The San Bernardino terrorist attack is underscoring fears that the government and wider U.S. society have failed to effectively address and counter the threat of ordinary American Muslims becoming radicalized.
The Obama administration has essentially conceded that its counterradicalization strategy faces major challenges despite millions of dollars spent in recent years.
Top law enforcement officials have asserted in the wake of San Bernardino that the most effective tool for preventing homegrown attacks remains the post-9/11 “see something, say something” campaign.
“When you see that person slipping off the grid, changing into someone that you no longer know, and gives you concern for that, we are no longer in a time where that kind of thing can be left aside,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
Ms. Lynch and FBI Director James Comey have emphasized the importance of a general public wary of suspicious behavior as key to the fight against terrorist attacks, especially since the FBI failed to find a link between the San Bernardino killers Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his Pakistani-born wife, Tashfeen Malik, 27, and any terrorist group or cell.
“We keep urging people to tell us when they see something because that is often our only way to get visibility to someone who is changing,” Mr. Comey said.
SEE ALSO: Tashfeen Malik’s exposure to radical Islam central focus of San Bernardino investigation
They said public vigilance is vital to countering the threat posed by radicalized Islamists as well as deranged non-Muslims such as 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza and white supremacist Dylann Storm Roof, who carried out the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church massacre in June.
But the emphasis on “see something, say something” also serves as an indictment of the government’s alternative efforts to try to combat the specific threat of radicalization of Muslim-Americans. Mr. Comey on Friday openly lamented major hurdles in the government’s attempt to promote community-level programs to prevent radicalization from such extremist propaganda as that spewed digitally by the Middle Eastern-based Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.
A central part of the challenge, the FBI director says, is the sheer level of diversity among people who have been found to get involved in violent extremism. “It isn’t a particular demographic or geography; it’s about people seeking meaning in their lives in a misguided way,” Mr. Comey said.
“We find particularly ISIL’s message resonating with kids, and so we are trying to figure out who they are,” he said. “It’s very hard to nail down. That’s why we do this work in all 50 states.
“People who are struggling and trying to find a center in their life and all of a sudden buzzing in their pocket is someone offering them what appears to be a centering in the most meaningful way,” he said. “If it involves someone radicalizing privately, it’s very hard for us to spot them.”
No lead agency
The Obama administration first vowed to get serious about fighting radicalization in 2011 when it launched the Homeland Security Department’s Countering Violent Extremism program.
At the time, administration officials broadly touted how the plan would fund social and law enforcement programs that would target grass-roots-level outreach across the nation.
Critics argued that the plan lacked focus during its initial years. With the Islamic State suddenly rising as a major jihadi propaganda force on the world stage, the administration sought to revamp its strategy by holding the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in February.
The summit brought together civic and religious leaders from across the U.S. and around the world. President Obama requested $15 million to fund Justice Department community-level counterradicalization programs in the U.S. for 2015.
Critics said he was focusing too broadly on “extremism” in general and not putting sufficient emphasis on “Islamic extremism” in the face of the Islamic State’s surging digital propaganda platform, which features an English-language recruitment magazine as well as dozens of flashy online videos.
Some said the overall Countering Violent Extremism program was lacking clear leadership. A 2014 Congressional Research Service report called out the administration for failing to name a specific lead agency for the effort.
“Without a lead agency, it may be difficult to monitor the levels of federal funding devoted to CVE efforts and how many personnel are devoted to CVE in the federal government,” the report said.
Republicans have been most critical. Just as the San Bernardino attacks were unfolding last week, lawmakers examining the administration’s strategy for countering the Islamic State’s digital propaganda ripped the White House for not doing more.
“The administration has promised a strategy to counter online radicalization,” Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing on Wednesday. “That was in 2011. Four years later, we’re still waiting on the strategy.”
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael T. McCaul, also of Texas, has been critiquing the Countering Violent Extremism program for months. In June, he introduced legislation to establish an office of coordination for countering violent extremism within the Department of Homeland Security and to create a specific countermessaging program to use social media against online propaganda embraced by Islamic State recruiters and sympathizers.
But the full Republican-controlled House has yet to get behind the bill, which passed unanimously through committee but has not to come up for a full floor vote.
Mr. McCaul took up the issue again Sunday, telling Fox News that “we need to do a much better job of trying to identify the early warning signs of radicalization.”
But he also conceded that the San Bernardino case exposed serious challenges. “There were no flags or warning signs in this particular case,” he said. “Volume is so high and the chatter is so high that it’s almost impossible to stop it all.
“We are ramping up our efforts, but you can’t be right every time,” he said.
The danger of profiling
A recent analysis by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, meanwhile, found that there is no “standard recruit profile” for those who embrace Islamic State ideology after they are introduced to propaganda or recruited online.
Of 71 people arrested on suspicion of plotting or helping support the Islamic State since March 2014, 10 were women, one-third were younger than 21 and 40 percent were recent converts to Islam. The arrests were made in 21 states.
Such factors add a layer of complexity to another challenge that was pointed out in the 2014 Congressional Research Service report, which noted that the “2.75 million Muslims in the United States have divergent sectarian points of view, come from many ethnic or national backgrounds, and live in a variety of areas.”
There is also “little consensus among American Muslims regarding national advocacy groups,” according to the report, which pointed to a survey in which 55 percent of Muslim-American men and 42 percent of Muslim-American women responded “none do,” when asked which of a list of Muslim-American organizations represented their interests.
The report argued that such figures could make it difficult for U.S. officials to determine what organizations to select as partners in any grass-roots-level counterradicalization strategy.
On a separate front, the document also cited the risks associated with giving law enforcement and intelligence-gathering agencies too central a role in the strategy, suggesting that their explicit involvement could backfire by spurring mistrust in certain communities.
“Without a high degree of transparency,” the report said, “[it] may run the risk of being perceived as an effort to co-opt communities into the security process — providing tips, leads, sources, and informants.”
In the interim, concern raised by Muslim and Arab advocacy groups appears to have at least temporarily derailed one FBI program associated with the administration’s Countering Violent Extremism effort.
Meant to launch in early November, the “Don’t Be a Puppet” online interactive program was developed for teachers and students as a means to identify someone who might be falling prey to radical extremists.
But a Nov. 3 posting on the website of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a group advocating for the civil rights of American Muslims, maintained that the program had been “suspended.”
“MPAC, along with a few other advocacy groups, were invited to preview the program at a meeting with the FBI two weeks ago,” the group said. “We raised serious concerns about how it improperly characterized American Muslims as a suspect community with its targeted focus and stereotypical depictions and how it could exasperate the problem by leading to bullying, bias, and religious profiling of students.”
The conservative advocacy group Judicial Watch was outraged, asserting in its own statement that the FBI had irresponsibly “nixed” the program “after Muslim rights groups whipped out the discrimination card.”
The FBI was vague about the program’s status when pressed by The Washington Times, asserting only that the bureau “is developing a website designed to provide awareness about the dangers of violent extremist predators on the Internet, with input from students, educators and community leaders.”
While tension over such matters lurks in the background, the White House has been quick to defend its overall Countering Violent Extremism efforts in the wake of the San Bernardino attack.
Administration spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Friday that an FBI “community outreach program” in Minneapolis — which has a large Somali-American Muslim population — saw “the U.S. government and some law enforcement elements of the U.S. government work effectively with the local Muslim community to counter radicalization efforts and in some cases even prevent terrorist attacks.”
Mr. Obama made similar points when he addressed the nation Sunday night about the San Bernardino attack and the broader threat of terrorism.