White House Releases Counterterrorism Plan

The White House announced a new counterterrorism plan. This plan is different from past efforts: It aims to prevent people from becoming radicalized. The unclassified report has been more than a year in the making, and it is being billed as the first comprehensive strategy to counter violent extremism. The idea is to rely more on local communities, since they are the most likely to see the first signs of homegrown terrorism.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. We start this hour with the unveiling of a new White House plan for preventing homegrown terrorism here in the United States, and it's not your classic law-enforcement approach. The idea is to identify early on the warning signs of radicalization. This eight-page strategy document aims to enlist the aid of local communities in preventing violent extremism.

In a few minutes, we'll hear from one of the White House officials who helped write that report. First, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston tells us about the basics.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: The strategy has a very clunky name: empowering local partners to prevent violent extremism in the United States. It's supposed to be a strategy that will help the Obama administration tackle violent extremism in this country, the White House's answer to al-Qaida's efforts to recruit Americans. And the title says it all. The White House has decided to move the fight against radicalization downstream, to the local level, where homegrown terrorism is most likely to be spotted.

PETER NEUMANN: My name is Peter Neumann. I'm director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College in London.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Neumann says it's about time that the U.S. developed some kind of comprehensive strategy against extremism. Al-Qaida has been focused on recruiting Westerners for years, and the U.S. has fought back with the FBI and wiretaps and informants. The latest paper out of the White House is supposed to expand the arsenal. The strategy aims to build on initiatives that have worked with gangs, community police and school violence. Though Neumann says an eight-page paper may not qualify as a strategy. Strategies, he says, have detail.

NEUMANN: The problem with the document is that it is not very concrete, so we'll have to see over the next six, 12, 18 months how a lot of the things that are mentioned in the document actually work out in practice, how they are being implemented.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Here's what we know so far. The White House wants community engagement, better local training and compelling narratives to convince at-risk youth that violent extremism is a dead-end. And the plan is to bring in departments and agencies that typically don't do this kind of counterterrorism work. Consider the Department of Education and its links to local schools. Here's an example. Truancy is an early indicator of gang-affiliation in the U.S. It also happens to be an indicator of violent extremism.

Local schools are perfectly positioned to see attendance problems when they start and find out what might be behind them. Perhaps the most interesting part of the strategy is how much it avoids using the word Muslim. The word only appears seven times in the report, and that's no accident. The White House is trying to send the message that it believes the Muslim community is not to blame when one of its own turns to terror.

BILL BRANIFF: The Muslim-American community is being preyed upon from two different directions.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bill Braniff is at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

BRANIFF: One, the jihadist recruitment and radicalization that is actively preying on their sons and daughters; and two, the elevated levels of Islamophobia, you know, Islamophobia at worst and just distrust or alienation at best.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Braniff helped advise the White House as they put together their strategy. He says the right way to handle violent extremism is to find partners to fight against it, not create new enemies. That's what the White House plan is seeking to do. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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