White House Report To Detail Anti-Extremism Effort

Aug 2, 2011
Originally published on August 3, 2011 9:56 am

The White House will unveil its strategy to counter radicalization on Wednesday afternoon, ending months of speculation about how President Obama intends to tackle the growing problem of violent extremism in this country.

The strategy paper, titled "The National Strategy on Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism," has been more than a year in the making and marks the first time the U.S. has laid out a comprehensive strategy to counter violent extremism.

NPR has learned from officials who have seen the report that the strategy will revolve around folding federal, state and local officials into a broad initiative. The idea is to bring together agencies and departments that have everyday ties to communities — like the Labor Department or Department of Education or Department of Energy — and give them the tools they need to help counter radicalization. Traditionally, the Department of Justice or the FBI has taken the lead on this kind of outreach to communities. As the White House sees it, agencies that have day-to-day interaction with at-risk communities are perfectly positioned to whittle down the list of grievances that might lead to violent extremism.

Broader Approach

Just mentioning violent extremism tends to raise hackles. Muslim groups have grumbled that they have had to bear a disproportionate amount of the blame for extremist violence when there are other violent groups — from neo-Nazis to anti-government extremists like the shooter in Oslo, Norway — who could also present a threat. Officials tell NPR they think they may have skirted that problem with their more holistic approach.

A schoolgirl who has been hassled for wearing a headscarf, or hijab, for example, could be helped through the Department of Education's anti-bullying initiatives in much the same way a gay teen harassed by his classmates would be served. "There is no need to classify that as a Muslim problem, it is a schoolyard problem," said one administration official who has seen the report but declined to be further identified.

Similarly, if the Labor Department is looking into allegations that a factory isn't hiring Muslims because of their ethnicity, that goes a long way toward countering the extremist narrative of the U.S. treating Muslims as second-class citizens.

Increasingly, studies of extremist groups show that it doesn't matter whether someone is an al-Qaida sympathizer, white supremacist or violent anti-government activist; they all tend to go through a similar process. As a result, the thinking is that strategies that might apply to a young man toying with becoming a neo-Nazi would also apply to just about anyone wooed by violent extremist rhetoric. It turns out that ideology may not necessarily be the driving factor that takes young people and turns them into violent Islamists or neo-Nazis or gangbangers. Just as important are community and identity.

Shared Experiences

A conference sponsored by Google in Dublin, Ireland, at the end of July brought a number of former violent extremists — neo-Nazis, Islamists, skinheads — together on one stage to talk about their experiences. What was striking was they shared a similar back story, whether they were from a well-to-do suburb in Wisconsin or a small village in Nigeria: They were restless youths who lacked identity growing up, and found an identity within their respective extremist groups. The new White House strategy aims to make sure these young people feel they have an identity and a place in society instead.

The White House initiative, in a way, builds off (and learns from) a British program that came before it. Known as PREVENT, it was supposed to blunt radicalization in Britain. The program has had many detractors. Part of the problem, among others, was that the initiative was basically led by law enforcement. The same constables and investigators who were gathering intelligence on burgeoning terrorism cases, or were arresting people, were wading into Muslim communities in the U.K. with fat grants saying, "Trust us, we're just here to run your after-school programs or your soup kitchens. We aren't here to gather intelligence or follow up leads." Needless to say, the communities didn't believe them.

Counterterrorism analysts are asking why this strategy, whether it works or not, has taken so long to form.

"Isn't it ironic that they are just ramping this up now?" said one intelligence analyst who has worked on part of the report and did not want to be identified before its release. "Didn't Defense Secretary [Leon] Panetta just say a couple of weeks ago that al-Qaida was defeated? Shouldn't it bother us that it took 10 years to make this a priority?"

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Today, the White House plans to say how it wants to fight violent extremists in America. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston has some details. She's on the line.

Dina, good morning.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So what's the plan?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, according to sources who've seen a draft of this report they're going to put out later today, they're calling it the National Strategy on Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism.

Now, violent extremism is this new buzzword for what we used to call radicalization. I mean, theoretically it doesn't matter whether someone is an al-Qaida sympathizer or a violent anti-government activist, the research shows they all go through a similar process.

So the headline here about this new report is that this is the first time the U.S. has tried to fold a bunch of federal and local agencies into an effort to counter violent extremism and basically do it as a part of normal day-to-day operations with the community.

And this is the first time the U.S. has laid out a comprehensive strategy to tackle all this. I mean, the Department of Justice and the FBI have always part of outreach programs to various communities. But other agencies and local partners have always been on the sidelines. This is supposed to change all that.

INSKEEP: Well, that's what I'm trying to understand here. I mean, it is almost a decade since 9/11. There's certainly been efforts to find extremists of various kinds across the country.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, exactly. I mean, basically what they've been trying to do is build off the mistakes that have been made elsewhere. I mean, the U.K. had this program called Prevent, which was supposed to blunt radicalization in Britain. But it's had a lot of detractors because basically it was lead by their law enforcement.

I mean, the same guys who were gathering intelligence on cases, or arresting people, were wading into the Muslim community there and saying, trust us, let us run your after-school programs and your soup kitchens. And it's not too surprising that there wasn't a lot of trust there.

So the idea in this new plan out of the White House is that you'd have local people wading into the communities - people the communities recognize.

INSKEEP: OK. So that's the mechanics of this. What about the actual messages? I mean, how do you - do you use persuasion? What do you use if you're trying to fight against the rise of extremism in some community?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Or radical ideologies. I mean, that's what's interesting. I mean, it turns out that ideology may not necessarily be the driving factor that takes young people and turns them into violent Islamists or Neo-Nazis.

I mean, a couple of weeks ago there was this conference that was sponsored by Google Ideas in Dublin, Ireland. And basically what it did is it brought together all these former violent extremists - Neo-Nazis, Islamists, skinheads. And whether these guys were from, you know, a suburb in Wisconsin or a small village in Nigeria, what was really interesting is they all had this similar backstory. They were restless kids who lacked identity growing up and found an identity with these extremist groups.

So the idea behind this new White House strategy is to use all these various government agencies and their local partners to make sure that these people feel they have an identity and a place in society. I mean, you don't have to be Muslim or an extremist to benefit from these programs. That's the way they see it. They think those groups are clearly also going to be affected.�

INSKEEP Although, some people are going to wonder how does - when you talk about these other departments, how does something like the Department of Education fit into this effort.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. Well, let me just give you an example. So the Department of Education has been focused on a number of anti-bullying campaigns in schools recently. And included in those reports of bullying have been school girls who get picked on for wearing a hijab or a scarf. Well, by not singling anybody out, they can basically sort of fold that bullying into the broader campaign.

I mean, some of this for sure is a little touchy-feely, but it is a comprehensive strategy, which we haven't had until now. So in that respect this is progress.

INSKEEP: Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're very welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.