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Homeland Security funds revamped terrorism prevention grants after past criticism

The Department of Homeland Security announced Wednesday a new round of terrorism prevention grant funding, which will focus in part on preventing domestic violent extremism and violence related to online activity.

The announcement comes after a campaign pledge from President Joe Biden to end the grant program — and efforts by the department to address concerns raised about it.

DHS will provide $20 million through its Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention grant program, which was established as part of a rebranding effort under the Trump administration. That’s up from $10 million awarded last year to state, local and nongovernmental organizations to develop violence prevention capabilities.

“We’ve engaged in a dramatic shift. And not only the types of programs we’re funding, but the entire approach to this issue,” John Cohen, DHS assistant secretary for counterterrorism and emerging threats, told CNN.

The strategy being employed under the Biden administration will focus on understanding the behaviors of those who engage in violence, with the understanding that violence is often directed at immigrant communities, communities of color and different faith communities, Cohen said, adding that DHS will continue to work with those communities.

Biden pledged during the campaign to end the program seen by many Arab Americans as a vehicle for law enforcement overreach.

“Biden will end the Trump Administration’s Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Program,” his campaign website states, “and, before developing new prevention programs, he will conduct a thorough review of past programs and regularly consult with leaders from historically targeted communities, including Arab Americans, to ensure that civil rights are protected.”

Past iterations of the grant program were criticized as unfairly targeting Muslim and minority communities, and results had been difficult to measure. DHS finalized plans in December to better monitor and evaluate the program, the department said.

Funding for the program was authorized by Congress before the Biden administration took office. But the activities that will be funded by the program were developed during this administration, Cohen said.

CNN reported last month that funding was expected to double.

DHS officials have met with representatives from communities that had expressed concerns about the program, Cohen said.

During congressional testimony Wednesday, he addressed concerns raised by Rep. Lauren Underwood, an Illinois Democrat, about communities wary of engaging with the department.

“If I’m just going to be candid,” Cohen said, “at the same time we are experiencing this diverse and dynamic threat, there are a number of communities, particularly communities of color that simply do not trust local governments, do not trust the federal government, so we have to change that.”

That is done is by “establishing lines of communication, by engaging, by listening to people and taking what they say seriously,” he said, and “by understanding that there are decades, sometimes decades of experiences that are influencing their attitudes toward us.”

Since January 20, Cohen said he has met “with a broad representation of community, immigrant and faith-based representatives.”

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas set four priorities for the revamped grant program, including challenging online violence mobilization narratives for the first time through the grants.

The grant program also prioritizes preventing domestic violent extremism, enhancing local threat assessment and management capabilities and implementing what DHS calls “innovative solutions” for terrorism prevention.

“Domestic violent extremism and targeted violence are two of the gravest threats facing our homeland today,” Mayorkas said in a statement announcing the new funding.

DHS awarded $10 million to 29 projects last September, such as grants to Boston Children’s Hospital, the Philadelphia Police Department and Arizona State University.

Domestic violent extremism is the greatest threat to the United States, Mayorkas told lawmakers last week during his first congressional hearing since taking office.

“At this point in time, domestic violent extremism, the lone wolf, the loose affiliation of individuals following ideologies of hate and other ideologies of extremism that are willing and able to take those ideologies and execute on them in unlawful, illegal, violent ways is our greatest threat in the homeland right now,” he said.

Shortly after the Biden administration took office, DHS issued a threat bulletin due to the ongoing potential for violence in the wake of the presidential inauguration, including concerns that domestic extremists may be emboldened by the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

The bulletin reiterated several concerns about domestic extremists that the department warned about over the past year, including anger over Covid-19 restrictions, the 2020 election results and police use of force.

Last month, DHS designated combating domestic violent extremism for the first time as a “National Priority Area” for two of its Federal Emergency Management Agency grant programs. FEMA operates several grant programs to assist state and local governments prevent and recover from acts of terrorism and other threats.

Article Topic Follows: National Politics

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