Hanif Qadir knows firsthand how extremists ensnare young people. A former jihadist fighter himself, he is out to stop them — but sometimes he feels that the government gets in the way.
Qadir worries the counter-extremism message he’s bringing to the streets of east London is lost amid rising mistrust of a government program called Prevent. For the past decade, it has funded his community nonprofit.
The United Kingdom’s Prevent is the earliest and most ambitious anti-radicalization initiative in Europe. It has also drawn the most criticism. Changes last year meant to strengthen the program revived charges that it has stigmatized and alienated Muslim communities.
As Twin Cities officials step up a push to prevent radical recruitment, Britain’s deeper experience down the same path offers a cautionary tale.
Qadir does not see the Prevent program as “a Muslim witch hunt.” But he chafes against the government’s attempts to have more say in his nonprofit’s work and against the criticism he has to fend off for helping authorities. This summer, his Active Change Foundation set out to wean itself off Prevent funding.
“We have to have a connection with the community,” Qadir said. “If we continue working with the government so closely, we lose our voice, and we become the government’s voice.”
A working relationship between government and community groups is a tricky, yet essential, part of countering the savvy propaganda machine of groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, anti-terrorism experts say. In Minneapolis, Somali nonprofits chosen to pilot a federal anti-recruitment project face the task of putting government resources to use without paying a price in street credibility.
Giving up the fight
At the Active Change Foundation’s spacious youth center recently, staffers broke up games of table tennis and turned off a cricket match on television, drawing muffled groans from a group of teens. It was time for a workshop, the weekly ritual of sneaking 20 minutes of straight talk into the games that draw youngsters from the heavily immigrant neighborhood.
Boys settled on the black leather couches in front of the TV. On the walls, colorful graffiti read “Rise Strong” and “Understand Urself.” Staffer Hamza Abdulwahi spoke about how radicals twist the meaning of the Islamic concept of jihad.
“They kill men, women and children without care, and they have the audacity to call this jihad,” said Abdulwahi, a Somali-Brit who once discovered a “second home” here as a neighborhood newcomer. “Do you think that’s jihad?” “No,” several boys replied softly.
Qadir stepped in to explain violent extremists are nothing new: “They’re like a monster. You cut off one head, and another one comes out.”
Qadir got swept up in an earlier campaign to draw Western recruits to fight in the Middle East. A successful auto workshop owner, he was outraged by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, which he considers a disproportionate response to 9/11. Under the influence of Al-Qaida propaganda, he traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Americans.
But he was quickly disillusioned by the group’s brutal tactics. When he returned to the U.K., he and his brothers sold their business and started the nonprofit.
The nonprofit shares a block with a mosque on bustling Lea Bridge Road, where the faded row house facades are dotted with halal butcher shops, kebab restaurants and the occasional vegan cafe. Here in 2006, police arrested 14 residents after busting an Al-Qaida plot to blow up transatlantic flights using liquid explosives. The government enlisted Qadir’s organization, on the verge of bankruptcy at the time, for the newly launched Prevent strategy.
Rolled out after the 2005 bombings that struck London’s public transportation system, Prevent includes a long list of initiatives to stem the lure of violent extremism. It has steered millions of pounds to nonprofits to engage with local communities. One piece of Prevent, the Channel program, calls on community members and front-line youth workers to refer people for voluntary mentoring and other measures to keep them from becoming radical.
For years, Prevent lacked focus, and in some cases inadvertently funneled money to groups with radical agendas. Amid pressure to act after the 2005 terror attacks, Prevent became a “warning of the dangers of rushing into overly ambitious and extensive counter-radicalization programs,” concluded a 2012 report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.
In recent years, the government has taken steps to better monitor spending. But that has done little to quell skepticism. Critics have argued that by focusing on Islamist extremism, the Prevent strategy has isolated the country’s Muslim community.
The Channel program has been especially contentious. Almost 4,000 children and adults were reported through it in 2015 alone — a nearly threefold jump since the year before. Last year, as national terror-related arrests reached record highs, the government announced that referring people to the program would now be a legal duty for educators, social workers and others.
The new reporting requirements alarmed parents, said Harbi Farah, head of the nonprofit Help Somalia Foundation in north London. They created a climate of hyper-vigilance that breeds fear, he said. A family he knows was recently reported because the parents pulled their teen daughter from mixed-gender swimming at school.
In recent years, 80 percent of reports were found to be false alarms, according to National Police Chiefs Council data; less than 10 percent come from local communities.
Mohammed Khaliel, a community leader who helps coordinate Channel referrals at a high school outside London, said training for educators is uneven across the country. Some teachers are uneasy because they don’t know what happens after they report a student — authorities prepare the interventions away from view. Citing the program’s sensitive nature, the government does not release any information about its outcomes.
“Channel adds to the toxicity,” said Khaliel, who has advised law enforcement on Prevent implementation. “The confidence isn’t there, and you need to have confidence in the community to engage.”
The U.K.’s Home Office — the government department in charge of counterterrorism and immigration — did not respond to requests for comment. But supporters argue Channel is not unlike long-standing programs to prevent gang involvement and drug abuse. They credit the program with warding off major attacks on British soil in recent years and keeping some young people from joining the ranks of almost 800 Brits who have traveled to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq.
Rashad Ali, another ex-Islamist group member, dismisses accusations that Prevent is a spying operation out to criminalize Islam.
Ali’s organization, CENTRI, handles interventions of people convicted of terror-related offenses and Syria returnees; for the majority, he said, the support is key to re-entering society.
He said the program offers many lessons for places like the Twin CitiesHe has come to believe that with police in the lead, it’s harder to argue that Prevent is not about criminalizing everyday behavior, such as voicing political grievances. Ali has criticized a 2015 proposal by former Prime Minister David Cameron to crack down on clerics and others who express extremist views, even if they reject violence.
For community leaders like Qadir, the controversy plaguing Prevent has spilled over into their work.
“We feel we have two battles going,” Qadir said. “One is to fight the terrorists, and the other is to fight the critics.”
A daunting change
On a Tuesday evening, Abdulwahi and colleague Maxwell Adjei stepped out of the Active Change youth center. They were heading on “street patrol,” a daily exercise in neighborhood troubleshooting and drawing kids to the center.
They paused to peel ads for “girls massage” from lampposts. Later, Abdulwahi crossed the street to shake hands with a teen, a high school dropout whom he recently helped create a résumé. The pair stopped to check in with a couple of young men in front of a drab apartment complex.
“I miss you, man,” Abdulwahi told one of them. “It’s been a long while.”
The nonprofit, which is wholly government-funded, enjoys both neighborhood buy-in and high-profile accolades. The youth center hosts pool tournaments between neighborhood kids and cops to cultivate trust. Its #Notinmyname Twitter campaign against ISIL went viral and drew kudos from President Obama, though critics said it reinforced the idea that Muslims must answer for the behavior of extremists.
The organization has also received props for its Young Leaders program, an effort to harness peers as a largely untapped resource in fighting radical recruitment. The program has produced about 400 graduates such as 16-year-old Julia Hossain, who started “Stand Up Against Extremism” social media pages.
When a “Long Live ISIS” message appeared on a wall at a London school, a Young Leader there quickly found out which classmate had spray-painted it. He engaged the boy, a loner who had been bullied, in discussions about Islam. The Active Change Foundation referred the boy to Channel. Project manager Shaf Islam said the Young Leader was tapped to play a role in the resulting intervention: “A lot of young people need that support rather than, ‘Don’t do that or else.’ ”
The nonprofit has led 120 interventions, including 15 that Qadir describes as “high-risk.” He said not all have been unequivocal successes: A couple of young men have moved on to careers as petty criminals, and one of the men in the airline bombing plot — released to the group on parole — returned to prison after making plans to travel to Syria.
Qadir said his group made headway with most cases. There was the young woman recently intercepted on her way to Syria, and the man lured away when nonprofit staffers crashed and heckled an extremist group’s event.
Several years ago, the group took on a man in his 20s who had tried to burn down the house of a publisher of a novel featuring the prophet Mohammed. While the young man was on parole, Qadir argued with him for hours about religion. Meanwhile, the nonprofit helped him find a job and eventually start a successful organic beard-oil business.
But Qadir said working closely with the government has become more frustrating. The Home Office doesn’t allow him to showcase his success stories — something Qadir said the battered Prevent brand needs badly. He said the government has demanded more personal information on the young people the group mentors; it has suggested asking youth club members simplistic questions to gauge whether they might be at risk for radicalization.
“How we engage our community should be left up to us, who know our community,” said Qadir.
Ali said working with the government doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition. His organization uses government funding when it assists with one-on-one interventions. It uses private funding for its community outreach, allowing for more independence.
Recently, Qadir began considering the idea of depending more on private fundraising as well. He hopes the sale of a new manual on fighting extremism that he authored might help that shift.
The prospect of surviving on private funds is daunting. But otherwise, Qadir said, “The people will see us as joined at the hip with the government.”