The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will receive more than $850,000 in government funds to fight extremist messaging, making it the recipient of the single biggest grant in a new Homeland Security program to shift the fight against radicalization to the local level.
The university and 30 other institutions – police departments, faith groups and cities from coast to coast – were announced Friday as the first recipients of $10 million in federal funds to push efforts toward “countering violent extremism,” a prevention effort known by its acronym, CVE.
UNC-Chapel Hill’s award totals $866,687, though the Homeland Security release didn’t outline the programs the funds would be supporting. The university won in the “challenging the narrative” category, which rewards innovative work on amplifying or creating “alternative messages to challenge or counter violent extremist recruitment or radicalization narratives.” Examples are online awareness campaigns and speaking tours.
Rewarding such campus-level initiatives signals a shift by U.S. counterterrorism authorities toward empowering local actors in the fight against radicalization. With a handful of exceptions, federal-level efforts toward that goal have faltered, casualties of the deep mistrust between authorities and targeted populations, chiefly American Muslims.
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“In this age of self-radicalization and terrorist-inspired acts of violence, domestic-based efforts to counter violent extremism have become a homeland security imperative,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement. “And, I know from visiting numerous communities across this country that very often the best efforts to counter violent extremism are local, tailored to a particular community.”
While many counterterrorism analysts have pushed for a more localized effort toward preventing extremism from taking root in communities – as opposed to the federal, enforcement-heavy approach – there’s still controversy any time grass-roots groups take government money. Particularly among Muslim communities, which have faced intense surveillance and infiltration by federal agents, accepting federal funds means compromising one’s credibility, which in turns weakens the effectiveness of outreach in wary communities..
Still others believe more broadly that the entire “CVE,” or countering violent extremism, apparatus is bogus and unnecessary. Radicalization, critics argue, is a highly individualized process, making a blanket approach both ineffective and stigmatizing for communities. Many CVE practitioners have taken the criticism to heart, for example, by expanding national prevention discussions to include homegrown white supremacists, who as a group comprise a threat to the homeland on par with – if not greater than – Islamist extremists, U.S. officials have said.
Perhaps attuned to the criticism that Muslims are singled out for such extremism prevention efforts, the department included in its grantees a group fighting neo-Nazi and white supremacy ideology alongside Muslim groups working to guard their communities from the ideology of jihadist groups such as the Islamic State.
One grant recipient is Life After Hate, a group started in 2009 by former members of the far-right, neo-Nazi underground to counter hateful messages and rehabilitate white extremists. Life After Hate will receive $400,000, according to the release.
In an acknowledgment of the uncertainty surrounding CVE initiatives under the incoming Trump administration, Johnson’s brief statement twice called it a “homeland security imperative” and urged Congress to “continue to fund this type of grant activity in the future.”
A full list of the recipients is here on the Department of Homeland Security website.