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US Muslims unhappy with terror prevention

21 April 2015, 08:15

Mission Viejo - A pilot Obama administration programme to prevent radicalisation from taking root is creating suspicion that it's a plot to profile American Muslims.

Local law enforcement officials have been doing such outreach for years. But now that federal officials are putting their stamp on it, some Muslims and others fear it is profiling disguised as prevention and worry it could compromise civil liberties and religious freedoms.

The effort divides Muslim leaders who, on one side, argue that more must be done to fight extremism in their community and that this program is a historic opportunity for input. Others fear the program, which could be rolled out nationwide after being being tested in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Boston, is just another veiled way for law enforcement to target their community.

Sceptics remember the New York Police Department's surveillance of Muslims, uncovered by The Associated Press in an investigation in 2011, and an FBI informant's description of how he was taught to ingratiate himself to the Southern California religious community in the mid-2000s to secretly gather contact information and record conversations.

The US government announced the Countering Violent Extremism programme last fall, billing it as a community-driven initiative to tackle terrorism and militant recruitment by preventing radicalisation from taking root.

President Barack Obama later said Muslims need to fight a misconception that groups like ISIS speak for them, even as senior administration officials insisted they were not focusing exclusively on that particular threat.

Some 20 000 fighters have joined ISIS and other extremists in their campaigns in Iraq and Syria, including at least 3 400 from Western nations, according to US intelligence agencies. As many as 150 are estimated to be Americans, though not all succeeded in reaching the war zone.

US officials have long eyed the threat of home-grown extremists such as Timothy McVeigh, who 20 years ago bombed the Oklahoma City federal building and killed 168 people. But the rise of the Islamic State group has taken front and centre in the past year.

Countering Violent Extremism is led by US attorneys' offices, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, local law enforcement agencies and, critically, local faith and community groups.

It takes many forms, including town halls, academic offerings and mentorship programs, online videos, and cartoons for children. Social media efforts to combat the group's success in that medium are key; by some accounts, its followers have sent tens of thousands of tweets per day.

Develop intelligence

Boston hopes to make discussions palatable by addressing radicalisation in concert with domestic violence, drug abuse, gangs and other challenges. One model the city hopes to replicate is "Abdullah X," a YouTube cartoon series developed by a self-proclaimed former extremist in London. The bearded protagonist takes on the Islamic State group and issues of identity and faith.

Nichole Mossalam, of the Islamic Society of Boston, the Cambridge mosque attended by Boston Marathon bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev - prime examples of the kind of radicalisation the programme seeks to nip in the bud - called the program "dangerous ground" that could lead to policing of fringe thought and speech.

"We're still at the table, but we're still waiting to be convinced," she said. "We acknowledge we need to protect our youth, but we don't want to be targeting people for exercising their constitutionally protected right of free speech."

Law enforcement leaders say outreach is separate from intelligence gathering. And they acknowledge that a single misstep by a federal agent could reverse years of trust-building.

"Do we develop intelligence? One hundred percent, that's our job," said David Bowdich, assistant director of the FBI's Los Angeles office. "But we're not doing it under the guise of building bridges."

- AP


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