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Preventing Radicalization

The Boston Marathon bombing and the Fort Hood shooting are two examples of terrorist acts by people who seemed to have been well integrated into society before something took them down the path of radicalization, raising again the questions of whether and how such personal journeys to the dark side might be interrupted. Is it possible to provide an “off ramp” for those heading down the radicalization path?

There are no easy answers. “Ten years of concerted research has failed to identify a unified path to radicalization or a common root cause of terrorism,” notes a new paper titled Over a Decade Later...What Now? What Next?: A Multi-Layer Assessment of Terrorism in its Current and Future Manifestation, issued by START. But the report—which is based on in-depth interviews with a range of experts—including U.S. government officials, military personnel, researchers, and former violent extremists—calls for more focus on countering radicalization and the causes of violent extremism (VE). “VE is a way of thinking that uses violence to promote one’s views—political, religious, etc...VE prepares the mindset for a person to become a terrorist,” the report says. “While terrorism is a tactic, VE is a process of thinking that can ultimately lead to terrorism or other forms of violence.”

The paper notes that ideology isn’t always a factor, but it can be a rationalization. With regard to Muslims who turn to VE and terrorism, Islam “is more their motif than their motive,” it states. Also, notes the paper, “We need to understand how anger, shame, guilt, and humiliation play out in bringing individuals into a terrorist group…and what emotions could be mobilized to reverse that process.”

When it comes to outreach to Muslim youth, says the paper, everyday concerns may be more relevant than religion. But it’s also important to offer narratives that compete with those put forth by the radical groups that may be trying to recruit them online. 

Charles Allen, who was Department of Homeland Security (DHS) undersecretary for intelligence and analysis under President George W. Bush, says that neither President Bush nor President Barack Obama have done enough to focus on countering the messaging that leads to VE. “We’ve come quite late to understanding and trying to counter that particular threat,” says Allen, now with the Chertoff Group.

While the threat has to be kept in perspective—some characterize it as a problem, not a pandemic—the Boston bombing reminds everyone that “this is an actual threat,” said U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Rashad Hussein, speaking at a New America Foundation panel on the issue shortly after that incident.

The federal government has struggled in deciding what role it should play in countering VE and who within the government should be charged with carrying out that role, which has resulted in a lack of effectiveness, Allen says. But this is more a job for local governments and community members, who need to develop strategies to help prevent extremism in their own communities.

Two examples of active local initiatives are in the Los Angeles area, where both the county and city law enforcement agencies have programs aimed at improving outreach to the Muslim community to thwart and detect radicalization. Sergeant Mike Abdeen is the head of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Muslim Community Affairs Unit. The unit, the first in the nation of its kind, was established in 2007 under the leadership of Sheriff Leroy Baca; it has an entirely Muslim-American staff and focuses primarily on building trust with the Muslim-American community, which felt targeted and alienated after 9-11, says Abdeen, who’s been with the unit since its inception.

Originally, the unit focused primarily on building relationships with local imams and community organizations to help create trust in law enforcement, but it has since expanded its scope to include educational programs for all community members as well as a youth program, the Young Muslim American Leaders Advisory Council (known as youngMALAC). The youth program helps empower community youth to engage in civic projects and cooperate with law enforcement; youngMALAC has 12 board members who meet once a month to discuss issues that are important to youth. The unit also develops seminars, town hall meetings, and presentations to talk about those issues. Up to 100 people attended each event, Abdeen says.

The unit also helps set up volunteer opportunities for Muslim youth and works with other agencies to create civic engagement opportunities. “We engage the youth, and let them see that there is an alternative to extremism,” Abdeen says, explaining that when young people do not feel engaged in their community, it can lead to a feeling of disconnection, which can create fertile ground for radicalization.

The LA Sheriff’s Department (LAPD) also coordinates efforts with the Los Angeles Police Department, working specifically with Deputy Chief Mike Downing, head of the LAPD Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau. Downing says the two departments have seen a great increase in community trust since they began working on community outreach programs.

The key is consistency. The LAPD unit focuses on “constant outreach” not just through the unit, but throughout the whole department to help show the community that “police are more than just law and order,” Downing says.

With support from the DHS in 2011, the LAPD developed a pilot program for officers to reach out to any community that feels isolated, Downing explains. The curriculum teaches officers about various communities’ cultures and traditions of communities that don’t typically integrate with law enforcement.

This understanding of the “human terrain” is crucial to countering VE because each community is different and calls for a different approach, Downing says. “Violent extremism expresses itself differently in Los Angeles [than in] other communities,” he says.

One example of the curriculum in action is the fear that the Coptic-Christian community was experiencing after the overthrow of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. “They felt like they were targets, and they felt like there was a lot of oppression that maybe some locals didn’t understand,” Downing says. To combat this, the LAPD reached out to the community using tools from the curriculum to find out where they got their news and why they were afraid. The LAPD sent targeted information out to them about the situation in Egypt, and attended their local events to help foster trust.

The pilot curriculum first ran in San Diego in 2012 with various police departments and since then has been run in Los Angeles. The LAPD submitted the curriculum to the DHS in 2012, which made it available through its portal for law enforcement to use across the country.

The unit also conducts forums twice a year and works with Muslims to make sure their voices are heard when new policies are proposed in city government. These forums are cochaired by Downing and a member of the Muslim community and are used to create a dialogue between the LAPD and the community. The chief of police typically speaks at each forum along with community members, who are encouraged to speak about any concerns they have. There is also typically a special presenter; for example, there was a speaker on the threat of online radicalization in September 2013. After the speakers are done, the attendees–anywhere from 70 to 100 people—all eat dinner together, explains Downing.

These kind of measures help build trust in the community and build resilience so that it becomes harder for VE to take root, and so that if members of the community hear someone espousing such ideas, “they’re more apt to talk to us about it,” Downing says.

The LAPD and the LA County Sheriff’s Department also make an effort to stand by the Muslim community when terrorist attacks do occur in the United States. After an attack, the two law enforcement agencies hold a press conference with members of the Muslim community, giving them an opportunity to denounce acts of terror. These events also help reduce hate crimes and targeting of Muslims after a terrorist attack, Downing says.

Some other urban law enforcement agencies are adopting similar outreach programs, but more needs to be done, Downing says. “If we could get this idea institutionalized and spread across police departments across America that would be a really great thing.”

One organization that’s helping to bridge the gap of outreach available in different communities is the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a public service agency that focuses on bringing awareness about violent extremism in the American Muslim community, says Director Haris Tarin, a former Los Angeles Muslim school teacher. “The imams on the ground, the local community members, are not experts in extremism,” he says, adding that MPAC has tried to help with the knowledge gap by putting out publications, videos, and conducting an awareness campaign to help educate Muslims about extremism in their community.

MPAC has also created a toolkit for community members to teach them warning signs of online radicalization, something Tarin says is especially important post-Boston. Many of these warning signs are similar to those of depression in young adults where they become isolated. The toolkit tells parents to keep track of what their kids are doing online. “We tell parents you have to watch out for financial fraud, you have to watch out for online predators, you have to watch out for all of these different issues, so this is another issue that you should also watch out for,” Tarin says.

The toolkit also encourages strong partnerships between law enforcement agencies and local mosques. “There should be a level of trust built between law enforcement and communities so that when communities see something, they can right away go to the law enforcement agencies,” Tarin explains.

However, the best way to prevent violent extremism is through civic engagement—like the kind LA law enforcement is engaging youth in, Tarin says. “A big component of our work is to try to make sure that young people are involved in the civic and political process,” he adds. “That if they have a grievance, like other Americans who have a grievance on any issue...that they have avenues to go to and be active and work for a political campaign, work for a nonprofit organization, do an internship, or come to Washington and do some good works.”

The hope is that these types of programs might prevent a future Tamerlan Tsarnaev. But community outreach and community engagement can only do so much. As U.S. Special Envoy Hussein noted, “Communities can’t be in everyone’s basement.” It will continue to be a challenge to know how to handle someone who appears to be on a path to radicalization, to know if there is still a chance for social intervention, or if it is time for law enforcement intervention.