Center for Strategic Communication

The aftermath of violent late September clashes in Benghazi, Libya. Photo: AP/Mohammad Hannon

The day after Islamic extremists attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the nation’s top counterterrorists hosted something of a brainstorming session on how to keep violent extremism down in the long term. While the consulate burned, 100 or so intelligence analysts, military officers, prosecutors, academics and civil rights experts gathered in the McLean auditorium of the MITRE Corporation, a federally funded research center, for a conference on “Countering Violent Extremism / Community Engagement.” Some of the invited speakers, like Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, couldn’t make it because of the crisis. Still, the attendees included high-ranking officials from the White House, the State Department, and the National Counterterrorism Center, which serves as the government’s lead analytical agency in the fight against terrorists and played host for the two-day think session. Afterward, according to a draft agenda obtained by Danger Room, attendees were invited to a nearby mall for a happy hour at Coastal Flats, a restaurant known for its crab cakes.

On the second day of the conference — scheduled long before the Mideast unrest — the attendees got into classified discussions on countering al-Qaida’s narrative and measuring the effect of counter-radicalization programs. But on the first day, at least, some of the conversations were more broadly based. A State Department official, Shahed Amanullah, ran through the ways effective al-Qaida propagandists spread their message on the internet, and described how a program he runs, called Viral Peace, seeks to troll the online radicals. Along with the NCTC’s Dan Sutherland, one of the government’s point people on stemming the appeal of al-Qaida, Amanullah took counterterrorists on a basic tour of the online extremist horizon and walked them through a few of the things the government does to confront it. It was 11 years and a day after 9/11, and the day after arguably the biggest intelligence and security failure of the Obama administration.

The U.S. has become exceptional killing Islamic extremists. But it still doesn’t know how to undercut the appeal of Islamic extremism.

During those 11 years, the U.S. has become exceptional at hunting and killing Islamic extremists. But it still does not know how to undercut the basic appeal of Islamic extremism. Until it does, all the drone strikes and commando raids can do is keep terrorist attacks at bay. So experts inside and outside the government are working on an inchoate effort to supplement counterterrorism called CVE, for Countering Violent Extremism. It seeks a durable end to al-Qaida, through dissuading people from becoming terrorists in the first place.

“With CVE, the spectrum starts at prevention, with the regular Joe on the street,” explains Humera Khan, who runs a number of such prophylactic programs and who spoke at the Sept. 12 event. “The idea is to increase the barriers to entry, so that he never goes down that radical path.”

The problem is no one in or outside of the government is quite sure how to accomplish that task, and even some CVE advocates doubt whether the government will ever be able to do so.

A national security priority of the Obama White House, CVE is supposed to work by using the various government security branches to “empower” Muslim communities at home and abroad. The idea, its advocates explain, is that the U.S. government can’t actually provide a resolution to the problem of Muslim extremism; Muslims communities themselves, with the indirect support of the government, have to do that. Much of the energy behind CVE work comes from outside government — these days, from an initiative spearheaded by Google. The government version of CVE seeks merely to provide cash and other resources for anti-radical “education.” Or, as a White House strategy document put it, “Foster community-led partnerships and preventative programming to build resilience against violent extremist radicalization by expanding community-based solutions.”

If that sounds vague to you, you’ve got plenty of company in Washington. There’s nothing wrong with ambitious, long-term thinking, especially about how to bring the war on terrorism to a successful conclusion. But “community-based solutions” can mean everything from after-school programs to moderate Islamic rap to viral videos. It’s tempting, U.S. officials say, for security bureaucrats to repackage their routine outreach efforts with Muslim community leaders as CVE in order to placate the White House. Measuring the success of CVE is difficult. So is tallying the money spent on it. Inside the government, CVE advocates lament that Washington talks a lot more about CVE than it actually does; and critics contend that CVE is all messaging and no substance. There’s also an unmistakeable air of political correctness to it, with practitioners defensively insisting that their focus stretches beyond Muslim extremism.

There are also major legal issues, especially when the government engages in counter-radicalization at home. Countering al-Qaida’s message means countering al-Qaida’s theology. It means, in effect, calling one branch of Islam authentic and another one bogus. Which is a problem, since taking sides in theological disputes runs headlong into First Amendment’s prohibition against establishing a religion. “The U.S. is not going to pontificate on excerpts from the Quran,” explains Juan Zarate, a deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism in George W. Bush’s White House and an early CVE advocate. “It’s an impediment — a necessary one, given our Constitution.” But the CVE workaround is to indirectly promote alternative Muslim voices, which is arguably not much different.

So it’s no wonder that the National Counterterrorism Center felt the need to take stock of CVE. Its strategic importance could be enormous. But for now, it remains a well-meaning but immature discipline, with its leading figures readily admitting that they’re still feeling around in the dark. And conspicuously, CVE avoids discussing any change to U.S. policies in the Islamic world that spur Muslim anger. The only thing uniting everyone involved in the CVE debate is that any solution CVE yields won’t manifest for a long, long time. Better order another round of crab cakes.