What Are the Implications of the 2016 Election for Countering Violent Extremism in the US?

Key Takeaways:

  • The incoming Trump administration will rebrand the federal government's Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program from a generic effort to prevent radicalization into a specific war against ‘radical Islam.’
  • Beyond a change in the tone of CVE, details about concrete next steps remain murky at present.
  • Still, Trump’s national security team contains several members who believe that calling out Islam by name is only the first step in a broader war of ideas.
  • The ideological frame suggests that the Trump may also make good on his electoral promise to establish a Commission on Radical Islam to expose “the failures” of Islamism that is redolent of the Cold War effort to discredit Communism.
  • Trump has embraced racial profiling and is likely to increase intelligence gathering activities within Muslim communities in America. An increased focus on combating ideology may also come to mean more aggressive surveillance of those suspected of preaching Islamist ideas.

CVE During the Age of Obama

Under President Barack Obama, the US government’s domestic efforts to deprive groups like the Islamic State of recruits and financing has centered around the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Task Force. Led by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Justice (DoJ), the Task Force also draws officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as well as the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and other agencies to counter extremist propaganda on social media and identify so-called ‘extremists’ before they commit acts of violence at home or abroad.

The CVE program is generically focused on reducing all kinds of extremism. However, in practice, CVE’s central mission has been to prevent young people from becoming indoctrinated by radical Islam. To this end, the Obama administration has spent millions of dollars researching and funding law enforcement pilot programs in major cities designed to foster trust between police and Muslim communities and encourage the latter to share information about vulnerable youth. Despite the government’s bid to gain buy-in from the Muslim American community by explicitly recognizing that extremism is not unique to any one social group, these efforts have been only modestly successful. Civil rights and Muslim community organizations have criticized the program, questioning its effectiveness, citing the limited basis of empirical support for these policies, and arguing that CVE has contributed to the further stigmatization of Muslims in America.

Whither CVE in the Age of Trump?

The future of CVE under a Donald Trump presidency is not yet clear but it will almost certainly be rebranded with an explicit—and likely exclusive—focus on radical Islam.

Throughout his electoral campaign, Trump consistently attacked the Obama administration for not doing enough to battle radical Islam. According to Trump and his advisers, CVE is the epitome of political correctness run amok; with its studious avoidance of any official mention of Islam or jihadism, CVE traffics in newspeak-style euphemisms largely to avoid causing bruised feelings.

The incoming executive branch is not alone: Republicans in Congress are already pushing DHS to abandon the current approach. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas—who personally sponsored the original Countering Violent Extremism Act of 2015 that initially elevated CVE as a priority for DHS—said in a recent speech that the administration should "repeal and replace" Obama's "failed, politically correct 'Countering Violent Extremism' policies in favor of a program refashioned to target "radical Islamist terror."

The Purpose of Repackaging CVE to Speak Explicitly about Targeting Radical Islam

Many experts say that such a change will only exacerbate fraught relations with the Muslim American community, whose assistance is needed to identify at-risk youth and prevent violence. But others, notably Mike Flynn, Trump's pick to serve as National Security Advisor, have argued that Islamism must be singled out by name and engaged with in a war of ideas, akin to what was once done against other 'isms' such as communism and imperialism. Flynn's recent writings on the subject argue in favor of an ideological counter-offensive that would persuade the American people about the necessity of fighting radical Islam, and also address Muslims who remain vulnerable to recruitment by ISIS and other radical Islamist groups.

This ideological frame suggests that the Trump response might well go beyond military tactics to encompass information campaigns that expose "the failures" of radical Islam redolent of the Cold War. Indeed, Trump's electoral platform explicitly contains a proposal to establish a Commission on Radical Islam that would function to "to identify and explain to the American public the core convictions and beliefs of Radical Islam, to identify the warning signs of radicalization, and to expose the networks in our society that support radicalization."

The ideological battle could push the Trump administration to increase the government's surveillance powers, which several of his advisors have advocated. Mike Pompeo, Trump's nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), suggested in a recent speech that people who spread ideas associated with radical Islam may well be considered part of a jihadist network and detained. Likewise, Katherine Gorka, a Trump transition team member liaising with DHS, has long advocated a more aggressive focus on countering radical Islamist ideology including the surveillance and interdiction of those who preach jihadist ideas. Gorka has also pushed legislation that would designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group and impose sanctions on "affiliated" groups, including established civil rights organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).


When Trump assumes office he will inherit the federal government's program to undercut extremist propaganda on social media and elsewhere, while identifying and dissuading those who might consider joining such groups or conducting 'lone wolf' operations on their own. While Trump has variously claimed that he will ban Muslim immigrants, ban immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, and institute a Muslim registry, as far as specifics go, Trump himself has so far had little to say about preventing radicalization other than expecting Muslim Americans to report suspicious activity in their community to law enforcement.

An open question has been whether and how Trump may act on these inchoate beliefs and translate them into concrete policies. At present, beyond the certainty of changing the tone and rhetoric of CVE, details about concrete next steps remain murky at present. Nonetheless, given the preferences of many on Trump national security team to wage an ideological war against radical Islam and his own unapologetic embrace of racial profiling, we are likely to see at the very least increasing police scrutiny and intelligence surveillance of Muslim communities.