In January, the Department of Homeland Security announced 31 winners in a controversial grant program to fight violent extremism. A team led by UNC-Chapel Hill researchers won the largest – nearly $900,000 to develop information campaigns to counter jihadist and white supremacist recruiting.
The UNC grant could have had a big impact on the university’s Department of Communication.
But the award was announced during the last week of the Obama administration, and so far the Trump administration has refused to release the money.
“We couldn’t get off the ground without the grant,” said Cori Dauber, a leader of the UNC team. “We’re at zero. I mean, obviously the building’s empty.”
Dauber is a communication professor and expert on jihadist propaganda. She was standing in an empty studio that she and Robinson had expected to fill months ago. They planned to hire students to develop videos and other approaches to undermine efforts such as ISIS recruiting on social media. They hoped the students’ ideas would resonate with people their age, who are often the recruiting targets.
The grant team had been told to expect the money in early spring. They interviewed students and had a promising group ready to hire.
“Thinking that it was coming, we wanted to be in a situation where we could just flip a switch and go,” Dauber said.
But the money didn’t arrive.
A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security wrote in an emailed statement that it’s unclear whether the money will be released. He declined to say why the department hasn’t sent it.
That reticence is one more twist in the complicated history of the grant program, which is called “Countering Violent Extremism.”
Even under Obama, the program was viewed with suspicion by many Muslims. And after Trump took office, opposition grew.
A Muslim student group at UNC started an online petition demanding that the university renounce the grant. At least four Islamic community groups that also were grant recipients did so, saying Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric meant they couldn’t be part of the program.
Meanwhile the Trump administration has proposed eliminating the entire program for other reasons.
A Reuters report shortly after Trump took office said that Homeland Security officials were thinking about retooling the program so that it focused solely on Islamic extremism, not white supremacist groups.
And in its recent budget proposal for the upcoming 2018 fiscal year, the administration said it wants to eliminate the program.
Congress, though, has already approved the grant program for the current fiscal year, and U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, a Republican from Greensboro, has filed a formal request with Homeland Security asking why the money hasn’t been paid.
Walker wrote one of several bills that sought to create such grants, and members of his staff had a teleconference recently with the UNC researchers and officials to talk about the holdup.
His legislative director, Ryan Walker, says the grants’ community-based approach is worth trying.
“We’ve seen in these terrorist attacks, both at home and abroad, individuals becoming radicalized, either through personal contacts with friends or family or online through social media,” he said. “So our view is that we should at least look into it and see if we can dive into how they do that and how they’re effective at doing that.”
Walker said it’s worth funding the initiatives – including efforts that target white supremacists – at least long enough to determine if they work, which may take more than a year.
“In the conservative policy circles, there has been some doubt as to whether these programs are effective, if they actually do the job of countering radicalization of individuals,” he said. “It would be a great thing if we can get some data on whether these programs actually do the thing they claim to do.”
One possible explanation for the holdup, Walker said, is that many key federal jobs haven’t been filled since the new administration took office, and that has slowed grants at some agencies.
The 2018 budget proposal also suggests the White House would prefer to see the money spent on law enforcement and other anti-terror initiatives.
One grant winner said that would be a bad idea.
Tony McAleer is co-founder of Life After Hate, a Chicago-based organization that helps people leave right-wing extremist groups.
“I heard from the law enforcement perspective, from the FBI, from DHS, saying we can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” McAleer said. “It has got to be a multi-pronged approach, and we have to do it in a partnership with the communities in which this stuff is happening.”
His group had planned to work with a software company to create a sophisticated algorithm to identify people who were becoming radicalized by far right and jihadist groups. The grant would allow him to contact those people and try to reverse the process, instead of waiting for people to seek him out and ask for help for themselves or others.
Now it’s unclear whether his group will be able to do that.
Meanwhile, at UNC, students who were ready to start the project have left for the summer or graduated. Their professors continue to seek answers on the status of the federal money.
“It’s also a seed grant,” said Mark Robinson, the multimedia lab director and another of the principal investigators on the grant. “It’s substantial enough that it can gain momentum beyond our own research.”
Jay Price reports for WUNC’s American Homefront Project, a national journalism collaboration about military and veterans issues. For more, go to www.americanhomefrontproject.org