On Countering Violent Extremism

On Countering Violent Extremism

In the wake of growing terrorist threats instigated and promoted by foreign influences, some Americans want to sacrifice the civil liberties of American Muslims to secure more safety for everyone else. A smarter set of policies that take into account lessons learned since 9/11 and treat all people fairly, regardless of their religion or political opinions, can help us stanch the erosion of civil liberties while shoring up our public safety.

We are courting disaster when law enforcement relies exclusively on a securitized relationship with American Muslims. Surveilling six million people based on their religious and political ideas is unwieldy and unconstitutional. The enormity of the undertaking will lead to failure. Real threats will be missed.

We cannot arrest our way to safety. Sting operations cannot be the only tactic in the FBI’s counterterrorism strategy. The challenges in countering ISIS-inspired political violence are similar to the decades-long “war on drugs.” Policymakers are beginning to recognize that prevention and treatment are critical to a comprehensive solution to fighting the drug trafficking and the resulting addiction epidemic in America.

Foreign influences using the latest social media applications are preying on the still-developing minds of young American Muslims. ISIS-inspired political violence among young people must be seen through the lens of public health as well as public safety, just as we now view drug-related offenses.

We need intervention programs for youth who are at risk of committing political violence. The reasons why individuals are drawn to such acts may be as varied as the people who seek it out, but there may be opportunities to identify who is at risk by looking at other factors. Terrorism experts with training in behavioral psychology and psychiatry increasingly point to factors that may be relevant to other delinquent, antisocial, or criminal behaviors among young people as possible indicators of who may be susceptible to ISIS recruitment.

It makes sense to help the individuals who show up in the FBI’s intelligence-gathering efforts, but who have not yet engaged in any illegal activities, by offering them a range of social services to address their underlying problems. Given the help they need, these individuals may take themselves off the path to political violence. A comprehensive engagement strategy would lessen, rather than increase, the burden on law enforcement agencies.

Viewed as a public health issue, we can expand the tools available to prevent and counter the lure of political violence by leveraging the existing resources for social services, mental health treatment, and child protection services offered at the state and local level.

Such a partnership can bring in university researchers to help develop and evaluate such programs. The American Muslim community is ready to partner with public health and academic institutions to develop these public-private partnerships that bring together all the resources needed for the best possible interventions.

For such intervention programs to be effective, not only does community support need to exist, but there must also be a healthy relationship between the American Muslim community and law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local levels.

Agencies like the FBI need to be willing to divert at-risk youth before they cross the line between free speech and criminal activity. The American Muslim community must trust them enough to engage with them in this work.

This will be challenging, given that some sting operations since 9/11 have netted quite a few mentally challenged and low functioning individuals who were then publicly touted by certain agencies as major threats. To many American Muslims and other civil liberties observers, these cases smack of entrapment.

The onus is on FBI Director James Comey to acknowledge that mistakes were made in the past and to outline what steps are being taken to rebuild trust. From the bottom up, FBI agents must treat community outreach as just that — outreach — and not as a pretext for warrantless intelligence gathering.

For their part, American Muslims must give “Countering Violent Extremism 2.0” — a community-led, research informed, public-private partnership based program — a chance. Young Muslims are being lured into violence by ISIS, and it is better to confront the problem now when it is relatively small.

Junaid M. Afeef is an attorney and the founder of Common Good Advocates. He is also a Partner with the Truman National Security Project. His views are his own.

Screenshot from ISIS boot camp YouTube video titled “Blood Jihad 1,” showing graduation of the first batch of camp Sheikh Abu Azzam al-Ansari. Courtesy Flickr user Karl-Ludwig Poggemann.


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