From the Boston Marathon bombings to a recent attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya, 2013 has seen a spike in terrorism worldwide. Even as the U.S. uses military force to try and weaken Al Qaeda and affiliated groups, it is grappling with how to fight terrorism on another front -- battling the extremist ideas and ideologies that drive the violence. It is a battle that is waged in schools, mosques, community centers and any other place you might find potential terror recruits.
In this month's America Abroad: De-Radicalizing Terrorists, we take a closer look at how governments, community groups and activists are tackling the ideological front in the global battle against terrorism, from London to Jakarta, Riyadh and Minneapolis.
Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.
Young Western Muslim men and women find their way into foreign conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, pulled by the ideology of violent Islamic extremism. Some become disillusioned with the fight. Some do not.
How does the United States wage a war that’s now a war about ideas? What can it learn from other countries? And where is the line between engaging with and spying on Muslim communities?
Islamic extremists have launched violent attacks across the globe. We’ve seen them in London, Syria and most recently Kenya.
The bombings at the Boston Marathon last May - allegedly by the Tsarnayev Brothers - brought that home to the U.S. in all its horror.
Osama Bin Laden has been dead for two years, and U.S. troops are out of Iraq and they’re withdrawing from Afghanistan. But, the number of attacks from Al Qaeda and its affiliates has been increasing. In a speech last Spring at the National Defense University, President Obama said even though most Muslims don’t endorse Islamic extremism: “We need all elements of national power to win a battle of wills, a battle of ideas.”
A big challenge is reaching disaffected, young people. Young people like Urfan who travelled to war zones and became radicalized:
“My blood was boiling when I came back to England. It was like red alert. Even my brothers they said, ‘you’re crazy’. I used to have videos I’d show to my friends of be-headings. Looking back on it, I think to myself what the F… It was horrible,” says Urfan.
In the hour ahead: the metastasizing threat of global, Islamic extremism and what to do about it. Britain is on the front lines of this struggle. We know about the failures: the terrorist bombings in the streets of London, but the UK also has some stories of success. And, we will check in on the progress made here in the U.S., in places like Minneapolis, Minnesota, home to the largest group of Somalis in America.
But first, what IS violent extremism?I put that to someone who knows. Juan Zarate was Deputy National Security Advisor and Deputy Assistant to the President for Combating Terrorism during the George W. Bush Administration. He is now a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Turns out there’s actually an official government term called “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE).
“CVE, as it’s known for short, is an attempt to capture efforts to deal with the underlying ideology that fuels terrorism and, in particular, the Al Qaeda brand of terrorism that has relied on a universal ideology that promotes the use of extreme violence for a political goal. And so, CVE is an attempt to capture those activities, undertaken by the government and governments around the world to actually undermine or to counter the ideology and narrative of terrorist groups. And, it also attempts to capture other forms of violent extremism beyond Al Qaeda or Sunni Jihadi groups,” says Zarate.
America Abroad host Madeleine Brand (MB): “That seems like a very big assignment for CVE. First, you have to understand what the ideology is that they’re using to recruit people and what is that?”
Juan Zarate (JZ): Well, Al Qaeda, in its simplest form, was the vanguard of a narrative and an ideology that basically says that the West is at war with Islam - that there is a religious duty to protect Muslims and to fight against the West, and in particular, there is an obligation to attack the United States as the “head of the snake”. That was really the ideological innovation for Al Qaeda: to say that there are grievances around the world that Muslims and Islam itself are under attack, and that Al Qaeda, as a vanguard and defender of Muslims, would lead a charge against the far enemy: the United States. And, it’s permutations of that ideology - that narrative - that appears around the world with local groups and local grievances and in insurgencies and on the internet, that has fueled and mobilized individuals to join the cause and to commit acts of violence.”
MB: “And even now, now that bin Laden has been killed and there is no putative head of Al Qaeda anymore, even now they are powerful and recruiting and spreading the message worldwide?”
JZ: Despite the fact that you have seen the death of bin Laden, despite the fact that the Al Qaeda core has been diminished in both its numbers and reach, the ideology has, in many ways, embedded itself. There is a - if you will - a global Jihadi DNA now that has inspired groups and individuals to subscribe to Al Qaeda’s agenda - at least in theory - and to promote a political and social agenda that drives in places all around the world. Not just in the arc of instability in South Asia and Middle East, but also in Western capitals.”
MB: “We see a lot of violence in places like Kenya, in places like Iraq now, or in Afghanistan. How big a threat is violent extremism to the United States?”
JZ: “Well, I think violent extremism, taken in its maximalist form, brings us things like 9/11. So the United States, in many ways, can’t ignore the festering of these kinds of groups and this kind of ideology that can have global reach and can have global impact to hit the United States directly. But, that’s a rather simple and binary sense of the threat. I think the broader concern is that, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, where there is a contest for the future of Muslim countries and societies around the world, there really is an ideological battle underway for the definition of what such societies look like and how they organize themselves, and, frankly, the role of violence in the development of those societies. So, for the United States, it’s not just whether or not these groups can launch an attack against Detroit or New York, but, instead, whether or not they’re going to fuel instability with our friends and allies around the world and redefine what it means to be a modern Muslim state in the 21st century.”
MB: “So it sounds like you’re saying that this is also a public relations war and that the United States and its allies need to attack it on that front, vigorously.”
JZ: “Absolutely. And this is where it gets difficult, because the United States, as a government, is certainly is not in a position to define theological or religious baselines for societies around the world, let alone its own, and so it’s a difficult proposition to ask, in this context, the U.S. government or other governments to engage in ideological battles when Al Qaeda has tried to usurp the theology of one of the great religions of the world, and the United States, in some ways, has to try to counter that.
Qaeda has understood that this is just as much about a messaging war as it is about the war of deploying suicide bombers. And that, I think, has to be kept in mind as we see the metastasizing of the movement and the adaptation of the ideology as it pops up in places like Syria and Somalia, Yemen and North Africa. And, so this is an ideology that is like a parasite. It can sit in any host, in any conflict that exists, and it’s really then a dangerous ideological additive to any local conflict or insurgency.”
MB: “So what do you think the United States should be doing along these lines that it isn’t doing?”
JZ: “I think one of the complications for Western authorities, aside from trying not to wade too deeply into a theological debate about what it means to be a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew, is the question of who can be enlisted as a credible voice and as an ally in countering violent extremism. One of the debates that has emerged fundamentally in the United Kingdom, is the question of whether or not radical Salafi preachers and thinkers and imams could actually be funded to counter violent extremism. That is to say, can you enlist and support - and should you enlist and support - very extreme forms of Islamic ideology, even anti-Western ideology, but those that are still counter to the use of violence in the way that Al Qaeda has preached and has promoted. Is that permissible? Is that a good idea? Who is an ally in this fight to counter violent extremism?”
MB: “Oh, that’s really interesting. I’d never thought about that.”
JZ: “It’s a huge debate in the U.K. A huge debate.
MB: “And have they been bitten by that? Have they regretted allying themselves with certain preachers?”
JZ: “Yeah. In the UK it’s become a political issue, because they were very open in the last decade about needing to attack the ideology underlying terrorism. And, of course, in the UK the great concern was of Pakistani-British nationals, Bangladeshi-British nationals, Somali-British nationals, falling prey to this ideology and perpetrating further London attacks, like the kind we saw on the subway. And so, this was a very serious - and remains a serious and important issue in London. But, the question has been how best to actually deliver a counter-violent extremist strategy in a society that has a full range of Islamic ideologies and where some of the more credible voices are actually fairly extreme voices, even though they don’t subscribe to Al Qaeda’s call for violence against British citizens or the U.K. And, so it’s a very hard balance to draw and the British have been at the forefront of that, in terms of Western societies trying to undermine violent extremist ideologies.”
Let’s go to Britain now to hear how one organization is putting what he talked about into practice. It is the London-based think-tank, the Quilliam Foundation. The organization was founded in 2008 by Ed Husein and Maajid -- both were formerly members of Islamic extremist organizations.
We asked Jonathan Russell Quilliam’s Projects Officer about the organization’s main goal: Quilliam has shown the absolute compatibility between Islam and modern British society, by showing in terms of Islamic religious texts how the ideals of the Koran, if not the precise words, are advocating this moderation.”
Quilliam tries to put these values into practice abroad by promoting youth-led civil society movements in cities such as Lahore and Islamabad, Pakistan.
Russell says: “It has been hugely successful, working with university students who have become volunteers for the movement to promote these ideals among their colleagues. We started with university students, but we’ve extended that to high school students and we hope to extend it further to Madrasa-level students, hoping to extend to touch as many different economic and social backgrounds as we can in a region where the Pakistani Taliban are very active.”
Quilliam works in Britain at the highest levels of government too. In addition to advising the British government on countering extremism, Quilliam co-founder Maajid Nawaz is running for a seat in Parliament. One of his key messages is that Islam can be a religion that works well within British society. As a bit of background, he was arrested and interrogated in Alexandria, Egypt for once belonging to a banned Islamic extremist group. While in prison, he became convinced that Islamism was not a religion of faith, but a modern political ideology and it was the wrong path.
“It’s a very strong message to show that a man who just ten years ago in the Egyptian prison of Hosni Mubarak is now so far along on his journey enjoying liberal democracy, that he can engage in the British democratic process,” says Russell.
The event that first put the British Government on full alert was the 2005 terrorist attack on London commuters. 52 people were killed. Three of the four bombers were British-Pakistanis, born and raised in the U.K. One had even worked as a teaching assistant in a school.
The British Government decided to invest $100 million a year on such a strategy known as PREVENT. Though funding for the program has seesawed since then, the idea has been to “counter-radicalize” youth, or to challenge dangerous views before they take hold.
Julia Rooke has this report.
I’m on my way to Reading , a town half-way between London and Oxford, and home to a large British-Asian community. I’m going to meet Urfan, a British-born Pakistani and a former heroin user, who became dangerously ‘radicalized’ after a trip to Pakistan in early 2001.
Urfan went to Pakistan in search of drug rehabilitation. He was a well-integrated kid. He had white friends and no interest in world affairs or politics.
“But, my rehabilitation took me to a village in the northwest province of Pakistan where I learned how to use a AK-47. They taught me about Jihad and how the West oppressed the Muslims all over the world. From that training, I was asked to go to Afghanistan. That was pre-9/11, around seven months before 9/11 happened,” says Urfan.
Julia Rooke: So how exactly did you become radicalized? Was it in Afghanistan?
“After those 30 days of military training, I can say that my mind was totally different to what it was when I left England,” says Urfan.
By the time Urfan returned home, he was a different man.
“My blood was boiling when I came back to England. It was like on red alert. Even my brothers they said, ‘you’re crazy’. I used to have videos I’d show to my friends of be-headings. Looking back on it, what the F… It was horrible,” says Urfan.
The PREVENT policy was put in place to stop men like Urfan becoming indoctrinated. In the early years, most of the money was funneled into Asian drug advice centers, Muslim youth clubs and mosques. The executor of Government policy was the Muslim community itself. Men like Alyas Karmani:
“I’m an imam at a number of mosques at the moment. I’m responsible for the Friday sermon, which is the main instructional sermon in the mosque. That’s an important vehicle to educate people,” says Alyas.
Alyas finds it easy to talk to the British-Pakistani Muslims because he is one of them. He supervises men convicted of terrorist offences and mentors young people vulnerable to extremist ideology. I caught up with Alyas at a London café:
“I’ll talk about some of the big foreign policy issues, social and political issues that are taking place so that stimulates a discussion. If they go to a mosque and nobody’s talking about a particular issue, they’re going to look for answers in other spaces. Those are what I call ungoverned spaces,” says Alyas.
Alyas’ Friday sermon pulls in the crowd. He is at pains to point out that violent extremism is based on a misunderstanding of Islam and that mosques have a crucial role to play. As Urfan’s story bears out:
“At that time I had no knowledge of the Koran or Hadith, I just listened and from that you do get a sense that you need to do something. It really is them or us. At the same time, as a criminal, it was inspiring to me to actually fire an AK-47 and watching Tony Montana from Scarface and all the Hollywood movies,” says Urfan.
Criminals are easy prey for violent extremists, says Alyas, because they often have a very superficial knowledge of Islam. Many are new converts, like the ‘shoe bomber’ Richard Reed. Alyas and his team of outreach workers are trained to disrupt this underworld:
“On the street there are channels where individuals are being channeled into drug gangs, trafficking and extremism as well. You can only avert someone from that channel if you’re actually in that channel yourself. So when its gang activity, it’s a particular estate, it’s a particular park. When it comes to extremist ideology, it’s a particular circle, a particular venue. We will be in that physical space where those individuals are indoctrinated,” says Alyas.
It can be dangerous work. In 2011, PREVENT was dramatically scaled back. Relying on moderate Muslims to root out ‘extremist’ ideology was controversial. The government was accused of ‘spying’ and moreover of encouraging Muslims to ‘spy’ on each other. The new conservative government decided that too many Muslim groups were being funded – including potentially dangerous ones – the very people it should have been confronting. Even so, other programs emerged, even without PREVENT funding.
This is Hackney, one of England’s poorest boroughs, more than half the population is Asian or Black. This soccer tournament is organized by Salaam Peace. Here social integration is the best tool for tackling extremist ideologies.
“I’m Roman Catholic. I’m from the West Indies. Us Christians working with Muslims is a normal thing. They’re people. I never segregate,” says one participant.
“I’m Yasin. I’m Algerian. I’m 15 years old and I’m a Muslim. You can’t just play Muslim with Muslims and Christians with Christians, you’ve got to play with different religions around the world, coming together playing in the same team and getting to know each other,” says another.
Salaam Peace was founded by Sabir Bham in 2009. Many of the kids and young men are referred here by police or probation. The area is known for its gang and gun culture. It’s a tough call. But Sabir insists that his inter-faith approach is making his people more resilient:
“So we use that angle so we can build resilience so if and when our participants come across messages which are radical or extremist, they’re in a position to be socially educated, to know what’s right and what’s wrong,” says Sabir.
But ‘de-radicalization’ is not the core objective of Salaam Peace. Sabir doesn’t even like the term. He says it implies that Muslims who have ‘radical’ ideas are all potential terrorists, which simply isn’t true:
“If we go down the de-radicalization route, what we are saying is that all these people are radical and have major issues and the potential to do very, very negative things. And if we don’t de-radicalize them they’re going to end up repeating what happened at 7/7 or 9/11. I don’t think it’s about ‘de-radicalizing’ anybody, it’s about providing a positive community ethos,” says Sabir.
Whether we’re dealing with social engagement or hard core de-radicalization, creating a community or a surrogate family, seems to be the common denominator. For Salaam Peace sport is a means to an end. Mentoring young people and offering them guidance is at its core.
This is Julia Rooke reporting from London for America Abroad.
Hanif Qadir was once an Islamic extremist who left London to go to fight in Afghanistan. While there, he had a complete change of heart. Now, he works to prevent young people from doing what he did -- joining a violent terrorist group.
Madeleine Brand (MB): “You joined Al Qaeda...”
Hanif Qadir (HQ): “In 2002, yeah.”
MB: “And went to go fight in Afghanistan, and then you became disillusioned?”
HQ: “What I saw and was exposed to was contrary to what I was led to believe, so it was almost hypocrisy at play here. So the main reason I got involved was to prevent innocent people being harmed, victimized or killed. What I was exposed to was the very same things that I stood against – harming innocent children. I saw Al Qaeda doing exactly what they were saying the Americans were doing, which was disgusting so I stood against that.”
MB: “Was there one thing you saw in particular?”
HQ: “A young man who had been brought back from the battlefield. He’d been hurt. He was telling me that he came to help his Muslim brothers and sisters. He wanted to help the victims. These guys that he went with were using him basically as cannon fodder. He saw that most of the people he went with were getting killed. He was angry and were calling them butchers.”
MB: “How old were you when you joined Al Qaeda?”
HQ: “I was in my early 30s.”
MB: “So fairly late. What prompted you to join Al Qaeda?”
HQ: “It wasn’t a known network at that point. It was just a group of people that were standing up for the best interests of civilians. I felt that I could help the victims, help the orphans, help the widows and the injured. So one thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was in Afghanistan wanting to do some good work… When I started to question what I saw, I was met with hostility. I was there to offer my services and potentially my life. I was in a warzone and wanted to do something good and meaningful. They all had AK-47s and they were very hostile. I was very lucky to be able to return to Pakistan.”
MB: “How did you become involved in working with youth and young men in the UK to try and prevent them from doing the same thing you did?”
HQ: “When I came back, I was quite confused and didn’t know what I was going to do next. I started to work with some young kids and I realized that some of these guys had the same kind of hostility, the same kind of fire that I had. I reminded me of my own journey. So, I started to talk to them and told them ‘look, you don’t fully understand what’s going on. Everyone feels upset about loss of innocent women and children and lives, but you have to look at the other side of the coin as well. I’ve been there and I have seen that the very people you think are your Muslim brothers who are also using innocent women and children as suicide bombers and cannon fodder. So, you need to understand that not everything is black and white.’
HQ: “So by talking to some of them, I realized that it changed the way they thought about things. I decided to start up the organization to prevent prostitution, gun crime and this kind of recruitment. It was 2003 by then. Not many people in my local community understood what I was trying to do. I wasn’t getting the kind of support or the understanding from the community, as well as the local authorities, until the airline plot in 2006, when 14 guys were arrested from this area for plotting to blow up airliners across the Atlantic. That’s when I think the authorities and the local community realized that this was really happening. So we started to get some support and community participation. It was about getting people to understand that this was happening in our local area and they are grooming and recruiting young men and women.”
MB: “You work with a lot of young people know. How do you know who is vulnerable to being recruited? Are there signs?”
HQ: “We get to identify a number of different issues, a lot of them have to do with problems they have at home. From there, we get to identify more about their own way of thinking and grievances they hold. There’s always something underlying, a trigger-point for them to go into this way of thinking. Through dialogue, debate and engagement, we get to understand where an individual is and how far along they are on that trajectory.”
MB: “What is that trigger-point?”
HQ: “It could be a number of things. We’ve got kids who have domestic violence issues at home. We often find that young people are also approached by other individuals in our community. That can be the trigger-point, where they’ve met somebody and certain stories and symbols have been relayed to them. For instance, when we start to talk about the ‘in the hearts of the green birds’, this is where we are talking about martyrs after death, those that are martyred on the battlefield in the Jihad.”
MB: “What does that mean ‘in the hearts of the green birds’?”
HQ: “These are the green birds that are flying around in paradise. When you are martyred, you go straight to paradise, and god places your soul in the hearts of the green birds. And you are questioned many times by God: ‘What can I do for you?’ And your response to that will be: ‘Oh God, send me back down to earth so I can be martyred again for your cause.” So, when we find young men and women relating to that story, we know that they are now beyond extremism, they are now convincing themselves of whether they are doing the right thing or not.”
MB: “So for you, that is a big warning sign?”
HQ: “For us, it allows us to measure where the individual is at. We can counter that. We need to have counter stories and arguments. But, at least it allows us to know that we have a problem on our hands and we really need to be working intensely with this individual. So, identifying what the problems were and going back and removing them bit by bit, is what’s key to changing a mind of an individual.”
HQ: “Is there a particular profile?”
MB: “There is not one particular profile that we can set really. When we found some people watching internet and YouTube videos about the arrivals of the Illuminati. When they start to believe that there is a grand design by another organization to undermine Islam and Muslims, that is a concerning point, because they start to believe there is a war on Islam.”
MB: “I think in our imagination, we have a profile of a young, disillusioned man from a broken home who is looking for belonging somewhere. But, when you look at who carried out the 9/11 attacks for instance, many of them were professional men who were older, who had families, who seemed to be fitting in perfectly well in mainstream society. Is that something you encounter when you are trying to prevent people from joining these groups? That really, the kind of person who might be susceptible, is not the kind of person we think of at all?”
HQ: “Yes. It’s not usual to have young disillusioned men or women from broken families to get involved in extremist activities. So, I could site almost 60% of the cases we work with are not from broken families or broken homes, they are from well-to-do families. It’s what they start to believe, and who and what they’ve been exposed to, that really matters.”
MB: “Who or what are the primary motivators? Media? Their peer group? Local imams?”
HQ: “I think it’s a number of different things. In the past, we’d had a lot of street preachers -- a lot of information being put out into the public domain. When we talk about terrorism within the Muslim community, a lot of Muslims find that very upsetting because they don’t believe that Muslims would do that. So, when another story comes in and a theory comes in that it was actually a CIA plot, they would rather believe that. When information is put into the community, the community will gravitate towards the information that the community will accept or would like to accept.”
MB: “So how do you combat that?”
HQ: “It’s about questioning where the information comes from. About looking at things rationally, and not defaulting to this ‘Muslims wouldn’t do this.’”
MB: “Can you point to any of the success stories you’ve had a result of your outreach efforts?”
HQ: “Absolulely. I’m proud to say that every case that we’ve worked with, we have not failed on any of them. All of them have been successful.”
MB: “You work with the British government, army and local police. How are you not viewed by some Muslims in your community with suspicion – that you might be just be a tool of the government, intent on spying on Muslims and trying to get them to lose their religion or act as some kind of Big Brother.”
HQ: “I’m suspected all the time. Many people have said I work for the CIA, MI5, all of the security services. I laugh at that. Well, that curiosity helps me. I could do without it, to be honest with you, because it does hamper us, but at some point, for the more radical mind, because of their curiosity about me, and their belief that I’m a mouthpiece for the government, we’ll come and have a discussion about that. I’ll introduce certain individuals that I’ve worked with and I’ll say ‘don’t take my word for it; just ask these young men,’ and I’ll walk away.”
MB: “You’ve been doing this for ten years. I’m wondering what your sense is in terms of whether it’s gotten better of worse.”
HQ: “It’s become challenging. Currently, Syria is much more of a concern than Iraq or Afghanistan put together. Syria, it’s almost on a biblical scale. Syria has been mentioned many times in the Koran and the Hadith that there will be wars in Syria – that it will be the launch pad for the greatest war of all times. So, this is why we are seeing young men and women flocking to Syria. Number one: for a humanitarian cause to help people who are suffering, and number two: we cannot discount the ones who want to go there for a fight. It is on a different scale altogether and this has proved very challenging for us.”
MB: “So how do you combat that or try and combat that – what do you say?”
HQ: “The argument that we have is that: if you want to go for humanitarian purposes, you don’t have to go there, you can do it from here, but if you are going to go there for Jihad, then you’ve got parents over here who need you and are pleading with you not to go. So, you have no authority and no reason, and it’s not a Jihad if are going to persist and go. Recently, we had a young man who went to Syria and died there. And, his mother was pleading with him not to go and so we’re asking her to come in and talk to some of our men and women about how she’s lost her son and how she was pleading with him. Hopefully, that might make a bit more of an impact and a difference to other young men and women.”
MB: “So you are seeing a lot of young people going off to Syria?”
HQ: “Absolutely. I don’t know how many there are, but quite a lot are going from here. A lot of our outreach team is picking up information about how many people are going out.”
Farah Pandith handles relations between the U.S. government and Muslim people around the world. She’s held that job in one form or another for about 10 years, dating back to the Bush administration.
Pandith focuses on young people. After all, almost two thirds of the Muslim world is under the age of 30.
Pandith says that changes the way you go about countering the Muslim extremist message. You can no longer just go through religious leaders.
Pandith says: “So we went running to the best and biggest theological voices that we thought were going to make a difference. Guess what? On paper, they may. But for the real world 17 year-old kid, it may not. And people get very uncomfortable about that, because guess what? A credible voice may be a hip-hop artist. It may be a sports hero. It may be a graffiti artist in Bahrain. It may be somebody that you’ve never heard of, but has street cred with these voices – girls and boys. Women and men.”
Pandith says another example of a new mindset is the idea of targeting the message of non-violence to Muslim women.
“We’re mobilizing women to do more. In my travels around the world, talking to young women, around the world about the changes that are taking place in their communities and how extremist ideology is changing their way of life, I know that they care and that they’re the ones who are raising the children. They’re the ones that are teaching their children how to think about others. If a mother tells their child that there is a difference between people, that there is a hierarchy of color or race or religion, that child is going to be raised thinking those things. So we must invest in how we think about the role of women, and we must listen to what they say in terms of how we can develop and inoculate communities against the scourge of violent extremism,” says Pandith.
And she says, this can’t just be the work of Muslims.
”This issue of extremists spreading their ideology around the world is not focused simply on a particular community that must deal with this problem. This is a human threat. All of us must use as much innovation to solve this problem and it has to be a coordinated effort in the sense of many partners at the table seeding a lot of different ideas, to be able to drown out the voices of extremists,” says Pandith.
One of the countries that many who work in countering violent extremism point to is Singapore. Former Deputy National Security Adviser, Juan Zarate, calls the Singapore Government the “gold standard” of de-radicalization efforts.
Juan Zarate (JZ): “The Singaporean government realizes that they have to take the hard steps to prevent terrorists from committing acts of violence within Singapore, but they also have to insure that Muslim communities in Singapore are not disenfranchised and certainly are not susceptible to the radical elements of this ideology. And, so the Singaporean government has, for many years now, had a program where they work closely and directly with Muslim community leaders and organizations to insure that those communities’ issues are heard. And to the extent that there is a process of de-radicalization – that is, trying to deprogram an individual from an adherence to a violent ideology – it’s actually the community that’s relied on most heavily, to not only make the arguments to the individual, to not only try to convince them, but also to try to integrate them holistically back into the community and society within Singapore,” says Zarate.
Madeleine Brand (MB): “Well, has the United States taken its lead and done the same thing here?”
JZ: “The United States has not. There’s again a distinction between, I think, the U.S. form of government and issues related to First Amendment that make it more difficult for the United States to wade – as a government, that is – to wade too deeply into issues of religious thought and ‘correct’ religious thought, which is, in some ways, what the deprogramming and counter-radicalization programs are engaged in. That said, the U.S. has done quite a bit to try and engage Muslim-American leaders and organizations around the country – nationally and in specific communities. For example, with the Muslim-American community and particularly the Somali-American community in Minneapolis, there has been enormous outreach done by the federal government and state and local authorities to not only understand the communities, but to ensure the communities understand that they have resources and a voice in their government and in their interactions. And, to try to counter what had been a trend to radicalize American-Somali youth to then go fight and commit acts of terror in Somalia.”
MB: “But isn’t there also a problem that the FBI has been trying to place informants in those groups as well, and so some of those groups view any attempts by the government suspiciously?”
JZ: “Oh, absolutely there is a major trust factor here that has to be considered. There’s no question; and I am of the belief that law enforcement has to do its job. It has to engage in information-gathering and law enforcement operations that are legal, that try to stop individuals or groups from committing acts of terror.”
And now we go now to Minneapolis, Minnesota, home to America’s largest Somali Community. Scrutiny of Somalis living in America increased this past September when Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the killing of more than 70 people in the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya.
Producer Samara Freemark sat down with two men on the frontlines of the domestic fight against radicalization.
I met up with Derwin Ellis and Abdimalik Mohamed at a Starbucks in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. It’s an area where a ton of Somalis have settled in recent years, and the coffee shop was full of Somali men, drinking coffee and chatting pretty boisterously.
Mohamed is the education director for Ka Joog, a Somali-led arts non-profit in Minneapolis that works with about 3,000 young people.
“Our goal is to make sure the youth stay out of trouble -- not dropping out of school, for example, or joining gangs or become radicalized,” says Mohamed.
Derwin Ellis is a Community Engagement officer for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s department. His job? Connect with and support the local Somali population, and help these two very different communities understand each other better.
The culture of policing isn’t what it was in the 90s. It’s changing. Everyone is recognizing that you can’t arrest your way out of problems. So you have to try different tactics, different things, you have to work with the community,” says Ellis.
Four times a year, the sheriff’s department – along with representatives of the FBI, homeland security, and the state police – come together with local Somali groups including Ka Joog, to discuss problems in the community and what to do about them.
If you really want to make a change, Big Brother’s not gonna solve this problem. If you want information, give the power back to the people. And the community will give you what you want in return. They know who’s doing what. They can get it for you. But what is the price they are going to do that for? Not just having cameras there and an informant. It has to be a two way. It has to be a listening and a hearing and a communicating, rather than Big Brother hammering down, here’s what I need you to do,” says Mohamed.
Ellis says: “I will go to him and say hey, what is it that you want a Sheriff’s deputy to know about you. He knows that he can call us 24/7 and I know I can do the same with him. We recognize each other. We all have a common goal, and we know we’re partners. I have to be friendly. I have to be accommodating. I have to learn some things about them before I go see them. Matter of fact, I’m learning Somali right now.”
”Very nice, very impressed,” says Mohamed. “In a year he’s going to be fluent, and translate for the next generation of Somalis. He’s very impressive. He knows all the food. He can go to any restaurant and order Somali food.”
Seems like a very different mentality on both of your parts then what we normally think of as counter-radicalization – you know, based on surveillance, and much more punitive. It’s a very different mentality than France where they barred people from wearing headscarves in public.
”It’s good to be in America. It’s beautiful,” says Mohamed. “When I see those kind of things – now you look at who wants to oppress who. I think they’re creating the oppression, separation, radicalization. Because people will go to extremes to protect their culture, their religion.”
In 2012 Ka Joog won a national FBI Community Leadership Award for the work they do to steer young people away from gangs, drugs and religious extremism. But, Abdimalik Mohamed says there’s a lot left to do:
“One day at a time, one day at a time. There’s always going to be issues. Everyday has its own success, its own failure. We have a long way to go but hopefully with time it will, with time,” says Mohamed .
This year, Ka Joog plans to expand to communities all across Minnesota. They started Minnesota’s first Somali Girl Scout troop and they’re going international. Abdimalik Mohamed says they’re working to bring their youth arts programs back to Somalia.
This is Samara Freemark for America Abroad.
Quintan Wiktorowicz is the CEO of the Q Group and has served in the Obama White House as the Senior Director for Global Engagement. His job involved working with communities around the world to build up a resilience to religious extremism. He says the United States has a national strategy for countering violent extremism. And, the key lies in building communities at the local level.
I asked him when this outreach began:
Quintan Wiktorowicz (QW): “I would argue, probably circa 2005, 2006, there was strong recognition in the U.S. government that we weren’t going to be able to fight our way through this, that this was a long-term struggle for relationships, particularly with Muslim communities around the world, when it came to Al Qaeda-inspired radicalization and violent extremism. The strategy and approach has been building for a number of years, and the Obama administration, when it came in, really emphasized translating that into a formalized strategy. That way, we could make sure were harnessing all the different resources and capabilities across government in ways that would maximize impact,”
Madeleine Brand (MB): “So let’s say you have a local imam who is preaching radicalism, and you realize this is a problem because young men are being recruited into possible future acts of terrorism. Then what?”
QW: “I think from my perspective, the next step is to find out if there are individuals around that area where that person is preaching the violent ideology who are opposed to violent extremism and have credibility with the target audience.”
MB: “What do you think of this relatively new idea: The Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience?”
QW: “I think it’s a huge step in the right direction. This is one of the things that people out in the embassies really struggle with: They see amazing people in communities on the ground doing incredible work who just need a little bit of help. Up until this point, they’ve had to beg, borrow and steal funding from various pots of money. They didn’t have a ready-made flexible fund that they could turn to take advantage of opportunities if somebody came to them and had an amazing new initiative. The idea behind the fund is to create that flexibility to allow people to identify promising work at the local level that can have an impact. Often times, it doesn’t take a lot. Sometimes, it’s a little bit of seed money to get something up and running. Other times, an individual that’s really good at the local level, may not have a lot of contacts outside that neighborhood. That’s where partners, including the U.S. government, private sector and others, can be really helpful in providing connections, expertise, in-kind services, etc.”
MB: “And what do you say to people who say this is just another version of the U.S. gathering data on individuals and spying on people?”
QW: “First, to my knowledge, there’s no massive data collection process involved in providing these grants. Secondly, the intention is to make the fund something that is independent of government, that is multi-lateral, that actually includes members of the private sector in its secretariat and its board and is something that operates independently, although it can have support from different governments as well. Because the U.S. is the only remaining superpower, there is always an issue that people are going to be upset with us about. To some extent, that’s just sort of the burden that a superpower has to bear.”
MB: “You say a lot of this happens at the local level. Doesn’t a lot of this happen on the web?”
QW: “This is the big fear, that the internet is driving radicalization. From everything that I’ve seen over the last 15 years and looking at violent extremism, the internet is an enabler. Most of the time, there is still somebody at the local level who has developed a personal relationship with the target of recruitment, who then leverages information that is diffused over the internet. There is a fear that the internet will become a core element of radicalization, but to date it has been an echo-chamber, where you can go online and find people that reaffirm the beliefs that you hold, but it hasn’t been an independent driver.”
MB: “By enacting this strategy, this local counter-radicalization strategy, is it in effect saying the previous strategy of waging all-out war wasn’t very effective, didn’t work and this is a better strategy?”
QW: “Both administrations have always focused both on the hard nd - military intelligence and those elements – as well as the softer end in terms of countering violent extremism. I do think there seems to be a rebalancing or more of an emphasis on the long-term countering the recruitment pipeline, as opposed to just kinetic action. Part of that is the reflection of the reality – we have withdrawn from Iraq, we’re in the process of drawing down in Afghanistan, and having a lighter footprint globally in terms of our military presence. Therefore, we will need to be more reliant on soft-power capabilities going forward.”
MB: “In terms of resources, there is 200 million dollars for this Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience? That doesn’t seem to be much money in the grand scheme of things.”
QW: “200 million is not a lot of money, but it’s not all about the money. It’s about building up a global network that links the U.S., it’s international partners, private sectors businesses, local NGOs and key influencers on the ground at the local level. In many instances, a local-level project in a community where we and others are very concerned about Al Qaeda recruitment, doesn’t take a lot of money.
MB: “What happens if you need to get into a country like Somalia that is a breeding ground for this kind of extremism, but yet there is no embassy and there aren’t very friendly feelings towards the U.S. and they wouldn’t want have this kind of program in that country.”
QW: “So, in a context like that, it may be about building out the capabilities and creating deep, meaningful relationships with the Somali diaspora globally, which has been an incredible resource for countering violent extremism. If I look at a place like Minneapolis, for example, and the Somali-American community there, and just the patriotism that many people in the community have and their capabilities and education levels, and everything they bring to the fight, and the passion with which they reject groups like Al Shabaab and want to work with the U.S. and other international stakeholders. That’s a massive resource.”