The White House opened a summit Tuesday aimed at countering generic “violent extremism” amid complaints that the administration is partnering in the effort with a Boston-based mosque with past links to terrorism.
At the start of the three-day conference with American community leaders and foreign ministers from 60 nations, Vice President Joseph R. Biden said the U.S. might be avoiding the kinds of terrorist attacks that have struck Europe recently because America traditionally has been more welcoming to immigrants.
“We are a nation of immigrants and our strength is that we are a melting pot,” Mr. Biden said.
The summit is aimed at combating the root causes of terrorism, and President Obama and his top advisers are determined not to portray extremists as motivated by radical Islam. But some critics said the administration is partnering in its three-city pilot program a group called the Islamic Society of Boston and its political arm, the Muslim American Society, which have ties to individuals convicted of terrorist activities.
Charles Jacobs, president of the Boston-based Americans for Peace and Tolerance, said the ISB has connections to at least a dozen extremists who have either been killed, imprisoned, deported or sought as fugitives on terror-related charges, including the Tsarnaev brothers accused of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. The administration also has started pilot outreach programs to discourage terrorism recruitment in Los Angeles and Minneapolis.
“Most everybody [connected to the Boston mosque] has been and is moderate,” Mr. Jacobs said in an interview. “The problem is the leadership. The leadership of the Islamic Society of Boston is replete with people in the past and now who have connections to terror.”
Leaders of the ISB have said the group is victim of a deliberate smear campaign in the “right-wing media” to denigrate Islam and to undermine its past efforts to build a large mosque in Roxbury, Massachusetts. It’s believed that ISB officials have been involved in the planning of the summit and that some will attend the meetings, although the White House would not comment on the matter Tuesday.
Mr. Obama will speak at the summit on Wednesday and Thursday, including at a gathering of foreign ministers. Alejandro Mayorkas, deputy secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, said the summit’s focus is “urgent and essential.”
“Events in Australia, Canada and most recently in France, Belgium and Denmark, underscore the significance of the challenges we face in countering violent extremism,” Mr. Mayorkas said, referring to lethal terrorist attacks by radicalized Islamists in those countries.
A top House Republican said Tuesday that the summit is more proof that the Obama administration “has not taken the threat from violent Islamist extremism seriously.”
“They still have no clear budget for combating domestic radicalization, have put no agency in charge, and have been unable to tell Congress how many people are working on the problem,” said Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. “Instead of simply making speeches this week, I urge the president to overhaul his strategy and to develop a bold, actionable plan to confront violent Islamist extremism worldwide and to immediately staunch the flow of fighters seeking to join these barbarians.”
Mr. McCaul also blasted the president and his top aides for refusing to use the phrase “radical Islam” in an effort not to offend moderate Muslims.
“They won’t even call the threat what it is,” Mr. McCaul said. “How can you talk about defeating an enemy you cannot name?”
But Muslim groups are saying that even the administration’s mostly sanitized initiative is offensive to them. A group called Muslim Advocates said in a statement that FBI statistics show that only 6 percent of terrorist incidents in the U.S. from 1980 through 2005 were “attributable to Muslims.”
“Numerous other studies identify right-wing extremists as the leading threat of ideological violence in the United States,” the group said. “Thus, the government’s portrayal of the violent extremist threat in America neglects the overwhelming majority of actual threats, making us less safe, and sends a dangerous message to other Americans about their Muslim neighbors.”
There are also questions about whether efforts at countering violent extremism are effective. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law said similar past programs often have had “dubious results.”
“While purportedly aimed to rooting out all violent extremism, they have previously focused only on Muslims, stigmatizing them as a suspect community,” the Center said. “These programs have further promoted flawed theories of terrorist radicalization which leads to unnecessary fear, discrimination, and unjustified reporting to law enforcement.”