Bernie Sanders endorsed former head of controversial state counterterrorism program

Junaid Afeef, who directed Illinois’ Countering Violent Extremism program, is running for Kane County state’s attorney and has gotten support from progressive criminal justice reform groups.

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Photo by Stacey Rupolo

Bernie Sanders holds a rally at Chicago State University on February 26, 2016, a week before Super Tuesday.

Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed Junaid Afeef, a Democratic candidate for Kane County state’s attorney and creator and former head of a Countering Violent Extremism counterterrorism program in Illinois. CVE has raised civil rights concerns globally and is criticized as a ‘softer’ approach to unwarranted surveillance, but has recently gained some popularity as a means to combat domestic terrorism by white supremacists. In Illinois, the program was administered by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

Afeef ran the program for more than three years before resigning last year due to lack of funding. He is one of two Democratic contenders vying to fill the seat of current Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahan, a Republican who’s held the job since 2010 but is not seeking re-election. 

Afeef is running on a platform focused on criminal justice reform and violent crime prevention and has received campaign contributions from the Real Justice PAC, which supports reform-minded prosecutors, and Progressives of Kane County

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The Sanders campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the candidate’s endorsement of Afeef or his stance on CVE programs. 

The Arab American News — a newspaper in Dearborn, Michigan, which is home to the largest concentration of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. — endorsed Sanders based on the candidate’s speaking out against law enforcement programs targeting of the Arab and Muslim American communities like terrorism watchlists and CVE. 

Like many, Sanders condemned President Donald Trump’s travel ban on citizens from majority-Muslim countries. The senator has also co-sponsored legislation to address violence committed by white supremacists and other far-right extremists

While campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2015, Sanders addressed the U.S.’ role in combatting the self-proclaimed Islamic State, stating, “The fight against ISIS is a struggle for the soul of Islam, and countering violent extremism and destroying ISIS must be done primarily by Muslim nations.”

“Sanders’ endorsement [of Afeef] is emblematic of why CVE is so dangerous because it looks on the surface like a progressive alternative to conventional counterterrorism practices. Even though Sanders has spoken out against CVE and likened it to these other anti-Muslim policies under both the Obama and Trump administration, he’s still endorsing a candidate who supports a program that criminalizes Muslim communities,” said Nicole Nguyen, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the Stop CVE-Chicago Coalition

“I don’t think Sanders endorses CVE. I don’t think [his endorsement of Afeef] has anything to do with Sanders’ politics. I think it has everything to do with how CVE practitioners are able to reframe their work as this progressive agenda,” Nguyen said. 

A counterterrorism program popular with Democrats and Republicans 

CVE was launched as a formalized federal counter-terrorism program in the United States by the Obama administration through pilot programs in three cities and later expanded to fund dozens of groups across the country. 

The Trump administration put its own stamp on CVE, controversially revoking grants from a handful of organizations and redistributing some funds to increase the role of law enforcement, which had already been a central component of CVE. DHS’ most recent update on CVE grant programs nationwide is for the quarter ending Sept. 30, 2018. Descriptions of the 26 CVE grants, totaling $10 million, awarded by DHS can be found on the agency’s website

At least one organization tried to obtain CVE funding to combat domestic terrorism by white supremacist groups, an approach the Trump administration had also moved away from. The Obama administration had awarded a $400,000 CVE grant to the Chicago-based organization Life After Hate, whose mission is to help people leave white supremacist groups but the Trump administration decided to discontinue it, earning criticism.

Counterrorism and national security have played a less prominent role this presidential election season and CVE is not as widely known as other DHS programs. But some Democratic candidates have voiced support of it. 

While serving as vice president, Joe Biden 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.”

Biden’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the candidate’s current  stance on CVE programs.

Biden has also spoken out against Trump’s “Muslim ban” and stated that he would “rescind the un-American travel and refugee bans” if elected president. 

In an interview with USA Today first published in November 2019, Biden was asked how he planned to address the threat of extremism in the U.S. He said, in part, “I will build on the progress of the Obama-Biden Administration to support our communities in this fight, restoring funding for initiatives to counter violent extremism at home.”

Some Democratic candidates who have dropped out of the presidential race addressed CVE directly in their campaign platforms, with some specifically supporting it as an approach to combat violent white supremacist groups. Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris supported CVE programs in their anti-domestic terrorism platforms, the legal group Muslim Advocates found. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, however, stated in its policy plan aimed at Muslim Americans, “Even programs for Countering Violent Extremism have too often harmed law-abiding members of minority communities.” 

Michael Bloomberg was mayor of New York City during the New York Police Department’s expansive Muslim surveillance program that espoused the same ‘radicalization’ theory embraced by some practicioners of CVE. It did not yield any terrorism arrests in New York and in 2016, NYPD agreed to safeguards against overly broad surveillance to settle two lawsuits alleging that the program was discriminatory, but Bloomberg defended it on the campaign trail for president. 

“That’s the kind of thing we should be doing,” Bloomberg said in an interview with PBS NewsHour last month when asked if it was necessary to single out Muslim Americans in counterterrorism efforts. “There’s no question about where the people who committed the terrible atrocities of the three airplane crashes and all the people getting killed, where they came from …  they happened to be one religion.” 

Public health approach criticized as soft surveillance 

ICJIA was awarded a nearly $200,000 CVE grant from the Department of Homeland Security in 2017 but the program, called Targeted Violence Prevention Program, struggled to enlist community partners. What the Illinois program ultimately achieved is unclear. DHS’ grant funding for the program expired in July, and ICJIA has removed all mentions of the program from its website. 

Afeef did not immediately respond to The Chicago Reporter’s request for comment. On his website, he defends his work with TVPP as a “public health approach to violence prevention.” 

“The training that our project team developed was inspired by both bystander training programs and mental health first aid training,” Afeef wrote on his website. “I have always been a strong voice AGAINST racial and religious profiling. I have always been a strong voice for violence prevention and public safety as well. I believe we can build safe and healthy communities without resorting to mass incarceration and stereotyping. That has always been my goal.” 

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 approach 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.

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Report: Illinois’ Countering Violent Extremism programs struggle to gain community partners

Their concerns are at the heart of criticism CVE has long received for seeking to enlist community members and trusted professionals, like teachers, religious leaders and health practitioners, to track constitutionally-protected behavior and activities as precursors to violence. These ‘indicators’ can include political grievances, feelings of isolation or hopelessness, economic status, and mental health struggles.

Opposition to CVE has been especially pointed in Chicago. In 2017, activists disrupted a panel hosted by the University of Illinois at Chicago that aimed to explore “the roles of mental health professionals in preventing ideologically inspired targeted violence using a public health approach.” The protest led to the arrests of two activists

A group of academics and activists from the #StopCVE-Chicago coalition have published reports criticizing the Illinois CVE program and urging community members and organizations to refuse to participate in CVE programs. 

The Sanders campaign, meanwhile, has enjoyed support from Muslim communities nationally. One exit poll showed that Sanders dominated among Muslim voters on Super Tuesday. He is endorsed by Muslim congresswomen Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and by Minnesota Attorney and former congressman Keith Ellision, who is also Muslim. Sanders’ campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, is Muslim and the candidate drew crowds when he spoke at the annual Islamic Society of North America convention last year.