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Countering Violent Extremism: DHS Can Further Enhance Its Strategic Planning and Data Governance Efforts

GAO-21-507 Published: Jul 20, 2021. Publicly Released: Jul 20, 2021.
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Fast Facts

There were 81 fatal violent extremist attacks in the United States from 2010 through 2020, resulting in 240 deaths, according to an academic database that tracks extremist crime.

We reviewed the Department of Homeland Security's strategy for preventing targeted violence and terrorism, including its efforts to counter violent extremism.

DHS's strategy didn't include all 7 elements of a successful strategy, such as a resource assessment for carrying it out. DHS could also do more to ensure it's gathering and able to use quality data to evaluate the success of its strategy.

We made 3 recommendations to address these issues and more.

 

A service member stands guard outside in Washington, D.C. with the U.S. Capitol in the background.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

DHS's 2019 Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence and the related plans—collectively referred to as the strategy—outline the department's vision for all DHS counterterrorism activities. In prior work, GAO has identified seven elements of a comprehensive strategy. GAO found that DHS's strategy contains some but not all of the key elements (see figure). For example, GAO found that DHS's strategy included a mission statement, and a set of goals that were in turn linked to objectives and priority actions. However, the strategy did not include a discussion of external factors such as how the economy, demographics, or emerging technologies may affect the department in meeting its goals. By identifying and assessing such external factors, DHS would be better positioned to proactively mitigate such factors or plan for contingencies, if needed.

Extent to Which DHS's Strategy for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence Included the Seven Elements of a Comprehensive Strategy

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DHS has taken some steps to establish a data governance framework, which helps ensure that an agency's data assets are transparent, accessible, and of sufficient quality to support its mission. For example, DHS established a data governance council to manage various data priority areas, however it has not yet completed actions to include targeted violence and terrorism prevention data into its department-wide framework. DHS has already identified some data challenges, such as the lack of comprehensive, national-level statistics on terrorism and targeted violence that underscore the need for a data governance framework. By incorporating targeted violence and terrorism prevention data into its broader data governance framework, DHS would be better able to leverage data to support and inform its prevention efforts, including building effective policy to address the threats and trends it identifies in the data.

Why GAO Did This Study

Data collected through the Extremist Crime Database show that there were 81 fatal violent extremist attacks in the United States from 2010 through 2020, resulting in 240 deaths. Since 2010, DHS has developed strategic initiatives that address targeted violence and terrorism prevention, which include efforts to counter violent extremism, among other things. GAO was asked to review DHS's longer-term efforts to prevent terrorism and targeted violence.

This report examines the extent to which (1) DHS's 2019 strategy to address targeted violence and terrorism prevention includes key elements of a comprehensive strategy, and (2) DHS has developed a data governance framework to help implement its strategy. GAO reviewed DHS documentation and compared DHS's strategy to identified elements of a comprehensive strategy, and compared DHS's efforts to develop a data governance framework to federal requirements for implementing data governance.

Recommendations

GAO is making three recommendations, including that DHS revise its strategy to include all key elements of a comprehensive strategy, and incorporate its targeted violence and terrorism prevention mission into its departmental governance of data.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Homeland Security
Priority Rec.
The Secretary of Homeland Security should ensure that the Office of Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention Policy and affected components and offices revise or supplement DHS's Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence strategy to include all key elements of a comprehensive strategy. (Recommendation 1)
Open
DHS concurred with the recommendation, and stated that its Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships initiated a review in March 2021 to identify opportunities and gaps across DHS with respect to the strategic framework and related implementation plan. Further, in June 2021, DHS conducted a departmentwide counterterrorism posture review, including efforts to identify opportunities and gaps across DHS to address all forms of foreign and domestic terrorism and targeted violence. Separately, in August 2021, the White House issued a Domestic Terrorism Implementation Plan, which directed DHS to carry out recommendations in the June 2021 National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, a separate strategy from DHS's internal Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence strategy that focuses on a government wide approach to address domestic terrorism. The White House strategy and implementation plan direct DHS and other federal agencies to take various actions based on four priorities: (1) understanding and sharing domestic terrorism-related information, (2) preventing domestic terrorism recruitment and mobilization to violence, (3) disrupting and deterring domestic terrorism activity, and (4) confronting long-term contributors to domestic terrorism. In February 2022, DHS stated that it was consolidating action items from its posture review with similar items contained in the White House implementation plan, and intended to complete this process by September 2022. However, as of January 2023, DHS stated that it was undergoing a reorganization that has affected its plans to complete these actions, and now plans to have these actions completed by June 2023. We will review DHS's actions to determine if they are meeting the spirit of the recommendation.
Department of Homeland Security
Priority Rec.
The Secretary of Homeland Security should ensure that the Chief Data Officer—in consultation with other affected offices and components—incorporates the governance of data needed to support DHS's targeted violence and terrorism prevention mission into its departmental data governance framework, including determining how targeted violence and terrorism prevention will be represented on the data governance body, conducting a data maturity assessment, and identifying opportunities to increase staff data skills that includes targeted violence and terrorism prevention data. (Recommendation 2)
Open
DHS concurred with the recommendation, and had taken steps to incorporate targeted violence and terrorism prevention data collection into its data governance framework. However, in February 2023, DHS officials stated that they are considering not initiating new efforts to collect targeted violence and terrorism prevention data because the department may already collect similar or related data. To corroborate DHS's change in approach and its rationale, we have requested further documentation to consider whether this recommendation is still applicable or whether the new approach addresses the intent of the recommendation.
Department of Homeland Security
Priority Rec.
The Secretary of Homeland Security—in consultation with affected offices and components—should establish common terminology for targeted violence. (Recommendation 3)
Open
DHS concurred with recommendation, and stated that it planned to add targeted violence to the approved DHS Lexicon by August 31, 2022. However, in January 2023, officials stated that the department is undergoing a reorganization that has affected the timeline for implementing this recommendation. It plans to complete actions to address the recommendation by June 2023.

Full Report

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Topics

CounterterrorismCrimeData collectionDatabase management systemsHomeland securityStrategic planStrategic planningTerrorismDeathsGrant programs