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Federal Anti-Terror Programs Stoke Community Interest and Criticism

February 09, 2016  | 

A trio of federal pilot projects aimed at thwarting violent extremism are off to a tentative start. Minneapolis, Boston, and Los Angeles, all chosen to host the Department of Justice anti-terror initiative, are taking different approaches, but all three are facing common hurdles, reports the Star Tribune.

Community critics have pushed back, arguing the pilot projects train a damaging spotlight on Muslim communities and mainly seek to keep tabs on them. A lawsuit last week charges the feds have withheld documents that could shed more light on the initiative.

The pilots have also drawn a diverse cast of supporters who see a chance for government and community members to team up on preventing violence. But some are getting impatient with the slow pace and modest federal investment so far. In Los Angeles, law enforcement officials say the project has backfired, sowing confusion and alarm in Muslim communities. Thanks in part to an infusion of private and state dollars, Minneapolis has moved furthest beyond the planning phase.

In September 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the three “Countering Violent Extremism” pilots, invoking the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and attempts by Americans to join the group in the Middle East. In each city, U.S. attorney offices would enlist community partners and shape their own initiatives.

In Minneapolis, the pilot focuses on engaging young people in the city’s sizable Somali community, shaken by the departures of youths to join overseas militants and a federal case against men accused of trying to join up. Some in that community have said that focus is stigmatizing.

Big Brothers Big Sisters is launching a mentoring program for Somali youth, and the state will offer $250,000 in grants to combat recruitment by overseas radicals. In March, a nonprofit enlisted to divvy up $400,000 in federal and private funding for youth programs will announce the organizations it has picked out of 14 applicants.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, officials plan to build on a long-standing effort to forge a closer relationship with Muslim communities. The police and sheriff’s departments have gained recognition for that work, including regular forums at area mosques and efforts to recruit Muslim cops. They have also at times stirred controversy, such as with a 2007 police initiative to map parts of the city with the highest concentrations of Muslims.

Leaders say they also hope to support existing initiatives, such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s three-year-old Safe Spaces program, in which imams and other leaders engage with youth who express support for radical ideology.

In Boston, law enforcement, school and city officials, and community groups produced a broad plan, with more than 100 action points: antibullying programs, anti-radical messages on social media, hot lines for concerned family members, cultural sensitivity training for government staffers and more.

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