How An Obama-Era Debate Is Shaping Biden’s Fight Against Far-Right Extremism

WASHINGTON DC, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, UNITED STATES - 2021/01/06: Pro-Trump supporters and far-right forces flooded Washington DC to protest Trump's election loss. Hundreds breached the U.S. Capitol Building, aproximately13 were arrested and one protester was killed. (Photo by Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON DC, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, UNITED STATES - 2021/01/06: Pro-Trump supporters and far-right forces flooded Washington DC to protest Trump's election loss. Hundreds breached the U.S. Capitol Building, aproxim... WASHINGTON DC, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, UNITED STATES - 2021/01/06: Pro-Trump supporters and far-right forces flooded Washington DC to protest Trump's election loss. Hundreds breached the U.S. Capitol Building, aproximately13 were arrested and one protester was killed. (Photo by Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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April 12, 2021 10:40 a.m.

DHS officials have a decision to make.

With cases related to the Jan. 6 insurrection underway and being actively prosecuted, attention is shifting away from the immediate crisis posed by that attack and its aftermath to a longer-term question: how can the government help to prevent violent, right-wing radicalization — and further attacks — in the future?

The way in which the administration is seeking to answer that question is anchored in a conversation that dates back to the Obama administration. At the time, Homeland Security officials had inherited from President Bush a counterterrorism program that was heavily focused on law enforcement, and directed more at stopping radicalization within the Muslim-American community than at any perceived threat.

The then-new administration brought in a different approach: the best way to prevent attacks was not through heavy-handed prosecutions and stigmatization, but through community-based efforts, effectively talking people who might be susceptible to violent extremism off the ledge before law enforcement needed to get involved.

It took a long time, however, for that theory to be realized in practice. At first, it wasn’t clear who would run the program. The FBI? Local community leaders?

Former DHS officials described to TPM a gradual evolution in the Obama administration’s attempts from a more law-enforcement centered approach at the beginning to a model by which the government attempted, in the words of one former DHS official, to “inspire” non-profits and local governments to undertake efforts aimed at preventing radicalization.

It was only in the Obama administration’s final year that funding was committed towards the program — $10 million.

Those funds were diverted to focus almost entirely on islamic extremism almost as soon as President Trump took office, excluding programs aimed at the far-right while giving more of the money to law enforcement.

“I have to candidly say that some of the assumptions we used to formulate that strategy were flawed, and they were flawed because we didn’t have full information,” said one current DHS official who also served in the Obama administration, describing the administration’s early approach to community outreach, which was spearheaded by U.S. Attorneys offices.

“A big part of that effort is to regain that trust, because we can’t deal with this problem without the community,” added the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe DHS’ current thinking.

As the Biden administration takes the reins, it is seeking to learn from the Obama administration’s efforts, and put community groups at the forefront of its outreach to individuals in danger of radicalization.

What complicates the picture for is another shift that DHS is undergoing — shifting resources away from treating violent extremism as a problem confined to the Muslim community and towards facing the reality that white supremacism and far-right extremism constitute the greatest domestic threat. A recent report and grant proposal from DHS for anti-extremism grants described it as “the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.”

Obama efforts

The Obama administration inherited the Bush-era approach to counterterrorism.

Heavy on law enforcement, Obama officials tried to steer the ship towards more community engagement, while retaining the involvement of law enforcement. This led to bizarre programs that involved running community outreach efforts via U.S. Attorney’s offices, which ended up being ineffective.

But that morphed over the years, away from federal prosecutors walking into mosques asking for help, towards an approach where the feds would stand in the background, encouraging communities to identify and prevent violent extremism on their own.

“Our whole thesis behind everything was that local communities would need to work at the ground level and the grassroots level, and we would try to put ourselves in a role where we could empower those local actors to put together their prevention strategies and networks,” Nate Snyder, a former Chief of Staff for DHS’s Office of Community Partnerships, told TPM.

But for most of its time in power, the Obama DHS was unable to fund the effort to run terrorism prevention programs through local communities. In the administration’s final year, it managed to get $10 million committed for a countering violent extremism grant program.

Ryan Greer, a former official in the same DHS office, told TPM that the Obama-era efforts weren’t funded until then partly because officials hoped local governments and community organizations would choose to follow the feds’ lead on their own.

“It was failure to launch more so than failure of policy,” Greer said.

He added that administration officials had told community leaders that “prevention is possible, and hoped that they’d take it on themselves.”

When that strategy initially failed to gain traction, the money helped.

The outgoing administration awarded grants in 2016 to a mixture of Muslim-focused and anti-white supremacy community organizations.

But even that was a slog, Snyder said, in part because the federal presence “put a target on the back of local NGOs.”

“It put them in a real defensive posture, to where they’re getting a lot of flack from the local level.”

After years of federal prosecutors taking the lead on rooting out extremism, community groups worried that the appearance that they were doing the bidding of the feds could undermine their work.

The entire effort wasn’t helped by the Trump administration’s decision to backtrack, pivoting the program towards instead funding law enforcement engagement efforts with the Muslim community — a repeat of earlier mistakes. A number of groups that received the grant withdrew from the program in early 2017.

Biden’s dilemma

The current DHS official added that the department is meeting with “faith-based organizations, community groups, and it’s an effort not only to gain their input, but also to start rebuilding that trust.”

DHS’ efforts are also complicated by political realities. The problem of how to deal with the threat of the far-right persists unresolved in part because of how closely reactionary movements are tied to the Republican Party.

A summary of an intelligence assessment released last month noted that “narratives of fraud in the recent general election, the emboldening impact of the violent breach of the US Capitol,” and COVID-19 public health measures would “almost certainly” lead to further attacks this year.

So, for the Biden team, the challenge is to take a program that barely began under Obama and shift it towards countering a threat that is intertwined with the messaging of one of the main political parties.

“We aim to detect and prevent violence regardless of ideological motivation,” another DHS official said.

The Obama-era grant program has been revamped, now with $20 million in funding and a more fulsome focus on domestic terrorism from white supremacists.

“What we haven’t done well is take this behemoth and say, ‘we’re good at the threats of yesterday, but point it less at an international threat coming from outside and more towards an existential threat that’s now an insider threat,'” Snyder said.

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