Preventing Violent Extremism at Home

As we approach twenty years of waging the global war on terror, it is evident militaries and law enforcement cannot kill or arrest our way out of violent extremism either abroad or at home. In two decades of working to prevent and reduce violent extremism overseas, the Alliance for Peacebuilding and its members learned violent extremism prevention programs must address the social and political drivers that push and pull people toward radicalization.

Anti-government movements across the U.S., are redirecting their rage from Washington D.C. to states like Michigan that are directly on the frontlines. Federal authorities believe white American extremists are the most urgent terror threat to the homeland. Many right-wing groups — Proud Boys, Michigan Liberty Militia, and Michigan Home Guard — are active in Michigan. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel linked armed protests in Lansing and the unsuccessful plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer as precursors to the violence in Washington DC.

President Biden recently released a domestic terrorism strategy that for the first time focuses on homegrown threats and specifically states the Administration will address “the sources of that mobilization to violence.” However, the funding overwhelming still goes toward law enforcement and not prevention. What we know is that American radicalism is changing, becoming more mainstream and more virulent. Much of the impetus behind violent extremism is a defense of White, Christian rage. The polarization we are experiencing is growing swiftly, but there is much the U.S. Government can do to correct this course.

Law enforcement and intelligence communities will undoubtedly play a key role in thwarting violent extremist attacks, but the U.S. has legal limits on investigations of American citizens. A recent RAND study found measures taken by intelligence and law enforcement agencies can deepen ongoing radicalization processes and push salvageable cases to more extreme behaviors. The study confirmed what those working on violent extremism abroad already knew: abuse, trauma, difficult family situations, and negative life events often have psychological and behavioral consequences and implicated in radicalization pathways.

Secretary of Homeland Security Mayorkas testified in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee and announced a rebranding of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention to the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships (CP3). This new office is committed to a strategy that “embraces a whole-of-society prevention approach to combating violent domestic extremism and all other forms of targeted violence and terrorism.”

However, the DHS grants program, which supports civil society efforts to prevent extremism, needs robust funding. In FY 2021, the program received only $20 million which is an inadequate amount given the scope of the problem and in the Biden administration’s first budget request this amount remains flat. Congress should consider increasing funding to the new CP3 grants program to at least $50 million while increasing CP3’s overall funding to $150 million to enhance the agency’s ability to place regional representatives countrywide and build local, state, and civil society partnerships.

Civil society is already working across the U.S. in local communities to bridge the urban-rural divide, engage in interreligious dialogue, apply a health approach to disrupting violence, and building trust at the community level. Other organizations, like Parallel Networks, are implementing a project Ctrl+Alt+Del-Hate that addresses the drivers of extremism and underlying systemic issues. These programs include changing social norms and identifying and treating the highest risk individuals.

U.S. domestic extremism is a growing problem, and states like Michigan and others are on the frontlines. The threat will continue to metastasize nationally unless the U.S. government commits more resources to prevention efforts and provide off-ramps to vulnerable individuals. President Biden called for healing and unity in our deeply divided country. It is now time to turn those words into action by implementing the bold strategy but ensuring it is well-resourced; otherwise, we will fail to contain and prevent violent extremism resulting in increasing instability in the U.S.

Elizabeth Hume, Acting CEO of the Alliance for Peacebuilding.

Jesse Morton, former extremist and Co-Founder of Parallel Networks.

Theo Sitther, Senior Fellow at the Alliance for Peacebuilding.

Alliance for Peacebuilding is the leading global network working to end conflict and build sustainable peace worldwide. Our 145+ members work in 181 countries.