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The White House will unveil a broad, new strategy Thursday aimed at battling homegrown terrorism in the U.S. The program aims to empower communities by teaching local officials to recognize violent extremism and see the threat as a public safety issue, like the battle against gangs and drugs.
The plan comes as the terrorism threat against the U.S. continues to evolve. All eyes used to be trained on al-Qaida in Pakistan. But more recently the attacks have come from violent extremists here in the U.S. who picked up radical ideas from the Internet. Those plots, though less spectacular, are the ones the Obama administration is trying to fend off.
"What we have to do is be prepared for these different types of approaches that al-Qaida is pursuing," John Brennan, Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser, told NPR in an interview about the plan. "The large attacks, the small attacks, the groups that are operating together and the individuals who may be vulnerable to these types of entreaties."
The 20-page White House strategy — entitled "Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States" — puts some meat on a bare-bones outline the administration released four months ago. In that August dispatch, the White House laid out broad initiatives for preventing the spread of violent extremism in the United States. That plan, just seven pages long, was criticized for being thin on details.
The latest offering, which is expected to be released Thursday afternoon, is not exhaustive, but it provides a better idea of what the administration has in mind. The plan envisions a fusion of local partners — schools, community boards and leaders — with both local and federal law enforcement and other agencies. Many of these new partners, like the Department of Education, have never participated in national security issues before.
"We had a long conversation about what kinds of things education can do," said Quintan Wiktorowicz, a senior director of the National Security Council at the White House, who spearheaded the initiative. "In the same way they fight gangs, or bullying, they can help here. The challenge is going to be trying to put the violent extremism initiatives into existing programs. But there are lots of ways to do it, and we'll work with the schools to tailor the approach to what they need."
U.S. counterterrorism officials have become adept at spotting terrorism suspects who travel overseas to get training or arrange large money transfers to support terrorist groups. But homegrown followers who quietly embrace violent extremism after watching al-Qaida propaganda on their computers don't raise those same flags. In those cases, federal officials often learn about their intentions when it is too late. That's why the Obama administration is so eager to get into the fight local partners who are better positioned to pick up on these subtle cues.
A U.K. Model
The plan has some hints of a 2008 program in the United Kingdom called "Prevent." Authorities in the U.K. began dealing with homegrown terrorism long before it became an issue in the United States. Wiktorowicz was in London studying the program for years before starting his job on the National Security Council in Washington.
The Prevent program broke new ground in trying to get local officials and community leaders involved in spotting radicalization in its early stages. The program came in for some criticism, though; specifically, detractors said there wasn't enough separation between the community work officials were doing and the intelligence they ended up gathering. But Prevent has taught counterterrorism officials a lot about how to engage communities.
Because the new American strategy will fold in many players who haven't had much exposure to counterterrorism, it will require a good deal of training. Officials familiar with the plan said they are concerned that if the training isn't done properly, or sensitively, it could hobble the strategy. Wiktorowicz said he is familiar with the concern.
Training has become a bugaboo in the wake of revelations about FBI counterterrorism training practices. The first inkling that something was amiss came in March. That's when NPR reported on the cottage industry of independent counterterrorism trainers who signed up to teach local and federal law enforcement officials about terrorism. The report found that the instructors were not being properly vetted and some were presenting skewed views about Muslim-Americans and their potential links to terrorism. Follow-up reports showed how Islamophobia had crept into both federal and local law enforcement training.
Wiktorowicz said the new strategy addresses those issues. A complete training review and specific training standards are expected to be in place by spring. The Department of Homeland Security will review the training and evaluate experts to weed out any lurking anti-Muslim bias. The idea is to inject some quality control into the training process. Wiktorowicz said the new program will focus on behavior, not religion or appearances.
"There are potential behavioral signals," he said. "For example, has someone in the community seen them watching violent extremist videos? Are they publicly coming out in defense of Osama bin Laden? Are they talking about the kuffar [unbelievers]? That's not enough alone, but if that is in a combination of other things, that's what we are looking for."
The new White House strategy is attempting to broaden the government's engagement with local communities across the board. If it works, the idea is to broaden the context of local discussions so they aren't just about terrorism; they are about something bigger.
"We see what we're doing as a public safety issue," Wiktorowicz said. "If a community was being targeted by gangs, the government would have some responsibility to help them. The same applies to a community that might be targeted with violent extremism; we have the same responsibility to help them. All parents are concerned about these kinds of issues, not just Muslim parents."