Cover: Practical Terrorism Prevention

Practical Terrorism Prevention

Reexamining U.S. National Approaches to Addressing the Threat of Ideologically Motivated Violence

Published Feb 14, 2019

by Brian A. Jackson, Ashley L. Rhoades, Jordan R. Reimer, Natasha Lander, Katherine Costello, Sina Beaghley


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Research Questions

  1. How is DHS currently postured in terms of structure, personnel, resources, and programs to counter domestic and international terrorist radicalization and recruitment?
  2. Is the current posture commensurate with the threat?
  3. What measures have proven effective in terrorism prevention?
  4. How can success be best measured? What metrics should the department put in place?
  5. How does the DHS approach compare with that of foreign partners, and what lessons can be learned from partners' activities?
  6. What organizational changes, if any, should DHS consider to best prevent terror threats?
  7. What programmatic changes, if any, should DHS consider in terrorism prevention lines of effort?

Terrorism prevention — superseding the programs and activities previously known as countering violent extremism (CVE) — policies seek to broaden the options available to address the risk of individual radicalization and mobilization to ideologically driven violence. These programs provide alternatives to arrest, prosecution, and incarceration by countering recruiting or radicalizing messages, intervening before individuals have committed serious crimes, or supporting the reentry and desistance from violence of individuals convicted and incarcerated for terrorism-related offenses. Government involvement in these programs has been controversial, due to concerns about such efforts' potential to infringe on Constitutionally protected rights and the risk of outreach or intervention activities stigmatizing communities by associating them with terrorism or extremism.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS's) Office of Policy requested that the Homeland Security and Operational Analysis Center examine past U.S. CVE and current terrorism prevention efforts, evaluate the DHS and interagency posture for federal efforts, and explore policy options to strengthen terrorism prevention going forward. Researchers found that current terrorism prevention capabilities are relatively limited. Most initiatives are implemented locally or outside government, and only a subset receive federal support. Among interviewees in law enforcement, government, and some community organizations, there is a perceived need for a variety of federal efforts to help strengthen and broaden local and nongovernmental capacity. However, doing so will be challenging, since concerns about past counterterrorism and CVE efforts have significantly damaged trust in some communities. As a result, terrorism prevention policy and programs will need to focus on building trust locally, and designing programs and federal activities to maintain that trust over time.

Key Findings

Current terrorism prevention efforts are limited

  • Limited programmatic focus and resource investment since 2014, coupled with sustained opposition that focused on limiting CVE efforts, have constrained efforts to develop approaches to individuals at risk of ideological violence other than arrest, prosecution, and incarceration.

Reinvestment in federal field staff is key

  • Personnel who are based locally but who are aware of the federal picture could help to build relationships, strengthen trust, and act as on-the-ground facilitators of local terrorism prevention efforts. This could both deliver immediate results and help to build for the longer term.

Interviewees identified specific needs in the areas of awareness and training, federal support, federal program development, and research and evaluation

  • Objective threat information is needed by technology companies to guide their efforts in the online space. Improved risk-assessment tools also would be useful to manage programming for individuals convicted of terrorism-related offenses.
  • Sharing best practices and knowledge was viewed as important, and interviewees noted the value of bringing together researchers, implementers, and others to share information.
  • Federal action to facilitate local programs and capability-building should be the priority across multiple components of terrorism prevention.
  • A more robust and interdisciplinary research community is needed for terrorism prevention, and, although efforts in the past regarding CVE were useful and should be continued, they are not enough.


  • For countermessaging and intervention programming, the federal government should focus on funding and assisting state, local, and nongovernmental organizations and private actors rather than building capabilities itself.
  • The federal government should continue to provide community awareness briefings and training exercises to local groups. These activities were viewed by interviewees as successful in disseminating needed information. Recent reductions in staffing have limited federal capacity to do so.
  • Adapting existing tools like table-top exercises to help empower local areas to explore the types of terrorism prevention that are appropriate for their circumstances appeared to be promising.
  • Openness and transparency in training delivery would help to support trust in a controversial area, and using unclassified and open source information that can be shared broadly is more practical for efforts that must bridge many organizational boundaries.
  • Pursuing public-private partnerships and broadening support from nonsecurity agencies would be a practical approach to supporting terrorism prevention efforts in a way that is potentially more acceptable to communities and members of the public.
  • Building and maintaining the bench of expert practitioners will be important in developing programs from the national to the local levels.
  • Strengthening investment in evaluation would address criticism of the effectiveness of both past CVE and current terrorism prevention efforts in the future.

This research was sponsored by the Office of Policy within the the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and conducted by the Strategy, Policy, and Operations Program of the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.