The resignation of a top U.S. Department of Homeland Security official has left the agency without a strong, outspoken advocate for locally led efforts to combat homegrown terrorism, a threat that the weekend violence in Charlottesville, Va., put a disturbing spotlight on.
With federal support for these programs now uncertain, private nonprofits and the business community must step up to fill this leadership void.
George Selim, who resigned in late July, led Homeland Security's Office of Community Partnerships and directed the agency's Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) task force. His energetic leadership made him a familiar figure to Minnesota law enforcement authorities and others working here to thwart terror recruiters. Some of these have targeted young people in the state's large Somali-American community.
Selim, who began his federal career during the George W. Bush administration, merits praise for embracing a more comprehensive approach to fighting extremism. In addition to intercepting recruits and prosecuting them, he argued that preventive measures are needed.
This pragmatic approach is built on the premise that those who put down roots and prosper are less likely to fall prey to recruiters' deceptive promises. Social services programs that build strong families, as well efforts to "de-radicalize" those who get involved with extremists, are now a critical component of CVE strategy.
Under Selim's leadership, the Office of Community Partnerships advocated for federal grants to local organizations and finally convinced Congress to appropriate the dollars. The agency awarded the first round of grants in 2016. Two Minnesota organizations received $770,000 in funding: the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office and Heartland Democracy, a mentoring program for young people.
Unfortunately, it's unclear if there will be a second round of grants. Selim's departure raises troubling questions about CVE's future. The CVE approach has been controversial in some circles because it's sometimes deemed too soft an approach to terrorism. Other critics dislike that these dollars help immigrants, while others have wrongly contended that CVE shouldn't encompass white supremacist groups inside U.S. borders.
Without an advocate inside Homeland Security like Selim, there's understandable fear that CVE efforts will wither. That would be a step backward. Public safety requires that everything possible be done to thwart a broad spectrum of homegrown extremists. A 2016 Star Tribune editorial series supported robust funding for CVE measures.
Homeland Security officials last week issued a statement saying that "support for local CVE partnerships will continue" under David Gersten, who is the acting director at Selim's previous office. Those words must be backed up with action and federal dollars.
Nonprofits and employers in Minnesota have taken tentative steps to support community-led CVE programs. But stronger funding from them and more public support is crucial, especially with the departure earlier this year of another prominent CVE advocate, Andrew Luger, former U.S. attorney for Minnesota.
If the Trump administration won't lead, the private sector must propel this vital mission.