The U.S. Government's Fight Against Violent Extremism Loses Its Leader

George Selim, the federal counterterrorism official who works most closely with the organized American Muslim community, tendered his resignation on Friday. His ouster is a victory for Trump officials like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, who see mainstream Muslim organizations as Islamist fronts, and for those American Muslims who oppose any counterterrorism cooperation with Washington. “There were clearly political appointees in this administration who didn’t see the value of community partnerships with American Muslims,” Selim told me. It is the clearest sign yet that government cooperation with Muslim communities, which has proved crucial to preventing terrorist attacks, is breaking down.

The news was first reported on Sunday afternoon by The Conservative Review, a journal edited by the talk-show host Mark Levin, citing a senior administration official. It called Selim “a prominent Obama administration holdover known for engaging fringe Islamic radicals.”

But Selim, who confirmed to me on Sunday night that this will be his last week on the job, is not a Democrat with Islamist sympathies. He’s a conservative Republican who many Muslim activists viewed with suspicion. For the past two years, he’s been the founding director of the Office of Community Partnerships in the Department of Homeland Security, and the leader of the federal Countering Violent Extremism Task Force.

Selim’s biography evokes a bygone era. He’s an Arab American—his family is of Egyptian and Lebanese descent—and a conservative Republican. Early in his career, he worked at the Arab American Institute, which advocates for Arab American civil rights, and in 2004 served as an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention. Soon after that, he joined the Bush administration.

Back then, these biographical nuggets didn’t seem so contradictory. In his second debate with Al Gore, Bush had denounced the fact that “Arab Americans are racially profiled in what is called secret evidence.” After September 11, Bush insisted that “Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes.” In 2008, it was Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff—not Barack Obama—who first instructed the federal government to avoid terms like “Islamist” and “Islamic” in describing Al Qaeda. Selim served under Chertoff as a senior policy adviser in the Department’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

In its relationships with Arab and Muslim communities in the United States, the Obama administration didn’t so much change Bush administration policy as institutionalize it. Selim worked for four years under Obama as the National Security Council’s Director for Community Partnerships, before returning to the Department of Homeland Security to lead the federal CVE effort.

The theory behind CVE was that the government should build relationships with local Muslim communities and empower them to prevent radicalization. At times, that meant giving community leaders the chance to work with at-risk youth before calling in law enforcement. It meant avoiding the dragnet surveillance that made Muslims feel like victims of religious profiling. And it meant addressing white supremacism rather than viewing Islamist extremism as the sole domestic terrorist threat.

From the beginning, CVE encountered two very different forms of opposition. The first was from conservatives who saw it as politically correct way to avoid calling Islamic terrorism by its name. In June 2016, Senator Ted Cruz declared that by adopting such “meaningless policies as the ‘countering violent extremism’ initiative,” the Obama administration was “willfully blinding itself to the real threat.” After Trump’s election, Sebastian Gorka declared that, “I predict with absolute certitude, the jettisoning of concepts such as CVE.”

Ironically, however, CVE also met opposition from Muslim organizations, which insisted that despite its ecumenical veneer, it still treated domestic terrorism as a primarily Muslim phenomenon, even though the data suggested otherwise. Thus, some activists argued, the program stigmatized Muslims as potential terrorists rather than treating them like any other group of Americans.

The Conservative Review article that reported Selim’s resignation claimed that he had “admitted to hosting hundreds of meetings with officials from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR),” a claim Selim disputed to me. But what’s truly ironic about the charge is that CAIR strongly opposed CVE. Dawud Walid, executive director of the group’s Michigan chapter, told me that “the outreach Mr. Selim was involved in was just soft intelligence gathering and CVE in and of itself was still a program that overwhelmingly focused on American Muslim community even though it claimed not to be.”

Walid and Gorka are now getting their wish. In May, Reuters reported that Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate funding for the CVE task force by fiscal year 2018.

Still, Selim considered staying on. He told me he believes former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly grasped the importance of outreach to Muslim communities. Selim even arranged for Kelly to attend an Iftar dinner in Northern Virginia earlier this year, in which the secretary spoke enthusiastically about the importance of partnering with American Muslims. In a statement issued Monday, Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke said that, Kelly “and I often relied on George's thoughtful and reasoned approach to challenging issues” and that his “experienced and steady hand was important as he played a key role in advising me and senior DHS leaders.” Kelly’s departure from DHS—on Monday he’ll become Trump’s White House chief of staff—may have contributed to Selim’s resignation.

Selim’s departure is another example of the federal government’s institutional breakdown in the Trump era. He coordinated the efforts of the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, and Justice Department. “[The law] enforcement [community], [the] intelligence community, [the] tech sector, academia, philanthropic, and state and local communities … all knew that if they needed a point of contact, consultation, and resources,” on domestic counterterrorism, “George was the guy to go to,” said former Obama administration counterterrorism official Nate Snyder. Now, with Selim’s departure, and the likely dismantling of the task force he ran, all those entities will find it harder to work together.

As part of that coordination, Selim’s task force upheld standards for counterterrorism training. During Obama’s first term, Spencer Ackerman, then of Wired, documented the widespread use of blatantly anti-Muslim materials in counterterrorism training at the FBI, the military and the Justice Department. Selim’s task force helped create and enforce new standards, which required that training materials on Islam be peer reviewed.

The Breitbart crowd denounced these efforts. In his 2016 book, Defeating Jihad, Gorka demanded that “the politically motivated censorship of government analysis, training, and education must end.” Now it may. “We may see the return of snake-oil salesmen and trainers with facade credentials, people who have pushed the ludicrous and dangerous notion that all Muslims are terrorists,” worries Snyder.

Finally, Selim’s departure likely heralds a wider gulf between Muslim communities and the federal government. Zaki Barzinji, who served as the White House liaison to Muslim Americans in Obama’s final year, notes that “even Muslim groups that were critical of CVE felt they could talk to him, express their criticisms. They’re going to be completely cut off now.” Abed Ayoub of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee agreed. “We didn’t buy” CVE, he said, but “at least there was the communication with the community. We didn’t agree on most things but hearing our voice was important.” Now, he argues, American Muslim activists won’t even bother to talk to the federal government. When the Trump administration does something they dislike, they’ll move immediately to protests and lawsuits. Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, argued that with Selim’s departure, “the idea of community partnership has become obsolete.”

Once upon a time, Americans took pride in claiming that America’s culture of integration and religious tolerance made the United States less susceptible to jihadist radicalization than countries in Europe. Selim’s departure is another sign that this self-congratulatory story is out of date. The Trump administration, Al-Marayati told me a few months ago, is “building a European model,” a model of “psychological ghettoization.” Which is exactly what ISIS and al-Qaeda want.

The Bush and Obama administration’s outreach to Muslim communities was often clumsy and fraught. And Selim, who oversaw much of that outreach, had plenty of critics. But even so, Barzinji worries: “We won’t know what we had until it’s gone.”