GAO Weighs In On “Countering Violent Extremism”

"Evidence shows that the overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in, nor support, violence.”
Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan

The ongoing controversy and litigation over the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban” has reignited a debate that has raged since the 9/11 attacks: Who commits more domestic terrorism–violent Salafists or traditional “right wing” extremists? According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, it’s the latter and by a very wide margin. From p. 4 of GAO’s report:

Of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001, far right wing violent extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73 percent) while radical Islamist violent extremists were responsible for 23 (27 percent).

But as researchers at the Georgia State recently reported, media coverage of terrorist incidents makes it seem as if terrorism is almost exclusively perpetrated by Muslims:

We examined news coverage from LexisNexis Academic and CNN.com for all terrorist attacks in the United States between 2011 and 2015. Controlling for target type, fatalities, and being arrested, attacks by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449% more coverage than other attacks. Given the disproportionate quantity of news coverage for these attacks, it is no wonder that people are afraid of the Muslim terrorist. More representative media coverage could help to bring public perception of terrorism in line with reality.

That incident-media reporting disconnect is matched by another: the notion that Arab/Muslim-Americans are more susceptible to radicalization, and thus to becoming terrorists, and that there are a discreet set of reliable indicators that will tell authorities who is or is not more likely to become a terrorist.

The same month the Georgia State researchers released their terrorism-media bias findings, the Brennan Center released a report on the state of the debate and federal “countering violent extremism” (CVE) programs. Citing dozens of empirical studies and recognized experts in the fields of criminology, psychology, and intelligence, the report states “Extreme or radical views are often assumed to lie at the heart of terrorism. But evidence shows that the overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in, nor support, violence.”

With respect to the alleged role of Salafist ideology in motivating domestic acts of terror, the Brennan Center study quotes the FBI’s own assessment on the topic:

It is difficult to quantify the degree to which Islamist materials and ideologues — such as Anwar al-Aulaqi (US Person), Abdullah e-Faisal, and Feiz Muhammed, all of whom appeal to English-speaking audiences — played a part in the radicalization of the persons included in this assessment. … While Internet personalities are often cited as a source of radicalization, factors outside the scope of this assessment — such as social environment and personal psychology (how a person processes both external and internal messaging) — were also influential.

As for claims that there are a combination of indicators that, if detected early enough, can tell family, friends, or local authorities who may be on the path to terrorism, the Brennan Center report uses the research and conclusions of former CIA officer Marc Sageman to rebut the notion. “…we still do not know what leads people to engage in political violence. Attempts to discern a terrorist ‘profile’ or to model terrorist behavior have failed to yield lasting insights.”

That hasn’t stopped the FBI, via it’s now-infamous “Don’t Be A Puppet” website, from continuing to peddle the debunked “terrorist profile” concept. And as the Brennan Center report lays out, the FBI is only one of a number of federal, state, or local entities using discredited “terrorist profile” models.

Unfortunately, the Senate and House members who originally requested that GAO look at federal CVE programs–including Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) and ranking member Claire McCaskill (D-MO), along with House Homeland Security Committee ranking member Bennie Thompson (D-MS)–did not ask GAO to evaluate the theories and assumptions underlying federal CVE programs. Accordingly, the audit offers recommendations for tinkering with programs that discriminatorily and disproportionately target the Arab/Muslim-American community on the basis of long-since debunked notions about who and why someone becomes a terrorist.

House and Senate members need to base federal counterterrorism policies on facts–such as the role U.S. foreign policy in the Arab and Muslim world plays in fueling terrorism. Members of Congress who want to win the war of “hearts and minds” vis a vis ISIS need to remember that our greatest weapon is a strict adherence to constitutional norms of free association and speech, and that targeting fellow citizens of Arab descent or the Muslim faith for evidence-free surveillance and political repression only validates the ISIS narrative that America is at war with the Muslim and Arab world.

Republished from the Cato Institute.

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Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan