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Magazine

Stopping Terrorism at the Source

Two years ago, the Obama administration launched a plan to use American Muslims as an early-detection system to spot radicals. So why hasn’t it worked?

A prayer for help: The feds want the help of the Muslim communities.(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

photo of Michael Hirsh
May 2, 2013

The more we learn about the Boston Marathon bombings, the greater our sense that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the suspected perpetrators, could somehow have been stopped. It’s a seductive notion: The families of an 8-year-old boy, two young women, and a campus police officer might still have their loved ones today, and that dozens of others might still possess limbs and their former lives, if only the FBI, the CIA, and other agencies had pieced together clues—especially signs of the older brother’s open radicalization—that in hindsight appear obvious. There is also a growing understanding, after an era when homeland terrorism was nearly forgotten, that Americans had better get ready for the next threat, and fast. It is not unreasonable to think that even now a copycat terrorist is pondering some plot inspired by the Boston bombers’ success carrying out the first homeland attack since Sept. 11, 2001.

Clearly, clues were missed. As we know, starting sometime after 2010, Tamerlan began descending into radical rage in full view of his local Muslim community. Twice he disrupted his mosque, the Islamic Society of Boston, with angry outbursts. Those incidents occurred more than a year after the FBI closed its casebook on him, having found no evidence of radical views or ties in response to queries from the Russian intelligence service. The FBI, apparently, wasn’t in sufficient communication with Tamerlan’s imam or the congregants who had been offended by his comments.

And that, in fact, points to the far-bigger problem. The greatest fault is not an intelligence failure to uncover the particular clue that would have revealed Tamerlan’s plans; the fault lies with the failure of the U.S. government as a whole to implement a program that has been discussed and debated for years—a program established on paper nearly two years ago, in August 2011, but which still has not been implemented nationally. The Obama administration officially calls its national strategy “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.” Translated, that means using a wide range of government agencies, from the Department of Homeland Security to Education and Health and Human Services, to teach U.S. communities about radicalization and enlist them to become early-detection systems when it occurs. According to George Selim, the White House’s director of community partnerships, the program “is really a nod to the fact that preventing violent extremism in the United States is not only a government function. It is largely civil.” The proposal, modeled partly on Britain’s Prevent program, acknowledges that the FBI and law enforcement don’t have the resources or knowledge to stop terrorism on their own—not with some 750,000 names to track on the official terrorist watch list.

 

Tamerlan was a case in point: Most of the criticism now focuses on why the FBI appeared to drop the inquiry after the Russian government contacted the bureau several times raising questions about whether he was dabbling in radicalism. Even his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, was recorded by Russian wiretaps in 2011 speaking with him vaguely of pursuing jihad in Palestine, although the FBI did not learn of that until after the bombings. But this is not entirely the FBI’s fault. Nearly 12 years after 9/11, at a time of budget austerity, it is too much to ask our law-enforcement agencies to sweep up and address every vague threat. In truth, they already do a pretty good job: Muslim-generated terrorism is only a tiny sliver of violence in the United States, far less than in some European countries. Since Sept. 11, Muslim-American terrorism has claimed a total of 33 lives, out of more than 180,000 murders committed over the same period; in contrast, more than 200 Americans were killed in political violence by white supremacists and other groups on the far right, according to figures from the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security in Durham, N.C.

Even so, the number of radicalized people in the United States who have not yet done anything violent or worth prosecuting is “a fairly large club,” former CIA Director Michael Hayden told CNN last weekend. Few of these potential terrorists can be detected and prosecuted before they act. And after a decadelong series of fumbles and mishaps dating from Richard Reid (the failed “shoe bomber”) to Faisal Shahzad (the would-be Times Square car bomber), the odds suggest that some plotter was bound to succeed sooner or later. “This is like penalty kicks in soccer,” Hayden said. “No matter how good the goalie is, sooner or later this ball’s going into the back of the net.”

TAKING CHARGE

Some community activists, fearing yet another wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric—exemplified by Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who has frankly called for ethnic profiling—are taking the lead from the government. At a gathering in Gaithersburg, Md., on April 25, an extraordinary collection of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Sikh religious leaders assembled, along with representatives of the federal, county, and local governments, to talk about promoting greater unity and showing government the way forward.

At the meeting, a number of Muslim leaders were frank in saying their communities need help and training on an extended basis if they can ever hope to identify individuals, like Tamerlan, with clear social and personal issues. Many imams in American mosques just don’t get involved in their members’ lives, says Tufail Ahmad, a Washington businessman, who says he started an organization called the Montgomery County Muslim Council because of mosques’ inability to make connections to the outside community. “They just talk about spiritual things. Most of the imams in these mosques come from Pakistan, India, Somalia…. They all need education, these imams. They just do the prayers. They don’t know about the social problems in their mosques.”

Haytham Younis, a part-time imam of Syrian descent who ministers in the Montgomery County, Md., jail in addition to being a full-time architect, agrees that too many imams merely recite liturgy and give “boring” sermons. “They don’t even address issues that are affecting youth,” he says. “There is a self-isolation, and there doesn’t need to be.” Younis compares the disconnectedness of many immigrant imams to the early Jewish-immigrant experience, when the first rabbis who came from Russia and Eastern Europe didn’t know how to relate to the New World. But it is a little different for young Muslims who aren’t especially familiar with their religion’s condemnation of violence. “Muslims in general feel a frustration about the West. We were once a great civilization. Now it’s like the West finally won the Crusades,” Younis says. “We feel resentment. From there, it’s just a short step to something worse, and that is easy for young people who don’t know better.” Muslim communities are so victimized by skewed radical thinking that he must often walk these young men, step by step, through Koranic basics that forbid violence.

Activists say communities can apply the same methods used to spot drug rings and violent gangs to recognize signs of Islamist extremism. “They missed so many clues there in Boston. Violence leaves red flags,” says Aquil Basheer, a Los Angeles-based specialist in gang violence who consults with police departments around the country and was at the Gaithersburg meeting. “This doesn’t just come out of nowhere. [Tamerlan’s] actions were changing for the worse well before. We are so damn reactive. Our communities have to create some degree of protection. We can’t just wait for the Green Berets to come in. At the same time, there is an arrogant attitude on the part of law enforcement that ‘we have all the answers. We can do it.’ There has to be a collective multidisciplinary collaboration by the community.”

The Obama administration’s strategy is ostensibly being overseen by the National Security Council’s Selim, who has been working on it since January of 2012. In an interview, he says the program is still in its preliminary stages. One problem: Selim has no line authority over the various agencies involved, mainly the Homeland Security and Justice departments. “Who’s in charge? That’s my first question,” says Michael Rolince, a former FBI counterterrorism specialist. “The answer is, everyone’s in charge. And if everyone’s in charge, no one’s in charge. My second question is: How much money was put behind that initiative? And the answer is, none.”

A senior White House official who asked to remain anonymous regarding budget matters acknowledged there is “no new pot of money,” but says the primary agencies involved have applied their own funds toward training efforts that have been adjusted to the new specifications. Indeed, a big problem is that many federal agencies have different outreach programs, with different cash streams, different stages of development, and no accountability to Selim, says Charles Kurzman, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina who has studied domestic Islamist terrorism for years.

Some Muslim community activists have been waiting impatiently for the administration’s program for more than three years. Among them is Hedieh Mirahmadi, whose International Cultural Center hosted the Gaithersburg meeting along with county officials. Mirahmadi, president of the World Organization for Resource Development and Education, which seeks to enhance understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim communities, is among the critics who say the process has dragged. The administration’s plan, she says, “lays out a very good preliminary description of how it should work, but I don’t think there is the specificity we need to develop an intervention model. You have all these different agencies.”

Other Muslim community leaders say government outreach efforts so far have amounted to a shallow focus on counterterrorism and little more than the sharing of cell-phone contacts between them and police. “I don’t even know who has that portfolio in the [federal] government,” says Qamar-ul Huda, a scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace who is an expert in such programs.

What Washington needs to do, these critics say, is to emulate the “long-term relationship-building” effort started in Great Britain after the last serious terrorist attack there on July 7, 2005, when British-born suicide bombers targeted the London transport system, killing 52 people and injuring more than 700. Although the British program has occasionally raised questions about whether civil liberties are being violated, the FBI’s sting operations in the U.S. have done no less.

To counter allegations of ethnic or religious profiling, any such program must also be about more than just counterterrorism, says Daniel Silk, a law-enforcement expert at the University of Georgia who has closely studied the U.K. program. In Britain, outreach under Prevent is multilayered, involving national health services and other agencies as well as MI5 and Scotland Yard. (Even this has sometimes been controversial.) “If the police, whether at the federal or local level, come into any community—but particularly marginalized [Muslim] communities—and start talking about counterterrorism, it would be like going into an Italian-American community in the ’70s or ’80s and asking them about the Mafia,” Silk says. “The reasonable push back you get is, ‘Why is the government framing my community in these terms?’ But if police can make the effort to put out a broad-based program of involvement, dealing with such issues as graffiti, drug dealing, and burglary, and then perhaps they add on top of that, ‘I have a concern about ideological violence,’ that’s the foundation for a much more solid relationship.”

WOULD IT HAVE WORKED?

Had signals come from the Muslim community about Tamerlan’s radicalization, the FBI could have easily reopened his file. In November 2012 and then again in January, the increasingly angry and unstable ethnic Chechen interrupted sermons. After a speaker at a religious talk in January compared the Prophet Muhammad to Martin Luther King Jr., Tamerlan shouted at him and was pressed to leave. Last November, Tsarnaev also furiously interrupted a talk when a speaker said it was all right for people to celebrate Thanksgiving and July Fourth in the same way they celebrate the birthday of the prophet.

Yet these incidents never really left the mosque, which has itself been dogged by allegations that it occasionally allowed radical preachers to speak. Yusufi Vali, the executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, which is the sister mosque to Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s, told USA Today that both had been holding regular meetings with law enforcement before the bombings. Still, it’s not clear why clergy, counselors, and congregants all did nothing about Tsarnaev. “This is a classic example of how the community must be the first line of intervention. If the community feels it cannot address the threat, then it should inform law enforcement,” says Mirahmadi. “It reminds me of what happened with Nidal Hasan,” the Army major who killed 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009. “He also went around expressing his discontent, and again there was no intervention.” UNC’s Kurzman says many domestic mosques are reluctant to call attention to themselves. “The difficulty that some Muslim communities find themselves in, when faced with an individual who appears to have extreme views, is that on one hand, they want to turn the information over to law-enforcement authorities. On the other hand, they don’t want these individuals at their mosques for fear they’ll turn attention on the whole congregation.”

Silk says a better, deeper relationship with law enforcement could easily have led to a tip that might have prompted authorities to flag Tamerlan, question him further, or even put him under surveillance—perhaps, in the end, preventing the Boston Marathon bombing. “That is exactly what these kinds of programs are designed to build,” he says. Silk says he has heard many anecdotes from British law-enforcement colleagues “where it’s not that the relationship leads to preventing a terrorist act, but to something further down in the process, where mosques or communities of mosques have been very up-front when people come into their areas and say things that are offensive and against British values. They want the police to help, but for them to be willing to do that requires a sound relationship.” Alternatively, Huda says, a better link between Tsarnaev’s mosque and U.S. authorities might have led to an effort to get local imams to talk to him and learn more about what was troubling him.

It’s not that there hasn’t been cooperation. According to a study done at the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, of 164 would-be Muslim terrorists whose plots were disrupted since 9/11, 27 percent were turned in by members of Muslim-American communities (34 percent were discovered by federal government investigations). In Minneapolis-St. Paul, where federal officials point to a model program to establish ties with the Somali-American community, family members reported that 19 Somali-American youths had traveled to Somalia and joined forces with al-Shabaab, the Qaida affiliate there. In Maryland, the FBI began to investigate Antonio Martinez, who tried to blow up a military recruiting center in Maryland, after a Muslim Facebook friend called about his violent postings. “In some communities, Muslim-Americans have been so concerned about extremists in their midst that they have turned in people who turned out to be undercover informants, including Craig Monteilh in Orange County, California, and Darren Griffin in Toledo, Ohio,” the study reports.

But these cases seem to be more the exception than the rule. And in Boston, where the clues from Moscow still fell short, such community linkups were scant. The FBI’s skepticism about Russian intelligence was probably justified; Moscow’s information lacks complete credibility because of President Vladimir Putin’s long-term efforts to paint all rebel Chechens as terrorists. And while Tamerlan was put on the terrorist watch list, the FBI is not capable of monitoring every individual on that list. In addition, under the strict rules set out in its Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, the FBI is required to close a file after 90 days of assessment if no “derogatory” information is found. So there are many tips but few pursuits.

Some Muslims have raised civil-liberties objections to FBI sting operations (often launched on tips from communities) that have induced radical Islamists to take part in plots that often seem as much the brainchild of law enforcement as of the would-be terrorists. Among them: Farooque Ahmed, whom the FBI secretly guided into a Washington subway bombing plot in 2010; and Mohamed Mohamud, a U.S. citizen originally from Somalia who was convicted in a plot to set off a bomb at a public Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Ore., after he sought help from an undercover agent who pretended to be a member of a terrorist group.

But more cooperation from communities would probably mean less need for FBI infiltration and fewer sting operations in the long run. “The reason there is FBI undercover is, there’s not enough cooperation and coordination. We use extraordinary investigative techniques when we can’t get it any other way,” Rolince says. And authorities are not asking anything more of Muslim communities than they are of other ethnic or religious communities, he says. “If I find out or hear there are drugs being sold in the rectory of my church, I’m going to be going to the FBI, whether it’s a church or mosque or synagogue or temple.”

Even those who lead the fight against anti-Muslim hate speech, such as Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, say the distrust is too deep, exacerbated by law enforcement’s often ham-handed efforts to elicit intelligence from these communities. “I don’t think there’s much question that there could be better relationships between American Muslims and law enforcement. There is a huge amount of distrust on the part of Muslims,” Potok says. “It has a lot to do with the approach of law enforcement toward the larger Muslim community. It’s extremely heavily oriented toward enforcement.” Luther Reynolds, a Montgomery County police lieutenant, tends to agree. “A lot of the communities that need us the most trust us the least,” he says.

According to the strategic implementation plan for the administration strategy, issued in December 2011, 32 U.S. attorney offices began expanding their engagement with Muslim communities and are now broadening the issues they discuss, including civil rights, counterterrorism-security measures, international events, foreign policy, and other community concerns. They are also directed to “raise awareness about the threat of violent extremism” and to “facilitate partnerships to prevent radicalization to violence.” In the future, the national task force set up to administer the plan expects to disseminate “regular reports on best practices in community engagement” to local government officials, law enforcement, federal prosecutors, and other agencies. Still, there is a long way to go. “They will tell you there’s a tremendous amount of coordination at the government level,” Mirahmadi says. “But is it happening at the community level?”

In the end, this is hardly just a postmortem on Boston. It is just as much about the scary sense that if even a seemingly integrated young man like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old brother who came here at the age of 9 and had many American friends, could have committed such radical acts, then who might be next? Mirahmadi and others fear an ugly anti-Muslim backlash if Americans come to believe that, like Dzhokhar, almost any Muslim is potentially vulnerable to radicalization.

Only the broadly moderate mainstream Muslim community can make a difference—and, with it, a law-enforcement apparatus that reaches out much further than it has so far. In many ways, what must be done is an echo of what the FBI decided to do when it released the pictures of the Tsarnaevs to the public. There must be, in other words, a frank plea for help, and a show of humility. “For more than 100 years, the FBI has relied on the public to be its eyes and ears,” Richard DesLauriers, the FBI agent in charge, told the nation then. Today, that is more true than ever.

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