By Junaid M. Afeef & Alejandro J. Beutel
The Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris in January 2015 seemed to renew the Obama Administration’s push for implementing countering violent extremism (CVE) as an alternative paradigm to the excesses of the War on Terror. However, many civil liberties groups, including several within the American Muslim community, have raised important criticisms and concerns about CVE that must be addressed to the satisfaction of the public.
There are lessons to be learned from the failed and ineffective government-led CVE efforts of the past, and it is necessary for American Muslim communities to take up the challenge of developing programs that incorporate these lessons in order to prevent Muslims from succumbing to ISIS’s powerful online recruitment efforts. The legitimate grievances of Americans — including Muslims — cannot be a reason to not do the right thing.
With ISIS’s social media onslaught raging and Islamophobia at home helping ISIS make the case for an “Us vs. Them” mindset, the future portends the possibility (but not the inevitability) of more young American Muslims succumbing to ISIS’s call to engage in political violence. The right thing to do in this case is to save as many of young people from hurting others and themselves. And, that requires community-led, research-informed and law enforcement-partnered programs to prevent recruitment in the first place. It also requires programs to successfully intervene when a person has begun traveling down the path towards political violence.
What the Government Got Wrong
Countering violent extremism (CVE) is a concept. It is also a generic name for various programs developed and deployed over the last decade. Some of these programs suffer serious design flaws. The biggest flaw of current and previous programs is that they existed within a law enforcement framework. This led to misunderstandings in the least egregious cases, and serious breaches of civil liberties in other instances.
In several communities the same law enforcement agency attempting to conduct community outreach to Muslims simultaneously deployed informants into mosques seeking to entice individuals into engaging in criminal acts. In other cases law enforcement used “community outreach” as a cover for engaging in warrantless intelligence gathering when there was no basis for obtaining a warrant.
In a post 9/11 era where every threat, no matter how remote, must be thoroughly investigated, law enforcement is struggling to find insights into who is most likely to engage in political violence. Using questionable research, many CVE programs were based on the notion that greater religiosity was evidence of movement into extreme ideas, which in turn, was believed to be the gateway to violent action. This “conveyor-belt” theory has been roundly criticized, even by proponents of CVE. The notion that there is one pathway towards political violence or that there is a particular reason why individuals choose to engage in political violence, has been discredited as well.
Preventing Targeted Violence on the Community’s Own Terms
Experts in behavioral psychology, psychiatry and other related fields, who focus on terrorism, acknowledge that very little is known about why individuals choose to engage in political violence. However, they also note that there may be other indicators that can help narrow the scope of potential threats. Not surprisingly, these other indicators are similar to those that relate to other types of criminal or antisocial behaviors.
Rather than wasting time, money and legitimacy with communities on fixing flawed programs built on questionable research, there is an opportunity to develop a new program focused on preventing targeted violence, which is more appropriately framed as a public health and human services issue. Instead of exclusively seeking to preempt every act of political violence (that law enforcement agencies increasingly acknowledge is untenable), this new approach would seek to help those who are most susceptible to recruitment and will work to re-direct them off the path to violence.
This approach, based on fairly well researched studies in the context of juvenile delinquency and preventing mass shootings in schools and public places, will accomplish this by assessing at-risk individuals who are brought to the attention of community-led prevention and intervention programs by parents, teachers, friends and, in certain instances, by law enforcement. These assessments, performed by a “crisis intervention team” comprised of community members, social workers, mental health professionals and others as deemed necessary, will then identify any psychosocial deficits that may be interfering with the at-risk individual’s cognitive abilities to the extent that he or she believes that killing innocent people is a rational course of action.
At that point, working in coordination with social service providers, healthcare professionals, community-based mentors, and religious advisers, the identified deficits can be ameliorated and the at-risk individual may then be better equipped to re-direct him or herself away from a path of violence. Approaching at-risk individuals to re-direct them away from political violence does not negate the vitally important role of law enforcement in ensuring the public’s safety. If these programs can reduce the pipeline of individuals committed to political violence, then law enforcement’s job may become more manageable and our communities will become safer.
This is not ground-breaking thinking. Violence prevention efforts have often sought to identify and address risk-factors that contribute to individuals engaging in mass shootings and gang violence. It is also not a simple task. Ideally, these community-led programs will partner with academics to evaluate the effectiveness of these efforts, and whenever possible, these studies will seek to identify what works and what does not work.
Furthermore, an effective targeted violence prevention program, even when developed and led by the community, has to coordinate with law enforcement. That will require trust. This is why the concerns raised by civil liberties organizations must be addressed effectively and quickly. The threats are ongoing, and law enforcement agencies are themselves recognizing that they need help from the communities to stanch the flow of potential recruits. It is in the best interests of public safety that law enforcement be able to collaborate with communities when individuals are on their intelligence radar but have not yet committed any crimes.
Community Introspection on Current Threats
Some American Muslims are interested in, and are buying into, ISIS. This is a fact. There have been enough American Muslims who have gone abroad to fight to make this fact very clear. More recently, there have been a number of recruits who are turning their violent focus inward toward American soil. The shootings in Texas and the alleged plot in New York City are a few recent examples. In addition to the American Muslim cadre of foreign fighters are the ones who have been indicted and convicted of terrorism or related offenses.
How many young people need to screw up their lives and put the public’s safety at risk before American Muslims see that they need to take care an active role in addressing this problem?
It is true that there are other threats to our collective public safety in the form of hate crimes and political violence committed by white supremacists and others, and these acts of violence must be addressed as well. However, American Muslim community members are better situated to address the threats created by ISIS’s online recruitment efforts, as the targets of this recruitment are all Muslims, and this why this particular form of political violence must be a priority of American Muslim communities.
The other threats noted above must be effectively addressed by law enforcement not only because they are statistically more likely to erode public safety, but also because these other forms of political violence are used by ISIS in its recruitment narratives.
The work of civil liberties groups in raising public awareness of government overreach is invaluable. Many of the issues raised by these organizations must be addressed. However, the need for effective prevention and intervention is urgent, and alternative strategies for preventing political violence must be intelligently and diligently pursued. Seeking to protect the most vulnerable members of American Muslim communities from becoming killers or convicted felons or both makes sense in every instance.
Junaid M. Afeef is a Partner at the Truman National Security Project and the former Executive Director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. Alejandro J. Beutel is a Researcher for Countering Violent Extremism at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, College Park.