The White House will unveil its strategy to counter radicalization on Wednesday afternoon, ending months of speculation about how President Obama intends to tackle the growing problem of violent extremism in this country.
The strategy paper, titled The National Strategy on Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism, has been more than a year in the making and marks the first time the U.S. has laid out a comprehensive strategy to counter violent extremism.
NPR has learned from officials who have seen the report that the strategy will revolve around folding federal, state and local officials into a broad initiative. The idea is to bring together agencies and departments that have everyday ties to communities — like the Labor Department or Department of Education or Department of Energy — and give them the tools they need to help counter radicalization. Traditionally, the Department of Justice or the FBI has taken the lead on this kind of outreach to communities. As the White House sees it, agencies that have day-to-day interaction with at-risk communities are perfectly positioned to whittle down the list of grievances that might lead to violent extremism.
Just mentioning violent extremism tends to raise hackles. Muslim groups have grumbled that they have had to bear a disproportionate amount of the blame for extremist violence when there are other violent groups — from neo-Nazis to anti-government extremists like the shooter in Oslo, Norway — who could also present a threat. Officials tell NPR they think they may have skirted that problem with their more holistic approach.
A schoolgirl who has been hassled for wearing a headscarf, or hijab, for example, could be helped through the Department of Education's anti-bullying initiatives in much the same way a gay teen harassed by his classmates would be served. "There is no need to classify that as a Muslim problem, it is a schoolyard problem," said one administration official who has seen the report but declined to be further identified.
Similarly, if the Labor Department is looking into allegations that a factory isn't hiring Muslims because of their ethnicity, that goes a long way toward countering the extremist narrative of the U.S. treating Muslims as second-class citizens.
Increasingly, studies of extremist groups show that it doesn't matter whether someone is an al-QaIda sympathizer, white supremacist, or violent anti-government activist; they all tend to go through a similar process. As a result, the thinking is that strategies that might apply to a young man toying with becoming a neo-Nazi would also apply to just about anyone wooed by violent extremist rhetoric. It turns out that ideology may not necessarily be the driving factor that takes young people and turns them into violent Islamists or Neo-Nazis or gang bangers. Just as important are community and identity.
A conference sponsored by Google in Dublin, Ireland, at the end of July brought a number of former violent extremists — neo-Nazis, Islamists, skinheads — together on one stage to talk about their experiences. What was striking was they shared a similar back story whether they were from a well-to-do suburb in Wisconsin or a small village in Nigeria: They were restless youths who lacked identity growing up and found an identity within their respective extremist groups. The new White House strategy aims to make sure these young people feel they have an identity and a place in society instead.
The White House initiative, in a way, builds off (and learns from) a British program that came before it. Known as PREVENT, it was supposed to blunt radicalization in Britain. The program has had many detractors and part of the problem, among others, was that the initiative was basically led by law enforcement. The same constables and investigators who were gathering intelligence on burgeoning terrorism cases, or were arresting people, were wading into Muslim communities in the U.K. with fat grants saying, "Trust us, we're just here to run your afterschool programs or your soup kitchens. We aren't here to gather intelligence or follow up leads." Needless to say, the communities didn't believe them.
Counterterrorism analysts are asking why this strategy, whether it works or not, has taken so long to form.
"Isn't it ironic that they are just ramping this up now?" said one intelligence analyst who has worked on part of the report and did not want to be identified before its release. "Didn't Defense Secretary [Leon] Panetta just say a couple of weeks ago that al-Qaida was defeated? Shouldn't it bother us that it took 10 years to make this a priority?"