Decoding the White House Strategy for Preventing Violent Extremism
The White House has released its strategy for “countering violent extremism in the United States.” The strategy seeks to encourage the development and use of community approaches to addressing “all types of extremism that lead to violence, regardless of who inspires it.” It immediately makes clear that Muslim Americans have “categorically condemned terrorism” and have worked “with law enforcement to help prevent terrorists attacks” and even gone so far as to help with “programs to protect their sons and daughters from al Qaeda’s murderous ideology.”
Unequivocally made clear is the fact that the White House rejects a framework that specifically sets out a strategy, which focuses efforts and resources on Islamic extremism. It promotes the idea that all groups and individuals are susceptible to violent extremism and not all violent extremists are or have been Muslims. It concludes, “Any solution that focuses on a single, current form of violent extremism, without regard to other threats, will fail to secure” America and America’s communities. It finds government officials and the American public should not “stigmatize or blame communities because of the actions of a handful of individuals.”
Political leaders like Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) might take issue with the notion that all extremism is equally threatening. During a Senate hearing, “Ten Years After 9/11: A Report from the 9/11 Commission,” Lieberman declared:
…We’ve been so frustrated that the administration continues to resist identifying the ideology; preferring instead to say that we’re in a conflict with violent extremism. Well, it is violent extremism, but it’s a particular kind of extremism. In our report on the Fort Hood attack by Hasan, we pointed out that the Defense Department has even tried at one point to characterize the threat represented by the Fort Hood attack as workplace violence. But, of course, it was lot more than that.
So you know, I guess I understand what’s going on here, which I think somebody thinks that if we use the term “Islamist extremism,” it’s offensive to Muslims. But I think it’s quite the opposite, because it’s — We’re talking about, as you said, [Thomas Kean], a very small group within a larger community, certainly here in America, people who are followers of Islam, not Islamist extremism…
Yet, this strategy clearly rejects the dogma of Lieberman. It also entirely snubs the efforts of Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who in the past months has held three “Muslim radicalization” hearings. And, it is much more in line with Rep. Yvette Clarke’s (D-NY) views on extremism than King’s:
Radicalization is cross cultural, cross religious cross ethnic for us to focus on very specific communities and not putting the full gamut in perspective opens us up to the disdain of others. That then perpetuates the notion that we’re trying to combat. I really want to discourage us from stigmatizing and ostracizing communities. This is a nation of diversity and for generations Muslims have been a part of the fabric of this nation. For us to focus in and say Muslim Americans specifically are this threat when I can also talk about gang radicalization, domestic terrorism in my community. I don’t see the same type of resources being put into communities that are poor where young people are being jumped into gangs. And, I think that the lives that have been taken from that type of activity [are] just as valid. So, we need to take a look at our motives here and certainly wanting to educate the public is fine but when we become fixated on a particular group of people we take our eyes off the prize. And then we become even more vulnerable because the unexpected happens. The unexpected happens like in Norway.
The strategy provides justification that could be used by the White House to ensure King never chairs another hearing that explicitly singles out Muslims. The strategy states, “Misinformation about the threat and dynamics of radicalization to violence can harm our security by sending local stakeholders in the wrong direction and unnecessarily creating tensions with potential community partners.” King’s hearings could be considered a security threat because they do just that: create unnecessary tension and pull security policy in the wrong direction.
No Definition of “Extremism” or “Extremist”
The framework seems to be a reasonable and well-rounded approach to any current or future threat of violent extremism. However, the strategy does not define “extremism.” It doesn’t define what the White House considers to be an “extremist.” The strategy makes numerous statements that would essentially exclude certain individuals. It notes, “A particular ethnic, religious or national background does not necessarily equate to special knowledge of violent extremism.” It finds strong religious beliefs do not equal violent extremism. And, it makes clear “opposition to government policy is neither illegal nor unpatriotic and does not make someone a violent extremist.”
It may be encouraging that “extremism” or “extremist” is not defined. Defining extremism might portend curbs on individual’s free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and even rights to freedom of the press. However, “extremism” is relative. Not defining the terms gives just as much if not more leeway for law enforcement abuse.
A dictionary definition says an extremist is “a person who favors or resorts to immoderate uncompromising or fanatical methods or behavior, especially in being politically radical.” This definition could be used to describe a number of GOP political leaders. It could easily describe someone like Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. But, that extremism is not violent and is not what this strategy aims to address.
When does “extremism” or an “extremist” produce a threat of violence? It might be possible to develop an answer from the coordinator of the Office of Counterterrorism at the State Department, Ambassador Dan Benjamin, who made this statement on August 5, 2010, during a news briefing:
We’ve also seen U.S. citizens rise to prominence as proponents of violent extremism. The native Californian Adam Gadahn has become an Al-Qaeda spokesman, enabling the group to increasingly target its propaganda to Western audiences. Omar Hammami, an American who grew up in Alabama, has become an important Al-Shabab voice on the Internet.
The most notable of these, however, is Yemeni American Anwar Al- Awlaki, who has catalyzed a pool of potential recruits that others had failed to reach. The most important of these, of course, was — not Americans, but the most important whom he touched, shall we say, was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and was involved in — in his attempt at detonation of an incendiary device aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253.
We should make no mistake about the nature of Al-Awlaki. This is not just an ideologue, but someone at the heart of a group plotting terrorist acts against Americans.
Now, what Benjamin said about Abdulmutallab is partially true. Abdulmutallab may have heard Awlaki and concluded he had to take action. But, Abdulelah Hider Sha’ea, a Yemeni freelance writer who has contributed to Al Jazeera, has a tape with Awlaki saying he did not plot to bomb the American airliner but was proud of Abdulmutallab’s effort. If he had anything to do with planning the attempted terror attack, he would have said so in his sermons.
Manufacturing a Causal Relationship Between Speech & Violence
Al-Awlaki has been targeted by drones. The US has claimed the authority to extra-judicially kill Al-Awlaki, an American-born Muslim, because they are convinced his propaganda is fueling terror attacks. It is Al-Awlaki whom US officials have in mind when they speak about extremism dividing America. Thus, extremism is violent once a US government agency or department can construct a causal relationship between a person speaking radically in favor of violence or retaliation against the United States and a person or group of individuals that commit a terror attack.
James Von Brunn, a long-time and well-known white supremacist, shot a security guard at the United States Holocaust Museum on June 10, 2009. He was wounded during his attack and died while he was awaiting trial. Prior to the action, he was a celebrity among white pride groups for his “direct action” against the Federal Reserve in the 1980s.
In the neo-Nazi Vanguard News Network web forum, people left comments following the shooting like this comment: “Why he didn’t just take out a few rabbis, Jew bankers and ADL members instead of shooting up a building and shooting a guard, makes no sense. There will be more of these kinds of attacks on the kikenvermin. Let’s hope some of these guys do some planning next time and do some real damage instead of just blowing off steam like this.” At the white supremacist Stormfront web forum, people left comments like this one: “We need more people to take action. I, for one, hope the momentum keeps chugging along, regardless of the bad press.”
Further expanding this thread, in June 2010, Justine Sharrock published an article showing how “right wing extremists organize and promote violence on Facebook.” Shorrock highlighted the “American Resistance Movement, a network of militia groups” vowing to take up arms against “an increasingly tyrannical government.”
Consider whether anyone like a Muslim American could get away with doing what the above-mentioned groups do on social media. Such propaganda would instantly lead to a visit from the FBI or the Homeland Security Department shutting down the website for being a “jihadist website.” But, Homeland Security has not issued a cease-and-desist order to the owners of the two web forums. That’s because what they are engaged in is protected by the First Amendment.
How Violent Extremism is Addressed Depends on Foreign Policy
The difference in policy toward is not entirely inconsistent if one thinks the strategy for dealing with violent extremism is largely dependent on US foreign policy and whatever wars or policies the US government is perpetuating to advance so-called national interests. White jihad is not as threatening to those setting policy as Islamic jihad because none of the countries being bombed by the US are safe havens for white supremacists. If the US was constantly sending US troops on raids in a neo-Nazi stronghold in Denmark or mounting drone strikes on white supremacist safe havens in Switzerland, then white pride groups might be a serious threat.
Additionally, there are certain individuals who will always get a free pass to promote violence and those individuals are people who work for the US government. It is those who declare support for state-sponsored violence and violence the US government is unwilling to unequivocally oppose that will never be criminalized.
The most recent example of this comes from those incensed by the operations of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
“Headline: Assassinate Assange? Body: Julian Assange poses a clear and present danger to American national security … The administration must take care of the problem – effectively and permanently. ” –Jeffrey Kuhner, Washington Times columnist
“Julian Assange is a cyber terrorist in wartime, he’s guilty of sabotage, espionage, crimes against humanity — he should be killed, but we won’t do that. ” –Ralph Peters, US Army Lieutenant Colonel and author.
“This fellow Anwar al-Awlaki – a joint U.S. citizen hiding out in Yemen – is on a ‘kill list’ [for inciting terrorism against the U.S.]. Mr. Assange should be put on the same list. ” –G. Gordon Liddy, former White House Adviser and talk show host
“Julian Assange should be targeted like the Taliban.” –Sarah Palin, former US vice presidential candidate
“Whoever in our government leaked that information is guilty of treason, and I think anything less than execution is too kind a penalty. ” –Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee
None of the individuals who are calling for murder will be criminalized or sanctioned. And that’s because their calls for violence are not necessarily in conflict with any US policy toward WikiLeaks or groups/individuals that conspire to commit espionage (which the US government considers to be the commitment of WikiLeaks).
The cast and crew of Fox News are allowed to spew violent rhetoric on air. Dick Morris can suggest “crazies” in Montana might have a case for killing Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms agents. John Stossel can suggest on television that Rep. Barney Frank be hung in effigy. O’Reilly can incessantly talk about what he would do to get Tiller the baby killer (who was eventually assassinated and killed). And, Glenn Back could suggest on air that he is going to become a “progressive hunter” like Israelis were Nazi hunters, but when there is causal evidence to suggest sermonizing by TV personalities is pushing people to commit violence, Fox News’ broadcast license faces no threat of being revoked at all. Again, that’s because calling for the death of political leader, even President Obama, is not a development that will directly threaten any American foreign policy project if the monopoly of force, which the state wields, is not brought to bear against these people.
The strategy presents a decent foundation for addressing whatever extremism the nation should address. However, it is an utterly meaningless strategy if some of the poorest communities in America continue to be used by the FBI as a laboratory for launching entrapment schemes to catch so-called terrorists. It is purely prose if law enforcement continues to train agents or police to investigate and monitor not just crime but the religious practice and social behavior of entire communities. And, it is merely something officials in law enforcement can use to cover their ass and argue they are not targeting Muslims if Muslim Americans continue to have reason to believe their government is conducting surveillance on the mosques they pray in because of their religion.