White House Issues Plan To Fight Terrorism At Home

The White House released a plan Thursday that is meant to beef up the fight against homegrown terrorism in this country. The strategy depends on recruiting local partners who are better positioned to identify people who might be violent extremists in their communities. The plan is innovative. But it depends on training a roster of federal and local partners to recognize the signs of violent extremism — and it is precisely that training that has some experts concerned.

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The White House released a plan today to fight homegrown terrorism. The strategy depends on working with communities to help them identify violent extremists. As NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, the plan is interesting not simply because it relies heavily on local partners, but because it is clearly an attempt to take religion out of the terrorism debate.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The word Muslim appears in the 23-page strategy exactly once.

QUINTAN WIKTOROWICZ: The message that we - and the message and the actions that we're taking are really about a sense of belonging and unity.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Quintan Wiktorowicz, the senior director on the national security staff who is behind the initiative.

WIKTOROWICZ: Muslim communities and Muslims in the United States are not the problem, they are the solution. And that's the message we plan to take to those particular communities in addressing at least al-Qaida inspired radicalization of violent extremism in the coming months.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Ask President Obama's chief terrorism advisor, John Brennan, about preventing violent extremism and the example he uses is Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.

JOHN BRENNAN: Oklahoma City is a, I think, a very vivid reminder of how somebody who is born and raised in this country can fall prey to the forces of violence. And the president wants us to do everything we can to prevent recurrences of these tragedies.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The White House stripping Islam from the discussion is in stark contrast to the way Republicans are seeking to define the issue. Only yesterday, Representative Dan Lungren of California tried to label the threats to American security as specifically Islamist. Here's the exchange between Assistant Defense Secretary Paul Stockton and the congressman. Lungren speaks first.

REPRESENTATIVE DAN LUNGREN: How does al-Qaida define itself? Are they dedicated to violent Islamist extremism?

PAUL STOCKTON: Al-Qaida would love to convince Moslems around the world that the United States is at war with Islam.

LUNGREN: I didn't say that.

STOCKTON: That's a prime propaganda tool and I'm not going to aid and abet that effort...

LUNGREN: No. My question is...

STOCKTON: ...to advance their propaganda goal.

LUNGREN: ...is there a difference between Islam and violent Islamist extremism?

STOCKTON: Sir, with great respect, I don't believe it's helpful to frame our adversary as Islamic with any set of qualifiers that we might add.

BRIAN FISHMAN: I think it's clear that the administration is trying to back away from framing the fight against al-Qaida in anything that resembles religious terms.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism expert at the New American Foundation and he says by redefining violent extremism in its new domestic strategy, the White House is trying to tear away at al-Qaida's message as well.

FISHMAN: I think that's what the White House is trying to get at. They're trying to demystify and demythologize al-Qaida, not just for the sort of counterterrorism operators within the government, but for communities at large and the media, the way that we discuss this. And that is a smart thing.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The White House's Wiktorowicz said the new plan aims to teach local officials to see violent extremism as a public safety issue, like the battle against gangs or the war on drugs. And that reduces al-Qaida, too. It equates the group with criminals, not religious warriors. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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