Inside the Federal Govt's Newest Program to Infiltrate and Surveil Muslim Communities

The Justice Dept's latest campaign to “counter violent extremism” is more post-9/11 madness.

Last month, Zale Thompson attacked a New York Police Department officer with a hatchet before being killed by police. Law enforcement officials said Thompson, 32, was a “self-radicalized” Muslim inspired by overseas extremist groups.

The hatchet attack renewed dormant but always lurking fears about terrorism in the U.S. The rise of the Islamic State, the extremist outfit also known as ISIS that has taken over territory in war-torn Iraq and Syria, has fueled those fears. In response to the alleged threat from the Islamic State, law enforcement officials have increased efforts to block Americans from joining the group in Syria.

But the Obama administration's plan to combat the Islamic State at home goes beyond law enforcement tactics like the use of informants, tactics that have been employed to arrest Americans the government alleges was trying to join the Islamic State. In September, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the launch of a program to “counter violent extremism.” The Department of Justice effort is the public face of the U.S. government’s campaign to staunch the Islamic State’s appeal to Americans. Similar federal efforts have occurred in the past, though this plan is the first to cite the threat of the Islamic State group.

“Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) is a centerpiece of this administration’s counterterrorism strategy,” White House National Security Council spokesman Mark Stroh said in a statement. “Our CVE approach is premised on the principle that local partners, including local law enforcement and communities, are at the forefront of preventing violent radicalization and recruitment both online and person-to-person.”

The response to the department's campaign has been cool from some Muslim advocates and lawyers. Stroth said “the threat posed by violent extremism is neither constrained by international borders nor limited to any single ideology.” Critics fear that the focus will largely be on Muslims, and that it will stigmatize their religious community. In a September 19 letter to the White House, the American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern that the federal plan will “encourage communities to report to law enforcement on the expressive or associational activities or beliefs of their members.” The Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment.

Thirteen years after 9/11, the relationship between Muslims and law enforcement remains fraught. Civil liberties advocates say that surveillance of Muslims, the use of informants and the singular focus on Muslim extremism has damaged their trust in law enforcement. There are also fears that the Department of Justice campaign could be used to collect intelligence on Muslims.

The Justice Department effort was launched when the attorney general appeared in a video on September 15. “With the emergence of groups like ISIL, and the knowledge that some Americans are attempting to travel to countries like Syria and Iraq to take part in ongoing conflicts, the Justice Department is responding appropriately,” said Holder, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group. He said that the White House would partner with other federal agencies to launch pilot programs in American cities to counter extremism.

Holder added that the effort “will bring together community representatives, public safety officials, religious leaders, and United States Attorneys to improve local engagement; to counter violent extremism; and—ultimately—to build a broad network of community partnerships to keep our nation safe.” The White House announced a “Countering Violent Extremism” program to be held in October, though details about the event are sparse and it was not held that month. (At a press briefing in October, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that the summit “is something that has been a subject of extensive discussion here at the White House. I don’t have any announcements to make in terms of the status of our ongoing planning on that, but I hope to have an update on that soon.”) The three cities chosen for the pilot programs are Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles.

The anti-extremism program comes as U.S. officials and politicians continue to sound the alarm over jihadist groups in Syria. At least two Americans have died while fighting for the Islamic State group. Another American blew himself up in Syria while fighting for Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaida’s Syrian branch. And a handful of Americans have been arrested for allegedly trying to join the Syrian civil war.

Some Muslim-American leaders have welcomed the Department of Justice initiative. “We are looking see how the Justice Department and the administration partners with American Muslim communities in this endeavor to counter violent extremism,” said Hoda Elshishtawy, the national policy analyst for the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

But Elshishtawy also said concerns that the Justice Department program will stigmatize Muslim-Americans and won't address community fears about surveillance are “very real issues for American Muslims...We don't want the government to just securitize the relationship with American Muslim communities.”

Linda Sarsour, the New York-based advocacy director of the National Network for Arab American Communities, has participated in similar anti-extremism efforts. Sarsour has met with New York Police Department officials in the past about countering terrorism. But she said she stopped attending most meetings after the revelation that the New York police had launched an expansive surveillance program targeting Muslims in the Northeast. “The idea is to keep an open dialogue with the community,” she said. “My huge question here is...Why is it that we always create special programs for the Muslim community as if Muslim communities are the only communities where there’s radicalization and extremism?”

Diala Shamas, a lawyer with the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility project, is particularly concerned about social service providers, like those in the health and education fields, being tapped to join the effort.

“Surveillance policies have already had a dramatically chilling effect on speech and religious practice on American Muslim communities,” she said. The program “risks exacerbating that by essentially turning everyone into an informant. Should a college counselor report a student who wrote a paper expressing frustration about our foreign policy?”

Civil liberties advocates are also worried that the program will rely on theories of how people are radicalized that have little merit in their eyes. “Radicalization theory,” as it is known in law enforcement circles, tries to lay out the trajectory people follow on the way to becoming “radicalized.” Mike German, a 16-year veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, said that “radicalization theory” posits that one important step in the path toward extremism is the expression of grievance. He said this theory has been used in past outreach efforts to Muslim communities.

“So anybody complaining about U.S. foreign policy or U.S. government civil rights practices in counter-terrorism is somebody who needs to be watched and stifled,” said German, explaining the theory's logic. “[What] seems to be the purpose of this is to drive a wedge between the community, between the people who support the government policies and the people who don’t, and to stigmatize the people who don’t as...being dangerous.”

German noted that counter-terror programs in the past have gone beyond mere outreach. In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union released FBI documents the group uncovered through a Freedom of Information Act request. The documents showed how agents used a “mosque outreach” program to collect intelligence on what the civil liberties group called “First Amendment-protected religious beliefs and practices.”

The “mosque outreach” was one part of the federal agency’s multi-million-dollar effort to halt terrorism. The centerpiece of those efforts has been the controversial use of informants in Muslim communities. Civil liberties advocates say the reliance on informants has led to cases of entrapment, while law enforcement officials maintain that informants are a critical tool in the fight against terrorism. Muslim activists say the FBI's informant program has eroded their trust in the agency.

Meanwhile, Muslim communities have launched their own initiatives to stop radicalization. On October 14, the Islamic Leadership Council of New York, an umbrella group that works with over 50 mosques, announced a campaign consisting of coordinated mosque sermons against extremism, a social media campaign and open house events.

Imam al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur Rashid, the president of the council, said that “we need to inoculate our community, inoculate our young people against these calls and appeals that are coming from overseas.” But he clarified that his effort had nothing to do with the federal government’s.

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Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.