By Daniel Sutherland, Chief, Countering Violent Extremism Group, National Counterterrorism Center, Washington, D.C.
any types of predators use the Internet to ensnare young people. The online environment allows dangerous people to communicate with young people directly, in familiar environments and with little detection from parents and other responsible adults. Law enforcement agencies know all too well that youth in their jurisdictions can be put in harm’s way by these online predators. Law enforcement agencies have been proactive in dealing with these emerging threats to their communities through tools such as Internet safety educational workshops. These tools also can be a significant asset to empower parents to counter another kind of emerging threat online: recruitment by violent extremists.
Federal partners such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) work together with local law enforcement and nonprofit groups to identify ways that local communities can prevent young people from being attracted to the deceitful messages of terrorist groups. The NCTC recently collaborated with a sheriff’s department, federal government partners, and community leaders to educate a local community about Internet safety, including online terrorist recruiting.
Internet Safety Workshops
Many law enforcement agencies use Internet safety presentations to build public awareness of online threats. In a presentation in Northern Virginia, for example, parents learned from a skilled sheriff’s deputy about Internet safety and about dangers teens face from social networking sites, sexting and texting, cellphone technology, laptops and desktop computers, and gaming. Instructors educated parents about what they can do about these situations. The sheriff’s office highlighted how parents need to better understand the technology that their children are using and about how they need to talk openly and regularly with their teens about these issues. The parents also learned how to be educated consumers of technology and follow their children’s online and cellphone activities.
After such presentations, parents are often shocked at the ways predators reach their teens and at the surprising ways kids behave online. They leave with their eyes open and with a renewed desire to better monitor their children’s activities online and on cellphones. Law enforcement agencies often receive higher reporting rates of online incidents as a result of such workshops.
Integrating Awareness of Online Radicalization to Violence
When a local imam attended this workshop, he left feeling empowered—and he left seeing an opportunity. The imam believed that the presentation addressed many of the online predatory threats facing American communities, but it did not address at all the increasing efforts of terrorists to use the online environment to recruit new supporters. He realized that online recruiting practices of terrorist organizations had similarities to other types of online predators. By using chat rooms, websites, and social media, these organizations hope to reach young people without parental knowledge and manipulate them into believing a twisted message about the world. The process of recruiting followers online to adhere to a violent ideology has been effective yet relatively unknown to the American public. The imam realized that the parents at his mosque had little knowledge of this process or of their kids’ online activities.
For instance, when five young men disappeared from Northern Virginia allegedly to attend Pakistani terror training camps, their parents had no idea of the Internet communications that may have contributed to their decision. They were not equipped to recognize the signs that their children were adopting new and violent ideologies. As a leader of his community, the imam felt responsible to educate others about the threats that linger online.
So, the imam hosted two Internet safety workshops at his mosque. More than 100 parents attended both workshops. The local sheriff’s office and FBI Washington Field Office provided the first presentation on safety from child predators. For the second presentation, the workshop switched to focus on a different type of predator—terrorist recruiters. The NCTC presented on the ways terrorist organizations use the Internet to attempt to recruit new supporters and to distribute their violent narrative. Then, a community group known as Muflehun described the ideology of terrorism, the history of terrorist activity, and possible Muslim American community responses to such a threat. Muflehun talked about the way parents should counsel their youth on ideology and form a spiritual safety net for them.
When discussing violent extremism in these workshops, community organizations like Muflehun are invaluable. Federal agencies such as NCTC can play a key role by explaining the latest developments about the online threat. But when the topic turns to action, community leaders such as the imam and the experts at Muflehun play the central role. They have the expertise and the credibility necessary to lead these discussions. Muflehun focuses on preventing and countering radicalization to violent extremism through its research, community programming, and social media initiatives. Muflehun’s perspective is similar to the imam’s and that of federalagencies; it is an understanding that communities often have limited knowledge of the nature of the threat and do not know what actions to take to protect young people. Therefore, awareness programs for parents and young people are essential.
Muflehun, similar to other community organizations, believes that youth, families, and communities must be an active part of the solution, both in preventing radicalization to violence and in interventions that might be needed. The group also believes in the need for trusted relationships among communities, law enforcement, and government at all levels, built through consistent long-term engagement and partnerships. In addition to making a presentation on Internet safety, Muflehun also leads programs such as community seminars on identifying and reporting hate crimes and bullying in schools and workshops on designing social media strategies for countering online radicalization to violence.
Why This Approach Works
There is some objective evidence that these workshops can be effective. In both workshops, Muflehun distributed evaluation sheets for the participants. In evaluations of the sexual predator portion of the training, approximately 90 percent of parents rated the training at the highest or next highest rating. In evaluations of the discussion about violent extremism, almost the same number—in this case, 80 percent—rated it positively under categories such as “learned a lot” or “useful.”
Other local law enforcement agencies can use similar venues for educating parents about the threats of violent extremist recruiting online. Some workshops might be focused on Internet safety, bullying, or gang recruitment, but all can allow a discussion to naturally start about prevention of radicalization to violence. While discussions of radicalization to violence can be very challenging and sensitive, these community awareness workshops offer a successful platform to have these important discussions. It is important to note that local law enforcement and their community policing techniques were highlighted as key elements of the White House’s national strategy to counter violent extremism.
For law enforcement agencies that want to replicate such workshops, several factors should be considered.
Start with Trust. Before law enforcement agencies can engage communities on sensitive topics like violent extremism, they need high levels of trust with communities. The local imam believed that the success of this project originated from the openness and accessibility of the sheriff’s department. While resources for community engagement programs in law enforcement departments can be limited, proactive investment in positive relationships with community leaders will increase reporting, situational awareness, and community resilience against crimes. Form these relationships in advance of a problem arising and in advance of discussing sensitive topics like violent extremism.
Use Community Policing Resources. When engaging communities on topics such as this, law enforcement agencies should use their community policing, crime prevention, or public affairs sections, or a combination of the three, to conduct these workshops. The purpose of these workshops should be to build confidence and awareness on how to prevent crime, rather than to collect information that might be used in future investigations. If it appears otherwise, trust will be eroded.
Work with Engaged Community Partners. The imam had a personal interest in doing this work in his community. Identify similar community leaders who have credibility in and the trust of their communities and who are interested in addressing the topic. Invite them to host the workshop. If the community sees that their leaders are engaged, they are more likely to engage.
Engage Federal Partners. Federal partners, like the FBI field office or U.S. Attorney’s office, may already have strong relationships with community groups who are interested in this topic, and they can offer expertise in this area.
Differentiate Roles. Government or law enforcement should address public safety topics. Discussion of ideological motivations in violent extremism or religious aspects of these issues should be left to a nongovernment community partner to discuss.
If your agency is interested in learning more about this workshop, please contact Sarah Horn at firstname.lastname@example.org, Daniel Sutherland at DanielWS@nctc.gov, or Humera Khan at email@example.com. ♦
Please cite as:
Daniel Sutherland, "Using Principles of Community Policing to Address Online Radicalization to Violence," The Police Chief 80 (February 2013): 28–31.