A new White House strategy to combat homegrown terrorism could backfire unless officials engage local communities.
Radicalization experts and Muslim-American leaders who work on fighting jihadism within their communities welcome a White House strategy promising more federal support and partnerships on countering violent extremism (CVE). If the partnerships are to succeed, they say, federal partners must build real trust within the community, remain in the background, and not oversecuritize those relationships.
Last year, the White House released its national strategy and implementation plan for “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.” While the strategy seeks to fight all violent extremist ideologies, it’s particularly focused on al Qaeda-inspired jihadism and, thus, local Muslim communities within the United States.
“Protecting American communities from al-Qa’ida’s hateful ideology is not the work of government alone,” President Barack Obama wrote in an introductory letter accompanying the strategy. “Communities—especially Muslim American communities whose children, families and neighbors are being targeted for recruitment by al-Qa’ida—are often best positioned to take the lead because they know their communities best.”
Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, director of community outreach for the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia, says that the strategy’s focus on supporting local leaders, communities, and parents is correct in theory, but he has not always been happy with how it plays out in practice. “The FBI comes to me after the fact and tells me what’s going on, rather than making me a partner in interdicting individuals who are going the wrong way,” he explains.
Abdul-Malik says that one of the most helpful things the federal government could do is share the warning signs of radicalization with Muslim leaders so that they can educate the community to identify these young men going down “a slippery slope” and “walk them away from the ledge” before it’s too late. “That would be some useful information to lay out to the leadership within an ordinary community [behind a] closed door,” he says.
Chuck DeWitt, a spokesman for the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA), says his organization is currently working on a DHS-funded program, as part of the White House strategy, to do just that. Currently the Los Angeles Police Department and the National Consortium for Advanced Policing is developing a pilot program to train executive and frontline officers in CVE. Part of that training, he says, will task outreach officers with providing Muslim community leaders and parents with the signs of radicalization.
But this radicalization monitoring is a balancing act for both the government and the community, says Muslim-American activist in the Washington, D.C., area, who wished to speak anonymously (I’ll refer to him as OMA). He does deradicalization work online and in person and says those who lead such efforts cannot be publicly associated with the federal government or law enforcement because it will contaminate communications with those they’re trying to help. “The more open the relationship is with law enforcement, the more the community leaders with that relationship will be viewed as 'sell outs,’” he explains. But he adds, “Relationships can be built in a more subtle manner.”
OMA adds there must be a back channel to law enforcement when at-risk individuals won’t reject jihadi. “When deradicalization efforts fail and the individual begins to actively take steps to engage in violence, then law enforcement needs to be notified,” he says.
Years earlier, OMA struck up an online conversation with Samir Khan, the North Carolina man and publisher of the English-language jihadi magazine Inspire. Khan died last September in an American drone strike in Yemen that targeted and killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a jihadist preacher involved with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who was also imam at Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center from 2001 to 2002 before going jihadi. Khan, he says, is a perfect example of someone who should be turned in to law enforcement. In 2008, he decided not to contact the FBI. Today he regrets that decision.
Abdul-Malik also says that the federal government needs to work with online deradicalizers so that these activists do not come under suspicion when they cruise social networks or jihadi forums looking for at-risk youth to engage. According to Abdul-Malik, these activists are like Batman, and they need a Commissioner Gordon to protect them while they do their deprogramming online.
Dr. Stevan Weine, professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has studied radicalization within the Somali refugee communities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, believes that parents can play a key role, noting cases of parents who either helped get their children off the path of violent radicalization or notified the police when their children had gone jihadi. OMA agrees, noting that when he flirted with jihadism in college, his father and other Muslim scholars in the community convinced him that his jihadi impulses were not the Islamic legal tradition.
Weine cautions against government oversecuritizing CVE, especially because many immigrant and refugee Muslim populations in the United States come from countries where police were violent, oppressive tools of the regime in power. Weine notes the case of Mohamed Osman Mohamed, the 20-year-old Somali-American who was arrested in November 2010 for planning to bomb a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon. Aware of his son’s radicalization as well as his family, educational, work, and substance-abuse problems, Mohamed’s father reported him to the FBI. But instead of getting Mohamed psychiatric help, the FBI set up a sting and arrested him.
Decisions like these to use the criminal justice system when there is no imminent threat to the community could backfire, notes Weine. “These risks could be compounded because one action of ‘hard counterterrorism’ can feed community suspicions that government cannot be trusted.”
Law enforcement surveillance of even cooperative Muslim communities and the scandal over Islamophobic FBI training could lead to failure for the White House’s CVE strategy. “If the administration sincerely wants to build community resilience among American Muslims, it’s probably not a very good idea to spy on the very community leaders [who] are trying to combat violent extremism,” OMA says. “These sorts of tactics create a chilling effect in deradicalization efforts.”
DeWitt says that the government is starting to move away from that more law-enforcement-oriented approach. In the future, he says, CVE will be more about prevention and early intervention rather than relying disproportionately on arrest and prosecution.