LA pilot program aims to counter homegrown jihadists

The way the LAPD's counterterrorism head sees it, American Muslims could be the city's most effective tool in guarding against homeland threats

By Brenda Gazzar
Daily News

LOS ANGELES — The way the Los Angeles Police Department's counterterrorism head Michael Downing sees it, American Muslims could be the city's most effective tool in guarding against homeland threats by the violent extremist group known as the Islamic State.

The federal government agrees. Los Angeles is one of three U.S. cities being tapped to host a pilot program to deter homegrown jihadists and counter violent extremism, a Homeland Security official said. The Justice Department program aims to help facilitate community-led interventions with the support of mental health professionals, education administrators, religious leaders and law enforcement.

"What happens to an individual who may be spewing some type of radical behavior, or maybe has a propensity toward a certain potential violent extremist track?" asked Haroon Azar, a Department of Homeland Security regional director, at a Muslim community forum hosted by the LAPD at a downtown mosque last week.

"What do we do in that instance? What type of prevention, intervention programs are there so interdiction and arrest will not be required and maybe something beforehand can address the problem," he said, noting that no one engaged Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev or intervened when he spewed his radical ideology and then was ejected from a mosque.

To help answer that question, the White House has chosen Los Angeles along with two other cities, reportedly Boston and Minneapolis, to create a "legitimate, community-driven prevention and intervention program," Azar said. The Justice Department unveiled the plan last week but has yet to officially announce the pilot project cities.

Government officials are hosting meetings in Los Angeles and Orange County this week to solicit community input in this federal effort, Azar said.

Downing, an LAPD deputy chief and commander of the counterterrorism and special operations bureau, said he's particularly concerned about local youths being lured in to fight overseas by the extremist group known as the Islamic State.

It's estimated that up to 100 American Muslims — most of whom are believed to be under the age of 25 — have joined fighters in Iraq and Syria. They include an undisclosed number from the seven-county region spanning San Luis Obispo County to Orange County, Downing said.

Downing said the department has worked hard in the last six years to build trust with Islamic communities through regular Muslim community forums and other outreach efforts so they "can work in common purpose" to shield their communities from violence and crime.

"I worry about the kids being drawn into this, this charismatic appeal that they're feeling to see what's going on and want to travel and participate in some of this nonsense that we see going on in the world," Downing told more than 100 community members gathered at one such community forum Thursday at the Masjid Omar ibn Al-Khattab Foundation downtown. "Hopefully, we can offer some tools, some perspectives and some support so No. 1, we can be alert to it, and No. 2, we can deal with it when it happens. And that you feel you have a network and someone you can go to to trust and say, 'I can use some help,'"

Fatima Dadabhoy, senior civil rights attorney at the Los Angeles office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said she's reserving judgment on the Justice Department program until she hears more details.

However, she said she hopes it will not infringe on Americans' civil liberties.

"Previously, when the government tried to tackle issues similar to this, what they've done is engage in broad-based surveillance and profiling of the American Muslim community," including the no-fly list that has targeted Muslims and sending informants into mosques to "try to instigate" or entrap people, Dadabhoy said.

"When you have that kind of surveillance, that kind of profiling on the part of the government, you're essentially marginalizing a community, you're making them suspect," she said. "I don't think that's the most effective and efficient way of tackling violent extremism."

Meanwhile, the Muslim Public Affairs Council — an advocacy and public policy organization that has an office in Los Angeles -- has recently launched its own violence-prevention program called the Safe Spaces Initiative. The program, which is seeking funding from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, aims to protect mosques as sanctuaries from violent extremism propagated by recruiters and via the Internet, said Salam Al-Marayati, president of MPAC. It involves intervention and rehabilitation of youth and others exhibiting "high-risk behaviors" — including addiction and depression — and will rely on mental health professionals, social service workers and religious counselors for expert guidance, Al-Marayati said.

If they feel a person is involved in any violent behavior, the matter will be handed over to police, he said.

While violent extremism is not a pandemic problem in the U.S., "we don't want that one person to ruin it for all of us," Al-Marayati said.

But some Muslims have come out in strong opposition of that program. Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council that includes 75 mosques in the Southland, argued it involves self-policing, which he called "a supremely bad idea."

"What this essentially means is that the self-proclaimed righteous good Muslims and good organizations are going to assume the responsibility of who is radical and who is potentially going to be tomorrow's terrorist and we must catch him today," said Syed, who is also a board member for the ACLU of Southern California. "That is very akin to the thought police that (author George) Orwell so eloquently reminded us to be mindful of."

Dadabhoy, from CAIR, said some community members feel Safe Spaces reinforces the false idea that mosques serve as breeding grounds for radicalization when "most imams and mosques have been instrumental in countering the message of extremism."

But Los Angeles social worker Maryum Ali said she read the detailed plan for the program and believes it is "excellent."

"We have to be the solution," said Ali, a community activist and the daughter of former boxer Muhammad Ali. "If anything happens, we're going to see it first, right? You may not have to use it, but at least you'll have it there, like a fire extinguisher in the house."

At last week's forum in Los Angeles, the LAPD's Downing stressed that Islamic State radicals who have taken over large swaths of Iraq and Syria -- known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL -- are antithetical to what it is to be a practicing Muslim.

That came as a relief to Saaliha Khan, a West Valley resident and recent Georgetown graduate, who said she found the dialogue Thursday to be mutually beneficial and was happy to hear that the LAPD had a "nuanced" perspective of the situation.

"It reinforces the fact that Muslims ... are contributing members of society who want for us to work together to build a peaceful community and vice versa," she said after the forum.

But Imam Jihad Saafir, director of a new Islamic school called Islah Academy in South Los Angeles, pointed out that his community isn't dealing with this issue of recruitment to fight overseas.

"We're dealing with our young people being recruited to join gangs right here in America," said Saafir, who is African-American. "I think that conversation needs to really take place, understanding that it's not always dealing with terrorism from overseas. ... We're trying to reduce this pipeline into prison that is happening (and) our young people going into public schools and not making it out."

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