Muslim, other leaders decry FBI's tool to fight extremist recruitment

From The New York Times

By Laurie Goodstein

The F.B.I. is about to introduce an interactive program it developed for teachers and students, aimed at training them to prevent young people from being drawn into violent extremism. But Muslim, Arab and other religious and civil rights leaders who were invited to preview the program have raised strong objections, saying it focuses almost entirely on Islamic extremism, which they say has not been a factor in the epidemic of school shootings and attacks in the United States.

The program, according to those who saw it at F.B.I. headquarters, called ''Don't Be a Puppet,'' leads the viewer through a series of games and tips intended to teach how to identify someone who may be falling prey to radical extremists. With each successful answer, scissors cut a puppet's string, until the puppet is free.  

This screen capture is from an ISIS recruitment video (UK Daily Mail).

This screen capture is from an ISIS recruitment video (UK Daily Mail).

In the campaign against terrorists such as the Islamic State, law enforcement agencies have been stepping up efforts to identify those susceptible to recruitment. The agencies have enlisted the cooperation and advice of religious and community leaders. But the controversy over the Federal Bureau of Investigation's new online tool is one more indication that there is no consensus on who should be involved in detecting and reporting suspects, and where to draw the line between prevention and racial or religious profiling.

''The F.B.I. is developing a website designed to provide awareness about the dangers of violent extremist predators on the Internet,'' a spokeswoman for the agency said late Sunday, ''with input from students, educators and community leaders.''

The F.B.I. had told the community organizations that the program would be available online as soon as Monday. The organizations' leaders spoke to a reporter only after learning that the F.B.I. was likely to proceed despite their concern that the program would stigmatize Arab and Muslim students, who are already susceptible to bullying.

''Teachers in classrooms should not become an extension of law enforcement,'' said Arjun S. Sethi, an adjunct professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center. Mr. Sethi, who specializes in counterterrorism and law enforcement, was invited by the F.B.I. to give feedback on the program.

''The program is based on flawed theories of radicalization, namely that individuals radicalize in the exact same way and it's entirely discernible,'' he said. ''But it's not, and the F.B.I. is basically asking teachers and students to suss these things out.''

He said the F.B.I.'s program amounted to ''misplaced priorities.''

''The greatest threat facing American schoolchildren today is gun violence,'' he said. ''It's not Muslim extremism.''

Teachers do not always have the training or judgment to identify extremists, said several religious leaders who mentioned the Muslim student in Texas who was detained and handcuffed after taking a clock he built to school.

The F.B.I. held several meetings last summer to present the online program, along with a larger strategy for involving community leaders in preventing radicalization. The Arab and Muslim groups received an email inviting them to a meeting to give feedback on Oct. 16.

About six organizations representing American Muslims, Arabs, Yemenis and Sikhs were at the meeting, where they were given a quick run-through of portions of the online program. It covered different types of violent groups and ideologies, and enumerated some personality changes that might indicate radicalization, according to those who attended. It showed a map of places terrorists have targeted, and included interviews with victims of terrorist attacks.

Abed A. Ayoub, the legal and policy director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, recalled: ''They were getting blowback from everybody. It was a very tense meeting.''

''They wanted teachers in social studies, civics and government classes to show this to their students,'' said Hoda Hawa, the director of policy and advocacy for the Muslim Public Affairs Council. ''But the website will be accessible by anyone.''

She and others interviewed were particularly troubled by a question that she said asked the user to identify which of four or five posts on social media should raise alarm. Among the choices were a person posting about a plan to attend a political event, or someone with an Arabic name posting about going on ''a mission'' overseas. The correct answer was the posting with the Arabic name.

''What kind of mission? It could have been humanitarian. It could have been religious,'' Ms. Hawa said.

Mr. Ayoub said, ''If this is shown to middle and high school students, it's going to result in the bullying of these children.''

A report issued by the 9/11 review commission in May suggested that the F.B.I. , as a law enforcement and intelligence agency, was not ''an appropriate vehicle'' for producing prevention programs to counter violent extremism.

(source)

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