WOODLAND PARK, N.J. — Federal law enforcement officials, under fire by civil rights groups, have dropped an effort to create counseling teams to intervene with young people who show signs of drifting toward radical Islamic ideology and terrorism.
The FBI-led program would have tapped teams of mental health workers, clergy and counselors — called “shared responsibility committees” — to meet with troubled individuals, review behaviors, and get them help or get law enforcement involved where needed.
But the program, part of a wide-reaching federal effort known as “countering violent extremism,” was criticized by civil rights groups that claimed it would erode trust in community leaders serving on those teams and raise concerns about privacy and liability.
“We are happy they came to their senses,” said Samer Khalaf, a Paramus resident and president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. He said the program “would lead to further mistrust between law enforcement and communities.”
Khalaf and other activists said they were skeptical about the announcement, claiming that federal law enforcement continues to be involved in other programs across the U.S., giving grants and consulting on outreach programs under the umbrella of countering violent extremism. Critics say such intervention would single out Muslim Americans as a community to be watched or feared.
The U.S. Department of Justice last week said their agencies would remain involved with local intervention programs, though they won’t spearhead them.
The FBI rolled out plans for the intervention teams in New Jersey and in a few major U.S. cities as it sought new ways to deal with the changing nature of terrorism, which is marked increasingly by home-grown extremists inspired to commit violence by terrorist propaganda online, especially from the Islamic State group.
Officials said the teams would get help for underlying issues that could lead a person down a path to violence, including psychiatric care, or counseling to deal with family problems or anger issues.
The teams were to include clergy, mental health professionals and community leaders. They were to advise the FBI about whether a person who had been subject to their intervention was rehabilitated or remained a threat that required action by law enforcement.
Ahmad Rahimi, the 28-year-old Elizabeth man accused of planting bombs at the Jersey Shore and in Chelsea in New York City, might have been helped by a program like that, said John Cohen, former counterterrorism coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security. Rahimi’s father, Mohammad, said he called the FBI two years ago after his son became fascinated with jihadist videos and exhibited violent behavior.
“The key is you have to catch them early,” said Cohen, a senior adviser at the Rutgers University Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security.
Civil rights groups said law enforcement should have no role in intervention, and as the FBI unveiled its plans, they raised concerns that community leaders would become government informants and that notes and private conversations could become part of criminal investigations.
They asked federal officials if team members would be held liable if a person committed a crime, and they asked about medical privacy laws and free-speech violations.
“So many concerns were raised about how this would be structured and how would this play out and what would this look like. The answers were not very good,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, based in Washington, D.C.
Opposition also was coming from within the government, among people who were “uneasy” about a federal agency taking a leadership role in community-based violence prevention, Cohen said.
Cohen defended the FBI’s role, saying the agency has been a leader in the field of interventions and had expertise in preventing violence. Trust, he said, would come with open communication and clear goal setting.
Marc Raimondi, national security spokesman for the Department of Justice, said officials got the message from communities that they didn’t want law enforcement leading interventions and said that they asked for other models to dissuade would-be terrorists before they commit crimes.
“The federal government is committed to fully supporting such community-led efforts by, for example, convening interested parties, sharing best practices, and assisting communities in identifying resources and other assistance to support interventions,” Raimondi said.
Some efforts are already in place, supported by the Justice Department, with grants going to build up community services, interventions and outreach in Muslim communities under the umbrella of the federal countering violent extremism program.
Activists still worry about whether information shared among social service groups and clergy will be kept confidential, and they fear law enforcement could damage trust even if the government isn’t running the programs.
Shannon Erwin, executive director of the Muslim Justice League in Boston, said the community didn’t ask for the federal government to get involved and doesn’t want it to.
“They are targeting positive community-driven mental health initiatives that our Muslim communities have worked very hard to build,” she said. “It won’t take long before credibility and effectiveness to be destroyed.”
From her Manhattan office, Daisy Khan is reaching out to community and religious groups across the U.S. to build support for an initiative called WISE UP that is set to launch early next year.
The organization’s members will hold up Islamic teachings as a way to counter propaganda aimed at falsely justifying violent extremism in the name of Islam. It will help young Muslims understand the faith and help non-Muslims break down prejudices about the religion and its adherents.
They plan to give parents advice on dealing with online recruitment by extremist groups and how to intervene with children who embrace extremism through community guides, online information and a hotline. And they’ll instruct community leaders on how to intervene at a local level.
It will be a national effort, said Khan, a North Bergen resident and executive director of the Women’s Islamic Initiative for Spirituality and Equality, or WISE, an organization committed to building peace that is led by women.
But law enforcement will not be among the 60 groups involved in the effort when it launches, she said.
“If recruiters are exploiting Islam, then the Muslim community has an obligation to wrestle that away from the extremists,” she said. “Law enforcement does not have credibility in this area. They should just do what they do best — secure the homeland and let us do their work.”