Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the Oregon “Christmas tree bomber,” and Maryland’s “jihad obsessed” Antonio Martinez are the latest in a string of cases that highlight the limitations of America’s domestic counterterrorism strategy.
The bottom line is that America still lacks a preemptive approach that strikes at the radical ideologies that breed violent extremism. Our recent research with law enforcement agencies, Muslim community leaders, and youth in America confirms this. It also reveals that policymakers and Muslims need to come together at the local and national levels to develop an effective counter-radicalization strategy.
The World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE) recently launched one of the first Muslim-led reports to address this issue. Our findings indicate that a new strategy must address five key elements:
Empower moderate Muslims
First, moderate Muslims should be empowered to counter radical preachers, like Anwar al-Awlaki, who appeal to disaffected Generation Y-ers with a poor understanding of Islam. From his base in Yemen, Mr. Awlaki’s online idiot’s guide to jihad and his Facebook and Twitter forums cater to those lacking the patience to read volumes of Islamic jurisprudence that clearly denounce terrorism.
His “do it yourself approach” has unfortunately inspired Americans like Virginia’s own Zachary Adam Chesser, who copied his model and instigated the South Park bear controversy by posting threats against the show’s creators for depicting Prophet Muhammad in a bear suit.
Muslim scholars and community leaders are best suited to confront this problem by providing religious education (and re-education) to youth in both an authentic and “cool” paradigm. In Britain, Shaykh Hisham Kabbani’s “anti-extremism road shows” and Imam Tahir ul-Qadri’s “anti-terror camps” draw thousands of participants. Private foundations should support similar projects in the US that undercut radical ideologies and provide youth access to mentors who preach socially responsible definitions of what it means to be a “good Muslim” based on shared American and Islamic values.
Rethink relationships with Muslim communities
Second, policymakers and law enforcement officials have to rethink how relationships are forged with Muslim communities. FBI sting operations and ad-hoc outreach efforts with Muslim organizations at the national, rather than the community level, have engendered a culture of paranoia and suspicion between Muslims and the government.
To instill confidence and mutual trust, officials should develop a rapport with local imams, teachers, businessmen, and activists who can generate positive change in their communities. Brainstorming sessions that analyze the root drivers of radicalization and develop community-based responses should occur on a regular basis across America.
Form smarter partnerships with the right people
Third, we have to be smart about whom we work with. For example, British policymakers inadvertently empowered hardline Islamists because they did not impose benchmarks for partnerships. Consequently, organizations like the Cordoba Foundation and the Muslim Council of Britain – that worked against state interests, desired an Islamist state in the Britain, or supported violent jihad – were still included in government initiatives.
Meanwhile, back in the US, even though Awlaki was under investigation by the FBI, he was invited to the Pentagon as part of an outreach effort post 9/11. In short, we have to do our homework and avoid courting “overnight moderates” who openly denounce terrorism, but under the surface, encourage militancy. Public-private partnerships in the US should be made with Muslims who agree on shared values. We should seek those who have consistently demonstrated a commitment to religious freedom of all persons, nonviolence in conflict resolution, and the preservation of the US Constitution as our rule of law.
Research the challenges Muslim Americans face
Fourth, we need research to better understand the challenges that affect Muslim-American communities and the factors that cause persons to join or leave terrorist groups. We also need to explore the cultural and political demographics of Muslim communities as well as their attitudes on social and political issues.
This data will enable policymakers to create a diversified counter-radicalization strategy that reflects the nuances of the American Muslim population.
Engage in national dialogue
Finally, America has to engage in a national dialogue on issues surrounding counter-radicalization. The government should create educational forums where policymakers and Muslim communities can tackle tough questions about the differences between radical Islamism and mainstream Islamic tenets – publicly and honestly. The government should organize televised town-hall meetings and conferences where Muslims can discuss organic, bottom-up solutions to challenges within their communities.
Throughout this process, Muslim groups should be developing their own high-profile public awareness campaigns – issuing statements against radical ideologies, and publishing literature that highlights Islamic values of religious tolerance, pluralism, and gender equality. Some Muslim communities have begun the work of increasing public awareness, but it must continue and increase – proactively, not just reactively.
Bridging the trust deficit
At the end of the day, we need to address the core problem of radicalization in America’s backyard. The importance of creating lasting partnerships with moderate Muslim communities cannot be overemphasized. Muslim partners that uphold American ideals of religious liberty, human dignity, and social harmony can demonstrate to the American public that they are just as committed to the problem of radicalization as non-Muslims.
After all, in the case of the “Virginia Five” who were apprehended en route to a terrorist training camp, it was the parents who first contacted the FBI about their missing children. Not only can these partnerships build a strong grassroots defense against radicalization, but they can bridge the trust deficit between Muslim and non-Muslim communities which could otherwise divide America on religious fault lines.
Dr. Hedieh Mirahmadi is the President of WORDE and a consultant for both the public and private sector on the issues of terrorism and countering radical ideologies. She has also served as senior advisor to the US Embassy in Afghanistan and as a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Recently, she was appointed to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Community Police Advisory Board.
Mehreen Farooq is a research fellow with WORDE. She received her MA in International Affairs from American University, is a graduate of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, and in 2007 was selected as a Fulbright scholar to do research in Egypt. She has presented to the US Government’s interagency Afghanistan-Pakistan Task Force and served as a research assistant for several international research institutions.