local outreach meetings in which they provide information on identifying suspicious activity.   
  • Countering violent extremist narratives: For example, the Department of Justice, consults with the International Association of Chiefs of Police to produce awareness briefs on countering the use of online social media to radicalize and recruit individuals.
  • Emphasizing community-led intervention: For example, the FBI offers tools to help communities identify and train social workers and mental health professionals who can help support at-risk individuals and prevent them from becoming radicalized.

With so many of these efforts to counter violent extremism taking place at the local level, the role of the federal government is a mostly a combination of funding and distributing research and training materials, and educating the public. Educational efforts take place through local public forums, websites, social media, and communications to state and local governments, including law enforcement agencies.

Is the U.S. Safer from Violent Extremism?

Congress asked the GAO to review the progress made by the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and local stakeholders in implementing the 2011 Strategic Implementation Plan for preventing violent extremism in the United States.

In its April 2017 response to Congress, the GAO stated that as of December 2016, the agencies responsible for countering violent extremism had implemented 19 of the 44 domestically-focused tasks included in the 2011 Strategic Implementation Plan. The 44 tasks are intended to address the three plan’s three core objectives: community outreach, research and training, and capacity building -- developing the skills, instincts, abilities, processes and resources needed by the communities to prevent violent extremism.

While 19 of the 44 tasks had been implemented, the GAO reported that an additional 23 tasks were in progress, while no action had been taken on two tasks. The two tasks that had not yet been addressed included, implementation of countering violent extremism programs in prisons and learning from the experiences of former violent extremists.

The GAO also found that the lack of a “cohesive strategy or process” for measuring the overall effort to counter violent extremism made it impossible to determine if the United States is safer today than in 2011 as a result of the Strategic Implementation Plan.

The GAO recommended that the Countering Violent Extremism Task Force develop a cohesive strategy with measurable outcomes and establish a process to assess the overall progress of counter extremism efforts.