Counseling as the Key to Countering Domestic Terrorism

A group of Elliott School graduate student researchers said a disconnect between police and local communities has implications for countering violent extremism and racial injustice.

Protestors Walking on Street
Black Lives Matter protests against policy brutality and racial injustice continue across the country following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May.
June 19, 2020

By Tatyana Hopkins

While studying best practices for countering domestic terrorism at the local level, a group of George Washington University graduate students found that police forces are not the best mediums to deliver prevention and response programs that combat the rising trends of white nationalism, radical Islam and other forms of violent extremism.

“Programs administered by police and security services often undergo local criticism for racially or ethnically motivated profiling and often lack the capabilities or capacity to provide necessary mental or psychological assistance for victims of radicalization,” said Jennifer DeNardis, a member of the group.

She said programs that incorporated mentoring and counseling as key programmatic components, and that were not run by law enforcement, tended to be more successful and faced less scrutiny, leading to greater acceptance by the local community.

As part of a capstone course in the Elliott School of International Affairs, the group of graduating master’s students including Ms. DeNardis, Christopher Estep, AnnaBeth Lawless and Jesse Ramsdell conducted an in-depth analysis of existing local countering violent extremism programs.

Focusing on programs in Boston, Chicago, Denver and Minneapolis as case studies, the team developed policy recommendations for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on how to develop a basic framework for local deradicalization programs.

“Different actors play a role in local programming landscapes, from federal agencies and municipal governments to local police departments and philanthropic or activist organizations,” Mr. Estep said. “However, local governments should take the lead in developing their own programming as they are best suited to understand and respond to the needs of the local community.”

Implicit in their findings was a disconnect between local police and local communities. This, the group said, has implications not only for countering domestic extremism but also for the issues of racial injustice currently being amplified in nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

“The team's study indicates that first of all, white nationalism is a problem that has been recognized by major metropolitan areas of the U.S.,” said Rollie Lal, the professor leading the capstone course. “It isn't chance that Minneapolis has created a program to combat the problem. They know that white nationalists are a destabilizing force in their municipality.”

Mr. Ramsdell said last year, the program in Minneapolis, which is touted as one of the most successful in terms of lowering the rate of recidivism, worked with about 12 white

supremacist and 13 Islamic extremists.

Dr. Lal said issues with white nationalism and other extremist ideologies directly relate to police brutality.

“Cities in the study have clearly identified that white nationalism is a problem and have funded programs to combat it,” she said. “That means it is a factor in the police forces as well, as police forces are drawn from society.”

In addition to developing programs based on providing social services, with sustainable funding, the group recommends providing similar resources to police.

“The issues that we studied, and that are currently being discussed at the national level, do not have easy solutions,” Ms. Lawless said. “But our research underscores the importance of efforts by police departments to engage with their local communities, especially when it comes to countering violent extremism and domestic terrorism.”

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