As the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, and other armed groups expand their efforts to recruit Americans, the federal government is trying to implement a strategy for identifying and eradicating what it describes as violent extremist ideology on the home front. A bill before Congress would establish a new office within the Department of Homeland Security for “countering violent extremism,” known as CVE, while the Obama administration is helping to assemble community-led CVE pilot programs in Los Angeles, Boston and Minneapolis.
Modeled after an effort to fight radicalization in Britain, the pilot programs are joint initiatives of the Department of Justice, of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center. They are grounded in the idea that local networks of clergy, health and social service providers, school districts, and police are better equipped than federal agents to intervene before a member of the community carries out an attack. The programs are also intended to enhance communication between citizens and law enforcement, in the hope of harvesting tips like those that led to the recent arrests of six alleged ISIL recruits in Minnesota. All three cities already had a degree of coordination among local organizations and law enforcement that made them ideal testing grounds for CVE programs, according to the Justice Department.
American Muslim leaders are divided over the government’s strategy for countering radical violence. Proponents laud the community-directed approach, while critics charge that it sows mistrust within Muslim communities tasked with monitoring their members for vaguely defined signs of radicalization. But as civil rights groups raise concerns about the three pilot programs, an effort founded on the same principles has operated since 2013 in Montgomery County, Maryland. The pilots are being modeled to some degree on what is happening in this affluent county outside of Washington, D.C., and lessons that the government learns there could be applied to future CVE programs.
For Arun Kundnani, a lecturer at New York University and an expert on Islamophobia, the Montgomery Model and similar programs amount to police passing off surveillance duties to community members. He pointed to problems that arose during the implementation of the U.K.’s Prevent model, which also relies on a community-led approach facilitated by the government. In his view, the money and resources funneled into CVE programs are disproportionate to the actual risks and imagined threats serve as a pretense for the government to monitor the political leanings of citizens — especially Muslims — more closely. “You’re basically creating a new surveillance system, because you’re working with nonpolicing public service professionals. They kind of become the eyes and ears of the system to gather information on the young Muslims they’re working with.”
But Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council and a member of DHS’s faith-based security and communications advisory subcommittee, said the model deserves praise for its emphasis on community input.
“[The Muslim community] knows when it's a threat versus just a troubled person,” he said. “So the more we get involved and raise our voice, the more police and federal law enforcement will have to pay attention to what we have to say.”
Naureen Shah, the director of Amnesty International USA’s Security and Human Rights program, said civil liberties advocates were initially cautiously optimistic about the Obama administration’s new emphasis on community-led intervention until they realized it was based on the British approach.
“I think the problem is we don’t know what the government’s litmus test is for a person being a so-called would-be terrorist,” she said. “If you have a teenager going online posting comments on Facebook about ISIS or guns or the 'Terminator' movie, is the government going to be collecting that information and lining it up against a checklist of vague signs of a would-be terrorist?”
Prevent teetered on collapse after voluntary participants, including employees of school districts and faith groups, began renouncing the program, alleging it was a ruse for surveillance. To circumvent waning support for the effort, the British government passed new laws requiring that all government employees, including school employees and health care and social workers, actively monitor and report extremism.
Dasti of the Islamic Center of Maryland acknowledged resistance to community-led CVE initiatives elsewhere, but said the program was working in Montgomery County.
“This county is very unique,” he said. “We are making people aware that this is our place, and we have to make sure that it’s safe for everyone to live in.”
But Kundnani said that just the prospect of community vigilance facilitated by national security agencies was enough cause for concern. “It’s somewhat Orwellian to think that in liberal society you have a government-assisted program that identifies people who have dangerous ideas and tries to kind of engage in some kind of ideological deradicalization."