The pseudoscience of countering violent extremism

New anti-radicalization efforts are a big business with little payoff

April 17, 2015 2:00AM ET

During a visit to the United States several years ago, I was drawn to a billboard on a New Jersey Transit platform that depicted a train bombing, helpfully labeled “train bombing.” The sign warned that “we’re all on the front lines” and encouraged viewers to report suspicious activity to the New Jersey Transit police via phone call or text message.

Closer inspection of the billboard revealed that the front lines in question in fact belonged to Madrid’s Atocha railway station, site of a 2004 terrorist attack. But hey, it’s a globalized world.

Today, we’re deeper in the trenches than ever before — and there’s more to the paranoia than meets the eye. The mutually reinforcing relationship between hyper-militarization abroad and over-policing at home means now we’re really determined to explore every option, no matter how baseless, in the ostensible pursuit of security.

The CVE industry

Despite the seemingly innocuous nature of government campaigns such as “If You See Something, Say Something™,” the field of domestic terrorism prevention is one of refined Orientalist pseudoscience. Among its guiding texts is a 2007 manual, courtesy of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division, which lists signs that an individual may be on a path to “Jihadization.”

According to the report, a person’s “progression along the radicalization continuum” can be signaled by “giving up cigarettes, drinking, gambling and urban hip-hop gangster clothes” or “becoming involved in social activism and community issues.”

Beneath the invented technical jargon is an invitation to unabashed and limitless racial and religious profiling, with the apparent crime of being Muslim further underscored by an expansive list of “radicalization incubators” and “nodes” that can host the radicalization process. In addition to mosques, these include “cafes, cab driver hangouts, flophouses, prisons, student associations, nongovernmental organizations, hookah (water pipe) bars, butcher shops and book stores.”

Meanwhile, given that “urban hip-hop gangster clothes” often trigger other police responses such as stop-and-frisk, it might be helpful if the NYPD sat down and composed a coherent inventory of approved wardrobe items.

No serious government undertaking is complete without acronyms, and here too the counter-radicalization program shines. Take the NSI: the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative — a collaborative effort between the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and SLTT (state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement outfits). As a blog post by American Civil Liberties Union attorney Julia Harumi Mass notes, this has enabled the FBI to collect a colossal database of information, because the state’s “loose standards define practically anything as suspicious.”

Then there’s the trendy business of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), which, among other things, encourages teachers and parents to serve as the eyes and ears of the national security state. The problem here, Harumi Mass writes, is that “under CVE, normal teenage behavior could be an indicator of the potential to engage in terrorism.”

DHS advocates a prevention-focused, community-based approach to CVE, which will ideally render the members of said community “more inclined to share suspicious information with law enforcement.” A CVE working group (CVEWG) led by a CVE Coordinator has been established to oversee operations.

To be sure, there’s no better way to promote resilient and cohesive communities that aren’t susceptible to radical antisocial pathologies than by having residents spy on one another and parents terror-tattle on their children. (Better still when the FBI pays informants to radicalize folks.)

How does one counter violent extremism when so much of what one does qualifies as extreme violence?

Beyond its own immediate battle against Domestic Terrorists and Homegrown Violent Extremists (HVEs), the U.S. is also deeply concerned with helping other nations confront their problems. In February, the White House Summit To Counter Violent Extremism gathered foreign leaders, United Nations officials, and “a broad range of international representatives and members of civil society” — including those interested in making a buck off the CVE industry.

And many a buck is to be made, judging from the White House’s press release about the summit, which plugs “social media solutions” to violent extremism. According to the release, the US “and our partners in the private sector are organizing multiple ‘technology camps’ in the coming months, in which social media companies will work with governments, civil society, and religious leaders to develop digital content that discredits violent extremist narratives and amplifies positive alternatives.” Google, Facebook and Twitter were all represented at the summit.

Violence and safe spaces

Among America’s illustrious allies in its global counterterrorism effort is the United Arab Emirates, which with the United Kingdom co-chairs the CVE working group at the Global Counterterrorism Forum, launched in New York in 2011. Abu Dhabi also plays host to Hedayah, the International Center for Excellence in Countering Violent Extremism, which is listed as one of DHS’s crucial CVE partners.

Never mind that the Emirates’ version of CVE appears to include such dubious actions as deporting resident Shiites en masse and hiring Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater (rebranded as Academi), to form secret mercenary armies. It’s no doubt fitting that the UAE, an eager client of the U.S. defense industry, has been propelled to the vanguard of counter-jihad.

A State Department fact sheet boasting $188 million worth of “ongoing and planned CVE efforts” emphasizes support for Hedayah as well as other initiatives such as those that “seek to create safe spaces for dialogue between women community leaders and law enforcement” and that “amplify … the voices of victims/survivors of terrorism.” Drone-strike survivors need not apply.

This brings us to the question: how does one counter violent extremism when so much of what one does qualifies as extreme violence? Furthermore, don’t one’s own violent acts — drone assassinations, bombing civilians, torturing people and supporting oppressive governments — help breed the very violence that must then be countered? Owning up to this arrangement would, of course, mean ceasing to have our cake and eat it too.

In an op-ed for Al Jazeera America on the February summit in Washington, Amnesty International USA director Steven W. Hawkins warned that abusive regimes could take advantage of CVE-mania and use international funding to violate human rights if the U.S. failed to insist on appropriate safeguards.

But this analysis overlooks the fact that CVE programs are already an affront to these rights, right here at home. As the ACLU’s National Security Project Director Hina Shamsi recently emailed me, the CVE strategy “does not include necessary safeguards to protect privacy and constitutional rights [and] risks treating people, especially young people, as security threats based on vague and virtually meaningless criteria.”

In the end, she wrote, the strategy “risks further alienating the very communities it’s meant to engage.” 

Surely it’s nothing that can’t be fixed with CAI, a counter-alienation industry.

Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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