By: Josh Gerstein
Community-based strategies that have succeeded in fighting drugs and gangs also can prevent Americans from being recruited by Islamic terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, according to a White House report released Wednesday.
"We are working to prevent all types of extremism that leads to violence," President Barack Obama said in a letter accompanying the new strategy paper.
"Communities -- especially Muslim American communities whose children, families and neighbors are being targeted for recruitment by Al-Qa'ida -- are often best positioned to take the lead because they know their communities best."
Aides said the eight-page report was the result of more than a year of work by an interagency group, which concluded that a hands-on role by federal agencies is not the best approach to address the roots of homegrown extremism. "The Federal Government will often be ill-suited to intervene in the niches of society where radicalization to violence takes place," the report said.
The strategy, titled "Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States," was crafted in part out of a recognition that Al Qaeda is increasingly looking to use Americans and U.S. residents to mount attacks, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told POLITICO in an interview. "We saw Al Qaeda shifting its tactics. We wanted to make sure we responded to that," he said.
"We're trying to shift the emphasis away from the traditional national security agencies" to agencies such as the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, said Quintan Wiktorowicz, the White House's senior director for global engagement. "Lots of their lessons and experience doing prevention may be lessons learned" from anti-gang and anti-drug programs for the anti-radicalization fight, he said.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.), who has held hearings this year on Muslim radicalization in the U.S., complained that the White House report wrongly suggests that the threat from Islamic extremism is on par with that posed by other groups.
"My concerns are with language in the report which suggests some equivalency of threats between Al Qaeda and domestic extremists and also with the politically correct inference that legitimate criticism of certain radical organizations or elements of the Muslim-American community should be avoided," King said. He offered praised for the administration's overall anti-terror efforts but cautioned against "politically correct feel-good" outreach to the Muslim community.
Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) also gave the report a lukewarm reaction.
"We continue to be disappointed that the administration remains reluctant to identify violent Islamist extremism as the main cause of the homegrown terrorist threat," said Lieberman, who also faulted the report for failing to designate a lead federal agency to combat the problem.
However, Rhodes insisted the White House is not soft-pedaling the Al Qaeda threat. "We explicitly prioritize Al Qaeda in the strategy. We go out of our way within the strategy to say the greatest threat comes from Al Qaeda and its affiliates," Rhodes said.
Muslim American groups generally responded positively to the White House report.
"In the wake of increasing anti-Muslim hate and the recent horrific attacks in Norway, we are heartened that the president recognizes that violence motivated by extremist beliefs is not unique to one racial, ethnic or faith community," said Farhana Khera of Muslim Advocates. "All Americans must act together to address the challenge, and the administration's strategy is a good start."
"American Muslims support objective and holistic efforts to ensure that all of our nation's citizens are safe from violent extremists," said Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Our nation faces a number of threats. Al Qaeda and its allies, white supremacists, violent anti-Muslim extremists and violent anti-government activists all must be confronted."
The White House indicated in March that a domestic anti-radicalization strategy had been under development for more than a year and would be released "publicly in the coming weeks." However, nearly five months passed before the new strategy document emerged.
Rhodes said Wednesday the delay was a result of "the interagency process" and a decision by the White House to release the report after Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan unveiled a broader counterterrorism strategy in June.