The Trump Administration has backed out of a major grant promised to UNC-Chapel Hill that would have been used to create media campaigns to undermine violent radicalism on U.S. soil.
It came during a partial overhaul of a grant program, but the UNC team wasn’t given a specific reason it was dropped, said Cori Dauber, a communication professor and one of two principal investigators on the grant proposal.
The $900,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security was the largest of 31 aimed at countering activities such as online jihadist recruiting. The UNC team planned to hire teams of students to develop media campaigns that would appeal to people their own age, who are a major target of extremist propaganda.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Dauber said. “We put an enormous amount of energy and commitment into this. We believe in our program; we believe in our team and in our kids. And you know, to be honest, they sort of left us in limbo for six months.”
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Dauber is an expert on jihadist propaganda. But the UNC grant application also explicitly said the team anticipated using the same approach on white supremacists.
“My co-principal investigator and I, our focus is on Islamic State,” Dauber said “And I think it’s fair to say that the bulk of our emphasis is that. But we made it clear that we would be drawing on a student population that in part their strength was that they had studied the messaging of white supremacist groups, and we were looking to fold them in along with the students who had studied the messaging on Islamic state.”
The grants were the first in a Department of Homeland Security program called Countering Violent Extremism.
Some Muslims say the grants are really aimed at the Islamic community and would contribute to stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists and stigmatize them. A UNC student group started an online petition demanding that the university renounce the grant.
The grant winners were announced during the last week of the Obama administration. But after Trump took office, Homeland Security froze the grant program, offering no official explanation to the announced winners.
In February, Reuters reported that administration officials were thinking about dropping the idea of using any part of the program to undermine radical far-right violence, and instead focusing the program solely on Islamic extremism and renaming it to reflect that.
But in the end, the department retooled the grants. On Friday it unveiled a new list of 26 winners. Most had been on the original list, but missing were four Muslim community organizations that had renounced theirs after Trump took office, citing his rhetoric about Muslims.
Among those left off involuntarily were UNC-Chapel Hill and a Chicago-based group called Life After Hate that was formed to undermine white extremism.
A co-founder of that group, Tony McAleer, said he thinks it was singled out.
“I think we would have been fine under a different administration, and I know there were lots of people inside DHS that definitely wanted to get us the grant,” he said. “The whispers that we got out of D.C. was, anything not 100 percent ISIS-inspired, al Qaeda-inspired, was getting cut.”
A spokeswoman for DHS wrote in an emailed response to questions that grants were not cut from the list for explicitly targeting white extremist violence, but rather because other new criteria were applied.
“The program has not been altered to focus on any one type of violent extremism,” wrote Lucy Martinez. “Of the 26 projects announced today, 16 projects are equipped to combat all forms of violent extremism, including white supremacist violent extremism. 10 focus on ISIS and/or other foreign terrorist organization recruitment and radicalization of Americans.”
She didn’t say whether any of the remaining grant proposals explicitly state they are targeting white extremism.
Martinez also forwarded a general DHS statement about the changes to the program. It cited the criteria used to re-rank the original applicants.
“The Department considered whether applicants for CVE awards would partner with law enforcement, had a strong basis of prior experience in countering violent extremism, had a history of prior efforts to implement prevention programs targeting violent extremism, and were viable to continue after the end of the award period,” it said.
McAleer said his organization met those criteria, noting that it’s in the last six months of a three year research project with the Department of Justice.
“In terms of everything asked of us in that research grant, we have a proven track record,” he said.
Congressman Mark Walker, a Republican from Greensboro, had sponsored an early bill to get funding for CVE grants and has followed the program closely. For weeks he had been trying to get answers about what was going on with the grant program generally, and the UNC grant specifically.
His legislative director, Ryan Walker, said that he had talked with a DHS official Friday and was pointed to the new criteria, but said he’s asking for a better explanation.
“We hope to get some additional clarification on how this process came about, how the new criteria were determined,” he said. “We’re going to express our frustration with Chapel Hill being awarded this grant and subsequently being denied the grant.”
In a previous interview, Ryan Walker said his boss didn’t endorse the idea of CVE grants without reservation, but given the threat posed by radical extremism that they were well worth investigating, at least long enough to gather solid evidence one way or the other. Upon learning of the Friday decision, he said the Congressman’s office is now concerned about the “continuity and predictability” of federal agencies.
“We were extremely displeased and frustrated,” he said. “To have the award changed like that at the last minute is not how we want to see DHS operate.”
Jay Price reports for WUNC’s American Homefront Project, a national journalism collaboration about military and veterans issues. For more, go to www.americanhomefrontproject.org