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Statement for the record of DHS Office for Community Partnerships Director George Selim for a Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Oversight, Agency Action, Federal Rights and Federal Courts hearing titled “Willful Blindness: Consequences of Agency Efforts to Deemphasize Radical Islam in Combating Terrorism”

Release Date: 
June 28, 2016

226 Dirksen Senate Office Building

Chairman Cruz, Ranking Member Coons, and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to submit this written statement for the record. I welcome the opportunity to discuss priorities and key actions of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to address ISIL and other terrorist’s attempts at online recruitment and radicalization to violence.

Overview of Threat

In recent years, the threat from violent extremism has evolved. Terrorists at home and abroad are attempting to radicalize and recruit individuals to commit acts of violence within the United States. As Secretary Johnson has said, we are in a new phase in the global terrorist threat. We have moved from a world of terrorist-directed attacks to a world that increasingly includes the threat of terrorist-inspired attacks, one in which the attacker may never have come face-to-face with a member of a terrorist organization and instead lives among us and radicalizes to violence, inspired perhaps by messages and propaganda ISIL and other groups disseminate through social media. By their nature, such inspired attacks are harder for intelligence and law enforcement to detect and could occur with little or no notice, presenting a more complex security challenge.

We are concerned about attempts by ISIL and other terrorist groups to inspire lone offenders. For example, ISIL consistently releases high-quality English-language videos and magazines promoting its alleged caliphate and calling for supporters in the West to pursue attacks in their homelands.

We were forcefully reminded of this on the morning of June 12, when over 300 individuals were terrorized in an Orlando night club by a man who shot and killed 49 individuals and injured 53 more. We believe he may have been inspired in part by terrorist organizations overseas, resulting in the worst act of terrorism in the U.S. since 9/11 and the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.

Given the evolution of threats to the homeland, efforts to counter violent extremism here at home are vital.

Counterterrorism remains the cornerstone of the Department of Homeland Security’s mission, while homegrown violent extremists (HVEs) remain the most likely immediate threat to the homeland. As such, countering violent extremism has become a key focus of DHS’s work to secure the homeland.

While the Department takes all forms of violent extremism seriously, it prioritizes those forms that pose the greatest and most urgent threats to safety and security, namely those which involve ISIL and Al Qaeda.

Within this context, working with communities to prevent and intervene in the process of radicalization to violence has become a homeland security imperative. As Secretary Johnson has noted, Al Qaeda and ISIL are targeting Muslim communities in this country, and we must respond. Well informed families and communities are the best defense against terrorist ideologies, including violent Islamist ideologies, which represent the current threat from ISIL’s propaganda. Preventing homegrown terrorist attacks in the future will require the government and civic leaders to deepen their ties to American Muslim communities. Muslims are not only the greatest victims of ISIL inspired terrorism, but may also be best placed to identify potential symptoms of ISIL’s radicalization to violence.

The DHS Office for Community Partnerships (OCP) was created to further our domestic Countering Violent Extremism efforts and provide support to communities, state and local partners, and other civic organizations who are actively seeking tools and resources to protect their own communities. We have seen over and over again across the United States post-9/11 that federal efforts to prevent violent extremism will only be successful with the trust of local communities and stakeholders.

Development of CVE

Over the past several years, the U.S. government has acknowledged the need to go beyond traditional counterterrorism and law enforcement approaches to address the evolving threat from homegrown violent extremists and develop more comprehensive efforts aimed at addressing root causes to prevent the next generation of recruits.

This recognition has led to the prioritization of a prevention framework, known to many as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Whereas “counterterrorism” implies attempting to stop an individual who, in the eyes of the law, has already taken steps toward committing a terrorist act or joining a terrorist grouping using law enforcement, screening and protection activities, CVE counters the violent extremist recruitment, focusing on the root causes of many underlying motivations, and working to prevent those drivers, or provide “off-ramps” for individuals who may have taken steps toward embracing violent extremism. CVE encompasses a number of efforts, including prevention and intervention programming, as well as alternative dispositions which involves the possible development of disengagement programs in the post-crime context, both prior to trial and following conviction.

Our federal approach to CVE is described in the Administration’s 2011 National Strategy for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States, and is outlined in the subsequent Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.

Since 2012, the federal government has collectively held thousands of community engagements in cities around the country. These include, but are not limited to, Community Engagement Roundtables which have been hosted by the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties since 2005, Town Hall Meetings, Community Awareness Briefings and Community Resilience Exercises. I personally led our engagement efforts in Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan, and several other cities from 2006 to 2012. In addition, Office for Community Partnerships (OCP) field staff provide on-the-ground strategic engagement, outreach, logistical, training, and CVE subject matter expert support to the southern California and Denver regions.

In February 2015, the White House convened a three-day summit on CVE to bring local leaders together and discuss concrete steps to enhance support for community-led efforts. The White House CVE Summit showcased prevention frameworks that Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis developed, through programs and initiatives tailored to their local communities. These cities continue to advance local efforts, such as through engagement with mental health professionals, community outreach programs, and countering the message of violent extremist groups.

Internationally, DHS regularly exchanges best practices and works to enhance our understanding of regional threat variation through multilateral and bilateral engagements. At the most recent Five Country Ministerial meeting hosted by Secretary Johnson and Attorney General Lynch in February 2016, Ministers from the security, justice, and immigration ministries in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom committed to share best practices and methods for countering violent extremism, enhance analytical cooperation to measure the impacts of CVE programs, and develop an exchange program between officials in our five countries. They also recognized that violent extremism poses a critical threat for all five countries and decided to coordinate CVE activity, including by engaging with communities and with social media and other high-tech industries. They also recognized that while government engagement is important, government itself cannot and should not be the only actor to counter violent extremism, and needs to partner with communities to reach isolated and vulnerable individuals and address the drivers of violent extremism in our societies. These types of international engagements enhance our understanding of the challenges posed by radicalization to violence, and provide useful mechanisms for developing new approaches for addressing these challenges.

Taking our CVE Efforts to the Next Level

Recognizing the need to respond to the emerging threats, in 2015 Secretary Johnson announced an Office for Community Partnerships. This Office is dedicated to focusing the Department’s efforts in countering violent extremism and works to build relationships and promote trust with local communities across the United States.

OCP’s mission is to develop and implement a full-range of products and services to support and enhance efforts by key stakeholders to prevent radicalization and recruitment to violence by violent extremists. The Office leverages the resources and relationships of the Department and applies the personal leadership of the Secretary and senior leadership to empower leaders in both the public and private sectors to spur societal change to counter violent extremism.

Our major initiatives this year include: engaging with the philanthropic community to facilitate long-term partnerships with communities; engaging with the tech sector to empower credible voices in diverse communities against violent extremism; conducting community outreach activities to raise awareness of patterns and trends of radicalization and recruitment to violence online; strengthening and expanding DHS field staff dedicated to supporting community based efforts to counter violent extremism; and working with FEMA to increase access to grants that support state and local CVE initiatives.

We are focused on partnering with and empowering communities by providing them a wide range of resources to use in countering violent extremism. In addition, we are partnering with the private sector to find innovative, community-based approaches to countering violent extremism in social media. Key stakeholders and partners working with OCP range from local law enforcement to the private sector to civil society. OCP works with local, state and federal law enforcement by providing training, exercises, and technical assistance. Influential community leaders such as religious leaders, city councils and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) work directly with OCP field staff in identifying community priority issues, conducting CVE community exercises, and addressing concerns at community engagement roundtables in partnership with the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

Advancing that effort also means working in a unified and coordinated way across the U.S. government, which is the purpose of the interagency CVE Task Force, announced in January 2016 and which is responsible for organizing all CVE efforts across the federal government. The mission of the Countering Violent Extremism Interagency Task Force is to coordinate a whole-of-government effort to empower local partners to prevent violent extremism in the United States.

The Task Force is hosted and currently led by DHS, and the leadership will rotate every two years between a DHS and a Department of Justice (DOJ) executive. The Task Force includes participation from over 10 departments and agencies across the federal government. Its major objectives include developing intervention programs; synchronizing federal CVE outreach and engagement; managing CVE communications and leveraging digital technologies to engage, empower, and connect CVE stakeholders; and coordinating and prioritizing federal CVE research and establishing feedback mechanisms to increase the relevance of CVE findings.

Ensuring that the nation’s CVE efforts are sufficiently resourced has been an integral part of our overall efforts.

Countering Online Recruitment and Radicalization to Violence

As terrorist groups such as ISIL continue to undertake a deliberate strategy of using social media to reach into our country and recruit, radicalize, and mobilize some of those among us to violence, engagement with the private sector on this issue has become critically important.

Various departments and agencies have long engaged with a range of key technology companies to encourage efforts to counter ISIL and other groups online, and we have recently stepped up government efforts. For example, Secretary Johnson, Attorney General Lynch, and other senior Administration officials met with social media executives in San Francisco in January 2016, and with tech leaders in New York in November 2015. DHS OCP and DOJ staff engaged with the technology industry representatives during a meeting in February 2016; the goal of the meeting was to build on a dialogue with the social media industry to determine how best to build partnerships to address use of the Internet for terrorist purposes.

As part of supporting efforts to counter extremism online, the Department supports the Peer-2-Peer (P2P) Challenging Extremism contests. P2P is a government-sponsored competition, launched in 2015, to empower students at universities to develop innovative and powerful social media campaigns that include positive, alternative, or counter narratives to counter violent extremism. Student teams work with a faculty advisor, while earning academic credit, to research, design, and launch a real social media campaign that has measurable impact on their campus, community and country. Since its inception in spring 2015, over 3,000 students representing 125 university teams from over 30 countries have participated in this unique program.

Facebook became the first technology partner to join the P2P project in the summer of 2015. As part of the partnership, Facebook sponsors a competition of the top three teams who demonstrate the best integration of the Facebook platform into their broader digital and social media campaigns at the Facebook Global Digital Challenge event. Facebook also provides advertisement credits on the Facebook platform to each of the teams during the competition. Facebook’s participation has also allowed the initiative to expand into more international schools.

On June 27, the State Department, one of our partners in this initiative, hosted its third P2P competition with teams competing as finalists from Azerbaijan, Belgium, and the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. And on June 28, Facebook hosted their P2P Global Digital Challenge, with teams from Belgium, Afghanistan, Spain and the Netherlands.

Through the P2P Program, we have seen that young people are essential to our work in creating credible and positive messages that counter violent extremism and hate. That is why, for example, DHS is currently working with partners across the government to scale up domestic student-designed campaigns and projects. This will require additional funding, as well as support from government, non-government organizations, and private sector partners to transition viable student projects to market.

At the Department, we are aware that there is a limit to the effectiveness of government efforts with regard to countering terrorist recruitment and radicalization to violence, particularly in the online realm, and those local communities online and offline must address these issues since they are best positioned to intervene. Consequently, we at DHS can act as a facilitator, connector, and convener, but ultimately, communities and individuals are best positioned to take action to counter violent extremism.

That is why the Department focuses on cultivating and empowering partners – particularly those in civil society and the private sector – to develop and amplify content that resonates against ISIL, Al Qaeda, and other violent extremist groups.

In addition to supporting the P2P Program, the CVE Task Force includes a team dedicated to communications and digital strategy. The Task Force will build partnerships with the private sector to identify and amplify credible voices to counter narratives promoted by ISIL, domestic terrorists, and other violent extremists. This will include a multi-platform communications strategy that leverages the use of digital technologies to engage, empower, and connect CVE stakeholders.

Ultimately, the Department and the Administration believe that the innovative private sector that created so many technologies our society enjoys today can also help create tools to limit terrorists from using these technologies for terrorist recruitment and radicalization to violence; ways their creators never intended. We applaud and are encouraged by companies’ increasing efforts to address the tiny fraction of their users exploiting their technologies for nefarious ends. In addition, we recognize the critical role that private sector and NGO groups can play in continuing their efforts to develop creative and effective solutions to counter how terrorists use media platforms for these purposes. Going forward, we will continue to convene a wide range of disciplines, including civil society, technology companies, and content producers. We are encouraged by a number of initiatives underway and applaud those who see the common challenge terrorism poses and are continuing to take proactive steps to make it harder for terrorists to operate.

Moving Forward

Our efforts to develop a locally-driven, comprehensive prevention-based CVE framework remain ongoing. We have taken great strides over recent months to professionalize and institutionalize the CVE infrastructure of the Department and the U.S. Government as a whole. However, more work remains.

Recently, Congress appropriated CVE funds in the FY 2016 Omnibus Appropriations Act, which allocated $10 million in CVE grant funding to be administered jointly by OCP and FEMA. This is the first time federal funding at this level will be provided, on a competitive basis, specifically to support local CVE efforts. The funding will be competitively awarded to state, tribal, and local governments, nonprofit organizations, and institutions of higher education to support new and existing community-based efforts to counter violent extremist recruitment and radicalization to violence. The Department intends to release a notice of funding announcement on July 6, 2016 for the FY 2016 CVE grant program. We look forward to receiving applications for this funding opportunity and will continue to update Congress as the program moves forward.

Conclusion

As recent events have tragically demonstrated, the radicalization and recruitment to violence of American citizens, perpetrated by ISIL and other terrorist organizations, remains a real and persistent threat. As such, the CVE efforts undertaken by both the Department and the CVE Task Force are paramount to address one of the most significant homeland security challenges facing the nation.

This is the vision we are working to implement today, not only with digital engagement but also through the important work of building a comprehensive CVE model that ensures safe and resilient communities in the Homeland. Thank you again for the opportunity to address this critical issue.

Last Published Date: August 14, 2018
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