In Brief

Countering Violent Extremism: Three Moves Biden Should Make Now

The United States should implement a broad-based strategy to counter the growing threat of violent extremism at home and abroad. Here are three items the Biden administration can focus on.

The violent siege on the U.S. Capitol earlier this month provided the clearest evidence yet that far-right extremism is deeply entrenched across the country. To fight this urgent threat, President Joe Biden should take several steps early in his tenure, drawing on lessons the United States has learned from past ideological battles. Fortunately, much of what the Biden administration will need to counter the threat of radicalization already exists within the U.S. government and in partner organizations.

Shrinking the Pool of Recruits

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To dramatically reduce the number of recruits buying into violent extremist ideology, U.S. soft power efforts must match those in hard power. America has yet to vigorously deploy its capabilities at scale. The country should ensure that 24-7, evidence-based deradicalization and counterradicalization machines are at work across the government, built from research, data, and science. The deadly riot at the Capitol is indicative of an underfunded and underprioritized effort on countering violent extremism (CVE), a problem that predates the Trump administration.

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The new administration should work with Congress to increase funding for CVE in and outside government, including for frontline organizations working directly with at-risk communities. At the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s height, the United States spent only in the low tens of millions of dollars each year to stop Islamic State recruitment and radicalization, about as much as the U.S. military spent each day on the kinetic war. The U.S. fight against violent extremist ideology at home and abroad might require closer to $1 billion annually.

Renewing Partnerships

Second, the Biden administration should recommit to and refresh the international alliances and coalitions that have been pivotal to fighting terrorism since 9/11. These include the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United Nations, as well as bilateral partnerships with countries in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Ideologies of hate and extremism are global, and the United States can no longer try to compartmentalize the spread of violent ideologies at home and those abroad.

Partnerships with like-minded nations were critical to developing collective action in the fight against the Islamic State, and they can now pioneer efforts to address violent extremism in U.S. communities. This is particularly important as the United States is now the leading source of far-right ideology, finding its way overseas to inspire extremists such as the gunman in the Christchurch, New Zealand, attack. America must also reimagine alliances within its own borders, increasing collaboration with initiatives such as the Strong Cities Network. 

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Supporters of former President Donald J. Trump clash with police as people try to storm the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Supporters of former President Donald J. Trump clash with police as people try to storm the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Brent Stirton/Getty Images

The administration should also form new partnerships, most importantly in a campaign to fight extremism on social media platforms. As the host nation for many of the world’s largest social media companies, the United States must step up to the plate, taking legal and regulatory actions to ensure that extremist groups cannot find a haven online and cultivate recruits. The siege of the U.S. Capitol, for instance, was in no small part organized online; the same could be said for many other recent far-right attacks. The administration should give social workers and mental health professionals in particular the tools they need to help deter radicalization online.

Empowering Communities

New ideas from a broad group of stakeholders would give the United States and its partners more power to vanquish the threat of violent extremism. Most critically, the new administration should build bigger, more diverse tables to bring in experts outside of government. This coalition should include youth, social and health workers, educators, activists, social and technology entrepreneurs, social scientists, and cultural listeners.

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The private sector and the philanthropic community should also join the fight. Corporate partners can bring important insights, data, and expertise to the cause, helping nongovernment organizations build better programs. For example, analytics on how members of Generation Z and Generation Alpha use social media can help counterextremism organizations post targeted, age-appropriate content. They can also provide much-needed financial assistance to accelerate and scale programs.

In his inaugural address, Biden correctly warned of a “rise in political extremism, white supremacy, [and] domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.” Taking these steps early in his tenure would equip the United States with the soft power tools it will need in the long battle ahead.

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