As Trump relaunches Countering Violent Extremism, records on past Illinois program reveal links to FBI, law enforcement

Leading Democrats including Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have previously voiced support for the controversial counterterrorism program now being included in broader demands to defund and divest from law enforcement.

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Illustration by Robin Carnilius

Civil rights advocates are calling for an end to a federal counter-terrorism program with a history in Illinois as part of broader demands to defund police departments. But the controversial Countering Violent Extremism initiative appears here to stay regardless of the outcome of November’s election, with President Donald Trump’s administration launching a rebranded version of the program and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and running mate Sen. Kamala Harris on record in support of CVE.

Meanwhile, a closer look at Illinois’ now-defunct CVE program has stoked longstanding fears over privacy and unwarranted surveillance linked to the U.S. government’s anti-extremism approach, which aims to enlist community members, teachers, religious leaders and health practitioners to help intervene with those deemed at risk of radicalization.

Records obtained by The Chicago Reporter show that the architect of Illinois’ CVE program coordinated with the FBI and Chicago Police, as well as Chicago Public Schools in at least one case involving a student, to conduct interventions with at-risk individuals — a revelation that undermines claims that such counter-extremism efforts are community-driven and not focused on law enforcement. 

Records also show that the Illinois program explored enlisting mental health providers for interventions with those deemed at risk of radicalization, an approach that has alarmed some mental health providers who fear being deputized as a means of intelligence gathering for law enforcement and jeopardizing their relationship with patients. The program additionally created training materials designed to help community members spot warning signs of potential extremists, despite a lack of research that such signs exist.

These findings, based on a review of thousands of pages of records about the program obtained by The Chicago Reporter, as well as documents obtained by the civil rights organizations Muslim Advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, reveal previously unknown details on Illinois’ former program that trouble critics and confirm some of their civil rights concerns about CVE.

The Trump administration recently launched a new $10 million domestic counter-extremism grant program, an initiative civil rights advocates say is a rebranding of CVE, a framework that has been supported by both Republicans and Democrats nationally. CVE was first launched as a formalized federal counter-terrorism program in the United States in 2011 by the Obama administration and was supported by Biden, who was then vice president.  Biden’s vice presidential pick Harris was critical of the Trump administration’s controversial move to divert CVE grants away from organizations seeking to counter white supremacist groups in the domestic terrorism plan she released during her presidential bid. 

But the new federal CVE grants come at a time when the approach is facing broader resistance. A coalition of student groups at the University of Illinois at Chicago called to end CVE programs, stating,  “[CVE] projects fund research that racially profiles, surveils, and criminalizes Muslim community members, including Muslim students, as well as protesters,” in a list of demands issued in the wake of the George Floyd police shooting.

“Many CVE programs explicitly partner law enforcement agencies with community organizations, and this is seen as a liberal, progressive alternative to more traditional anti-terrorism practices,” said Nicole Nguyen, an education professor at UIC who studies the impact of counter-extremism efforts on Muslim communities and a signatory to the demands. “We have to make sure when this money gets divested away from law enforcement to community resources, that the community resources aren’t another form of policing that just happen to be done by social service providers.”

CVE has long been criticized as a ‘softer’ approach to unwarranted surveillance, such as the New York Police Department’s spying on Muslims at mosques. Critics argue that the approach rests on unsubstantiated theories dangerously linking non-criminal behaviors to a propensity to commit violent crimes — the same sort of “radicalization” premise that underpins invasive counterterrorism programs like domestic spying and deploying informants in targeted communities. But in CVE programs, opponents say, trusted community members and service providers are problematically tasked with assisting law enforcement in unwarranted surveillance of non-criminal behavior. 

“These programs continue to be an extension of a post-9/11 framework of a war against terror that is dependent on surveilling and monitoring Muslim communities. And this is a failed and a rebranded counterterrorism measure that has not yet died, “ said Nabihah Maqbool, a legal fellow at Muslim Advocates who has researched CVE programs. 

Interventions led by law enforcement 

The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority was awarded nearly $200,000 from DHS in 2017 to develop a state-focused CVE initiative called the Targeted Violence Prevention Program. ICJIA also received at least several hundred thousands of dollars in state funding since 2015 to help develop the program, records show. It was one of 31 groups nationwide to receive the federal CVE grant. Former ICJIA employee Junaid Afeef, an attorney who previously led the Council of Islamic Organization of Greater Chicago, launched TVPP as a community-driven public health approach to preventing violent extremism, and an alternative to FBI counterterrorism sting operations, he wrote in a February 2020 post on his personal blog. The program came to an end last year when the federal grant expired, an ICJIA spokesperson said. 

ICJIA’s 2016 grant application with DHS said its CVE program would train 150 community leaders and members in three Illinois pilot communities “to help off-ramp individuals who exhibit warning signs of radicalization to violence as well as those who exhibit behaviors signifying they may be in the early stages of planning an act of ideologically inspired targeted violence.” The application notes the prevalence of hate groups in Illinois as well as documented terrorism incidents in the state, stressing the need to better train those closest to at-risk individuals — including health care workers, service providers, school officials, family and community members, and clergy — to recognize problematic behaviors and make referrals.  

“ICJIA TVPP is not an intervention program. Our mission is to help communities build the programs and resources needed to do community-led prevention and intervention efforts,” Afeef wrote in a 2017 email.

However, during a June 2018 webinar hosted by the National Governors Association, Afeef pointed to two interventions led by local law enforcement as the kind of early ‘success stories’ TVPP aimed to help organize. Prior to the establishment of TVPP, Afeef said he was involved in a case where the FBI, CPD and CPS collaborated to intervene with a student who was “having a hard time” at school and was identified by the FBI as a possible target for recruitment by the Somali terrorist organization al-Shabaab, according to a recording of the webinar. He said the FBI worked with two community based organizations to find a mentor for the young immigrant, described as an economically disadvantaged immigrant minor facing cultural and language barriers, move him to a better school and find him a job, when he “could have easily been the subject of a sting operation.” 

In another case, Afeef said the FBI asked him to engage with a woman who was having “conversations with individuals that were connected to a foreign terrorist organization,” and that he put her in touch with pro bono legal counsel and mentoring. 

An April 2016 email obtained by The Chicago Reporter shows Bambade Shakoor-Abdullah, a Chicago-based mental health and violence prevention practitioner, thanking CPS and CPD officials for their help in addressing the concerns of a young man referred by Brian Murphy of the FBI, specifically naming Jadine Chou, CPS’ chief safety and security officer, and Christopher Kennedy, commander of CPD’s Gang Investigations Division. 

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CPD confirmed these events and Kennedy’s role in “addressing the concerns of one young person who was referred by the FBI’s Brian Murphy” in a statement to The Chicago Reporter. “The young person, through the assistance of the Chicago Public Schools Safety and Security team, transferred to a different school that was in his best interest. He also was assisted in securing a part time job,” CPD spokesperson Thomas Ahern said in an email. 

“CPD does not have a formalized CVE program and no arrests have been made at this point,” Ahern said in response to the Reporter’s questions about the department’s involvement in CVE. “Dep. Chief Kennedy will remain engaged with the CVE program because the well being of our youth is paramount to our mission. CPD will provide all available resources necessary in order to prevent young people from proceeding down the wrong path in life.”

When asked about this case, a CPS spokesperson said in an email that the district was approached by the FBI and a community-based organization in regard to a student but it was not presented as part of a larger program or initiative, and that the district partnered with the community-based organization on a safety transfer to another school, a common form of support provided to students identified as needing a safety plan. 

CPS said the district was approached by ICJIA to apply for a CVE grant program and to sign a letter of support but declined to apply or participate. The district also said that CPS and Chou were never party to any CVE grant and did not refer any students to CVE or ever operate any programs related to CVE.

But the documented evidence of coordination between CPS, CPD and Murphy is significant in light of revelations attributed to former agents and Justice Department officials in a recent New York Times story. Murphy reportedly joined FBI headquarters in 2015 to work on CVE after serving as an assistant special agent in charge of counterterrorism in Chicago. During his time with the FBI, one agent raised concerns about Murphy’s desire to prepare materials for Chicago public schools without disclosing the FBI’s participation, according to an internal bureau document provided to the Times, that “would have violated F.B.I. policy requiring such outreach to be public or overt.” The Times reported that former officials said Murphy wanted to have coaches, therapists, social workers, and religious leaders sign memorandums of understanding with the FBI to help steer people away from a potentially violent future involved in Islamic extremism, and in effect deputize community leaders to be arms of the FBI. Officials scrapped Murphy’s plan for being ill-conceived and legally problematic, the Times reported. 

CPS told The Chicago Reporter that the district was not aware of any involvement with Murphy or the FBI on any materials disseminated at CPS. 

According to the Times, Murphy was recently reassigned from his position as the head of the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence branch after his office was ordered to stop compiling and disseminating reports about protesters and journalists covering the Trump administration’s response to unrest in Portland, Oregon. When contacted by The Chicago Reporter with questions about Murphy, the FBI said it had no comment at this time.

Records from ICJIA’s CVE program also reveal the agency’s involvement in an Illinois “Shared Responsibility Committee,” an FBI-led program that sought to build groups of social workers, religious leaders, former extremists and other community members who could intervene with individuals deemed at risk of radicalizing. It was reportedly scrapped in 2015 after civil liberties advocates protested, expressing concerns that the committees could be used to enlist additional FBI informants. According to an ICJIA presentation, Afeef was a member of the committee. 

Afeef did not respond to multiple requests for comment by The Chicago Reporter. 

ICJIA listed CPD as a “partner organization” in its CVE grant application with DHS, and emails also show that Afeef consulted with CPD staff on the grant application and program. ICJIA said police partnerships were not formalized as part of TVPP.

“Dep. Chief Kennedy expressed his interest in partaking in this program in order to intervene with troubled kids – with the desire to prevent them from getting involved in criminal activity,” CPD said in a statement to the Reporter. 

Another law enforcement agency, the Illinois State Police, initially applied for a CVE grant but rescinded its application to avoid overlap with ICJIA’s program, emails show. Records also show that ISP planned to use grant funding to develop a smartphone app and website feature to report activity that people feel “may be related to violent extremism in their communities.” An ISP spokesperson said the agency did not develop any such app or website for people to report concerns about potential extremists. ISP’s chief intelligence officer was not aware of the agency’s application for the CVE grant, according to the spokesperson. 

Pushback from mental health professionals

Another main feature of ICJIA’s CVE program was to facilitate the involvement of mental health professionals who would help identify or intervene with people deemed at risk of radicalizing. 

Illinois’ CVE grant was one of a dozen nationwide that focused on the enlistment of mental health professionals in screening and assessing potential extremists, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice The strategy has met resistance from some mental health providers, who have cited privacy concerns and a fear of being used by law enforcement for intelligence gathering.

ICJIA says mental health professionals were not enlisted to participate in TVPP and that the program did not provide direct services. However, while developing its program, ICJIA surveyed Illinois-based public health and behavioral health professionals to assess their attitudes about participating in violence prevention programs like CVE. Of the 152 professionals surveyed, which included mental health counselors, social workers, case managers and other types of public health workers, most reported feeling not at all or slightly prepared to “assess, prevent or intervene” with individuals who “may ascribe to certain beliefs that justify or promote violence toward specific groups.” Additionally, few of the respondents said they had received training on their legal liability related to referrals of at-risk individuals from law enforcement. 

One survey question asked mental health professionals whether they thought it was true or false that DHS, the Secret Service or Illinois State Police “can ask you to break practitioner-client confidentiality” in regard to patients “at higher risk for ideologically inspired targeted violence.”

ICJIA also held a workshop in October 2017 at the University of Illinois at Chicago on the roles of mental health professionals in preventing “ideologically inspired targeted violence.” A description of the workshop states that mental health professionals “need to understand their legal and ethical duties when working with at-risk individuals,” adding that they “do not have control” over the “safeguarding of civil liberties.” Anti-CVE activists interrupted the panel, leading to two arrests. 

Public health professionals also raised serious concerns about their potential involvement in CVE during a 2017 workshop convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. “Many panelists and participants argued that using public health in CVE was potentially dangerous, and raised many civil liberties, ethical, and legal concerns for health professionals and researchers,” a summary of the workshop states.

Anti-CVE activists interrupt a workshop on the “Role of Mental Health Professionals in Preventing Ideologically Inspired Targeted Violence Using A Public Health Approach” at the University of Illinois at Chicago hosted by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority’s Targeted Violent Protection program on October 27, 2017, with Junaid Afeef (far right), TVPP’s former director, present.

Concerns over the involvement of public health workers in CVE have also reached Congress. Shannon Al-Wakeel, the former head of the Boston-based civil rights group Muslim Justice League, criticized CVE’s enlistment of mental health professionals in testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s National Security Subcommittee in July 2017. 

“Encouraging the mental health sector to be alert to vague and discredited signs of ‘vulnerability’ to ‘extremism’ – in contrast to clear indications of plans for imminent violence – invites use of implicit bias and may also spur invasive or patronizing questioning about clients’ and patients’ religious or political views,” she said.

Al-Wakeel said MJL was aware of individuals who felt unsafe seeking counseling for mental health issues out of fear that providers could be participating in CVE.

Despite pushback from mental and public health workers, ICJIA continued to advocate for their involvement in CVE. In 2017, the agency was accepted into a program run by the nonpartisan National Governors Association designed for states to share information about their own CVE efforts. In its application, ICJIA states “one option that shows promise is using mental health professionals” to “screen, assess, and further refer individuals who may be experiencing some type of crisis.”

“However,” the paragraph later states, “the limited data we have suggest that mental health professions may feel ill prepared to work in the targeted violence space,” adding that more data is needed to determine if mental health providers are “a viable referral avenue.”

Training materials for community members 

As part of its CVE grant, ICJIA developed training curriculum to help community members serve as “engaged bystanders” who would be equipped to “intervene before, during or after a situation when they see or hear behaviors that promote violence.” The training states that bystanders should not stereotype or surveil individuals; rather, they should use “non-judgmental, non-confrontational conversation or assistance to an individual of concern.”

The training instructs bystanders not to consider factors such as race, ethnicity or religious affiliation but to look for behaviors such as obsessing about violence or weapons, alcohol or drug use, sudden change in physical appearance or personality, feelings of hopelessness, cruelty to animals and deliberate fire setting.

The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority’s Targeted Violent Prevention Program developed a training toolkit, titled Communities Acting to Refer and Engage Training, or CARE, which includes a “decision tree” that provides options when community members “notice and identify something of concern.”

CVE critics have long disputed the premise that there exists a set of warning signs that should be monitored to identify potential extremists, and experts continued to push back against the idea as ICJIA developed its program. 

“In all of the grant language for these programs, they claim that they are able to deduce warning signs to help communities and law enforcement identify signs of extremist violence. However, in no independent or government analysis has this method been deemed to be effective or useful,” Maqbool said. 

“An individual’s progression to extremism is complex, and there is no evidence to predict when or how an individual will act on violent impulses,” the NASEM workshop summary stated. 

One workshop participant, Michael Jensen of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, said “researchers are trying to identify a shared set of characteristics or a specific pathway that individuals take to become violent extremists, but ultimately researchers should conclude that such shared characteristics do not exist,” according to the report.

TVPP struggled to enlist support from community groups early on. Several of the “partner” organizations initially listed in the agency’s grant application were included without their approval, including the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, whose then-executive director Rev. Stanley Davis said he had never heard of the program at the time, WTTW reported

ICJIA’s program hit more roadblocks when two partner organizations – an Albany Park mosque, Makki Masjid; and the Islamic Center of Naperville – cut ties with the program, citing “concerns over discrimination against the Muslim community.” 

Shabbir Patel, a leader at Makki Masjid, told The Chicago Reporter that he met Afeef as a fellow attendee at a 2016 meeting with the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, where they were told about a grant opportunity. Patel said he didn’t know much about the grant but thought it might be a way to obtain funding for community outreach or aiding the large number of refugees who attend his mosque and spoke briefly to Afeef about the possibility of applying. Patel said he only found out that Makki Masjid was listed as a community partner in ICJIA’s DHS grant application from WTTW’s reporting, leading to community members accusing the mosque of spying for the government. Patel said he immediately contacted Afeef and said the mosque was not interested in the kind of programming described in the grant. 

The agency eventually partnered with groups or community members in Elgin, Springfield and Champaign, records show. A spokesperson for Elgin Police said the department was working with ICJIA to set up training sessions, but no training took place, saying, “It never got off the ground.” Julie Pryde, an administrator at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, said her agency was a “test site to help shape the curriculum” to develop a training for those who work in schools and social service agencies to detect potential warning signs in youth at risk of going down the path of white nationalists. 

ICJIA confirmed that one pilot training was conducted in central Illinois in July 2019 and that the pre-training toolkit was not disseminated to any individuals or organizations, but was submitted to DHS as part of its grant requirements. 

The future of CVE

What Illinois’ CVE program ultimately achieved remains unclear. Afeef resigned in May 2019 and ICJIA Spokesperson Cristin Evans said the agency’s DHS grant expired in July 2019. Evans said that ICJIA did not apply for the new grant available from the DHS’s Office of Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention, created last year. 

“Upon receiving feedback from the community, ICJIA opted not to pursue funding to continue the program,” Evans said. 

The application deadline for the new grant program was June 17 and awards will be made no later than September 30, 2020, according to the DHS website. The Reporter has filed a public records request for the grant applications and is awaiting a response from DHS. DHS did not respond to The Chicago Reporter’s questions for details on the grant program or its applicants. 

In addition to the $10 million allocated for the new grant program, DHS’s website states the agency requested $20 million for the grant program in its 2021 budget request. 

The new grant program seems to further emphasize law enforcement, requiring recipients that undertake certain types of counter-extremism projects, such as developing threat assessment programs, to report to DHS the number of cases referred to law enforcement, according to a DHS guidance document for applicants. Organizations that set up phone hotlines as part of the program will also need to report to DHS the number of calls referred to law enforcement.

“It is very obvious that this is now a law enforcement program,” Nguyen said. “Do we actually want to deputize community members to take on the role of law enforcement when there is a documented history of racial profiling of white people calling out these ‘suspicious’ behaviors?” 

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Afeef unsuccessfully ran for Kane County state’s attorney earlier this year, winning the endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders and campaign contributions from progressive groups. 

CVE has also been touted as an approach to combat violent white supremacist groups by some former Democratic presidential candidates. The Trump administration was sharply criticized for revoking CVE grants announced in the final days of the Obama administration from some groups, including the Chicago-based organization Life After Hate, dedicated to de-radicalizing neo-nazis and white supremacist extremists. 

Criticizing the decision on her presidential campaign website, Harris called for more vigilant monitoring of white nationalist websites and forums to enable the FBI to identify and penetrate extremist networks and stated that as president, she would commit $2 billion over ten years  to such efforts. 

Biden has voiced support for CVE as a model to engage immigrant communities. As vice president, he helped kick off the Obama White House’s three-day CVE summit in 2015. “We have to … engage our communities and engage those who might be susceptible to being radicalized because they are marginalized,” Biden said, according to news reports about the summit. “Societies have to provide an affirmative alternative for immigrant communities, a sense of opportunity, a sense of belonging that discredits the terrorist’s appeal to fear, isolation, hatred, resentment.”

The Biden-Harris campaign did not immediately respond to request for comment on CVE as an approach to counterterrorism. 

But advocates are wary of an expansion of CVE programming. “These kinds of infringements that are made on people’s privacy and civil liberties generally start at vulnerable communities, like the Muslim community, but they don’t stop there,” Maqbool said on the potential impact of CVE moving forward. 

In June, a coalition of more than 70 civil rights groups sent a letter to Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf asking him to end the new grant program, citing concerns over casting unwarranted suspicions on American Muslims and other communities. The signatories opposed the expansion of CVE and TVTP grant programs to include white nationalists. 

“We object to CVE programs classified as community interventions, when, in reality, they are opportunities for law enforcement to gather intelligence on constitutionally-protected activities,” the letter stated. “CVE frameworks, like those deployed in the TVTP grant program, remain ineffective, waste resources, and disproportionately focus on Muslim communities, regardless of who else is incorporated by name.”