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Building Ties To Counter Religious Extremism In LA


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And this is For The Record.

Paris is still reeling after the recent terror attacks on its soil. Meanwhile, U.S. officials are focusing on the possibility of home-grown terrorism here. Here's Republican Senator Marco Rubio.


SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: There are thousands of people around the world plotting to kill Americans both here in the homeland and abroad. It's not a question of if but when.

MARTIN: And then on Wednesday, as if on cue...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The FBI announced tonight it is arresting an armed ISIS sympathizer in Ohio who told an informant he was headed to Washington to blow up the U.S. capital and kill members of Congress.

MARTIN: After the Paris attacks, the White House set a date for a long-delayed conference on countering violent extremism. It'll happen next month. Here's President Obama on Friday.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is a problem that causes great heartache and tragedy and destruction. But it is one that ultimately we're going to defeat.

MARTIN: One of the key strategies the U.S. government is using to combat the threat of violent extremism is outreach - strengthening the relationship between law enforcement and Muslim communities. We're going to focus in on how those efforts have been going in one city in particular - Los Angeles, which federal officials point to as a success story. It is complicated, though, and not everyone is convinced the relationship is moving in the right direction. We'll give you three perspectives on what's working and what's not. First, Officer Jim Buck.

OFFICER JIM BUCK: I'm currently assigned to LAPD's Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau, their liaison unit.

MARTIN: That means it is his job to build relationships between the police department and LA's Muslim community. It was a sharp learning curve for a beat cop at first.

BUCK: Oh, I didn't know what I was walking into. No, I'm a Christian, white male. And I'm thinking what? I don't know anything about Islam. I just walked in like any other person would try to you know create a friendship.

MARTIN: And he says there were difficult moments.

BUCK: I go into their neighborhoods. I go into their mosque. I go into their businesses. And they want to know - what are you doing here? Are you here to spy on us? And I got to be honest, I come in there - really 90 percent of the time, I'm in uniform with a tie, a shiny badge, and I walk in there. And they are a little cautious at first. And this is like eight years ago. And that has morphed into an unbelievable relationship where they almost get upset now when I don't attend one of their events or even their Friday prayers.

MARTIN: How do you know that those relationships are paying off? Are you looking for people to be able to tell you when they see signs that perhaps someone has been radicalized?

BUCK: Yes. Absolutely I am. At the end of the day, that is I want them to be, you know, good Americans.

AMEENA MIRZAQAZI: It seems that we are often treated as suspects than as partners.

MARTIN: That's Ameena Mirza Qazi. She's a Muslim community activist and a civil rights lawyer in LA. I asked Qazi what she thinks about the fact that the police outreach program is part of the counterterrorism division of the LAPD.

QAZI: That offends me. It seems to say that all we the Muslim community have to offer is to counter violent extremism. That our youth engagement efforts, our civic engagement efforts, our civil rights efforts are all just to counter violent extremism.

MARTIN: And her advice to Muslims who are approached by law enforcement...

QAZI: Don't be naive. Know that a person in plain clothes or in uniform may be there for more than what they're saying at the outset.

SALAM AL-MARAYATI: The options that people have - they can protest, they can litigate, or they can engage. And what we've decided to do is to engage.

MARTIN: That our third voice, Salam Al-Marayati. He's the executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. He too is a community leader in LA. But unlike Ameena Mirza Qazi, he thinks partnering with law enforcement is crucial.

AL-MARAYATI: After 9/11, it's not just about arresting and convicting those who commit acts of terrorism. It's about how do we work together to prevent it from even happening?

MARTIN: But Qazi says if American Muslims are supposed to be in partnership with law enforcement, they're not being treated as equals. She points to an FBI operation that was meant to glean information about possible Islamist sympathizers.

QAZI: Several years ago, there was a famous incident of a man who supposedly converted to Islam. He stood in front of the Friday congregation next to the Imam and took our most sacred oath and said he was Muslim and infiltrated the community that way.

MARTIN: Do you differentiate between the LAPD and the FBI? Is one proven to be more trustworthy than the other?

QAZI: You know, several years ago, I would've said that there's a huge difference between the LAPD and the FBI, but the two are becoming more and more alike in terms of the increasing militarization and procurement of surveillance technology.

MARTIN: I asked Salam Al-Marayati about this - the idea that the government might be reaching out publicly but privately running intelligence gathering operations on his community. Do you accept that some of that is going to happen?

AL-MARAYATI: No, I don't, but the point is what are you going to do about it? If we want to push surveillance out of our mosques, then we need to replace surveillance programs with community partnership programs.

MARTIN: In other words, he hopes that by cooperating with law enforcement, inviting them to Friday prayers, developing trust, federal and local officials will find less reason to watch Muslims when they're not looking.

The White House has yet to announce the guest list for February's summit. And Muslim leaders like Salam Al-Marayati are skeptical about whether they'll make the cut.

AL-MARAYATI: The fear of political backlash for inviting Muslims to any public event is always a concern. We've been through this too many times where a congressman or senator will invite us and then has to deal with right-wing blogs on why he invited Muslims to his office.

MARTIN: So you're fighting still just get a seat at the table.

AL-MARAYATI: To get a seat at the table and, yes, to define our own narrative. People talk about us; they never talk to us.

MARTIN: When those chosen to attend do sit down, Salam says honesty and transparency are key in a war where lines have been redrawn by the Islamic State and al-Qaida.

We turn now to a key battlefield in the fight against violent extremism - the digital word world. Salam Al-Marayati explains.

AL-MARAYATI: Most of these cases that involve radicalization don't happen in the mosque. They actually happen in the bedroom or living room of somebody while there viewing YouTube videos of al-Qaida and ISIS on their laptops.

MARTIN: The U.S. government has tried to meet these groups on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube without a whole lot of success. Our next guest has spent a lot of time thinking about that issue. His name is Patrick Skinner. He's with national security consultants The Soufan Group, and he was formerly a CIA case officer in Iraq and Syria. Skinner says the extremist message works perfectly on social media platforms.

PATRICK SKINNER: Let's take Twitter. In 140 characters or less, you cannot explain a logical argument. You can't talk about the merits of being a good citizen. But you can certainly show an image of a beheading, or you could say jihad is fun because their target audience are teenagers who have bad impulse control to begin with. And social media amplifies that.

MARTIN: The U.S. State Department has tried to meet them where they are when it comes to the social media propaganda, to counter their messaging by developing their own Twitter handle. The State Department has a Twitter handle called Think Again Turn Away where they're putting out videos and memes and messages. What's your impression of that effort?

SKINNER: I think the effort is well-intended, but it's relatively ineffective, basically because the target audience is not even in their sphere of influence. I did a study this summer that showed the people that were paying attention to Think Again Turn Away were academics or people that are listening to the show or myself; people that don't need convincing. And then the ISIS supporter - you know, not the actual member, but the supporter, the people we're going after - they're not even in the same - it's not a Venn diagram. It's two circles that aren't touching.

MARTIN: Aren't they using an ISIS hashtag to try to insert themselves in the conversation that's happening between ISIS and potential recruits?

SKINNER: Yeah. And that's - I mean, that's exactly what ISIS does. And it's a smart move, but the message has a U.S. Department seal on it. And therefore, it's immediately dismissed. It's understood as government propaganda because that's exactly what it is. And it's ripe for parody.

MARTIN: So what's the answer? I mean is the U.S. government supposed to just not engage on social media to try to counter extremism in a different way, to surrender that space?

SKINNER: Yeah. And see, that's the argument for going into that space. We don't want to surrender it. But I would say that there's other ways to fight that. You could empower local, credible voices. There are people all over who are very good that have small but growing followers that somehow can express messages that the government can't. I would just suggest that you find these people, and you somehow amplify their voice.

MARTIN: I mean, if we talk about the main vehicle for this being the Internet, is there any role for the government in this?

SKINNER: I would argue that the best way to counter online cyber extremism is anything that isn't online. The more they reach down literally to somebody sitting at a computer, get really involved in communities, but the best way to do it is to the kid away from the message in the first place.

MARTIN: Although that's such a huge task. I mean, how in the world would you ever be able to identify every troubled teen in the United States who might be vulnerable to this kind of messaging? Is that beyond the scope of what the government can monitor?

SKINNER: Sure. And it's beyond the scope of anybody, but it's what communities do every single day. Break it down further, it's what families do every day. But they need help. I think that's probably the more effective way.

MARTIN: How vulnerable is the United States to an attack like we saw in Paris?

SKINNER: I think America's exceedingly vulnerable. The problem is we need to become more resilient. We need to understand that bad things are going to happen, especially because we have so many weapons in this country already. No one's going to ask how did they get weapons like they did in France. It's how did they not have weapons here. I would suggest that in 2015, the risk of that kind of attack - I think it's likely.

MARTIN: Former CIA case officer Patrick Skinner of the national security consultants The Soufan Group. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.