McDonough Discusses White House's Counterterrorism Plan

Michele Norris speaks with Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser, about a new plan from the White House to prevent violent extremism, "Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States."

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: And for more on this comprehensive anti-terrorism strategy, we're joined now by Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser for the White House. Mr. McDonough, welcome back to the program.

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Thanks for having me, Michele.

NORRIS: It sounds like what you're doing is shifting, at least in large part, the responsibility for monitoring this kind of thing to local communities. Are the local communities ready for this?

MCDONOUGH: We're accepting the responsibility - in fact, the president is accepting the responsibility for this. It's not that we're passing responsibility. It's that we're trying to empower local communities with the best practices, with the best access to training, so that they, knowing this challenge is out there, knowing that as al-Qaida is under pressure, as extremists are looking for new opportunities, we're there to support local communities with that kind of information, so that they can confront it.

NORRIS: I want to ask you about the training in just a minute, but first, we know that Americans are now a targeted audience for recruitment to radical causes. Americans certainly understand that this country is a target for attack. But do people really understand that we're seen also as fertile ground for recruiting potential terrorists? And when you look at local law enforcement's role in preventing that from happening, what is the assessment there? How ready are they?

MCDONOUGH: Well, I think it's not just local law enforcement, although local law enforcement is addressing this issue and is ready. It's also local community leaders. It's teachers. It's principals. It's coaches. It's all of the community leaders that, as we've seen across the country over the course of many decades, that's where community leaders have addressed problems locally because they manifest different locally. So we do believe that the communities are ready. Our communities will be resilient and strong and stay ahead of the curve, as we have now for many years.

NORRIS: You know, I spend a lot of time here in Studio 2A, but I have to also think about the listener that's out there. And I imagine when they were listening to you tick through the people who are on the frontlines in preventing domestic terrorism, when you said teachers and coaches, they probably went: Really? Teachers, coaches? Help us understand the role that that they would play because I think when people think about counterterrorists, they think about people who carry guns and look much more like law enforcement.

MCDONOUGH: Well, one, I just think though when you think about who's training the future leaders of the country, it's the teachers and the coaches of this country. They've done it for years. Two is what we do know about al-Qaida is they're trying to find those kids who are isolated, who are somehow disempowered and are trying to play on their fears or play on their insecurities. Oftentimes, it's going to be teachers and parents and coaches who are going to see that some of these individuals are checking out, that they're spending extra time online, that they're finding more interest in some of the extremism that you find online.

NORRIS: Say you're one of those teachers or you're a coach or you're a community leader and you identify someone who could potentially be a threat, someone who might be engaged in domestic terrorism, what are you supposed to do in that case?

MCDONOUGH: Well, it's interesting. We've had instances of that, and just in the last year, year and a half, where community leaders recognized young kids from Virginia had disappeared. They had gone together to Pakistan. The community leaders went together to the local Federal Bureau of Investigation and raised their concerns about that. As a result of that information, we were able then to pull the string on that, share that information across the intelligence community, across the law enforcement community and end up tracking down these individuals.

NORRIS: We've done stories here at NPR on the millions of dollars that have been spent on terrorism experts, self-styled in many cases, who contract themselves out to local police departments. And since there is not a comprehensive vetting process, some of these training programs, they vary greatly, and some of them are very Islamophobic, and the government has admitted that this can be a problem. Does this new strategy deal with that or instead potentially open new opportunities for a fresh round of training at the local level that might not be well monitored?

MCDONOUGH: Boy, some of your reporting has been really good on this, and it's been - it's served a real interest to the country in identifying some of these problems. We're not trying to dictate to local communities or to the local experts, but what we are trying to do is make available in effect a gold standard. What's working in one community should be shared with other communities, sharing best practices, also the best information. What are - what is the latest intelligence telling us?

What is it that we know about that latest messaging from al-Qaida and its adherents? And we're going to share that information as well. Because, frankly, what communities are recognizing, Michele, is that this is a real threat, and what we're trying to do with this strategy is make the best, most readily available, most effective and proven techniques, and that's what this training will be based on.

NORRIS: Denis McDonough, good to talk to you. Thank you very much.

MCDONOUGH: Thanks for having me, Michele.

NORRIS: That was Denis McDonough. He's the deputy national security adviser for the White House.

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