Countering Jihadism in America: A Policy Review

Author Jason Margaritis surveys the state of counter-extremism policy in the US, specifically examining the “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the US” (PVE) strategy outlined by the Obama administration in June 2011. Margaritis then examines the limitations and consequences of the strategy.

A barricaded Boylston Street following the Boston Marathon bombings (2013)

(Image by Tim Pierce via Wikimedia Commons)*

Jason Margaritis

In the aftermath of 9/11, the US initiated an aggressive global military offensive against Al Qaeda (AQ) and “associated persons or forces.”[i] The Executive branch has traditionally interpreted Public Law 107-40, signed a week later, to provide sufficient legal basis for use of military force against a number of jihadist organizations.[ii] The US continues to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on anti-terrorism programs annually: special operations raids, training of local security forces, and manned/unmanned airstrikes, with emphasis on the latter.[iii] Said programs have successfully disrupted jihadist nodes, hubs, and networks, but not without inflaming foreign governments and local communities.[iv] Since 2014, global rates of terrorism and fatalities caused by terrorism have sharply increased.[v] Some analysts are skeptical of the long-term efficacy of the US’s anti-terrorism approach. According to Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), “The tactical, whack-a-mole approach is not having the desired effect.”[vi] Others suggest that hard power by itself fails to address the apparent root causes of terrorism, and may compound the rate of radicalization.[vii] Moreover, the US has struggled to incorporate an effective strategy of countering radicalization at home, as part of its wider anti-terrorism approach. There is a need for an improved domestic counter-extremism (CE) strategy and to delineate some of the core challenges to developing effective US government-led CE programs.

Rise of Jihadism in America

The origins of jihadism in America may be traced to the rise of AQ in the wake of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In the ‘70s, the US government developed close alliances with, and provided money and resources to Afghan rebel leaders.[viii] A number of them—namely Abdullah Azzam, mentor to Usama bin Laden, and Sheikh Gilani, founder of Jamaat al Fuqra—arrived in the US with a missionary agenda.[ix] They viewed America’s marginalized Muslim community as an opportunity to spread the jihad and raise additional funds. At the time, Muslims comprised a reasonably small demographic—mostly African-American converts.[x] Between 1970 and 1989, the jihadist missionaries targeted members of this community, evangelizing and successfully expanding the Islamist base.[xi] By the end of the Soviet occupation, AQ had already radicalized and trained at least 400 Americans.[xii] AQ’s missionary work and localized recruitment generated a strong, integrated network of jihadist cells in the US.

Post-9/11, with the rise of digital media, jihadist groups started moving away from direct recruitment via local groups and networks. AQ, and later the Islamic State (IS), turned to social media to successfully “recruit and inspire” vulnerable Americans en masse—most often, youth. This is particularly apparent today. According to the George Washington Project on Extremism’s (GWPE) 2015 “ISIS in America” report, “Some 300 American and/or US-based [IS] sympathizers [are] active on social media, spreading propaganda, and interacting with like-minded individuals.”[xiii] This recent paradigm of web-driven radicalization is reflected in the profiles of many homegrown jihadists, such as “Boston Bomber” Tamerlan Tsarnaev. In other cases, web-based propaganda seems to complement more traditional recruitment activities.

Since 2009, the US has seen at least 14 likely jihadist attacks—beginning with the Little Rock and Fort Hood shootings, and including perhaps most tragically, the Boston Marathon Bombings.[xiv] Consider 2016—arguably, one of the worst years for domestic terrorism: on June 12, New York-born and alleged IS-sympathizer Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 and injured 53 at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.[xv] On September 17, American citizen Dahir Ahmed Adan used a steak knife to injure nine while shouting “Allahu akbar!” and “Islam Islam!” at a mall in Minnesota.”[xvi] Other recent attacks include a series of bombings in New York and New Jersey (September 17), a knife assault in Columbus, Ohio (November 28), and a shooting rampage in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (January 6, 2017).[xvii] Distinctly, the vast majority of these attacks were perpetrated by US-born and/or American citizens. Some analysts predict that future domestic jihadist attacks are most likely to be perpetrated by individuals who are radicalized in the US.[xviii]

Relevant Metrics

The GWPE “ISIS in America” report helps illustrate the scope of radicalization in the US today. Between June 2014 and September 2015, 250 Americans attempted to join the IS; there were 900 active investigations against jihadist sympathizers nationwide.[xix] Between March 2014 and December 2015, 71 individuals were “charged with ISIS-related activities… [56 were] arrested in 2015 alone, a record number of terrorism-related arrests for any year since 9/11.”[xx] Among those arrested, the average age was 26, and 86% were male. They differed widely in race, social class, education, and family background; 51% traveled or attempted to travel abroad; 27% were involved in plots to carry out attacks on US soil; 55% were in an operation involving an informant and/or an undercover agent.[xxi]

CE in the US

 The US has struggled to develop an effective domestic CE strategy that is also politically and legally feasible. In 2007, former Representative Jane Harman (D-CA) introduced the “Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act” to the 110th US Congress. The act was blocked in the Senate. In short, critics argued that Harman’s bill was a path to authoritarianism; it failed to sufficiently differentiate between “terrorism” and otherwise traditional forms of “civil dissent.”[xxii] Some analysts maintain that the government’s ability to undercut the apparent cognitive motivations of terrorism, is marred by legal protections on the free exercise of religion and speech. This has been, and may continue to be, one of the core obstacles to the implementation of certain government-led CE programs in the US.

In June 2011, for the first time, the Obama administration formally acknowledged the need to study and counter radicalization in America. A month later it published its first official CE strategy, “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the US” (PVE), and in December, a plan to implement said strategy. Ostensibly, the Obama administration carefully designed PVE to avoid some of the same criticisms afforded to Harman’s bill. But this design is likely insufficient to counter the threat of domestic radicalization.[xxiii] The future of PVE is hugely uncertain with the recent inauguration of President Trump.

PVE is based on a philosophy of strengthening and educating families, local communities, and institutions to prevent and counter radicalization.[xxiv] The document provides a framework for (1) sharing information about the threat of radicalization, (2) strengthening cooperation with local law enforcement, and (3) helping communities protect themselves against “violent extremist propaganda, especially online.”[xxv] Under PVE, the government assumes a mostly non-interventionist role as “facilitator, convener, and source of information.”[xxvi] Markedly, the first page acknowledges a need to discredit extreme ideology by challenging radicalizing narratives, yet defers to potential legal constraints on the government to “propagandize,” even against extremists. PVE thus abstains from engaging in activities relating to this important aspect of CE.

Key PVE Programs

Under PVE, executive agencies have adopted three major programs.

(1) The Countering Violent Extremists Task Force (CVE Task Force): On January 8, 2016, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Justice (DoJ) announced a joint-effort to improve implementation of PVE.[xxvii]

(2) “Don’t Be a Puppet”: In February 2016, the FBI launched a program called “Don’t Be a Puppet: Pull Back the Curtain on Violent Extremism.” The program centers on a series of web-based “activities, quizzes, videos, and other materials to teach teens how to recognize violent extremist messaging and become more resistant to self-radicalization and possible recruitment.”[xxviii] According to Pew, teens and young adults are disproportionately the heaviest users of social media.[xxix] The most likely advantage of Don’t Be a Puppet is that it may support youth to identify and protect themselves against predatory recruiters on social media.[xxx]

(3) DHS CVE Grant Program: In July 2016, DHS announced a program offering grants to community organizations engaged in the following CE-related activities: developing resilience, education and training, managing intervention activities, challenging radical narratives, and building capacity of non-profits focusing on CE.[xxxi] The most likely advantage of the DHS grant program is that it may promote trust in government institutions by engaging with, and providing resources to community stakeholders.

Key Limitations

PVE is relatively new and, thus, any considerable outcomes are yet to be seen. One may feel optimistic insofar as PVE is the US’s first real attempt to deal with the problem of radicalization at home; however, it likely has some problems. First, PVE fails to confront radicalizing narratives in a meaningful way. The grant program, for example, lacks a mechanism by which DHS may vet the agenda of a recipient group. What is its core message? Who does it affiliate with? What are the likely consequences of endorsing it? In lieu of a comprehensive vetting process, the program may fail to differentiate between anti-extremist and pseudo anti-extremist organizations. On another note, the FBI’s Don’t Be a Puppet curriculum fails to educate recipients about specific ideological correlates of terrorism. Instead, it narrowly focuses on the costs of terrorism—hurting and dividing innocent people, and so on.[xxxii]

This intersects with a second problem: PVE fails to differentiate between cognitive and violent extremism. Reasonably, extreme ideologies are antecedent to violent behavior.[xxxiii] PVE should thus support individuals to intellectually guard themselves against extreme ideologies, to the extent that they may be reliably identified. But the current programs are neither well equipped nor attempting to accomplish this in any comprehensive way.

Thirdly, certain organizations—particularly the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)—maintain that aspects of PVE further stigmatize the Muslim community in an already prejudiced environment.[xxxiv] They argue that the strategy unfairly targets and “securitizes” government engagement with Muslims, revoking the community’s sense of “organizational independence and autonomy,” and reducing confidence in American institutions.[xxxv] Moreover, others have argued that PVE neglects non-Islamist forms of extremism, such as white supremacism, numerous radical forms of Christianity and nationalism, and so on. Should the US not counter all forms of domestic extremism? These potential shortfalls may ultimately undermine PVE’s stated objective to foster a sense of good will among community stakeholders.

Finally, lawmakers have yet to develop a reliable mechanism to collect and evaluate PVE performance data. Collection and evaluation are important not only for measuring program-efficacy, but also for mitigating political risks such as budget cuts.[xxxvi] The future of CE programs in the US may largely depend on the extent to which their outcomes can be measured and appreciated.


Overall, PVE’s greatest limitation may be its unwillingness to seriously address the “narratives problem.” Many analysts maintain that radicalization requires some combination of trauma, ideology, and often socialization: recruiters will frame ideology to resonate with, and rationalize the experience of vulnerable individuals.[xxxvii] In this way, radicalizing narratives may function as the bridge between cognitive states—“psychologically vulnerable” to “extreme.” Ostensibly, any serious CE strategy will try to undercut these narratives—the likes of AQ’s Inspire Magazine, the IS’s Dabiq, the online sermons of the late Anwar al-Awlaki, the conspiracies, condemnations of the West, and other propaganda. Radicalizing narratives have played an undeniably important role in the recent surge of homegrown jihadist attacks across the US and Europe.[xxxviii] Lawmakers should look for opportunities to undercut these narratives at the community level, where radicalization starts.

Some analysts argue that Western governments ought to establish a series of values-oriented terms or “non-negotiables” for engaging with community partners.[xxxix] The UK, for example, has toyed with incorporating policies of non-engagement with groups seeming to oppose so-called “basic liberal values” or “shared British values.”[xl] In a Policy Exchange article entitled, “Choosing Our Friends Wisely,” analysts Shiraz Maher and Martyn Frampton state, “It was only by defending our values—upheld staunchly by the vast majority of moderate Muslims—that we would prevent extremists radicalizing future generations of terrorists.”[xli] Maher and Frampton propose the following terms of engagement: respect for the rule of law, freedom of speech, equality of opportunity, respect for others, and responsibility towards others. Their approach is built on a philosophy of excluding extremist and apologist groups on a values-oriented basis, to reliably constrain the provision of government support to those genuinely committed to CE in a Western context. Some analysts argue that the US should adopt a comparable values-oriented CE strategy.[xlii] According to Vidino, “[C]ounterradicalization strategy must be prepared to intervene in ideological and theological matters. Despite the many difficulties of treading on such sensitive grounds… the US government should find ways to counter the theological message of violent Islamism.”[xliii]

Nevertheless, any concept of “shared values” poses certain intellectual challenges and, especially given the current political climate in the US and throughout the West, may inflame sociopolitical divisions. US lawmakers will likely continue to face obstacles to addressing the “narratives problem” in a way that is both politically and legally feasible; however, this is not to suggest that they should stop trying. Where PVE is perhaps most limited, an effective CE strategy will support programs that frame and offer compelling alternatives to jihadism—humanism, modernism, and so on.[xliv] With the US government’s absence on this front, an assortment of nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations have become increasingly entrenched, to varying degrees, in the counter narratives arena.[xlv] Civically engaged citizens should use their best judgement to identify and support most credible organizations engaging in this work, to marginalize the influence of jihadists and other extremists in America.

Jason Margaritis is a second-year dual M.A. Government/MBA candidate focusing on Political Communication at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced Academic Programs and Carey Business School. His research emphasizes the intersection of political discourses and radicalization in the West. Jason has four years of experience working on the business end of the security sector, including anti-terrorism and other military operations in hostile overseas environments. He holds a B.S. in Political Communication and minor in Philosophy from Emerson College.


Licensed for use under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license:


[i] “JOINT RESOLUTION—FEB. 11, 2015: To Authorize the Limited Use of the United States Armed Forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (2015),” White House, accessed January 25, 2017,

[ii] “PUBLIC LAW 107–40—SEPT. 18, 2001: To authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States,” accessed January 25, 2017,; Carla E. Humud, “Al Qaeda and U.S. Policy: Middle East and Africa,” Congressional Research Services (2016): 3.

[iii] “The Cost of Fighting Terrorism,” last modified November 16, 2015,; “U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy is the Definition of Insanity,” last modified June 24, 2014,

[iv] “A Brief History of Drones,” last modified February 7, 2012,

[v] “U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy is the Definition of Insanity.”

[vi] “U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy is the Definition of Insanity.”

[vii] “Maajid Nawaz—Admit It: These Terrorists Are Muslims,” last modified June 14, 2016,

[viii] Vidino, “Homegrown Jihadist Terrorism in the United States: A New and Occasional Phenomenon?” 2.

[ix] “Counter Extremism Project—Abdullah Azzam,” accessed December 8, 2016,; Vidino, “Homegrown Jihadist Terrorism in the United States: A New and Occasional Phenomenon?” 5.

[x] Vidino, “Homegrown Jihadist Terrorism in the United States: A New and Occasional Phenomenon?” 3.

[xi] “Counter Extremism Project—Abdullah Azzam.”

[xii] Vidino, “Homegrown Jihadist Terrorism in the United States: A New and Occasional Phenomenon?” 2.

[xiii] Seamus Hughes and Lorenzo Vidino. “ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa,” George Washington Program on Extremism (2015): ix.

[xiv] “A Muslim Son, a Murder Trial and Many Questions,” last modified February 16, 2010,; “Nidal Hasan sentenced to death for Fort Hood shooting rampage,” last modified August 28, 2013,; “Jahar’s World,” last modified July 17, 2013,

[xv] “ISIS embraces Orlando shooter Omar Mateen as ‘one of the soldiers of the Caliphate in America’ in radio announcement,” last modified June 13, 2016,

[xvi] “Minnesota stabbing: Dahir Ahmed Adam was known for calm demeanor,” September 20, 2016,

[xvii] “Ahmad Khan Rahami Is Arrested in Manhattan and New Jersey Bombings,” last modified September 19, 2016,; “Ohio State University attacker was enrolled in class studying ‘microaggressions’,” last modified December 1, 2016,; “Suspected Fort Lauderdale airport shooter indicted,” last modified January 26, 2017,

[xviii] “Why Trump’s “Muslim ban” won’t stop the terrorism threat,” last modified January 28, 2017,

[xix] Hughes and Vidino, “ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa,” ix.

[xx] Hughes and Vidino, “ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa,” ix.

[xxi] Hughes and Vidino, “ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa,” ix.

[xxii] Hughes and Vidino, “ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa,” ix.

[xxiii] Lorenzo Vidino. “Countering Radicalization in America,” United States Institute of Peace (2010): 11.

[xxiv] White House, “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States,” President of the United States (2011): iii.

[xxv] White House, “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States,” iii.

[xxvi] White House, “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States,” iii.

[xxvii] “Countering Violent Extremism Task Force,” last modified January 8, 2016,

[xxviii] “Countering Violent Extremism,” last modified February 8, 2016,

[xxix] Andrew Perrin, “Social Media Usage: 2005-2015,” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech (2015): 3.

[xxx] Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (Pennsylvania, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 144.

[xxxi] “Fact Sheet: FY 2016 Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Grants,” last modified July 6, 2016,

[xxxii] “Countering Violent Extremism.”

[xxxiii] Vidino, “Countering Radicalization in America,” 5.

[xxxiv] Bipartisan Policy Center, “Preventing Violent Radicalization in America,” National Security Preparedness Group (2011): 11.

[xxxv] This observation derives from a letter to former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, undersigned by a number of civil rights and Muslim organizations: “Objections to DHS’s Fiscal Year 2016 Countering Violent Extremism Grant Program,” last modified August 31, 2016,

[xxxvi] Vidino, “Countering Radicalization in America,” 12.

[xxxvii] Neil J. Smelser, Theory of Collective Behavior (London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1962), 16; Quintan Wiktorowicz. “Joining the Cause: Al-Muhajiroun and Radical Islam,” Department of International Studies, Rhodes College (2005): 7.

[xxxviii] “Maajid Nawaz—Please stop saying the Nice attacks have nothing to do with Islam,” last modified July 15, 2016,

[xxxix] Shiraz Maher and Martyn Frampton, “Choosing Our Friends Wisely,” Policy Exchange (2009): 10.

[xl] “This Counter-Extremism Strategy Shows Cameron’s Commitment to Working With—Rather Than Against—British Muslims,” last modified July 20, 2015,

[xli] Maher and Frampton, “Choosing Our Friends Wisely,” 10.

[xlii] “Countering Extremism: A Problem for Civil Society by Haras Rafiq,” last modified February 17, 2017,

[xliii] Vidino, “Countering Radicalization in America,” 11.

[xliv] Kris Christmann. “Preventing Religious Radicalisation and Violent Extremism:

A Systematic Review of the Research Evidence,” Youth Justice Board (2012): 39–41.

[xlv] National Security Preparedness Group. “Preventing Violent Radicalization in America,” Bipartisan Policy Center (2011): 34.

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