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Homeland Security is trying to root out domestic violent extremism in the U.S.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's pose a question that's closer to home. How effectively is the United States fighting domestic extremism? President Biden says it's a big priority. Part of his arsenal is the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships, known as CP3. Some outside observers are asking if that center is keeping up with an evolving threat. NPR's Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas calls CP3 a response to the most pressing threat in the United States right now, domestic violent extremism. He says it's a sea change for his department, a new way to confront a threat that is constantly changing.

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: We are deeply concerned about false narratives, ideologies of hate that are fueled by conversations and messages on online platforms and other social media.

YOUSEF: Mayorkas says CP3 takes a new approach to preventing homegrown violent extremism, one that relies on behavioral indicators to spot when someone's on a path toward violence. And that leans on local communities to respond. Regional offices will coordinate with on-the-ground organizations to understand local dynamics, strengthen community resources and formulate interventions. Gone are the days of prevention efforts orchestrated from D.C. Mayorkas says the key here is that it's people helping people they know.

MAYORKAS: It is the family member, the friend, the school teacher, the neighbor, the clergy leader who can see someone descending into a realm of antisocial behavior and, hopefully, intervene to help.

FATEMA AHMAD: If you go to dhs.gov/cve, it just redirects you to the CP3 page.

YOUSEF: When Fatema Ahmad talks about CP3, she reverts to the acronym of an Obama-era program called CVE, for countering violent extremism. She says a lot of what she's hearing about CP3 sounds like echoes from the past.

AHMAD: Like, it's the exact same website and everything. They just keep changing the name.

YOUSEF: Ahmad leads the Muslim Justice League, a nonprofit in Boston, which was one of the cities where CVE was piloted several years ago. At the time, the focus was heavily on Muslims and concern over homegrown terrorists joining groups like ISIS. But even the Department of Homeland Security acknowledges the program had what it calls unintended consequences. Civil rights advocates said it resulted in religious profiling and unwarranted surveillance of Muslim communities. In fact, when he was on the campaign trail, Joe Biden promised to shut the program down. Ahmad says the administration is right to identify violent white supremacy and extremist militias as the greatest domestic security threat today. But she still thinks the approach is wrong.

AHMAD: It's promoting this idea that you can spot someone in your community who is supposedly, you know, going to become a, quote-unquote, "extremist." But what does that even mean, to be extreme, in this country, right? Like, it's not actually extreme to be racist here, right? Like, that's pretty normal.

YOUSEF: DHS officials say they're not in the business of policing beliefs. Instead, they're working with community partners who can identify specific behavioral signs that someone may be on a path toward violence, and when they do, to direct them to resources that would, quote, "call them back in" - that is, get them help to address their grievances, like mental health support, rather than put them in the hands of law enforcement. But there's disagreement over whether DHS is the right agency to do this.

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MANUEL BOJORQUEZ: The Department of Homeland Security is now investigating this incident where Border Patrol agents on horseback are seen intimidating Haitian migrants at the southern border.

YOUSEF: Ahmad says DHS has recently contributed to the hardening of American attitudes toward immigrants and people of color. Mary McCord of Georgetown University agrees that past DHS policies may complicate its efforts. She says, in recent years, the department has been responsible for some of the most cruel and inhumane treatment of people in the United States.

MARY MCCORD: You know, caging of children and separating children from their parents at the southwest border, that was DHS. Well, that same agency is basically also responsible for saying, trust us to protect you in the homeland.

YOUSEF: McCord says some communities simply won't trust DHS when it says it wants to partner with them to address violent white extremism. Cynthia Miller-Idriss of American University says she's encouraged to see language like public health and whole of society in descriptions of how CP3 is thinking about violence prevention now. But, she says, a true approach along those lines would be much bigger and radically different.

CYNTHIA MILLER-IDRISS: When other countries do this, they have nine, 12 or more agencies involved in setting up their national strategies to counter domestic violent extremism.

YOUSEF: Here, Miller-Idriss says, that would include the departments of Education, Health and Human Services and Labor. But instead, the United States still largely frames extremism as a national security challenge at DHS. And the stakes couldn't be any higher, she says. In the wake of the January 6 attack on the Capitol last year, it's clear that lies, misinformation and hate aren't just drivers of targeted violence or terrorist attacks. They're also contributing to the corrosion of America's democracy itself. Idriss-Miller says throwing $20 million in grants to local partner organizations in certain selected communities, as CP3 did last year, isn't nearly enough to offset that.

MILLER-IDRISS: Germany just made a $1 billion investment. And it's a country that's a quarter of our size. New Zealand is standing up an entire new agency and a whole national center on prevention in the wake of Christchurch. I mean, they're doing massive investments. And we have done those levels of investments before when we face national security crises.

YOUSEF: Crises such as the terrorist attacks on 9/11, which prompted, about a year later, the creation of a whole new federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security.

Odette Yousef, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MALIKI'S "CONSORTIUM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.