Courts & Crime

Feds shaping city pilot programs to stem violent extremism

Attorney General Eric Holder arrives at Lambert International in St. Louis, Aug. 20, 2014, to talk to civic leaders, officials and members of the public about the Michael Brown shooting. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)
Attorney General Eric Holder arrives at Lambert International in St. Louis, Aug. 20, 2014, to talk to civic leaders, officials and members of the public about the Michael Brown shooting. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT) MCT

Amid growing concern that hundreds of westerners are being lured into traveling to the Middle East to join the Islamic State, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that a series of pilot programs will be conducted in cities across the country to combat violent extremism.

The programs’ rollout will be capped by a Countering Violent Extremism summit at the White House in October, Holder said.

In a video message posted on the Justice Department’s website, he said that “few threats are more urgent.”

“And 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,” Holder said, using one of several acronyms for the terror group tied to al-Qaida.

The White House will announce which cities have been selected for pilot programs in early October, the department said.

That’s about a month before the upcoming mid-term congressional elections, and it’s possible that there also will be political advantages from proposals to combat terrorism in jurisdictions where right races are under way.

Minneapolis is one city that seems a good bet to land a pilot program, because multiple youths from its large Somali community have migrated to join jihadist movements in Somalia and the Middle East in recent years.

The Justice Department programs will be run in partnership with the White House, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center.

Experts have long urged collaborative efforts to ensure that American youths are not lured into violent extremist groups, and the government has embraced that advice by stepping up contacts with mosques to discourage inflammatory language from imams and attempting to build bridges with other groups viewed as conducive to breeding homegrown terrorists. The challenge for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies is to tamp down fears that the push for improved communication is a ruse to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to conduct domestic spying activities.

Concerns that the Islamic terrorists could attack the homeland have been heightened by analysts’ recent declarations that the Islamic State is the richest terror group in history, having seized banks whose vaults held hundreds of millions of dollars in cash. News reports over the weekend said that the terror group is reaping some $3 million a day from the sale of oil and other goods.

The FBI and other law enforcement agencies are collaborating with international partners, including the global police agency Interpol, “to disseminate information on foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, including individuals who have traveled from the United States,” Holder said.

“We have established processes for detecting American extremists who attempt to join terror groups abroad. And we have engaged in extensive outreach to communities here in the U.S. – so we can work with them to identify threats before they emerge, to disrupt homegrown terrorists, and to apprehend would-be violent extremists.”

“But we can – and we must – do even more,” Holder said.

He said that under President Barack Obama’s leadership, the pilot programs would “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 goal will be to “to develop comprehensive local strategies, to raise awareness about important issues, to share information on best practices and to expand and improve training in every area of the country.”

A Justice Department official, who lacked authorization to speak for the record, said that the effort would seek to engage “a wide range of social service providers, including education administrators, mental health professionals and religious leaders to ... help facilitate community-led interventions” when one or more individuals veer toward violent behavior or extremist views.

U.S. attorneys, considered the top law enforcement officials in their states, already have attended more than 1,700 community or religious events or meetings “to enhance trust and facilitate communication in their neighborhoods and districts,” Holder said.

“This innovative new pilot initiative will build on that important work,” he said. “Ultimately, the pilot programs will enable us to develop more effective – and more inclusive – ways to help build the more just, secure, and free society that all Americans deserve.”