Foreign Policy Essay

Domestic Counterterrorism: Material Support or Bust

By Seamus Hughes
Sunday, August 30, 2015, 10:03 AM

Editor’s Note: A longstanding counterterrorism tension is how to balance a robust intelligence presence and tough legal measures against hardcore terrorists with the need to gain the support of local communities. In the struggle against the Islamic State, this tension seems particularly acute: too often community members and families are reluctant to identify potentially radicalized youngsters in their midst because they fear that doing so will lead to their incarceration. Seamus Hughes, Deputy Director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security, believes there is a way out of this dilemma. Drawing on various foreign models, the United States can involve communities and intervene to stop radicalization without throwing every suspect in jail.

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Charging every American who is a self-proclaimed true believer in the Islamic State with material support to terrorism is tantamount to screaming at the top of your lungs during a presidential debate: Your bravado may drown out your opponent, but you likely lost the crowd. In the United States, the arrest of over 60 individuals for support to the Islamic State is our scream. The communities who will be positioned to notice the next 60 individuals are the audience. If we truly want to prevent radicalization to violence, we need to stop yelling every time.

The FBI asserts that there are active Islamic State-related terrorism investigations in all 50 states. The latest government figure puts the number of Americans who have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria and Iraq at “upwards of 200.” A number of Muslim-American organizations are actively and aggressively campaigning against the U.S. government’s countering violent extremism strategy. On one side is an Islamic State radicalization and recruitment trajectory that continues to tick upward. On the other is a populace hesitant to provide an alternative because of perceived government overreach. If we want to make progress against the deluge of homegrown violent extremists, the status quo must be shaken up.

No doubt, there exists a subset of radicalized Islamic State-supporting Americans who, through their actions and fervor, require nothing less than the total tonnage of law enforcement surveillance and arrest apparatus. However, it is naïve to assume there is not also a subset of radicalized Islamic State-supporting Americans where prosecutions should be a last resort.

The material support clause is an admittedly impressive legal tool for law enforcement and prosecutors charged with protecting the public from terrorism. With an unprecedented number of international terrorism-related arrests, it provides a level of flexibility that is commensurate with the evolving threat. No doubt, there exists a subset of radicalized Islamic State-supporting Americans who, through their actions and fervor, require nothing less than the total tonnage of law enforcement surveillance and arrest apparatus. However, it is naïve to assume there is not also a subset of radicalized Islamic State-supporting Americans where prosecutions should be a last resort. Further, in the cases of underage Islamic State supporters, there is a reluctance by law enforcement for various political, moral, and policy reasons to charge minors with material support to terrorism.

At present, the parent of a radicalized daughter has only two options: do nothing and hope her radicalization is a passing phase, or alert law enforcement and risk a conviction on material support charges that would likely place her behind bars for the next 20 years. This is a difficult choice for parents to have to make. Further, it forces choices that help reinforce the false notions that Muslim Americans are passively complacent and law enforcement officials only care about making a case.

The existence of the subset of radicalized but still reachable individuals demands the creation of a systematic intervention program. A program of this nature is important for both law enforcement and Muslim-American communities. 

From the perspective of law enforcement, monitoring and building cases against at least 200 

Americans would be labor intensive and expensive. Law enforcement officials need an avenue to address this subset of Islamic State supporters so they can their focus finite resources on the handful of high-risk cases. From a community perspective, bystanders who witness radicalization to violence are more likely to alert authorities if they know the response will not necessarily result in long-term, substantial legal trouble for their loved ones.

Disengagement and intervention programs are not unprecedented. In Germany, the nongovernment organization Hayat works with families of Islamic State supporters to bring them back into the fold. In Sweden, Exit Fryshuset has assisted white supremacists in disengagement from the movement since 1998. The United Kingdom, with its hundreds of foreign fighters, has revamped their Channel program and had early success in addressing Islamic State recruitment. Denmark’s much-heralded Aarhus model is working to rehabilitate returning foreign fighters.

[W]ithout a viable alternative to filing material support charges, the United States is stuck in an endless cycle in which each side throws up their hands and the next 200 families are left talking to their loved ones through a prison cell...

The United States would do well to take pieces of various international interventions programs and adapt them to a domestic context. An effective intervention program would bring together mental health professionals, social workers, religious leaders, community partners, law enforcement, and, when appropriate, school officials to develop a strategy for intervening in an individual’s radicalization process. Each strategy should be individually tailored, as each person is susceptible to different drivers of radicalization. It also requires providing legal guidance to intervention workers who, without such latitudes, would place themselves at risk of civil and legal repercussions if the intervention goes awry.

Law enforcement officials will continue to arrest individuals who pose a threat to our communities. They will also keep using informants. Select Muslim-American organizations will undoubtedly protest some counterterrorism practices. Nevertheless, without a viable alternative to filing material support charges, the United States is stuck in an endless cycle in which each side throws up their hands and the next 200 families are left talking to their loved ones through a prison cell or learning about their deaths in the latest issue of Dabiq. Without another option, it is material support or bust. That choice is untenable. 

We should try speaking at a normal audible every once in a while. That way when we yell, people listen.