As the Obama administration prepares to release the country’s first comprehensive counter-radicalization strategy, recommendations from nongovernmental experts indicate local programs have proven most effective at preventing radicalization among America’s youth.
According to a study by the New America Foundation at Syracuse University, “Almost half” of the al-Qaeda-related homegrown terrorism incidents in the United States have occurred in the last two years. Rep. Sue Myrick (R.-N.C.) cited this statistic Wednesday in an open hearing of the House Intelligence Committee.
Members of the Subcommittee on Terrorism, HUMINT, Analysis and Counterintelligence examined a report entitled “Preventing Violent Radicalization in America,” recently published by the Bipartisan Policy Center. The report’s principal author, Dr. Peter Neumann, the founding director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King’s College in London, was the primary witness at the hearing.
Myrick, chairman of the subcommittee, emphasized that the need for proactive counter-radicalization is a new problem. “My concern is that today we see an increasing number of Muslim youths radicalizing in America and attempting to join plots here in the U.S. or traveling abroad to join terrorist groups. Unlike extremists such as Timothy McVeigh, our government knows little about how groups such as al-Qaeda are radicalizing our youth and pushing them to commit acts of terrorism,” she said.
The policy center’s report recommended local rather than national programs as more appropriate and effective for preventing radicalization. There is something to be learned from anti-gang programs in Los Angeles and New York, but components to combat extremist ideology are necessary.
Any effective program will both acknowledge and respond to grievances, and promote a counter-narrative. Neumann emphasized that Muslim Americans need to be intimately involved in counter-radicalization efforts, because al-Qaeda is targeting their youth particularly.
“The most important narrative that the U.S. government should promote is that it is perfectly compatible to be a good Muslim and a good American at the same time,” he said.
Rep. Mike Thompson (D.-Calif.), the ranking member of the subcommittee, expressed concern that mainstream America is targeting and isolating Muslim Americans through its counter-radicalization efforts. “If we speak with Muslim-Americans only about terrorism, instead of about the economy, education and other issues that are important to all Americans, we are not showing respect,” he said.
The policy center’s report examines several successful locally based counter-radicalization programs, such as that begun by Dwight Holton, the U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon.
After Holton indicted a 19-year-old Somali American for attempting to bomb the annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony last November, he began to engage the community to discover the root causes of the man’s rage. According to the report, Holton spent more than 10 hours meeting with the imam of the Islamic Center in Corvallis, where the man had occasionally prayed. He also met with leaders of a refugee organization to discuss problems facing incoming immigrants, convening special town hall meetings for the purpose. Holton now maintains ongoing relationships with the Muslim leaders in his community.
The report recommends that U.S. attorneys be charged with creating such local initiatives across the country. The federal government should then create a mechanism for the local programs to share information and experiences, promoting the most effective practices.
Myrick expressed concern that, although the forthcoming government counter-radicalization strategy is likely to charge U.S. attorneys with this very responsibility, the effect would be to combine the jobs of counterterrorism and counter-radicalization. She suggested instead that local mayors may be better positioned for counter-radicalization work.
Neumann replied that while conflating the two jobs is dangerous, because establishing a relationship of trust with the community is important, attorneys are better able than mayors to “galvanize local action.”
Myrick spoke of the case of Samir Khan, a man from her own hometown of Charlotte, N.C., who is now the head of media operations for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Through the Internet, as early as 2002, Khan became an active supporter of radical jihad. But his father and local community leaders waited until 2009 before they sat down to “talk sense” to him. Within two months, however, Khan had left for Yemen.
Had an effective counter-radicalization program been active in his community, Khan might have been stopped during those seven years before he left the country to join al-Qaeda.
John Gannon, the CIA’s former deputy director of intelligence and another author of the policy center’s report, said that the U.S. has a “global gold standard,” in that Muslims in this country generally do not aid and abet terrorists.
Neumann said that, compared with communities in England and other parts of Europe, American Muslims are less alienated and therefore much more eager to participate in counter-radicalization efforts. Yet the issue is increasingly urgent, as statistics show that incidents of homegrown terrorism are on the rise in the U.S.