Abdisalam Adam is a public school teacher and imam from St. Paul, Minn., and a model for how the White House and U.S. law enforcement hope to avoid an American version of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. By working within local communities and with civic leaders, they aim to prevent the radicalization and recruitment of young people into extremist organizations.
But even Adam — whose work in this area will be highlighted during this week’s White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) — has to fight deep suspicions among his fellow Somalis that the government efforts are just a guise for intelligence gathering.
“Is the government sincere about this?” Adam said. “That’s a big question. The trust is not completely there.” But he added that communities such as his have little choice. “Personally, I think if it’s done right and the government’s sincere, it’s the right thing to do.”
The three-day gathering, which has been in the works since the fall but has attracted significant attention in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere, will launch a new U.S. framework aimed at preventing potential extremists from launching strikes in the United States or joining the fight overseas. Expanding beyond the work already underway, the White House’s approach aims to enlist the help of social-service providers and religious leaders to avert future conversions to radicalism.
Senior administration officials, speaking to reporters Monday, said that while the initiative would not end terrorist acts like those undertaken in Copenhagen and Libya in the past few days, they are part of the broader answer to such threats.
“I think we need to be realistic that this is a long-term investment,” said one official, who asked for anonymity to discuss the event in advance. “And so, ultimately, we hope to get to a place where we just have much greater resilience and greater action across communities. But that is not something we’re going to see tomorrow.”
The president will address domestic summit participants — including some foundation and private-sector representatives — at the White House on Wednesday and then ministers from more than 60 participants at the State Department on Thursday. Attendees will devise a seven-month action plan and assess its effectiveness when the U.N. General Assembly meets in September.
Andrew Luger, the U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota and a summit participant, reached out to prominent Somalis such as Adam last spring to see whether there was a way to break the cycle of extremist recruiting in the Twin Cities area.
More than half of all Somalis in the United States live in Minnesota. Between 2006 and 2008, the terrorist group al-Shabab successfully enlisted several Somali Minnesotans to fight overseas, and more than 20 individuals have been charged in federal court in the District of Minnesota in connection with that recruitment drive.
“My basic question was, how can we, the government, help the community solve this problem?” Luger said in an interview. “Because everyone I spoke to wanted it to stop and was passionate about wanting to turn this around.”
Out of those discussions, Luger’s office developed a three-pronged strategy. He said it will aim, with the help of federal funding, to “address what the community believes are the root causes of radicalization” — high unemployment and a lack of educational opportunities and community resources. It will also seek to foster closer ties between local religious leaders and area youths and establish two types of intervention teams to help detect individuals who might be lured into joining a terrorist organization.
Luger said there will be one set of trained Somali workers in local schools, along with a group of activists based in the community. “There could be these trusted places for people to go, which have nothing to do with law enforcement,” he said.
But this attempt to enlist the aid of respected community officials has raised concern among Muslim American advocates who say that the Obama administration’s efforts have contributed to the perception that the majority of extremist threats arise from their ranks. Moreover, they suggest, these overtures could undermine the rapport Islamic leaders have with their congregants.
“They seem to focus primarily on Muslim communities, which account for only a small fraction of terrorist activities carried out in the United States,” Farhana Khera, executive director of the group Muslim Advocates, said in an interview. She added that any faith community — including Christians and Jews, “would be horrified to learn that their religious leaders were asked by law enforcement to monitor their congregants’ religious views and opinions and report back to them.”
Adam said the kind of work he and others are doing with federal officials does not constitute surveillance. “I believe in community-government efforts,” he said.
One of the senior administration officials said Monday that “there’s no profile that we can point to to say this person is from this community, is going to be radicalized to violence,” adding, “I think that we make a mistake as a government if we focus on stereotypes.”
Nicholas J. Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified this month before the House Homeland Security Committee that these initiatives should not be “perceived as intimidating” and that several communities have responded positively to the government’s overtures.
“Rather, it’s an effort to share information about how members of our communities are being targeted and recruited to join terrorists overseas,” Rasmussen added.
Still, a number of national faith groups have questioned the framing of this week’s summit. In an open letter to President Obama, the Interfaith Alliance protested White House press secretary Josh Earnest’s statement formally announcing the event, which the group said “mentions only acts of violence perpetrated by individuals who self-identify as Muslims, and it holds up as examples of prevention only CVE pilot programs directed at American Muslims.”
“There are ways to reassure people without exacerbating the problem,” said the alliance’s executive director, Rabbi Jack Moline. “The White House has been very open to our conversations and been very open to our concerns. Our problem, frankly, is the perception, not the intention.”
Administration officials say they intend to address other acts of extremism — including those targeting Jews and Sikhs — that have taken place in recent years. Speaking before the House Homeland Security Committee this month, Francis X. Taylor, the homeland security undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, noted that the Community Awareness Briefing his agency delivers uses a case study on the 2012 attack at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., “to illustrate potential for violence from all types of violent extremists.”
But many remain unconvinced. Linda Sarsour, who serves as national advocacy director for the National Network for Arab American Communities and has declined an invitation to attend the summit, said Muslim Americans have “a very strange relationship with the federal government, that we engage with them through the lens of national security.” Still, she added, their most prominent national groups are not receiving funding from anti-extremism programs.
The president’s budget for the next fiscal year includes $15 million for the Justice Department to support community-led efforts to counter radicalization. It also includes a request for $390 million for the State Department for counterterrorism and countering violent extremism.
Sarsour said the fact that the Homeland Security and the Justice departments are disbursing these funds make it unlikely that Muslim American advocates would accept them. “It shouldn’t come from the organizations that the community thinks it’s targeted by,” she said.
But for the groups working on pilot programs in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Boston and Los Angeles, the money the White House has allotted is critical to their efforts. CVE programs account for approximately 4 percent of the overall spending on counterterrorism, according to administration officials.
“All of this requires money,” Luger said, adding that he hopes the $15 million will be split among the pilot-program cities. “We’re going to be asking for as much as is available, and we’re making it clear in Washington that funding is critical to support this program.”
And Adam, who teaches English as a second language, said he and other imams will have difficulty carving out the time to undertake these initiatives without additional funding.
“It’s not as if imams don’t want to do this,” he said. “It’s a question of capacity.”