The law enforcement agency characterized the program, which appears to be the first aimed at the nation’s schools, as one that will keep youth from falling prey to online recruiting by terrorists. But some members of the Muslim and Arab advocacy groups invited to preview the effort complained that despite being described as combatting “violent extremism,” it frames the topic heavily through the lens of Islam and will lead to profiling of Muslim youth.
The Web site, called “Don’t Be A Puppet,” was scheduled to go live Monday but was put temporarily on hold in the past few days.
After initially declining to comment altogether, the agency Sunday night issued a statement. “The FBI is developing a Web site designed to provide awareness about the dangers of violent extremist predators on the Internet, with input from students, educators and community leaders,” the statement read.
The community groups saidlast month the FBI called several people to a meeting. Also at the meeting, the FBI described its plan for “Shared Responsibility Committees,” which the Muslim and Arab participants said are proposed groups of community leaders and FBI representatives who could discuss cases of specific youths.
Participants said they were also very concerned about that concept, which they perceive as institutiionalizing an informant system, and complained to the Department of Justice. That program was put on hold last week, according to participants.
“It seems like they’re asking teachers to be extensions of law enforcement and to police thought, and students as well. That was very concerning to us all,” Hoda Hawa, director of policy and advocacy for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, called MPAC, said of the site.
The federal government and local law enforcement have struggled to find ways to reach young Americans who may be attracted to violent Islamic extremism before they break the law. In addition to the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department has recently set up pilot programs in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Boston.
Since the United States designated the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, as a terrorist organization in 2014, the FBI has made scores of arrests, many of them of young people who were radicalized on-line after consuming dangerous propaganda.
Last month, FBI Director James B. Comey said ISIS does crowd-sourcing for terrorism using a two-prong siren song: “Come to the Caliphate,” or “if you can’t come, kill somebody where you are.”
“That buzz all day long in your pocket, come or kill, come or kill, come or kill, has a tremendous impact on the troubled mind.”
Comey said there were more than 900 homegrown violent extremist cases, the vast majority of them related to the Islamic State.
The FBI has separate programs on mass shootings and economic espionage, among other things.
The community groups noted that experts disagree on what might be clear signs of radicalization among young people – in cases involving Muslims or non-Muslims.
Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s program on extremism, said work in schools could be complicated.
“Schools can be an important space in spotting and combating radicalization, as teachers are often best positioned to see concerning signs. Of course this needs to be done right, with proper training, respect of civil liberties and without stigmatizing,” Hughes said. “Doing otherwise would make the effort counterproductive.”
Details about the Web site were vague. However, some participants described what the FBI showed them at the October meeting. It included exercises like a quiz posing questions what would be of interest to the FBI: One option asked about a youth posting on Facebook that she intended to attend a political protest. What about a young person posting about feeling emotional about something, was a second. The third, participants described, cited a youth with a stereotypically Muslim-sounding name who “posted that he’s going overseas on a mission [and] does anyone want to chat?” Hawa said.
“All our hands went up, like: What’s with this?” she said of the meeting.
Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and a participant at the meeting, said advocates asked how schools would come to learn of the site. The FBI said it would reach out to schools to see if they were interested and was aiming for it to be used in civics, social studies and government classes, he said.
They had already showed the site to some “teachers and students in Northern Virginia to get feedback,” Ayoub said. “They said they had received commitments from school districts,” he said, and expected some 400,000 youths to use the site when it rolls out.
It wasn’t clear which Northern Virginia schools, if any, might have been involved in trying out the site and the FBI did not respond to a request to clarify that point.
“The one that should be involved is the Department of Education. The FBI is overreaching its mission,” Ayoub said.
Law enforcement agencies have for a decade been debating and creating similar programs called counter-radicalization or countering violent extremism, or CVE. Some involved improving communication and partnerships between Muslim organizations and law enforcement.
Some Muslim leaders are skeptical of efforts they see as disproportionately focused on Muslims and wrongly leaning on Muslims to connect law enforcement to people who may simply be criticizing U.S. foreign policy or have mental health issues, among other scenarios.
“The most controversial part of CVE is that there is no consensus as to what is a pre-terrorism indicator,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school.
Efforts a decade ago were “crude,” Patel said, and focused on things like whether someone was becoming more religious, growing a beard or changing their pattern in mosque attendance.
“It’s evolved a bit, but If you say signs of radicalization are alienation and disaffection – that can apply to many, many people. You can project onto CVE whatever you think causes terrorism,” said Patel, who had not seen the FBI Web site. “I have teenagers, they are alienated and disaffected a good amount of the time.”
Patel said this was the first she’d heard of such a program meant for use in schools.
Ayoub said the concept of the Shared Responsibility Committees took up more of the hours-long meeting and was more disturbing to him. Some Muslims have since Sept. 11, 2001, expressed concern about government informants in mosques, and the committees seemed like an effort to institutionalize an informant system. When the FBI opens a case into someone, Ayoub said, it would bring the name to the committee, which would review it, meet with the youth and perhaps someone in mental health or a mentor, and then report back to the FBI.
“What if the issue is one of mental health? We don’t believe the FBI has a role in this type of work. The FBI should be about protecting the community,” Ayoub said.
The Justice Department did not respond to request for comment.
Adam Goldman contributed to this report.