MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md.
Imam Jamil Dasti preaches vigilance in the affluent northwest suburbs of Washington, D.C.
At the Islamic Society of Maryland, Dasti hosts a Q&A with FBI agents, warns about radical propaganda on social media and echoes the Department of Homeland Security’s “If you see something, say something” mantra.
“If we see a threat, we have to report right away,” he tells worshipers.
Maryland’s Montgomery County has become the nation’s test lab in an intensifying hunt for ways to prevent extremist violence — a search that has also gripped Minneapolis. In Maryland, a nonprofit led by Muslims has teamed up with police and county leaders to create “a neighborhood watch system.” They’ve trained educators, parents and religious leaders like Dasti to spot young people vulnerable to radical recruitment and started a counseling program to steer them away.
“It’s impractical to think we can arrest our way out of this problem,” Hedieh Mirahmadi, the founder of the nonprofit World Organization for Resource Development and Education, told lawmakers recently. “It’s irresponsible of us not to create alternatives.”
In the wake of terror attacks in Paris; San Bernardino, Calif., and Brussels, Belgium, federal officials have said such programs offer the best hope to avert violence by enlisting communities to intervene with fledgling radicals early. They’ve held up Montgomery County as a model for Minneapolis, where a high-profile federal trial against three young men accused of trying to join the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant opened last week. Minneapolis is one of three cities chosen to test pilot projects to prevent extremism.
But such efforts are also under growing scrutiny amid concerns that they inflate the extremist threat, stigmatize Muslim communities and push them to spy on themselves. Critics of the Montgomery County program point out leaders have disclosed little about how they intervene with young people and the role of law enforcement.
“If this is in fact a successful program,” said Faiza Patel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, “they should hold it up to public scrutiny.”
In a newly completed, federally funded evaluation, John Horgan, a Georgia State University professor who focuses on terrorism, found the program forged trusting relationships between government and minority communities. But he said it must open up about its approach to counseling and its outcomes. “Ultimately, decisions are being made about people’s lives here,” Horgan said. “We can’t afford any kind of obscurity.”
Montgomery County Model
What’s become known as the Montgomery County Model was an idea that Mirahmadi had weighed before the bombs went off at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. It quickly gained momentum after that.
Along New Hampshire Avenue, dubbed “the Highway to Heaven” because of the houses of worship lining it, pastors, rabbis and imams joined forces. Mirahmadi introduced some of them such as Dasti to county, police and school district officials.
The timing was opportune. As ISIL and other militant groups have stepped up online recruiting in the West, the government has become increasingly interested in Countering Violent Extremism initiatives (CVE). In recent years, some U.S. officials have looked to Europe, where a slew of programs have attempted to stem a flow of young men and women to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq.
With federal and local grants flowing in, the World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE) annual budget skyrocketed to more than $600,000 in 2014, from less than $20,000 for much of the 2000s. The group drew accolades from the White House and set out to create a CVE guidebook for law enforcement.
Leaders say WORDE’s program is unique in the United States. A community nonprofit, rather than law enforcement or the federal government, is the driving force. That has pre-empted some of the resistance that has greeted the Department of Justice-led pilot projects.
It’s a broad effort that goes beyond security issues, a network that brings diverse communities and authorities together to troubleshoot a variety of concerns. The partners have put on a campaign against school bullying, food drives for the homeless and a vigil after the San Bernardino attack.
“Our biggest fear is that our work will be described as an anti-radicalization program,” Mirahmadi said. “That stigmatizes our clients and doesn’t do justice to our holistic approach.”
Montgomery County Police, which prides itself on its diversity and outreach to minority groups, recently brought on Imam Mohamed Abdullahi as the department’s first Muslim chaplain. Abdullahi, a Somali-American, leads the sprawling Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, Maryland’s largest mosque.
Police Chief J. Thomas Manger joined the mosque’s members to break the daily fast during Ramadan last year and hosted open forums about his department’s work. Community service officer Sharif Hidayat, who is Muslim, took questions about police use of force from preteens in the mosque’s Sunday school. “We want them to feel connected and responsible to the larger community,” he said.
The effort has fostered a sense of trust and connectedness — key in deterring radical recruitment — according to Horgan’s evaluation.
‘Nobody wants to lose their kids’
The Montgomery County partners have also tried to cultivate a league of community interveners on the lookout for young people who might become radicalized.
WORDE hosted a Super Bowl Sunday panel discussion titled “Is Someone Recruiting Our Kids?” that featured a former Islamic radical and a former white supremacist, who reminded the audience that right-wing extremists have killed more people than Muslim radicals in the U.S. since 9/11. At monthly “halaqas” — traditional discussions of Islam that WORDE streams on YouTube — Tarek Elgawhary, the director of religious studies, debunks radical groups’ ideology with a scholarly mix of Qur’an textual analysis, history and philosophy.
After a recent event, Yasmin Burns, a kindergarten instructional assistant, said she worries today’s young people — self-styled “Internet scholars” — can fall for the messages that radicals peddle online. “Parents are fearful, and they have good reason to be,” she said. “Nobody wants to lose their kids.”
Montgomery County’s approach is an alternative to what WORDE senior fellow Mehreen Farooq calls the “eject principle,” a history of banishing troublesome members like the Boston Marathon bombers, instead of engaging them or alerting authorities.
WORDE has trained more than 200 people on a grab bag of risk factors gleaned from research into the motivation of convicted terrorists. Factors include political grievances, social isolation, a yearning for belonging, mental illness and the “acculturation stress” that new immigrants and their children experience.
For Abdullahi, the Muslim Community Center imam, it’s not just theory. He recalls his shock back in 2009 when he learned that Nidal Hasan, a military psychiatrist who once worshiped at the mosque in his U.S. Army uniform, had killed 13 in a Fort Hood base. The imam had never noticed anything amiss. So he was quick to act, recently, when a mosque member grappling with marital strife told Abdullahi he was “that person sent to fix the world.” Abdullahi pushed the man’s family to get him mental health treatment — after alerting a police officer who worships at the mosque.
“If I find out anyone is even a little bit of a threat, I would not hesitate to report them to the authorities,” Abdullahi said.
But parents and community members also need an alternative to calling police, said WORDE’s Farooq. Residents can refer a young person to WORDE’s counseling service, which specializes in working with immigrants from Africa and Asia.
Most of what the counseling program does has little to do directly with terrorism. Counselors tackle domestic violence, depression and anxiety, and connect clients with services from food stamps to housing.
Saida Hentati, a family liaison in a Montgomery County Public Schools’ program for English learners, said she has referred several students struggling to fit in at the district’s large high schools. The students — who grapple with academic challenges, bullying and isolation — can benefit from the support of counselors who understand their culture. “I work with WORDE on prevention,” Hentati said. “I don’t mean these kids will become terrorists if we don’t help them.”
Interventions raise questions
WORDE’s one-on-one intervention program has drawn considerable interest. Officials such as Andy Luger, the U.S. attorney for Minnesota, have said they are exploring the possibility of community-based programs that steer young people off a path to radicalization. But that’s a part of the program that WORDE won’t discuss.
Leaders won’t say how many interventions they have conducted or who made referrals. They won’t talk about the treatment approach or the outcomes for the young people involved. They invoke patient privacy laws and say discussing the counseling program’s anti-extremism work can scare off potential clients.
“Everything you do in CVE is extremely charged,” Mirahmadi said.
A 2014 federal grant application and a contract with the police department offer a glimpse of WORDE’s intervention work. Police and community members have referred more than 25 people to WORDE since 2013, the application said. One high school student referred by a school resource officer had threatened a peer and “scared an administrator into thinking he might have been radicalized.” A counselor found the student was suffering from PTSD after spending time in a Middle Eastern refugee camp.
Another student, a recent immigrant who had become withdrawn and dropped out of school, turned out to be extremely homesick. The application does not describe the outcomes for these students.
The grant documents, obtained by the Brennan Center for Justice, said that when police get tips through the program, a social worker with help from WORDE staff would decide whether a person’s situation calls for professional counseling, mentoring from a community member or a criminal investigation.
In January testimony to the U.S. Senate, Mirahmadi stressed that WORDE counselors do not share client information with law enforcement unless that client is deemed a threat to national security. She went on to acknowledge, “We have no formal legal guidance on what constitutes a national security threat, and we do not know what would happen to those individuals we report.”
At the Brennan Center, Patel said WORDE needs to disclose more about how it evaluates its clients and exchanges information with authorities — work powered by public dollars. Experts have not figured out a reliable way to predict who might engage in extremist violence, she cautioned, and the grant application examples leave her unconvinced that young people whom WORDE has counseled pose any threat.
“People could be labeled as suspected violent extremists based on something that’s unproven and about which we have no transparency,” she said.
At the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), director Corey Saylor said teachers and social workers could damage crucial relationships if they also are monitoring students for signs of radicalization. CAIR, a CVE critic, is now working on its own community-led intervention program, after hearing from parents in places such as Minneapolis that the organization must offer an alternative.
It is unclear whether the Montgomery County trainings and interventions have actually thwarted extremist violence. Police Chief Manger did not respond to an interview request, but he recently told Bethesda Magazine that department investigations have uncovered credible threats, at one time recovering bomb-making equipment.
Mirahmadi readily acknowledged it’s impossible to know whether WORDE’s interventions have stopped anyone from becoming a terrorist. In any case, she said, it would be irresponsible to work on preventing violence without a close relationship with law enforcement, including the FBI — which would step in if interventions fail.
Horgan said his evaluation did not cover WORDE’s training and intervention, which were just beginning when he started more than two years ago. But he said WORDE and other interveners can disclose the effectiveness of their work without compromising client privacy. “I understand the sensitivities,” he said. “But we can’t simply accept at face value claims that these programs are effective.”