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Losing Hearts and Minds

How Trump quietly gutted a program to combat homegrown extremists.

Daria Addabbo / OneShot/LUZ/Redux

Even as Donald Trump has vowed to eradicate the scourge of “radical Islamic terrorism” and to ban Muslim immigration, one element of Barack Obama’s counterterrorism strategy seemed likely to survive. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would award $10 million to groups that work to turn people away from violent extremism. The majority of the grants would flow to a wide range of community organizations—including the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which targets the social and political isolation that can lead to radicalization, and Life After Hate, which works to rehabilitate former neo-Nazis and other right-wing radicals. The funding—part of a program called Countering Violent Extremism—emphasizes community engagement over aggressive law enforcement. “Very often the best efforts to counter violent extremism are local, tailored to a particular community,” said Jeh Johnson, Obama’s secretary of homeland security.

But all that changed over the summer. Without warning, the Trump administration abruptly canceled the CVE funding for many community organizations, shifting the majority of grants to law enforcement and government agencies. What’s more, the administration eliminated grants explicitly aimed at combating extremism by far-right groups—a form of terrorism that has risen sharply under Trump. The message was clear: Instead of partnering with religious and community leaders to fight all forms of homegrown extremism, like the violent attack in Charlottesville, Trump will largely rely on law enforcement to target Muslim Americans—a move that is likely to exacerbate tensions in communities subjected to warrantless surveillance, religious profiling, and police aggression.

“Community-led initiatives that were the centerpiece of this grant process are being deleted and rendered obsolete by the administration,” says Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which lost $393,800 in funding. “To us, there is no indication they believe in community partnership. The rhetoric from this administration, if anything, is trying to kill partnership between law enforcement and communities.”

The abruptness of the administration’s move has left many of the community groups scrambling to survive. “That loss of funding was crippling for us,” says Todd Mack, the executive director of Music in Common, which was set to receive $159,000. Mack founded the nonprofit in 2005, three years after his friend Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was kidnapped and murdered by extremists in Pakistan. Over the past decade, the group has worked to bring people of different faiths and cultures together through songwriting and performances. Mack had hired staff and planned out the next two years of programming based on the promised CVE grant. “I wasn’t naïve,” he says. “I knew what was going on during Trump’s campaign and the rhetoric he was using. But I didn’t think they’d strip away funding for this after people had already been notified.”

Sammy Rangel, the executive director and co-founder of Life After Hate, was similarly blindsided. “We felt like the rug had been pulled out from underneath us,” he told CNN in July. The Chicago-based group, which was founded by former neo-Nazis, planned to use the $400,000 in CVE grants to provide job training and other services to help extremists disengage from hate groups. Since Trump’s election, Life After Hate says, it has seen requests for assistance soar twentyfold, as concerned friends and family members seek to help their loved ones get their lives back on track. Indeed, as a recent report from the Government Accountability Office points out, right-wing extremists in the United States have carried out far more deadly attacks since September 11, 2001, than Islamic radicals have. “We’re dealing with life-and-death issues,” Rangel said. The loss of funding “might embolden the people we’re trying to help.”

There’s little doubt that Trump’s policy shift will make it harder for the government to successfully combat violent extremism. Studies have shown that the best way to confront homegrown terrorists is not through law enforcement, but by partnering with religious leaders and family members in the communities where extremists live. “This pivot is retrograde,” says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino. “This is like looking at a patient that’s having various manifestations of illness, and just doing an MRI on their shoulder.”

Shifting money to government agencies also makes potential extremists less likely to cooperate with counterterrorism efforts. “When these programs are cut, people think, ‘Why should I be a part of this?’ or ‘I don’t feel comfortable working with these agencies,’” says Laura Khor, an expert on countering violent extremism at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown. “That puts a lot on the government agencies. They have to work harder, because they’ve lost key players in the communities.”

The shift in CVE grants is a sign that those within the Trump administration who agitate for an all-out “war on Islam” have gained the upper hand. In July, George Selim, the head of the CVE program, handed in his resignation. Selim, a conservative Republican who joined Homeland Security during the Bush administration, initially believed that Trump might be open to working hand-in-hand with Muslim communities. John Kelly, the homeland security secretary who became White House chief of staff in July, even attended a celebration during Ramadan earlier this year and emphasized the importance of partnering with American Muslims.

But the sudden pivot on CVE grants reveals Trump’s true strategy when it comes to radicalization. “There were clearly political appointees in this administration who didn’t see the value of community partnerships with American Muslims,” Selim told The Atlantic. For Trump, it appears, even $10 million is too much to spend on winning hearts and minds in the war on terrorism.