WASHINGTON — Many of the invitations have yet to go out and the outcome remains a bit vague for an upcoming White House conference intended to showcase efforts to prevent young people from joining terrorist organizations.
Announced on Jan. 11 in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper in Paris, the so-called Summit on Confronting Violent Extremism (CVE) was initially planned last year to be a largely American affair and has now been broadened to include foreign guests.
An Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Al-Monitor that the Feb. 18 conference “will not focus on any specific group or violent extremist actor” despite the recent rash of attacks by Westerners claiming adherence to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS).
Indeed, the number of foreign fighters who have joined jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq now exceeds 20,000 — more than those lured to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s — according to a new report by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College, London. The largest numbers come from Arab countries — Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia are each the source of at least 1,500 recruits — but about 500 have joined the fight from both Germany and Britain and about a hundred from the United States, according to the report.
Authorities fear attacks by those who return from the fighting or who are merely inspired by jihadist organizations.
In the past few years, the expression “countering violent extremism,” or CVE, has replaced “counter-radicalism” as the term of art for efforts to prevent young people from joining terrorist groups, according to Matthew Levitt, an expert on terrorism at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Levitt told Al-Monitor that CVE is, in his view, “a dollar short and a day late. The whole point of this endeavor is to move the needle earlier in the process before someone is a violent extremist,” he said. “De-radicalization of someone who is already radicalized is a whole different and more difficult nut to crack.”
However, the term has spread around the globe and was used by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in his debut speech at the United Nations in 2013 and at a conference in Tehran in December.
Asked why the Obama administration was also using this label when most major recent terrorist attacks and threats emanate from individuals who identify with Islam, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told NBC’s "Meet the Press" Jan. 25: “Let’s be clear that nobody denies that these are Muslims … What we simply do not believe is they should somehow be seen as representatives of Islam.”
Levitt said there was an element of political correctness in the choice of words but that the shift also reflected threats by neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists provoked by the election of President Barack Obama in 2008.
The White House began addressing the issue of prevention in detail four years ago, issuing a report that defined violent extremists as “individuals who support or commit ideologically-motivated violence to further political goals [and] have promoted messages of divisiveness and justified the killing of innocents.”
The Obama administration official told Al-Monitor that attendees at the February conference would include “federal, state and local officials and community partners in the pilot cities — Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis-St. Paul — [who] will outline their local best practices and emerging efforts to counter violent extremism, while incorporating protections on privacy and civil liberties” as well as “foreign partners from both government and civil society [focusing] on promoting community resilience and counter-narratives to mitigate recruitment and radicalization to violence in key countries, and counter-messaging to reverse the tide of recruitment and radicalization.”
Levitt said the US projects have merit but that “it’s a little bit early to be pointing to this as our big success.” He also questioned whether the US government is “properly organized … to do this as well as we might be,” noting the major role played by police departments and other security agencies in these programs. Britain, Levitt noted, has a department of communities and local government that addresses these issues, while the United States operates mostly through the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and US attorneys’ offices.
Hedieh Mirahmadi, president of the World Organization for Resource Development and Education, a Washington-based body that seeks to mobilize communities against radical ideologies, told Al-Monitor that her organization has established another pilot project in a Washington suburban county to try to identify vulnerable individuals before they join extremist organizations and provide counseling to them.
Started in Maryland's Montgomery County in mid-2013, the project seeks to educate the public on the risk factors for extremist recruitment, which she said include “alienation, isolation, acculturation-related stress, hero worship or ‘jihadi cool’” plus mental illness, economic deprivation and radical ideology.
A social services wing called Crossroads provides counseling, she said. The prevention program is multifaith, she said, but Crossroads focuses on Muslims and Muslim converts who make up about 6-8% of the county’s population — a similar percentage to that found nationwide.
Mirahmadi, Levitt and other experts emphasized the growing challenge of identifying vulnerable individuals given the ubiquity and anonymity of social media.
What used to be a one-way communication between al-Qaeda central posting videos and potential adherents is now a two-way conversation, Levitt noted. “You can sit in your mama’s basement” and talk to real jihadists, he said.
Mirahmadi said followers of IS prowl a dozen different platforms, from games played on the Internet to Twitter. “They tweet back at me,” she told Al-Monitor, and sometimes call her a “coconut” in a pejorative reference to someone who is Muslim only in appearance.
The State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, Tina Kaidanow, acknowledged the difficulties in comments to a Washington audience Jan. 26.
While most of the discussion was off-record, Kaidanow put part of her introductory statement on the record.
The “threat once posed by al-Qaeda with its centralized, hierarchical terrorist command structure has now diminished,” she said, but “the past several years have seen the emergence of a more aggressive set of AQ affiliates and like-minded groups.”
So-called "lone offender attacks" in the United States and Europe “may or may not be associated with organized terrorist groups; they may simply be inspired by such groups or their ideological convictions,” she said. “The very complexity of addressing this evolving set of terrorist threats, and the need to undertake efforts that span the entire range from security to rule of law to efficacy of governance and pushing back on terrorist messaging in order to effectively combat the growth of these emerging violent extremist groups, requires an expanded approach to our counterterrorism engagement.”