In Maryland, faith leaders and law enforcement fight radicalization

A program that aims to serve as an 'early warning system' to prevent violent acts divides American Muslim leaders

Members of the Faith Community Working Group at the Inaugural Interfaith Prayer Service for Montgomery County elected officials. The faith group’s members came together to form the Montgomery Model, which aims to fight radical violence by strengthening community bonds and creating relationships with police officers.
The International Cultural Center

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.

'I wanted to help foster a relationship between the Muslim community and their fellow County residents, together with law enforcement and County government, that was based on mutual respect and collaboration.'

Hedieh Mirahmadi

founder, WORDE

Montgomery County Assistant Police Chief Darryl McSwain and Hedieh Mirahmadi, of the World Organization for Resource Development and Education, at a faith working group event.
The International Cultural Center

The Montgomery County Model, or MCM, was partially conceived by Hedieh Mirahmadi, a lawyer and founder of a nonprofit that seeks to mitigate violence by strengthening ties between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Mirahmadi has long advocated for Muslims to work with federal officials, local civic groups and law enforcement to fight radical violence. Following the Boston Marathon attacks, she convened local leaders to develop a model for building partnerships among religious and civic groups that would bolster community bonds and educate people in identifying signs of radicalization.

Mirahmadi, who is Muslim, says the model aligns with a White House strategy announced in 2011 to fight radicalization and violence through community engagement. That approach is a shift from post-9/11 counterterrorism efforts, wherein law enforcement at all levels used informants and so-called hard surveillance to watch for physical preparations for violent attacks. One of the most notorious examples was the New York City Police Department’s use of informants, undercover police and video surveillance to monitor Muslim-majority neighborhoods.

Mirahmadi said she and other community leaders found a receptive audience for their ideas in Montgomery County, where roughly a third of the population is foreign-born and a majority is nonwhite. “I wanted to help foster a relationship between the Muslim community and their fellow County residents, together with law enforcement and County government, that was based on mutual respect and collaboration,” she wrote in an email. “Many others both within government and in the faith community shared that vision.”

MCM is led by three entities: Mirahmadi’s nonprofit, the World Organization for Resource Development and Education, or WORDE; a faith community group maintained by the county government that Mirahmadi and other local leaders established in 2013; and the Montgomery County Police Department.

The model aims to build a sense of community through networking events and service projects, as well as training locals to identify potential threats. The faith group, for example, has held gatherings for local religious and community leaders, and its members have hosted training sessions on topics such as spiritual counseling after mass disasters. A cultural center run by WORDE has led service projects such as an ongoing program to feed the homeless.

Last October, the faith group and WORDE co-sponsored an information session about ISIL recruitment, while in March of last year the faith group convened a workshop at which an FBI agent discussed violent white nationalism. The cultural center has held blogging, video editing and podcasting workshops for youth on topics such as protecting themselves from creeps online — bullies, pedophiles, recruiters for armed groups. It also maintains the Crossroads Program, a counseling service for residents from “the Middle East, South Asia, and North/East/West Africa who are currently underserved by existing county programs and who may be vulnerable to violent extremism.” According to WORDE, Crossroads participants receive counseling to reduce the risk factors that lead to radicalization, such as intolerance, unemployment and social alienation.

Jamil Dasti, acting imam of the Islamic Center of Maryland, which is a member of the group, said he regularly reaches out to city officials and the county’s chief of police “to let them know we are being vigilant.
Faith leaders practice providing emotional care to victims of a disaster.
The International Cultural Center

Local police are involved in some of these events. This year the cultural center co-sponsored a forum for teens to meet officers, Mirahmadi said, “so youth learned to feel more comfortable interacting with police.” The police department is also teaching faith leaders to train congregants in spotting signs of radicalization, such as political disgruntlement and anti-Western sentiment, according to Darryl McSwain, assistant chief of the Montgomery County Police Department.

Police speak regularly with members of the Faith Community Working Group, a dynamic that both police and residents say predated the model. Jamil Dasti, acting imam of the Islamic Center of Maryland, which is a member of the group, said he regularly reaches out to city officials and the county’s chief of police “to let them know we are being vigilant.”

Mirahmadi said MCM is an “early warning system” to intercept and prevent violent actions inspired by radical ideology before law enforcement gets involved. She also stressed that the program wasn’t focused on Muslims and cited the workshop at the cultural center last year to discuss online recruiting by neo-Nazis.

Local police officers, meanwhile, view MCM as a way to gather information on security threats and share it with state and federal officials, according to McSwain. Citizens with whom police have cultivated relationships serve as a “conduit of information” on safety concerns, he said, and schools and facilities such as the cultural center provide “access points” for officers to connect with locals. Those security tips and alerts are then passed on to federal agencies through fusion centers, the information-sharing hubs created by the Department of Homeland Security in 2002. At each fusion center, local law enforcement can file intelligence reports and, upon review, DHS can publish them for internal use. A 2012 Senate investigation of fusion centers found that DHS declined to publish nearly a third of the submitted reports because they either lacked useful information about terror threats or potentially constituted a violation of citizens’ civil liberties.

Federal officials are taking notice of the collaboration happening in Montgomery County. In October, the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) gave a total of $500,000 to three groups — WORDE, the Montgomery County Police Department and the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit research group — to help explain the best practices of the model to other jurisdictions. According to a recent report, COPS is exploring ways to repurpose community policing tactics — assigning officers to specific neighborhoods to build familiarity with residents — to counter violent ideologies. COPS points to Montgomery County as an innovator in community policing and is financing the development of training manuals based on MCM for other jurisdictions.

In June, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson met with Montgomery County’s faith working group to learn more about the initiative, and the department lists a WORDE report on MCM in its CVE tool kit. A DHS spokesperson told Al Jazeera America that faith based organizations, community groups, parents, teachers, nongovernmental organizations and other local stakeholders are encouraged by the department to develop partnerships and share information such as threat awareness with law enforcement.

'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.'

Arun Kundnani

public lecturer, New York University

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."

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