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White House Unveils Counter-Extremism Plan

The White House unveiled its strategy to counter radicalization today, ending months of speculation about how President Obama intends to tackle the problem of violent extremism in this country.

The eight-page unclassified paper, titled Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States, has been more than a year in the making and marks the first time the U.S. has laid out a comprehensive strategy to counter violent extremism. Officials say it is a three-pronged approach that includes community engagement, better training, and counternarratives that make a case for why violent extremism is a dead end.

"This strategy is not so much about how we're changing than having us lay down what we've been doing on a key issue," said National Security Council Chief of Staff Denis McDonough in a briefing to a handful of reporters Wednesday morning.

The strategy acknowledges just how much the threat against the U.S. has changed since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. When al-Qaida was sending operatives into the U.S., it made sense to rely on federal agencies to catch them at the border or arrest them as plots were discovered. But as terrorists groups have turned to American operatives who are already here, it makes sense to take the fight to the grass-roots level.

Truancy, for example, is a common indicator of kids getting mixed up with gangs. As it turns out, it is also a common indicator of kids who are falling prey to violent extremist rhetoric. The federal government can't track missed school days very efficiently. A local high school clearly can. That's why local communities are at the heart of the plan.

"Communities are best placed to recognize and confront the threat because violent extremists are targeting their children, families and neighbors," the report reads. "Rather than blame particular communities, it is essential that we find ways to help them protect themselves."

The White House envisions bringing together a roster of agencies and departments — from the Department of Education to the Labor Department and Energy Department — to provide local officials the tools they need to counter radicalization.

Traditionally, the Department of Justice or the FBI has taken the lead on outreach, and officials say they will continue to be involved. What has changed is the emphasis. Local agencies that have day-to-day interaction with at-risk communities are perfectly positioned: By addressing individual problems within the community they not only help residents, they also whittle down the list of grievances that might eventually lead to violent extremism.

Broader Approach

The report focuses on three existing models: gangs, law enforcement trust initiatives, and safe-school programs. The comprehensive gang model is basically a community-led response to gangs by providing educational and vocational training and a focus on intervening before kids get mixed up with the wrong people. The law enforcement trust initiatives will hold round tables that allow community leaders to help cops distinguish, for example, between an innocent cultural behavior and possible criminal activity. Safe-school programs have worked to decrease violence in the schools.

Just mentioning violent extremism tends to raise hackles. Muslim groups have grumbled that they have had to bear a disproportionate amount of the blame for extremist violence when there are other violent groups — from neo-Nazis to anti-government extremists like the shooter in Oslo — who could also present a threat.

The White House strategy goes to great pains to not single out Muslims. "This strategy prioritizes al-Qaida and affiliates, but we've also applied this toward all kinds of violent extremism," McDonough said.

Officials tell NPR they are hoping to skirt the problem of scapegoating or Islamophobia with what they call a "more holistic approach." The problem of a local Muslim schoolgirl being hassled for wearing a headscarf, or hijab, for example, could be easily addressed through the Department of Education's anti-bullying initiatives. "There is no need to classify that as a Muslim problem; it is a schoolyard problem," said one administration official.

Increasingly, studies of extremist groups show that it doesn't matter whether someone is an al-Qaida sympathizer, white supremacist, or violent anti-government activist; all tend to go through a similar process. It turns out that ideology may not necessarily be the driving factor that takes young people and turns them into violent Islamists or neo-Nazis or gangbangers. Just as important are community and identity.

As a result, the thinking is that same strategies that might apply to a young man toying with becoming a neo-Nazi would also apply to just about anyone wooed by violent extremist rhetoric. "Violent extremist groups are fundamentally sowing division," said the NSC's Quintan Wiktorowicz. "We will push back against the full scope of different violent ideologies with an inclusive, positive narrative."

Shared Experiences

A conference sponsored by Google in Dublin at the end of July brought a number of former violent extremists – neo-Nazis, Islamists and skinheads – together on one stage to talk about their experiences. What was striking was that they shared a similar story whether they were from a suburb in the Midwest or a village in Africa. They were restless young men who were searching for an identity and they joined extremists groups to find one. The new White House strategy aims to make sure young people don't fall into this pattern, and feel they have an identity and a place in society instead.

The White House initiative, in a way, builds off and learns from a British program that came before it. Known as PREVENT, it was supposed to blunt radicalization in Britain.

The program has had many detractors. Part of the problem, among others, was that the initiative was basically led by law enforcement. The same constables and investigators who were gathering intelligence on burgeoning terrorism cases, or were arresting people, were wading into Muslim communities in the U.K. with large grants saying, "Trust us, we're just here to run your after-school programs or your soup kitchens. We aren't here to gather intelligence or follow up leads." But the communities didn't believe them.

By putting community leaders on the front line of this new initiative, the thinking is that the U.S. will avoid that problem.

"This went beyond what I had expected," said Peter Neumann, the director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation in the U.K. "But it is very aspirational. The proof will be in the implementation. We have to see what happens over the next six to 12 months. This is a step in the right direction, but shouldn't be the last word."

If you would like to read more about the recent Google summit on former extremists, you can link to: http://tribune.com.pk/story/215104/a-summit-against-extremism/

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.