As terrorist organizations step up their efforts to recruit new fighters from the West, the Obama administration announced Monday it would begin partnering with community and religious leaders across the nation to help identify home-grown threats.
Attorney General Eric Holder said that the US government would begin to build a “broad network of community partnerships to keep our nation safe” in a Justice Department video released Monday. Through a series of new pilot programs in cities across the US, the attorney general said, law enforcement officials would begin teaming with grassroots community and religious groups to help prevent more Americans from joining terrorist organizations such as the self-described Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
A number of American passport holders have already been killed by US bombs in the growing international fight against IS, officials say, and a hundred more US citizens are suspected of traveling to the Middle East with the hope of joining terrorist networks.
“We have established processes for detecting American extremists who attempt to join terror groups abroad,” Mr. Holder said. “And we have engaged in extensive outreach to communities here in the US so we can work with them to identify threats before they emerge, to disrupt homegrown terrorists, and to apprehend would-be violent extremists.”
The pilot programs were announced just days after extremists released another video showing the murder and beheading of British aid worker David Haines, and just one week after the rogue organization released a video showing the murder of American journalist Steven Sotloff. British Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Obama have vowed to “destroy” IS and cut off its efforts to woo Western youth.
But the terror organization has also released other videos, specifically targeting young, disaffected Westerners. In one IS recruitment video titled “There is no life without jihad,” posted this past June, armed fighters from the UK and Australia offer deeply emotional testimonies to potential recruits.
“Oh my brothers living in the West, I know how you feel ... In the heart, you feel depressed.... The cure for depression is jihad,” according to a translation offered by The Middle East Media Research Institute in Washington.
The impact of such efforts may be relatively small in the US, but last week, a 19-year-old nurse’s aide from Colorado, Shannon Conley, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. The Muslim convert, who took the name Halima, was arrested in April at Denver International Airport with a one-way ticket to the Middle East. She planned to help treat wounded ISIL fighters, authorities said.
And a number of Americans from the Somali community in Minnesota have been fighting for extremist causes in Syria, officials say, including Douglas McAuthur McCain, another Western convert to Islam, killed this summer while fighting for IS.
In October, the White House will host a “Countering Violent Extremism” summit to discuss the phenomenon, Holder said. And since 2012, the Justice Department already has hosted about 1,700 meetings with community leaders on countering terrorism.
“It’s interesting that they’re doing this now after a lengthy, lengthy period of surveilling American Muslims,” says Zead Ramadan, the former president of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of New York, and a current board member. “It wasn’t extremely effective, if they thought they were going to uncover some kind of wild and crazy elements.”
Indeed, the attorney general’s announcement of the grassroots-level initiative comes amid widespread suspicion among many of the country’s estimated 5 million American Muslims, who continue to bristle under the perception of being part of a violent faith.
In New York, the NYPD spy unit had sent “rakers” and “crawlers” into Muslim shops, mosques, and civic organizations, as well as installing surveillance cameras in mostly Muslim neighborhoods in New Jersey. The unit, which never brought a case after more than a decade of investigations, was disbanded earlier this year, and New York City officials may be trying to settle a civil suit brought by Muslim residents.
“I applaud these new sorts of programs,” says Mr. Ramadan of the pilot initiatives announced by Holder on Monday. “These are the kinds of programs that I think helps to create an understanding, a bond, a communications cycle between government and law enforcement and the leaders of our communities.”
Ramadan’s organization already has attended leadership seminars with the Department of Homeland Security, which he described as “healthy.”
“No one that I know appreciates anything about ISIS or ISIL or whatever you call it,” he says. “Everyone thinks they’re murderous, insane lunatics, like everyone else in the world.”
“The only people attracted to them are people who are terribly disturbed or terribly angry,” Ramadan says, “and so religion doesn’t affect them. They just use it as an excuse to pursue their anger and their psychological disturbance – that’s really beyond a belief in God.”