USC Price School of Public Policy

Overview of HVE

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Dr. Erroll Southers (center) at an informational meeting on HVE with officials from South and Central Asia.

WHAT IS HVE?

Homegrown violent extremism (HVE) represents the next challenge for global counterterrorism. In that regard, homegrown terrorists target individuals who are members or representatives of their own country. Timothy McVeigh, who parked a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring 680 more, is an example.

Extremism is a primary feature of terrorist behavior. Violent extremism occurs when individuals or groups openly express their ideological beliefs through violence or a call for violence. While extremism may be a precursor to terrorism, ideological beliefs do not independently reach the threshold for an act of terrorism. There is a distinct difference between “terrorist” and “extremist” organizations. So long as extremist groups do not explicitly endorse violence, their beliefs and ideology are protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Much like the word “terrorism,” there is no comprehensive definition for HVE. For homegrown and foreign actors alike, there is no consistency with regard to race, religious belief, national origin, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or indeed, any other characteristic (aside from the desire to attack structures or people to achieve an ideologically driven societal, governmental, or economic goal.

Recognizing that one size does not fit all in the counterterrorism lexicon, this program uses the following definition as a baseline for comparative analysis of the homegrown phenomenon:

HVE describes a terrorist act within the context of ideologically motivated violence or plots, perpetrated within the United States or abroad by American citizens, residents or visitors, who have embraced their legitimizing ideology largely within the United States.

WHY NOT CVE?

You have likely heard the phrase “countering violent extremism” or “CVE” in the context of the alleged war on terror, and particularly in response to the homegrown threat we face. What image does this conjure up in your mind? For some, it will be the heinous attack on the Boston Marathon. For others, it may be the cowardly assault in Charleston, South Carolina, as church members were gathered in prayer. And for a few, they may recall the fatal shooting of a TSA officer, who was simply doing the job he was sworn to do. All of these incidents were acts of terrorism, committed by homegrown violent extremists embracing a diverse collection of ideologies – one religious, one racial and the last incident, issue-oriented.

As we know all to well, 9/11 was a global game-changing event. Nations were forced to respond to the threat of transnational terrorism on their home turf. As government departments were stood up, along with requisite polices, processes and technologies intended to harden targets, the United Kingdom moved ahead of the curve, regarding the homegrown threat and how to respond.

In an effort to reduce the risk of “al Qaeda-inspired” recruitment, radicalization and related terrorist incidents in the aftermath of numerous attempted and successful attack in the United States, Europe and around the world, the United Kingdom launched the Preventing Violent Extremism Strategy (Prevent). It was considered one of the best in the world when it was implemented in 2003. At its core, Prevent focused on radicalization and recruitment prevention (rather than simply HVE detection) and acknowledged the importance of enlisting the community in the fight against terrorism. In the words of Charles Farr, the head of the U.K.’s Office for Security and Counter-terrorism, Prevent “was the Government’s recognition that as a nation, we cannot arrest our way out of the terrorist threat we face” nor can we “protect ourselves physically to the point where the threat is mitigated entirely.”

While an innovative and insightful approach to the growing potential for HVE in the U.K., the initial strategy was criticized for four primary problems:

  1. The strategy’s concept of radicalization: There was a lack of consensus or conceptual clarity on the definition of radicalization.
  2. A narrow focus on Muslims: The original program looked exclusively at the Muslim community, essentially labeling all Muslims as potentially “at risk” while ignoring other groups engaged in extremist activities.
  3. The implementation methodology: The program funded efforts in Muslim communities based on the size of the Muslim population in a given area. Inasmuch as the additional risk factors were ignored (particularly other sources of extremism), the community perceived that the program was intended to “spy on Muslims.”
  4. Negative program consequences: In considering the Muslim population (irrespective of behavior), the program inadvertently created a relationship of mistrust. This compromised the goal of community engagement and support and potentially helped create an environment ripe for extremist recruitment based on the resentment of the British government.

Arguably, the average American has come to relate CVE efforts as those focused on ISIL-inspired adversaries. However, one should consider several recent studies that might offer the best assessment on the threat of an attack:

  • In 2014, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) Center’s report, local law enforcement concluded: “Sovereign Citizen movement perceived as top terrorist threat,” followed by Muslim extremists and militia/patriot group members.
  • In 2015, the New America Foundation reported, since September 11, 2001, nearly twice as many victims have been killed by anti-government adherents, white supremacists and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims: 48 were killed by non-Muslim extremists, compared with 26 self-proclaimed jihadists.

Communities designated as “CVE pilot programs” are complaining about the issue of the myopic focus of CVE to the exclusion of other extremist ideologies. A strategy seemingly serving to further erode the community’s trust in government. The government has to embrace a strategy designed to counter all violent extremism, if it intends to achieve any successes in this initiative. Approaching communities based on religion or country of origin, which is the perceived criteria of CVE at this point, neutralizes the effort before it gets out of the gate.