Who is a violent extremist?
The U.S. Government defines violent extremists as individuals “who support or commit ideologically motivated violence to advance political goals”. While there are a range of violent extremist groups operating in the United States, including right-wing neo-Nazi groups, Sovereign Citizens, and other anti-government outfits, the U.S. government has currently prioritized “preventing violent extremism and terrorism that is inspired by al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and adherents”
How has the U.S. government responded to the threat of violent extremism within its borders?
On the 10th anniversary of September 11th, the Obama administration announced its first national strategy to combat violent extremism called, ‘Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism’. The CVE framework envisaged collaborative partnerships between federal/state agencies and local communities to prevent the radicalization of individuals and groups–it adopted a three-pronged approach:
- Building awareness—including briefings on the drivers and indicators of radicalization and recruitment to violence;
- Countering extremist narratives—directly addressing and countering violent extremist recruitment narratives, such as encouraging civil society-led counter narratives online;
- Emphasizing Community Led Intervention—empowering community efforts to disrupt the radicalization process before an individual engages in criminal activity. (Fact Sheet: The White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, February 18, 2015)
In the development and implementation of the framework, the Obama administration adopted a ‘whole-of-government’ approach–in addition to engaging traditional law-enforcement agencies (the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security and the Department Of Justice), it was determined that agencies involved with civil rights, refugee and immigrant assistance, and other social services also had an indirect, yet vital role in preventing violent extremism.
Following the release of the framework, three cities were identified to test its effectiveness: Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. With U.S. Attorney offices leading the effort, each city developed its unique Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) framework in collaboration with local partners and devised action plans for implementation. For instance, officials in Minneapolis, where ISIS succeeded in recruiting 50-60 young people from the Somali community, is about to launch a mentoring program for youth, as well as an ‘Opportunity Hub’, where young people will have the opportunity to network and increase prospects for employment.
How has the American-Muslim community responded to the government’s CVE approach?
The Muslim community’s response to the government’s CVE framework has ranged from active support to indifference to outright condemnation. Some Muslim-led organizations have actively engaged with the government’s framework and developed activities and programs to advance it—for instance, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) launched its Safe Space initiative, which “seeks to help communities create spiritual safe spaces for open dialogue and debate, while also providing physical safe spaces by helping mosque and community leaders deal with any misguided individuals”. Similarly, the DC-based group, WORDE released its CVE framework called the Montgomery County Model, which is an “early-warning system targeted towards the intervention and prevention of violent extremism” through engagement with diverse stakeholders, education and intervention strategies.
And yet, critics of CVE maintain that by focusing exclusively on American-Muslim communities in implementing its CVE programs, the government has stigmatized the community as a whole, further reinforcing the notion that American-Muslims are more susceptible to violent extremism than other ethnic or religious groups. Others assert that community conversations between law-enforcement and the Muslim community are avenues for intelligence-gathering and as long as reports of surveillance, sting operations, informants and entrapments continue, it will be difficult for these communities to engage effectively with the government around this issue.
Still others stress that the occurrence of violent extremism within Muslim communities is statistically insignificant—approximately 250 left the United States this year to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq–and therefore resources devoted to the issue would be better spent elsewhere.
How can American-Muslim communities effectively respond to the specter of violent extremism?
The American-Muslim community and law-enforcement both have a common agenda—to protect and empower young Muslims from the dual pressures of ISIS and Islamophobia. ISIS recruiters point to growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. as a way to lure alienated Muslims to their cause. Ironically, ISIS and Islamophobic groups point to each other for their raison d’etre and reinforce each other’s agendas—the impact of both must therefore be addressed simultaneously.
This year alone, law-enforcement agencies thwarted the attempts of 58 Americans plotting to join ISIS—more than half of those arrested were under the age of 25. While this might seem like a small number, it has doubled over the past year and this trend should serve to alarm American-Muslim parents and community leaders, who are often unaware of how their children are groomed by ISIS recruiters, especially in the virtual realm.
It is no longer an option for Muslim communities to be in denial about the reality of ISIS recruitment. Parents need to educate themselves about the threat of online radicalization and ways to prevent it; religious leaders must make Islamic Centers relevant and responsive to the needs of the younger generation; community leaders must develop programming that equip their American-Muslim youth to counter Islamophobic messages; at the same time it is important to provide platforms where those with grievances around U.S. foreign policies can build skills in political and social activism.
Similarly, law-enforcement agencies must do more to establish trust and credibility and not engage in tactics that give credence to the ISIS refrain that America is at war with Islam.