About 100 Americans and more than 2,000 other Westerners have joined, tried to join, or travelled to areas controlled by militant groups in Syria. This alarming trend highlights the fact that individuals are being radicalized in the U.S. to wage a war of terror in the Middle East. Even more troubling is that some radicalized individuals never leave the U.S. but instead plot attacks against the U.S. homeland. A new initiative to counter violent extremists may be part of the answer.
The Department of Justice, partnering with the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center, will run a pilot program to counter violent extremists in the U.S. The initiative will bring together “community representatives, public safety officials, religious leaders, and United States Attorneys to improve local engagement,” according to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
This collaboration intends to bridge communities through information sharing and early detection of threats. Three cities will pilot the program: Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis.
Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev is a poignant example of the need for these community-based programs as a means of stopping the spread of extremism. Multiple warning signs in the year preceding the attack should have alerted authorities to his extremist tendencies. In early 2012, Tsarnaev traveled to an area in Russia known for extremism, and later in August an extremist video showed up on his YouTube account. In November 2012 and January 2013, he stood up in a mosque and berated the contents of peaceful sermons regarding the celebration of U.S. holidays. Sadly, the connections were not made and local efforts to counter his rising extremism did not occur.
The difficulties of identifying and tracking homegrown, “lone wolf” terrorists poses a substantial threat to the U.S. Engagement between community representatives and local law enforcement should help to deter and identify threats. Writing for The Heritage Foundation, Matt Mayer and Michael Downing offer a solution to the problem:
Fortunately, state and local organizations recognize that outreach and engagement strategies build trust and solve community problems at the grassroots level. Indeed, state and local law enforcement have spent years developing a relationship of trust with local leaders. No one knows this landscape better than the “boots on the ground.” The integration of these sometimes-isolated communities into the greater fold of society has never been more important—and is not the job of federal authorities.
Centralized government cannot solve this problem—it starts in communities, and that is where it must be addressed. State and local organizations must be central players in any program or strategy—not just an afterthought.
The federal government does, however, have an important role in assisting local partners and bringing different partners together. The biggest challenge so far has been turning a list of good ideas and strategies into effective programs. The new initiative announced by Attorney General Holder looks like one step toward implementing real programs to counter violent extremism, but it must remain focused on supporting local partners.
With the FBI aware of at least 100 Americans with connection to the fighting in Syria and Iraq, the U.S. should seek to prevent radicalization through coordinated community outreach in order to help stop the threat of terrorism here at home.
Ellen Prichard is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.