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Taking on Extremism

​EVERYONE KNOWS THAT THE TWO MEN who bombed the Boston Marathon in April 2013 espoused radical Muslim beliefs. Fewer know that American Muslims were victims of the attack and that Muslim Americans joined in the rescue and medical efforts to save others. Now a prominent Muslim American group is attempting to quash extremist violence before it sparks.

“Five days after the attack, the news that those who perpetrated the attacks were two young men from the Boston area who also happened to be Muslim was a devastating blow to our community,” said Haris Tarin, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s (MPAC) Washington, D.C., office.

Since 9-11, there have been more than 200 U.S.-based al Qaeda extremists arrested for more than 60 plus attempted and successful plots, according to MPAC. And these kinds of attacks will continue to pose the most frequent threat to the U.S. homeland, according to the 2014 U.S. Intelligence Community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment.

“As the tragic attack in Boston in April 2013 indicates, insular homegrown violent extremists who act alone or in small groups and mask the extent of their ideological radicalization can represent challenging and lethal threats,” explained James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, in his statement before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence this spring.

In response, the federal government has called for additional research on violent extremism and private entities have created projects to stop the spread of extremist views. MPAC, a public service agency that focuses on civil rights of American Muslims, has released its own program that is designed to teach community members how to intervene before an extremist idea can turn into violent action.

The Safe Spaces Initiative encourages community leaders to create a dialogue on hot topic issues, such as foreign policy and reconciling one’s religious and civic identities. The program is described in the Safe Spaces Initiative: Tools for Developing Healthy Communities report, which comes with a toolkit for community leaders and an additional reference guide on ideological and violent extremism.

The PIE Model 

MPAC developed the Safe Spaces Initiative with the help of independent research consultant Alejandro J. Beutel. The idea is that “a person’s path to violence can be stopped, reversed, or prevented altogether with the right kind of community support,” Beutel tells Security Management. Forming the foundation of the program is the PIE Model, short for Prevention, Intervention, and Ejection.

Prevention. Having a safe place to discuss a controversial topic is key to making the initiative work and is something that was lacking for the Tsarnaev brothers, the Boston bombing culprits. Tamerlan, the elder of the two suspected Boston Marathon bombers, was ejected from two Boston area mosques for his “intolerant and troubling views,” Tarin says.

If someone had been able to step in and provide counsel to Tamerlan, violence might have been prevented, according to Beutel and Tarin.

Through his research and speaking with former extremists, Beutel has learned that creating a counter narrative is the most effective way to bring extremists back into the mainstream. “Censorship is actually counterproductive,” he explains. “In fact, to counter bad ideas, you need to replace them with good ideas—responding with the free marketplace of ideas.”

Along with discussion in safe spaces, Imam William Suhaib Webb of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center says that he encourages his fellow imams—Muslim pastors—to be active on Facebook and Twitter, which is how most young people who might be vulnerable to extremist beliefs interact.

Webb’s own Facebook page has almost 100,000 followers, and he uses it to engage and spread an opposing message to extremist beliefs.

Intervention. Sometimes, however, prevention isn’t possible; someone’s extremist ideas might already be turning into action. In that instance, the PIE Model suggests that community leaders take steps to intervene, if possible, to help the individual.

The steps that MPAC recommends were developed after Beutel studied how schools and universities prevent violent tragedies on their campuses. “In those cases, schools formed teams of teachers, counselors, and other staff to identify problems and alternative solutions to arrest, such as counseling,” the report says. “That method has been effective, preventing 120 incidents of violence in the past decade.”

MPAC has modeled its initiative in that vein, providing communities with advice on how they can create and implement their own support groups to counsel individuals in need. The report suggests that communities create their own Crisis Inquiry Team with members whose skills include “mosque administration, authoritative religious leadership (such as an imam), social work, mental health expertise, and legal counsel.”

Obtaining legal counsel is key to the creation of the team, Beutel says, “because one of the unfortunate complications of living in a post 9-11 era is that there might be the possibility of running into…material support laws.”

These laws have developed over the years alongside state laws that have tried to balance the need for protecting an individual’s right to privacy during counseling and possible security threats. They make it illegal to provide support or conceal information that could be used in the preparation of a terrorist act. All of the legal jargon can become confusing, so Beutel recommends having a lawyer to help steer community leaders through.

The report also recommends that communities create an “information manager” who can act as the central point of contact for outsiders and, if possible, bring a “trusted and respected law enforcement officer” into the group to help determine if any crimes have been committed.

This strategy has already been adopted by some communities, but the Safe Spaces Initiative now provides them with an official guide of best practices, says Webb, who has worked in America as an imam for 15 years. Over that time, he’s intervened to help seven individuals who came to him with an extremist belief and says that intervention helped the individuals turn the corner on their fringe beliefs.

“Every single one of them that I was able to counsel changed,” Webb explains. “And now are living fruitful and productive lives. The point is that there is something to the idea of intervention.”

Ejection. If prevention and intervention measures are not effective or feasible, communities can choose to eject a person as the final step in the PIE Model. However, this should only be used as a last-resort option if an intervention has failed, or is likely to fail, “because the person has already demonstrated a committed move toward violence,” the report says.

If a community chooses to eject someone, it’s critical that a community leader notify law enforcement of the situation. “Without notifying law enforcement, it’s potentially cutting a dangerous person loose,” Beutel explains.

Additional Resources

Along with the PIE Model, the Safe Spaces Initiative also includes resources for community leaders to encourage communication, especially with the FBI, which handles investigations for domestic terrorism cases.

“A lot of times, American Muslim community institutions don’t have fulltime staff to engage on [violent extremism],” Tarin explains. “They don’t even know who the local FBI field agent in charge is; they don’t know the U.S. Attorney’s Office folks, so what we’re trying to do is...introduce them to have them engage.”

In addition to introductions, the initiative toolkit provides an extensive list of resources, including contact information for mediation services, reference publications, and support organizations for communities looking to establish their own crisis teams. Putting all of this information in one place is designed to help communities build a network of support so that if there’s an issue, they have contacts that they can reach out to for help, Tarin says.

Additionally, instead of meeting in a community forum, MPAC is suggesting that communities and law enforcement meet in a working environment so they can focus on doing work together. “I think we’re beyond community engagement,” Tarin says.


MPAC is putting the final touches on a curriculum that will be made available to communities that are interested in implementing the initiative.

Once a community decides to implement the program, MPAC will assist the community by holding a half-day training session with counselors, imams, community leaders, and youth pastors. MPAC will also lead the community through a tabletop exercise to ensure that it understands the initiative and how it’s supposed to work, according to Tarin.

The council is also looking into ways to evaluate how the initiative is working. “We’re discussing right now with a number of university-based centers and subject matter experts…to have data collected and the appropriate steps taken to make sure that scientifically rigorous evaluations are being conducted,” Beutel explains. MPAC is taking this approach so the council will know whether it’s effectively addressing communities’ needs, he adds.

MPAC is currently in the first phase of piloting the initiative with several communities and plans to make public the names of the communities that are going to implement it later in the year.