President Joe Biden made a clean break from Trump when he acknowledged the findings from intelligence officials: that militias and white supremacists pose the greatest threat to America’s national security.
Now he’s touting a new “preventative” approach to tackling the problem of anti-government and racist extremism.
This new program, Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships or “CP3,” was unveiled at a Senate hearing Wednesday. In theory, it would prevent radicalization at its early stages by enlisting the help of researchers, other government agencies, and community members, to find and close gateways to extremism.
That’s a big shift from the previous administration, which put resources into chasing the “antifa” boogieman, despite data consistently showing that far-right extremists posed the greatest national security threat to the U.S.
Extremism experts hope that the new approach under Biden marks a shift away from past counterterrorism techniques, which have relied heavily on law enforcement and ideological profiling, and resulted in mass surveillance of Muslim communities. That model has been accused of making problems worse by deepening grievances.
But even though the new program suggests that the Biden administration is taking extremism and white supremacy seriously, detangling extremist rhetoric from mainstream politics is going to be an uphill challenge.
A joint threat assessment report published the Justice Department and Homeland Security in March stated that white supremacist extremists posed the greatest threat to civilians, while militia extremists posed the biggest threat to law enforcement, government officials, and government buildings.
In his opening statement announcing the CP3 program at the Senate hearing on Wednesday, Mayorkas stressed that the administration wants to take a “whole-of-society” approach to the problem, instead of coming at it solely from a law enforcement perspective.
“In theory this is a move toward making prevention be more about just assessing threats, it’s about building resilience in a community,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, author of the book “Hate in the Homeland,” and director of American University’s Polarization & Extremism Research & Innovation Lab. “That’s why I’m excited. It has a lot of potential.”
Miller-Idriss said the preventative or resilience approach has been used in a public health context for years. For example, rather than investing in better machines in hospitals in a particular community, funds might be better spent on improving the availability of healthy, affordable, fresh food.
In the case of extremism, a preventative approach could involve funding media literacy programs in schools to help kids identify propaganda, or disinformation.
“You can equip communities, all communities, to have every person in their society be able to recognize and be resilient to, and build counter-arguments against, propaganda and conspiracy theories and persuasive extremist techniques,” said Miller-Idriss.
But when it comes to the issue of combatting white supremacist extremism or militia activity, it may not be so simple as identifying a particular town, county or state whose residents are particularly at risk of radicalization.
“I don't know that we can hone in and identify any particular community. You have to think about the risk being in the mainstream,” said Miller-Idriss. “If extremism used to be a destination that people seek out, now you have to assume people encounter fringe ideas or propaganda in their everyday lives.”
Colin Clarke, senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a nonprofit focused on global security issues, is heartened by the fact that CP3 seems to welcome collaboration with researchers in the field of extremism who can draw attention to narrow, specific problem areas.
“On its face, it opens the door to more rigor in terms of how we approach this. It’s going to focus more on data, which is what I think a lot of scholars want,” said Clarke. “I think just in general, the fact that the Biden administration is clearly taking this threat seriously, that’s a breath of fresh air to the counterterrorism community because under the Trump administration, it was the opposite. It was stoking the flames of domestic extremism rather than trying to put them out.”
One particular problem area that Clarke thinks needs attention is the process of radicalization into hardcore neo-Nazi groups, which often takes place behind closed doors and in private online forums.
Clarke, through his work at the Soufan Center, has studied the recruitment tactics weaponized by groups like Atomwaffen. From this, he understands that preteens and teenagers are especially vulnerable to that type of radicalization. “They're more online than ever. And there’s been a number of really young kids and teenagers, who are pulled in for all sorts of reasons. That’s who I would be looking at right now,” said Clarke.
But the Department of Homeland Security may be facing a complex challenge when it comes to countering the surge in anti-government extremism.
Much of militia ideology and culture is entrenched in right-wing politics, according to Clarke. “The anti-government stuff is tough because a lot of it is built around the premise of the Second Amendment,” Clarke said. And, despite the fact that intelligence officials believe militias pose the biggest threat to law enforcement, they often enjoy close ties to law enforcement—particularly rural sheriffs departments.
“I think the militia's violent extremists are almost impossible to deal with,” said Clarke. “I know there’s some really smart people and I can’t wait to see what they come up with. But I don’t know what you do about people in armed militias.”