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Challenging Violent Extremism

University of Southern California - Sol Price School of Public Policy
Ali Ashraf Jakvani
January 2015
The challenge of terrorist actors threatening the U.S. homeland has evolved after the tragic attacks on
9/11. It has moved from large scale violent attacks on American soil by affiliates of terrorist
movements like Al-Qaeda, to a larger volume of individual acts of terror inspired by both foreign and
domestic organized terrorist groups. Not all terrorist actors targeting the U.S. have made this shift; in
fact its only been Al-Qaeda .Violent Far-Right and anarchist actors pioneered smaller scale and lone
wolf (lone-actor) strategies before Islamic fundamentalist or Jihadi's adopted them. Being a young
Muslim American, it is difficult to ignore the effects the increasing threat of lone-actor Jihadi
terrorism poses on the quality of life as an American citizen. We need to provide the community we
identify with a deterrent from recruitment efforts of violent ideologically-organized groups, and for this

reason, a solution by Muslim American communities must be proactive in developing successful
strategies against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Groups like ISIL, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and others largely focus their recruitment efforts toward
youth through popular social media outlets like Twitter or Facebook. The sophisticated use of
technology has differentiated these groups from others like Al-Qaeda, which hasnt adopted these
technological strategies at all, or at least has been slower to adopt them. The messages delivered, like
most terrorist movements, glamorize the benefits of joining through worldly incentives like finding a
spouse, joining a brotherhood, or to be part of a cause larger than themselves for a sense of belonging.
Vulnerable youth who buy into this propaganda are often believed to be marginalized by religious
prejudices and frustrations experienced in American society. Although the number of Americans
leaving to join foreign terror groups is minuscule in comparison to other countries around the world,
the problem still exists. The access to social media is a decentralized point of contact for recruiting and
inspiring Americans to commit acts of violence without the need to ever meet in person.
The necessity of a community-led program
bridged, in part, by an interdisciplinary
partnership. A partnership that is inclusive of
community, academic, law enforcement, mental
health and other rehabilitation resources is the
only way to protect our youth from the route to
violent extremism. The issue of Muslim
Americans becoming radicalized to the point of
acting out criminal behavior is very controversial.
Technically on paper and in rhetoric, CVE is
supposed to be cross-ideological, but the critique
is that CVE in practice is overwhelmingly focused

on Muslims. Many Muslim Americans see this as

stigmatization. A larger percentage of Far-Right
actors have conducted violent behavior, so the
question remains as to why has the government
chosen to subject Muslims as the main focus of
these initiatives in practice. What these critics fail
to recognize is that, unfortunately, terrorist
recruitment poses a serious threat to the wellbeing of Muslim American communities, and no
matter the size of the problem, it needs to be
addressed before it worsens.

ISIL vs. Al-Qaeda

We first need to understand the key players
promoting violent extremism. Al-Qaeda is a
terrorist group that has maintained an infamous
reputation globally, one that would deter many
Muslims with extreme interpretations of Islam

from joining or acting out criminal behavior on

their behalf. The agenda of this group was to wage
holy war against what they perceive to be the
enemies of Islam, and those who died on behalf
of this cause would have an eternal reward in the
afterlife. The violent recordings depicting people

being tortured were not a strategy to recruit or

even attract youth. The goal of Al-Qaeda was to
get a message of fear out, not recruitment. This
can be observed by viewing the threatening videos
they shared. Bad quality video production in what
seemed to be a cave was not very attractive. This
also made it easier to dehumanize the group to the
American public, and even the Muslims living in
majority of western world with the most radical
views could not identify with them.
The so-called Islamic State is a different
species. While also engaging in acts of terrorism
around the world, they also operate as an
insurgency, controlling continuous territory in
large parts of Iraq and Syria. They act as if they
have liberated the civilians within its controlled
territory from the evil of what they believe to be
western corruption. They have established
themselves as a state, offering state services to the
local populace, but under a perversion of Islamic
jurisprudence. They do not hide in places like
mountains or caves like Al-Qaeda would, instead
they rally in public squares and produce high
quality footage showing the courage and bravery
of the soldiers. They have mastered the art of
social media propaganda. They understand that the
one of the best ways to attract a following is to
attract youth. Crafting professional videos in
which they glamorize killing people whom they
have identified as enemies of Islam, and abusing
ancient Qur'anic texts out of context to justify it, is
enough to persuade some to join their cause.
Young people, especially men, are needed to keep
the insurgency active. They serve as soldiers,
recruiters, role models, attractive husbands, and
technology-savvy marketing agents. They are the
foundation of the insurgency, and they remain
persistent in their effort to recruit more members,
who are often young and impressionable, but
intelligent. One way to stop the inflow of foreign
fighters to these hostile territories, is to initiate
campaigns in the international communities being
targeted to prevent, intervene, and rehabilitate
those who begin to buy into ISIL's propaganda.
Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)
The national security policy on Countering
Violent Extremism took root in 2011 by the
Obama Administration when the White House
released the Strategic Implementation Plan for

Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent

Extremism in the United States (SIP) and then
developed the National Strategy for Empowering
Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism. The
policy documents discussed a community-based
approach in partnership with the federal
government to form a relationship of trust, to
empower and build resilience within the
community. The initiative is focused on
rehabilitating at-risk youth for potential
recruitment efforts by terrorist groups like ISIL,
Al-Shabaab Boko Haram, and others, but it also
claims to address U.S. domestic Far-Right actors,
like violent White supremacists, who violently
target American minorities. The White House
CVE Summit in February 2015 discussed
strategies and best practices of community
engagement developed by three cities in the U.SLos Angeles, Minneapolis and Boston.
The three cities were chosen as models of success
based on their prior partnerships, and each city's
framework's purpose of creation differed. The city
of Boston was chosen to discuss the necessary
steps they took proceeding the Boston Marathon
Bombing. Minneapolis was chosen because of the
increasing number of Somali American citizens
who have left to join the terrorist group AlShabaab. The City of Los Angeles was selected
because of the already existing partnerships
between minority communities and Law
Los Angeles, being so diverse, had a lot to offer in
displaying the model that was developed over the
years of relationship building. Local law
enforcement has been consistent in participating in
religious events to show solidarity. The intention
is to develop and encourage the trust of the
different communities and law enforcement
partners so that surveillance tactics can be
replaced by community policing. The
empowerment of communities to act as the first
responder to an individual who displays
behavioral indicators that may suggest potential
violent activity is essential in avoiding wrongful
investigations and arrests. The bottom line is that
only a certain community knows itself the most, in
which they can best differentiate between an
actual threat of potential violence over a person
who may need a type of rehabilitation whether it

be spiritual, mental, or something else casespecific. Law enforcement's role in community

policing is the partnerships to identify criminals
through building good relationships. They cannot
have the authority, though, by acting as the
thought police over internal community
discussions about violence and extreme
ideologies. The only time they can intervene to
arrest an individual is when the he or she has
passed the threshold of intervention and
rehabilitation practices offered by the community.
The framework created by Los Angeles was
forged by input from federal and local law
enforcement and community leaders. These
stakeholders shaped the model that was introduced
at the White House Summit. Three components of
the framework discussed how to handle a potential
threat any individual in a community may pose.
The first component, in order, is the prevention
stage. During this stage, community leaders offer
educational support through lectures, social media
campaigns, and other efforts to uncover the reality
of joining foreign terrorist groups. For example, in
effort to prevent Muslim youth from the attraction
of joining ISIL, many mosques hold seminars
denouncing the group for calling them Islamic,
because Islam, as understood and practiced by the
overwhelming majority of Muslims in the U.S.
and around the world, does not align with ISILs
propaganda . Intervention is the second stage of
the framework. During this stage, a community
member, with a concern that a friend or relative
who shows empathy or interest in groups like
ISIL, will contact the community leaders to take
necessary action to prevent them from being a
target of law enforcement. Intervention strategies
for the Muslim community consists of partnering
with mental health experts, religious leaders or
any resource capable of guiding the individual
away from the dangerous journey to violent
radicalization. This stage is the layer of protection
that was nonexistent before. It protects the person
from being arrested for terrorist activity, by
providing community-led alternatives. The friends
and relatives of the person would not have to
resort to inform law enforcement, they would
rather inform the community leaders. This would
prevent the person from being labeled and arrested
as a terrorist. The final stage in the framework is

when law enforcement must get involved. The

interdiction stage is the last resort where a person
has exhausted all intervention options, yet
continues to engage in behavior that will result in
violent activity. Law enforcement will be
notified, like any other criminal behavior, because
necessary measures must be taken. Although this
of course produces challenges for communities by
involving law enforcement and the possible arrest
of a colleague or relative, it's priority relies on
prevention and precaution.
Prior to the White House Countering Violent
Extremism Summit in February 2015, the term
CVE was unknown or not a concern to almost all
members of the Muslim communities in Southern
California. Special interest groups whose
purported mission is to defend the civil liberties of
American citizens have propagated CVE as
another form of surveillance by redefining what
community policing actually is. It is rational to be
sympathetic with the civil liberties concerns
raised, but not necessarily to the actors raising
them and their methods of doing so. The term
CVE as a moniker has been so politicized that
many Muslims Americans have distanced
themselves even further from engaging with the
government. In July 2015, the Minnesota chapter
of a civil rights and advocacy group, Council on
American Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN), released
a press statement outlining the potential impact of
CVE, including that government-led CVE is not
an effective use of public resources, that it often
relies on subjective measures, and that its efficacy
is questionable. The statement goes on to say that
nearly 50 Minnesota Muslim organizations sign
on to a statement highlighting the concerns over
the CVE program. The growing list represents the
majority of the Minnesota Muslim organizations.
In addition to misconstruing and possibly
deliberately misrepresenting the concept of CVE,
and they wrongfully claim to speak on behalf of
many if not most Muslims when in fact they only
represent a portion of them. The Muslim
American community that has sided with CVE
programs have understood the reality of potential
radicalization and its consequences.
It is important to understand that it is a
government supported effort to prevent Muslim

youth from violence, and it remains subjective

because of the active disengagement of these
organizations from developing a solution that can
be tailored to individual needs. Instead of feeling
empowered, some Muslim Americans feel further
marginalized because of false information about
CVE despite the transparency the government has
displayed.. This response is due to the CVE
Stakeholders, a conglomerate of Muslim
organizations and government agencies, failure to
deliver the facts before it was deformed by special
interest groups. The lack of public relations was
the largest contributing factor in the community's
Unfortunately, the dilemma created by CVE
critics is that they appear to oppose any
intervention, whether government or communityled. They even go as far as discrediting Muslim
organizations like the Muslim Public Affairs
Council (MPAC), by labeling them as government
puppets during numerous panel debates because
MPAC supports community-led interventions. .
MPAC has developed a CVE solution named
Safe Spaces. This solution was the model that
the LA framework adopted and presented to the
White House CVE Summit in February 2015.
Prevention, intervention, and ejection (P.I.E.) were
the components of Safe Spaces. The development
of Safe Spaces caused controversy for MPAC, and
for this, they have remained on the front lines of
criticism, yet they remain steadfast. They
understand the severity of a problem, no matter
the size. Groups from the opposition believe that
the community is already doing enough to prevent
youth from radicalization. With initiating
government supported intervention, they argue
that this is another way of focusing surveillance
tactics on the Muslim population. Fact is, Muslim
communities have not done enough to prevent and
intervene when an individual strays towards
radical ideology. There have been some efforts,
however they are informal, piecemeal,
underfunded, or all of the above. Safe Spaces
sought to change that by bringing together a set of
promising practices, making it out in the open and
formal, and creating a program mechanism that
will allow for better funding streams.
These advocacy groups focus on stigmatization of
the Muslim community. The concerns are

legitimate, but the logic is flawed. It is

understandable that Muslims may feel as though
they are being viewed through a securitized lens,
but they do not realize that CVE is a program that
is community-led. They do, though, have a strong
argument that in practice is in fact Muslimfocused, but It was not intended to be central to
American Muslims
The CVE strategies are transparent when
introduced and provide space for those who want
to shape it. The federal government has granted
Muslim community leaders unprecedented access
and opportunity for influencing the future policy
and practice of CVE in the United States.
Unfortunately for those that try to take proactive
roles in shaping such policies, they are criticized
as privileged, government-selected
individuals, or institutions who receive special
perks like funding, recognition and other invalid
assertions. Instead of seizing the opportunity to
shape the framework, critics have opted to be
publicly critical of CVE stakeholders efforts .
This often creates an impression to outside
observers that detractors of CVE do not want a
solution for preventing violent extremism, and
instead only seek to make it difficult for those who
are working alongside government.
Failing to address national security concerns by
empowering communities with resources to solve
communal issues is difficult for some to
understand. Special interest groups focus on acts
of domestic terrorism committed by violent
extremists inspired by Al-Qaeda and ISIL, in
comparison to the larger percentage of Far-Right
violence. The constant debate between both sides
always comes down to why us and not them?
The answer to that is simple. We, the Muslim
Leaders representing our community should take
the lead in addressing any sort of problem, no
matter the size, within our own circles. The
problems of other groups like white supremacists,
should be addressed by leaders of organizations
who focus on those issues. Those groups have
actually already have taken the resources and
developed CVE solutions to their problem of
radicalized and racist youth. Christian Picciolini,
founder of the Organization Life After Hate, is a
former White supremacist who has accepted
grants and developed successful strategies to de-

radicalize young men. By contrast, American

Muslims are engaged in defensive discourses,
which are largely fueled by the prevalence of antiMuslim animus in Americas current political
climate. The lack of trust of government and law
enforcement reinforces irrational approaches to
policy change. Trust cannot be built by
consistently being uncooperative with
government, for it will distance American
Muslims further and ultimately render their
concerns unimportant, further marginalizing the
group. This is why it is important to engage with
government, to assist in creating policy and
strategies that affect the community which people
associate with.
The way forward
Strategies to counter violent extremism are
necessary. The Department of Homeland Security
has recently opened a new office dedicated to this
issue. The phenomenon of lone actor terrorism,
influenced by social media propaganda is
increasing. We are seeing increasing acts of
violent hate crimes nationwide. The struggle of
finding a solution to a complex issue without
offending American citizens is not easy. The
radicalization of youth into violence usually takes
place at some point on-line. It has moved away
from the public sphere and into the privacy of a
person's room. The need for meeting and
organizing groups appears to have greatly
diminished. A boy who has never shown
indications of any sort of violence, radical,
political, or religious views etcetera, now has the
capability to have conversations with people with
nefarious intentions. Vulnerable youth fall prey to
these traps because of the alienation they feel as
American citizens. A Muslim boy who cannot
identify as an American because of environmental
factors will likely have an increased risk of being
a victim of brainwashing propaganda. This is why
it is crucial to have more Muslims immersing
themselves in policies. The more strategic
approaches and influence to shifts in policy , the
more they feel like they are part of society.
Constant civic engagement, dialogue, education,
and strengthening trust and relationships with
government are important means of reducing
feelings of marginalization among American

As Americans, we have to understand the threat

that extremism poses on our youth. We cannot
simply be passive while dangerous rhetoric is
being glamorized on-line to young people seeking
alternative lifestyles because of the social
disenfranchisement they experience. It is
understandable why certain groups have pushback against government-led initiatives. It is more
important though, that these groups acknowledge
and possibly adopt other methods of engagement.
A broader discourse using multiple methods of
political engagement is healthy and normal.
However, it is not effective if one group
undermines the efforts of the other. A new breed
of terror has targeted this generation; social media
is no longer innocent. It is a haven for terrorist
who have access to a wider range of vulnerable
youth. Countering Violence Extremism strategies
are pivotal, and they must be developed with
haste, for the enemy is now one step ahead.