Foreign Policy Essay

Engaging the "Not-Yet-Guilty" in the Fight against Terrorism

By Talene Bilazarian
Sunday, October 16, 2016, 10:52 AM

Editor's Note: Countering violent extremism (CVE) is a perfect sound bite, a magic wand to solve terrorism before it happens. Yet many programs initiated in the name of CVE are poorly designed, and some even make the problem worse. Talene Bilazarian, who is doing deep research on CVE programs at Oxford, looks at the UK experience as well as programs like the one in Montgomery County, Maryland and finds that, if CVE programs are properly tailored and implemented, they can help communities fight terrorism.


Chelsea bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami was known to the FBI, having been tipped by his own father, as were Omar Mateen the Pulse nightclub attacker, Tamerlan Tsarnaev of Boston marathon bombing infamy, and Major Nidal Hasan the Fort Hood shooter. The FBI, however, failed to intervene before the attacks occurred and will continue to fail as long as the United States lacks a coherent strategy for dealing with individuals who express terrorist sympathies but have not yet committed crimes – what former CIA Director Michael Hayden calls the challenge of stopping the “not-yet guilty.”

Currently, we rely on unstated expectations that family members or religious leaders will initiate de-radicalization efforts informally, challenging extremist narratives by providing alternative interpretations of religious passages used to justify violence or addressing foreign policy grievances with the necessary political context. But these individuals often lack the necessary training or state support to offer tailored interventions to radicalized individuals. An approach that relies on the goodwill and know-how of well-placed, trained individuals to challenge radicalization locally, without any orchestration, has repeatedly failed, as the experiences of Rahami, Mateen, and Tsarnaev suggest.

The United Kingdom has already acknowledged the need for early intervention programs to address radicalization and offers several best practices that should be adapted for programs in the United States. The UK’s program, which sits within the national counter-extremism strategy known as “Prevent,” has established initiatives to provide localized support to vulnerable individuals at risk of being drawn into violent extremism. My research shows that aspects of the Prevent model have been successful at the local level and are being emulated by other countries around the world, including Australia’s Countering Violent Extremism plan, Canada’s Prevent strategy, and the U.S. National Strategy for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism.

The UK’s early intervention program, also known as the Channel program, operates on the basis of community tips and referrals, which are then reviewed within a multi-agency structure that brings together a range of local service providers on a local panel to manage individual cases, as proscribed in central government guidance. The approach used is inspired by similar efforts to support sexual offenders and gang members, pairing an individual vulnerable to any form of violent extremism with a certified case manager who provides one-on-one support. Individuals agree to participate voluntarily at the outset of the program and can leave at any time. During and after the intervention, the identities of individuals receiving support remains strictly protected and are excluded from police or other criminal databases.

Under supervision from other local agencies, the case manager uses a process of ongoing mentorship and counter-narratives to question the ideological foundations of extremism, providing a personalized off-ramp from radicalization. Case managers work to challenge propaganda found online and from extremist groups operating locally.

The UK’s diversity of experience with local intervention provides a wealth of best practice for U.S. practitioners about how to maximize the effectiveness of these programs.

Because the drivers for extremism are themselves so diverse, case managers deal directly with religious matters as well as contentious local and international political issues in individualized sessions. For instance, case managers worked with individuals who felt that the 2015 attacks at the Charlie Hebdo offices were defensible under Islamic Law because the newspaper had attacked Islam and mocked the Prophet Mohammad. Rashad Ali, who has worked on de-radicalization programs in the UK, describes in a recent paper for the George Washington University Program on Extremism how case managers challenged these views using both Islamic legal commentary and religious history. They also questioned the argument that Charlie Hebdo was an explicitly anti-Muslim publication, citing the diverse political stances taken by the publication in recent issues. Ali writes, “The creation of an environment where the referred individual and program staff can engage in an open exchange eventually undermines the credibility, authenticity, orthodoxy, and allegedly Islamic nature of Islamist terrorism and causes the moral and political components of its narrative to crack.”

The UK’s early intervention efforts have had a checkered history and remain highly controversial, with many arguing that de-radicalization efforts jeopardize civil liberties and lead to a surveillance state that demonizes Muslim communities. Since its inception, the Channel program has been beleaguered by a lack of transparency and varied implementation quality. British Muslims have been repeatedly alienated by inappropriate referrals for baseless reasons.

Because the UK’s early intervention strategy runs on the basis of local panels, some local intervention efforts have been dramatically more successful than others in terms of maintaining community willingness to engage in early intervention processes. The UK’s diversity of experience with local intervention provides a wealth of best practice for U.S. practitioners about how to maximize the effectiveness of these programs.

My research on the local delivery of UK counter-extremism initiatives has shown how efforts by local government and police to maximize transparency through community consultation, protect the identities of individuals, and train local agencies to minimize inappropriate referrals dramatically increases trust and community willingness to report relevant concerns. Specifically, I have focused on local counter-extremism programming in the UK’s East Midlands and South East regions, conducting extensive interviews with law enforcement and local government officials involved in early intervention efforts.

In the East Midlands region, law enforcement was highly sensitive about how the identities of individuals involved in early intervention would be recorded. Before this was mandated by the central government, police created a separate database for non-offending, vulnerable individuals who were voluntarily engaging in early intervention. This method of recording data increased the willingness of local partner agencies to participate in early intervention, believing that referring individuals for early intervention would not pre-emptively criminalize individuals they were intending to support.

This region of the UK has also consistently invested in providing regularized opportunities for community consultation. Through community meetings and other forums, community members can ask questions about how local intervention operates and interacts with representatives who work on these programs, increasing community trust and transparency.

The Chelsea bombings and earlier terrorist attacks this year, demonstrate the urgent need to revise our national counter-terrorism approach and seriously invest in de-radicalization programming

Interviews with local government and law enforcement revealed that the East Midlands region of the UK has consistently had high rates of referrals and significant community participation in early intervention. Because of efforts to provide community consultation and to invest in transparency and data protection, early intervention processes have been received more positively.

In South East England, police trained representatives from local agencies about intervention processes, who were then certified to credibly train and assist individuals within their own agencies. Much of the training centered on how to identify signs of radicalization and who to contact in these instances. Police were also able to review the nature of intervention, specifically the sensitivity involved in managing individuals of concern.

Importantly, these trainings delegated greater responsibility for early intervention to local agencies, removing the stigma around early intervention as a spying agenda managed exclusively by police. After these trainings, there were credible, local professionals outside of law enforcement with an understanding of early intervention processes, the nature of radicalization, and a willingness to interact with the program locally in South East England.

Early intervention programs inspired by those in the UK have already been successfully transplanted to the United States. As part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism initiative, a pilot program has been established in Montgomery County, MD that brings together local professionals such as clergy, teachers, police, and counselors to work with individuals drawn toward extremist ideology on the Faith Community Working Group (FCWG). The FCWG works as an early warning system, what has come to be known as the Montgomery County Model. Individuals thought to be at risk of radicalization are paired with an appropriate counselor to provide individualized support.

The FCWG has worked to foster broad community support, sponsoring a range of community events, service projects, and trainings to help community members better understand radicalization in a similar way to the highlighted cases in the UK. The Montgomery County program has been hailed a success both by an independent evaluation and by George Selim, Director of the Office for Community Partnerships at DHS.

The Chelsea bombings and earlier terrorist attacks this year, demonstrate the urgent need to revise our national counter-terrorism approach and seriously invest in de-radicalization programming to capitalize on a window of opportunity before attacks are carried out. The UK’s Prevent strategy and the efforts in Montgomery County are working to address this deficit, helping to draw the “not-yet guilty” away from violent extremism and prevent terrorism.

The successes of the Montgomery County program should be scaled and replicated in other parts of the country, adapting the best practices observed in my research to other local contexts. As evidenced by local intervention efforts in UK cities, these programs work best when leaders are transparent about the intervention process, when at-risk individuals feel their identities will be sufficiently protected, and when the responsibility for early intervention programs are shared with other local agencies, outside of law enforcement.