A trio of federal pilot projects aimed at thwarting violent extremism are off to a tentative start.
Minneapolis and two other cities chosen to host the Department of Justice anti-terror initiative are taking different approaches, but all three are facing common hurdles.
Community critics have pushed back, arguing the pilot projects train a damaging spotlight on Muslim communities and mainly seek to keep tabs on them. A lawsuit last week charges the feds have withheld documents that could shed more light on the initiative.
The pilots have also drawn a diverse cast of supporters who see a chance for government and community members to team up on preventing violence. But some are getting impatient with the slow pace and modest federal investment so far. In Los Angeles, law enforcement officials say the project has backfired, sowing confusion and alarm in Muslim communities. Thanks in part to an infusion of private and state dollars, Minneapolis has moved furthest beyond the planning phase.
Some community leaders say they’ll continue efforts to combat radical recruitment — without waiting on the feds.
“We have to figure it out for ourselves,” said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the LA-based Muslim Public Affairs Council. “We can’t wait for the next San Bernardino or the next Fort Hood or the next Boston Marathon.”
In September 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the three “Countering Violent Extremism” pilots, invoking the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and attempts by Americans to join the group in the Middle East. In each city, U.S. attorney offices would enlist community partners and shape their own initiatives.
In Minneapolis, the pilot focuses on engaging young people in the city’s sizable Somali community, shaken by the departures of youths to join overseas militants and a federal case against men accused of trying to join up. Some in that community have said that focus is stigmatizing.
Big Brothers Big Sisters is launching a mentoring program for Somali youth, and the state will offer $250,000 in grants to combat recruitment by overseas radicals. In March, a nonprofit enlisted to divvy up $400,000 in federal and private funding for youth programs will announce the organizations it has picked out of 14 applicants.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, officials plan to build on a long-standing effort to forge a closer relationship with Muslim communities. The police and sheriff’s departments have gained recognition for that work, including regular forums at area mosques and efforts to recruit Muslim cops. They have also at times stirred controversy, such as with a 2007 police initiative to map parts of the city with the highest concentrations of Muslims.
Leaders say they also hope to support existing initiatives, such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s three-year-old Safe Spaces program, in which imams and other leaders engage with youth who express support for radical ideology.
In Boston, law enforcement, school and city officials, and community groups produced a broad plan, with more than 100 action points: antibullying programs, anti-radical messages on social media, hot lines for concerned family members, cultural sensitivity training for government staffers and more.
The partners were especially interested in “off-ramp” intervention programs, in which counselors or religious leaders try to steer people off a path to radicalization, said Robert Trestan with the Anti-Defamation League in Boston. In November, organizers hosted a meeting to learn about such programs in Europe, where they’ve gained traction in recent years and at times triggered controversy.
Minneapolis and Los Angeles are eyeing such interventions as well. In Minneapolis, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger says he is talking to Somali leaders about what a program might look like here, perhaps tapping the revered status of mothers in that community. A recent state Department of Public Safety report to legislators also recommended some of the $250,000 the state earmarked for the pilot go toward interventions.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” said Michael Downing, deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. “Our tenet is prevention.”
In Los Angeles and Boston, the projects have moved more slowly. A year after last February’s White House kickoff summit, the Massachusetts health and human services department is gearing up to seek public input before soliciting proposals from nonprofits and agencies.
“In LA,” said Al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, “there have been meetings and discussions, but there’s no program and no money.”
Even as some supporters hope the initiative might get a boost from about $10 million Congress set aside for state-level anti-terrorism efforts this year, they say the $216,000 in federal funds for each pilot so far doesn’t cut it. Besides, the lack of specifics and a clear explanation of why these cities were chosen opened an information vacuum in which confusion and mistrust festered, said Sgt. Mike Abdeen in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.
“At the local level, that pushed us a step backward,” he said. “It took a lot of work on our part to get these communities back to the table.”
The U.S. Justice Department declined to comment.
To Glenn Katon of Oakland, Calif.-based Muslim Advocates, the modest funding and vague expectations suggest the project is a token gesture to reassure a public eager to see the feds take action on terrorism.
“This is the government flailing around with meetings and PowerPoints to give the impression it can ferret out extremists,” he said.
As in Minneapolis, the pilots in Boston and Los Angeles have drawn sharp criticism. Opponents say the program has focused on Muslim communities — even though non-Muslim extremists commit more violent acts in the United States.
“This is an ill-conceived, morally problematic, constitutionally questionable program that’s singling out the Muslim community,” said Shakeel Syed of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California.
Shannon Erwin, the executive director of Boston’s Muslim Justice League, says she is particularly concerned about the intervention idea. In the absence of reliable signs to diagnose a budding extremist, she worries young people might come under scrutiny for, say, airing legitimate grievances about U.S. foreign policy. By enlisting social service and mental health providers, the pilot could scare off local Muslims needing help, she said.
At New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, Faiza Patel agrees that there’s little research or evidence to back the pilot cities’ approaches: We don’t know that after-school programs can prevent anyone from becoming a terrorist, or how to tell apart the rare person who goes on to act on extremist beliefs. The center sued to obtain more documents on the pilots this month.
“It all seems like soft surveillance to me,” she said. “The question is how soft?”
Other experts, such as George Washington University’s Seamus Hughes, argue interventions should be a part of a community’s arsenal, perhaps in combination with some of the youth programs Luger is championing in Minneapolis.
“I’ve looked into the eyes of mothers whose sons are looking to join Al-Shabab and who are begging for an alternative,” Hughes said.
Community partners of the pilots say they trust President Obama’s vow last year that the effort would not be used for spying. To counter the perception that the initiative is all about Islamic extremism, Boston organizers recently brought in leaders of a program that emerged after a white supremacist killed six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis.
Supporters say the San Bernardino attack is giving the pilot efforts new momentum. But some community partners believe government agencies need to carve out a more limited role in the pilots.
In Boston, Abdirahman Yusuf of the Somali Development Center, a partner in that city’s pilot, says the government should support intervention efforts financially — and stay out of them: “We need to make this truly a community-owned issue.”