Foreign Policy Essay

The Foreign Policy Essay—Special Edition: First, Do No Harm

By William McCants
Tuesday, February 17, 2015, 9:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The White House summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) that will begin tomorrow is a bold attempt to tackle the “root causes” of terrorism. Yet more than a decade after 9/11, neither the United States nor its allies have a strong understanding of how to do so. Indeed, the programmatic track record is more one of noble failures than even limited successes. My Brookings colleague Will McCants cautions against programs that are too broad and alienate American Muslims, instead calling for a narrow focus on at-risk communities and individuals.

(The Foreign Policy Essay is traditionally published every Sunday, but because the White House CVE summit starts tomorrow, we decided not to wait until Sunday to publish this piece.)

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Last May, FBI agents stopped Abdullahi Yusuf from boarding a flight at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. According to the U.S. government, the 18-year-old Somali-American was headed to Syria to join the Islamic State. If true, Yusuf would have joined a dozen other Somali-American men and women who had flown to Syria to join the Islamic State. No one tried to intervene with Yusuf and change his mind before he almost ruined his life: instead, they waited until they had evidence he committed a crime and arrested him.

Will McCants photo with borderThis case is worth contemplating because the White House plans to showcase the Twin Cities as a model of how to conduct counter-radicalization at tomorrow’s summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE).

The day before federal prosecutors charged Yusuf, the U.S. attorney in Minnesota met with leaders in the Somali community to brief them on his plans to encourage investment in jobs programs and activities for Somali youth in the Twin Cities area.

The White House views the Minnesota initiative as a positive development, a second phase in its effort to counter the radicalization of Muslims in the United States. (The first was developing a positive rapport between law enforcement and community leaders.)

Some Muslim community leaders and Muslim government officials have hailed both phases as positive developments. They welcome a strategy that allows for Muslim input and addresses socio-economic factors they believe drive radicalization. “We’ve created relationships with the government,” says one Somali leader in Minnesota, “and this allows the Somali community to feel involved in the civic process. As a result, today we have fifteen Somalis working in law enforcement…”

But many other Muslims have criticized the strategy, or at least the outreach program, as needlessly invasive. It is a perception hardened after multiple exposés of government intrusion into the private lives of American Muslims. The NYPD, for example, compiled the pictures and license plate numbers of Muslims going to pray in mosques.

The government’s outreach program reinforces the popular notion that the entire Muslim community is to blame for its few bad apples. Linking government services and economic development to the effort will inevitably engender the same criticism from Muslim Americans, as it did in the United Kingdom in the early days of its counter-radicalization program. (Never mind that the causal link between socio-economic troubles and radicalism is tenuous at best, and one-size-fits-all approaches founder in the face of individual idiosyncrasies.)

Rather than alienating a whole segment of the American public (which hurts intelligence gathering) and throwing good money after bad, why not prevent radicalization by intervening with the few people who have celebrated jihadist propaganda but haven’t broken the law yet? Most of them are pretty vocal online, so it’s usually not hard to identify them. Even those who aren’t vocal online are often known to law enforcement (e.g., the Tsarnaev brothers).

Applying the same approach to jihadist wannabes who have not yet broken the law would free up the FBI to focus on more serious threats, carries less risk of alienating the communities in which jihadists recruit, undermines the popular misconception that these communities are potential threats, and is less likely to threaten civil liberties than the current approach.

Some American Muslim non-governmental organizations, such as the World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE), are working with local law enforcement to develop such programs. But the U.S. government gives them little if any funding and has not made interventions part of its national strategy to counter violent extremism.

That said, I have met U.S. government officials in various agencies who favor interventions. Trying to save kids rather than locking them up encourages the friends and families of troubled youth to address the problem. Friends and family will be less likely to talk to law enforcement if their loved ones will only be compelled to inform on others or persuaded to commit wrongdoing by informants or undercover agents.

But the Department of Justice, especially the FBI, is wary of involving itself with intervention programs. The programs are very risky in the current political climate—if just one person were to commit violence after going through a de-radicalization program, not just the program but the careers of everyone involved in it would be over. And the career incentives point in the opposite direction. In the Department of Justice, you get points for making cases that can be brought to court, not unmaking them.

Compare this to the United Kingdom’s intervention program, Channel: a panel of experts, social workers, and law enforcement identify troubled youth using 22 criteria and develop tailored programs for them. The Channel program’s governing document acknowledges the risk inherent in the program and apportions it accordingly. Social services own the risk that individuals won’t respond to the intervention, law enforcement owns the risk that those individuals will engage in violence. The program isn’t perfect, but because it is narrow in scope it has survived the tumultuous politics and Muslim outcry surrounding the United Kingdom’s larger counter-radicalization effort.

Some people in the U.S. government are taking tiny steps in this direction. The judge in the Abdullahi Yusuf case sentenced him to a term in a halfway house and a program designed to encourage troubled youth—not just jihadist fan boys—to engage positively in American civic life. The journey on the path to terrorism does not have to end in handcuffs; it can end with a handshake.

But Yusuf broke the law and was compelled to obey the judge’s order. What about extremists who have not broken any laws? Unless they are minors, the U.S. government cannot easily compel them to attend an intervention program. Still, many U.S. cities have developed anti-gang interventions that respect civil liberties while giving adults a chance to turn their lives around before they break the law. Perhaps there are lessons for the design of terrorism intervention programs.

Even if the government could design or foster effective intervention programs, it still risks alienating some Muslims if their community is the sole focus of these programs. To avoid this pitfall, interventions should concentrate on anyone who celebrates the propaganda of designated terrorist organizations, regardless of their backgrounds.

Of course, real-world budgets and politics make it unlikely that intervention programs will focus on non-Muslims. That is truly deplorable, but it is better than having no programs at all. The choices shouldn’t be jail or Syria.

Abdullahi Yusuf was one of the lucky few Minnesotan Muslims who was given a third choice; many others were not. As participants in tomorrow’s White House summit on Countering Violent Extremism mull the benefits and shortcomings of the Minnesota model, they should keep in mind the CVE prime directive: First, do no harm.

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William McCants is a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy and director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins University and has served in government and think-tank positions related to Islam, the Middle East, and terrorism, including as State Department senior adviser for countering violent extremism. Follow him on Twitter @will_mccants.