In remarks delivered Wednesday before a White House summit on counter-terrorism, President Barack Obama stressed the importance of working with Muslim-Americans to fight terrorism motivated by Islamic extremist ideology.
Law enforcement officials and community leaders from across the country are expected to share best practices at the summit that kicked off Wednesday, in addition to representatives from over 60 countries.
Obama called on the Muslim community to help counter the propaganda disseminated by extremist groups like al Qaeda and ISIL, who state that they are holy warriors in the Islamic war against the West.
“We should not grant them the religious legitimacy,” Obama said. “They are not religious leaders. They are terrorists.”
The president pointed out the extremist groups’ skills at using social media to spread their message to young Muslims, and urged local clergy to promote the peace inherent in their religion.
In an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times ahead of the summit, Obama suggested that Muslim youth can be encouraged to work with social media companies to develop tools that counter extremist propaganda on the Internet.
The president also characterized the effort to dissuade people from adopting extremist ideology as “a battle for hearts and minds.”
Three U.S. cities—Boston, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles—are taking part in a Department of Justice pilot (DOJ) program that works with local community organizations to assist people “vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremists,” according to a document that discusses countering violent extremism (CVE) program goals released by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Massachusetts.
The document notes that some youth are at a greater risk of feeling isolated or alienated, making them susceptible to recruitment.
But some civil rights and Muslim organizations are concerned that the program will be used by federal authorities to broadly monitor and gather intelligence from their communities—a problem with previous federal counter-terrorism programs.
During Wednesday’s remarks, Obama spoke to their suspicions, stressing that community programs that are “a cover for intelligence gathering” only reinforce the Muslim community’s suspicions of law enforcement, and are not to be tolerated.
He said many Muslim-Americans feel they are being unfairly targeted for the heinous acts of a few.
“In our work, we have to make sure abuses are stopped and not repeated, and that we do not stigmatize entire communities,” Obama said.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University released a report in January revealing that two community outreach programs in Minneapolis-St. Paul were created in 2009 to identify, monitor, and investigate individuals within the Somali-Muslim community. The authorities tracked them as people who could potentially radicalize and be recruited into the al-Shabab militant group. One program was operated by the FBI, and the other by the St. Paul Police Department.
Several young men from the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area had traveled to Somalia in 2007 to join the terrorist group al-Shabab.
The federal prosecutor for Minnesota, Andrew Luger, has denied that the new CVE program will involve any intelligence-gathering.
“I’ve told people this has nothing to do with surveillance and investigations, and I’m telling the truth,” Luger has said, according to a report by Minnesota Public Radio.
The document from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Massachusetts also tries to distinguish between the CVE program and “law enforcement suppression strategies” that begin after a person has conducted suspicious activity, stressing that the CVE program is only focused on preventing and intervening people at risk of becoming radicalized.
Singling Out Muslim Communities
But former FBI agent and fellow at the Brennan Center, Mark German, says prior CVE programs that focused on Muslim communities did not have a good track record.
“It’s so difficult to know what the program [by the DOJ] actually is about. It’s difficult to believe it’s operating while respecting the political and civil rights of those in the community,” German said.
Those programs also undermined the trust between local community groups and law enforcement that is so critical to counter-terrorism efforts, says German.
For the new program, the federal authorities will need to “acknowledge the flaws in previous programs, and have appropriate oversight to make sure that trust is not breached again,” German said.
The program’s seemingly Muslim-specific focus also troubled a major Boston Muslim organization, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.
In the Massachusetts CVE document, the society’s executive director Yusufi Vali explained why the organization decided not to participate in the program.
“[A]t their core, CVE programs are founded on the premise that your faith determines your propensity toward violence. It clearly appears that the CVE initiative is exclusively targeting the American-Muslim community,” Vali wrote in the CVE document.
Vali pointed out that studies have shown religious activities, such as attending a mosque, is not a valid indicator for a propensity toward extremism.
“[F]or the government to offer us services based on concerns of violent extremism in our community—as implied by this framework—seems to reinforce the same stereotype that society holds of American-Muslims: that they, or Islam, are inherently violent. This is unacceptable to our Boston-Muslim community,” Vali stated.
Vali declined a request for an interview.