The US government opened another front of its war against the Islamic State on Monday, announcing a new pilot program to tackle "violent extremism" right here at home.
A series of initiatives launching soon will see government officials reach out to community and religious leaders, as well as local law enforcement officials and US attorneys, in an attempt to stop young Americans from responding to the Islamic State's savvy recruitment tactics and to keep them from shipping off to Syria and Iraq.
The effort — a collaboration between the White House, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center — will be similar to that deployed by authorities to counter gang violence by working closely with teachers, social services, public safety officials, and others close to those most at risk of recruitment, authorities said.
"We have established processes for detecting American extremists who attempt to join terror groups abroad," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a video statement announcing the initiative. "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. But we can — and we must — do even more."
Holder said the plan is to create "a broad network of community partnerships" but offered no details on what those partnerships might look like or what kind of tactics they would deploy to dissuade fans of the Islamic State from joining the group.
So far, government officials have done their best to downplay any domestic threats the Islamic State might pose — raising questions about the necessity for such a program at this time. But the new US military efforts in the region have made the country more vulnerable, observers said.
"Don't you think it's a good idea to launch a program before there's an attack?" Tom Sanderson, co-director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VICE News. "They're more worried about it because now we're more engaged as a force in the region... We have a much higher profile now. We already had a high profile for ISIS, but we are now a factor in the alliance against them."
It was also not clear how officials would go about determining who was a likely target, as similar initiatives in the past came at the cost of civil liberties — as was the case, for instance, with the NYPD's infamous "Muslim surveillance" program.
"I think under this administration they will be very careful not to engender spying on mosques and things like that," Sanderson said. "I think it's going to be pointed towards teachers and community leaders and religious leaders to make sure that there is awareness of anyone within their communities that is radicalizing, and to make sure that they have their eyes open to the possibility that ISIS may be radicalizing people and recruiting them. I do not think it's going to be about mosque surveillance, I think it's very much community-oriented."
Over the weekend, reports emerged that US authorities were investigating the Islamic State's efforts to recruit Americans — and especially women — to join the caliphate.
In the last few weeks, at least three families in Minnesota's large Somali community reported that their daughters had disappeared and were believed to have traveled to the region, and at least one case was confirmed of another 19-year-old Somali-American woman who ran away from her family to travel to Syria via Turkey.
This community is all too familiar with the recruiting efforts of extremist groups abroad, as dozens of young Somali-Americans have fled their families to join al Shabaab in Somalia over the years. Up to 20 men with connections to this community are also believed to have traveled to Syria this year — including Douglas McAuthur McCain, a convert to Islam who was the first American who died fighting for the Islamic State earlier this year.
But the reach of the Islamic State's recruitment machine appears much wider, especially as the group has proved to be more than savvy on social media.
Shannon Conley, a 19-year-old American woman from Colorado who was arrested in April while on her way to Syria, had reportedly become engaged to an Islamic State fighter she met online.
John Horgan, a scholar of the psychology of terrorism who has worked with government officials developing the program, told VICE News that the initiative announced on Monday predated the Islamic state, and "was born out of the realization that local communities still represent the front-line of defense against recruitment to violent extremism."
"This program goes well beyond the threat posed by any one individual movement. It also acknowledges that the kinds of challenges faced by communities in one city may be quite different to those faced in another area of the country," he said. "That's why local context, local knowledge and local resources are at the heart of any effort to protect communities from predatory recruitment efforts."
While the number of foreign fighters joining the files of the Islamic State is of great concern to US officials, the number of Americans believed to be there is still relatively low. There is also no evidence that foreign fighters in the Islamic State have any plans to go back, and carry out attacks at home.
"I don't want to overhype this threat, I think it's a real threat, but the reality is, we had hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan for a dozen years and the fear that this would happen never materialized in any significant way or at least close to the degree that we feared it would," Sanderson said. "That's something for policymakers and US citizens and others to keep in mind as we watch this program unfold."
But to some, one American joining the Islamic State is one too many.
"International terrorist movements have preyed on young people in the United States for years, and we know for a fact that Americans have gone to fight in Somalia, Syria and Iraq," Horgan said. "For families torn apart by these issues, it's hard to exaggerate the threat. No program can ever be perfect, but there's no question in my mind that these programs represent a serious step in the right direction."
"I think it's easy to be cynical and critical of CVE initiatives, especially if we view success and impact through a very narrow lens," he added, referring to the countering violent extremism initiative. "The fact that community and law enforcement partnerships have been steadily improving already signals success, both in terms of increased cooperation to pre-empt potential problems as well as building up reserves for future resilience should something happen."
The White House is also scheduled to host a Countering Violent Extremism summit next month.
America's latest effort to prevent young citizens from becoming fascinated with the Islamic State and other radical groups and traveling to join them overseas is only the latest in a series of similar initiatives by a number of Western countries.
In April, the French government opened a hotline to allow parents to "tip off" authorities of their children's plans to travel to Syria. The UK government launched a social media campaign to discuss the issue, and reached out to mothers and sisters to keep their sons and brothers from running off to Syria. (It also tried more dissuasive tactics, like threatening to strip wannabe fighters of their passports).
The US has also launched similar initiatives in the past — but this one will be bigger, and involve more people, officials said.
"Current countering violent extremist efforts are largely focused on engagement between public safety and community leaders," a DOJ spokesman told VICE News in an emailed statement. "This new effort will compliment and supplement existing efforts by engaging the resources and expertise available from a wide range of social service providers including education administrators, mental health professionals, and religious leaders to provide more robust support and help facilitate community-led interventions."
He said that while the initiative is aimed at all extremist groups, the Islamic State is an "extremely high priority."
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