Sameer Mohiuddin grew more confused by the second as panelists speaking at his Southern California mosque trumpeted a new national initiative to prevent violent extremism.
Mohiuddin, 39, is an American citizen, longtime Californian and a vice president at a technology company. His wife was born and raised in Orange County, and they have three children. Why, he wondered, do his family and others like his even figure into the conversation?
“Day in and day out we’re trying to build a community, saying you’re part and parcel of the American fabric. You are an American citizen. I raise my girls and say they have the same rights as others,” Mohiuddin said. “The fact is, when you’re going to come present a program and say it’s specially geared to prevent growing extremism in the Muslim community, you’re by default saying my community is more predisposed to extremism. It sets people off.”
Mohiuddin’s confusion typifies what many Muslims in Southern California and across the United States have felt since the Obama administration last fall announced a program called Countering Violent Extremism — billing it as a community-driven initiative to tackle terrorism and militant recruitment by preventing radicalization from taking root — and said it was being tested in Los Angeles, Boston and Minneapolis.
Local law enforcement officials have been doing such outreach for years. But now that federal officials are putting their stamp on it, the program is creating suspicion among American Muslims and others who fear it is profiling disguised as prevention and worry it could compromise civil liberties and religious freedoms.
The effort divides Muslim leaders who, on one side, argue that more must be done to fight extremism in their community and that this program is a historic opportunity for input. On the other side are those who fear the program is just another veiled way for law enforcement to target their community.
Skeptics remember the New York Police Department’s surveillance of Muslims, uncovered by The Associated Press in an investigation in 2011, and an FBI informant’s description of how he was taught to ingratiate himself to the Southern California religious community in the mid-2000s to secretly gather contact information and record conversations.
It’s in Los Angeles, with one of the nation’s largest Muslim populations, where leaders face the biggest challenge with buy-in on CVE, as bureaucrats call it, and where the program’s success or failure will likely be decided.
Officials offered details in February at a White House summit at which President Barack Obama declared Muslims need to fight a misconception that groups like the Islamic State speak for them, even as senior administration officials insisted they were not focusing exclusively on the threat from the Islamic State group, which has recruited from many walks of life.
Some 20,000 fighters have joined that group and other extremists in their campaigns in Iraq and Syria, including at least 3,400 from Western nations, according to U.S. intelligence agencies. As many as 150 are estimated to be Americans, though not all succeeded in reaching the war zone.
U.S. officials have long eyed the threat of homegrown extremists such as Timothy McVeigh, who 20 years ago bombed the Oklahoma City federal building and killed 168 people. But the rise of the Islamic State group has taken front and center in the past year. Just Sunday, six men accused of trying to join the terrorist group were arrested in Minneapolis and San Diego.
Countering Violent Extremism is led by U.S. attorneys’ offices, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, local law enforcement agencies and, critically, local faith and community groups.
It is furthest ahead in Los Angeles and Minneapolis; Boston is still forming its strategy. It takes many forms, including town halls like the one Mohiuddin attended recently in Mission Viejo, academic offerings and mentorship programs, online videos, and cartoons for children. Social media efforts to combat the Islamic State group’s success in that medium are key; by some accounts, its followers have sent tens of thousands of tweets per day.
Boston hopes to make discussions palatable by addressing radicalization in concert with domestic violence, drug abuse, gangs and other challenges. One model the city hopes to replicate is “Abdullah X,” a YouTube cartoon series developed by a self-proclaimed former extremist in London. The bearded protagonist takes on the Islamic State group and issues of identity and faith.
But despite the plans for partnership, civil liberties groups warn that Muslims should be wary of the program’s law-enforcement leadership structure.
“Prosecutors: They get gold stars for not being amazing community liaisons; they get gold stars for putting people in jail,” said Todd Gallinger, an attorney who works for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, at the Mission Viejo meeting.
Nichole Mossalam, of the Islamic Society of Boston, the Cambridge mosque attended by Boston Marathon bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev — prime examples of the kind of radicalization the program seeks to nip in the bud — called the program “dangerous ground” that could lead to policing of fringe thought and speech.
“We’re still at the table, but we’re still waiting to be convinced,” she said. “We acknowledge we need to protect our youth, but we don’t want to be targeting people for exercising their constitutionally protected right of free speech.”
Law enforcement leaders say outreach is separate from intelligence gathering. And they acknowledge that a single misstep by a federal agent could reverse years of trust-building.
“Do we develop intelligence? One hundred percent, that’s our job,” said David Bowdich, assistant director of the FBI’s Los Angeles office. “But we’re not doing it under the guise of building bridges.”
An independent 9/11 Review Commission report ordered by Congress to assess the FBI’s performance on counterterrorism in the past decade and released last month concluded that the FBI, with its limited resources, shouldn’t play a role in the program. FBI Director James Comey disagreed — a telling signal of dissension among officialdom.
The prevention program has largely found acceptance in Minnesota’s Somali community, which since 2007 has seen more than 25 of its youths leave to join either al-Shabab in Somalia or militants in Syria.
“Everyone I talk with in the Somali community in Minnesota wants this terror recruitment to end,” U.S. Attorney Andy Luger said at a news conference Monday on this week’s arrests.
FBI agent Rick Thornton thanked several law enforcement agencies and members of the area’s Somali community for helping with the investigation. A man who had planned to go to Syria with those who were arrested ultimately decided to cooperate with investigators and recorded conversations, authorities said.
Sunday’s arrests stem from a 10-month investigation that predates the formal start of the pilot, authorities said. When asked whether outreach helped lead to the arrests, Luger spokesman Ben Petok said that while the pilot program builds on existing engagement efforts, the program itself is fairly new.
Many Muslims note the reality they’re living in as militant groups seek recruits.
“The threat is ISIS, whether we like it or not; ISIS is front and center on the news in the media cycle. How many stories are there on sovereign citizens, white supremacists, and how many on ISIS and al-Qaeda?” said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “Whether it’s fair or not, it doesn’t matter. That’s the reality. We have to accept it.”