Effort in 3 US cities to combat extremism off to slow start
BOSTON (AP) – A federally funded effort in Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis to combat extremist recruitment has been slow to start since it was announced a year and a half ago.
Few local programs have been directly created by the “Countering Violent Extremism” pilot initiative, with officials in those cities just starting to distribute more than $500,000 in Department of Justice grant money to jumpstart new local efforts.
Minneapolis appears to be further along, but Boston and Los Angeles are months away from distributing their share of the money – if at all.
“It’s a little frustrating,” said Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Michael Downing, whose department had been looking forward to federal support to enhance longstanding efforts that include outreach to help prevent radicalization. “We haven’t seen a dime. We’re clearly at the point where we want to put our money where our mouth is.”
Recent attacks – including in Paris in November, San Bernardino, California, in December and Brussels on Tuesday – make the local programs all the more critical, suggests Robert Trestan, who has been involved with the Boston pilot as regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism.
“It’s been disappointingly slow, but we have to give it a chance before it’s too late,” he said.
Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said the agency is generally “encouraged” by what it sees from the pilot efforts, including “community-driven efforts to address youth prevention and intervention, mental and behavioral health, and radicalization in prisons, among other areas.”
He would not provide specifics or comment on the whether the department had expected local programs to be running by now.
But he noted the funds – $216,000 each to Boston and Minneapolis and $100,000 to Los Angeles – were obligated in September 2015 and are good through this coming September, with limited extensions possible beyond then.
The pilot effort in Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis – with wider rollout possible based on its success – was announced in September 2014 and spotlighted during a three-day summit on global extremism convened the following February by President Barack Obama.
But observers say it has been underfunded and hobbled by a vague mission that has sown confusion and fueled strong opposition from civil rights and community groups that fear the programs will amount to government spying on law-abiding Muslims.
The pilot program in the three cities is just one piece of the administration’s broader “Countering Violent Extremism” agenda.
Top White House officials met in recent months with Silicon Valley tech giants in an effort to block or limit social-media distribution of extremist propaganda from the Islamic State and other groups. Secretary of State John Kerry has also met with Hollywood executives to enlist their help in social media campaigns.
The FBI recently rolled out an online classroom resource on extremism called “Don’t Be a Puppet” and provided a guide to school administrators that addresses “concerning behavior” and how to intervene.
The Department of Justice started seeking applicants this month for some $3.5 million in grant money to develop, replicate or evaluate programs to reduce violent extremism.
And researchers at UCLA, Harvard and the University of Illinois at Chicago have a total of $1 million in Department of Homeland Security money to help enhance efforts to counter extremism in Boston and Los Angeles, specifically.
Supporters in Boston, where bombs killed three people and injured hundreds at the 2013 Boston Marathon, said they still hope the effort will bear fruit.
“I wouldn’t call this a failure,” said Brandy Donini-Melanson, a coordinator in the office of Boston U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, which had initially led the effort there. “Let us get to a point where we have some funded programs and where there is some level of measurement to determine whether these efforts are successful or not.”
In Minneapolis, officials point to at least one newly created but still not operational effort: a privately financed mentorship program working with youth in the city’s sizeable Somali community, which has been a target of extremist recruiters over the years.
Six other organizations there also recently received $300,000 in federal and private money to develop programs addressing mental health, employment and parenting issues among the Somali community and other refugee populations.
In Los Angeles, the situation is less clear: a spokesman for Eileen Decker, the U.S. attorney for central California that’s administering the city’s grant money, couldn’t provide an update.
And in Boston, the Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services, which is now leading that pilot effort, is taking tentative steps this month to distribute its $216,000 in federal money.
But the soonest any local organization could expect to see the money under the current timeline is the fall.
Meanwhile, families trying to prevent loved ones from becoming radicalized must navigate challenges largely on their own, said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.
“We’re stuck in this weird limbo,” he said. “There should be a way to address this that’s in keeping with civil rights and civil liberties concerns but also recognizes you have families struggling that are getting no support.”
Critics said they’ll continue to watch the pilot efforts closely.
“These programs operate under the assumption that Muslims are a national security threat,” said Haroon Manjlai, a spokesman for the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “They’re highly objectionable.”