THE FBI’S PLAN to enlist community leaders in “Shared Responsibility Committees” all across the country with the goal of identifying “radicalized” individuals is raising alarm among civil rights activists.
The Shared Responsibility Committees, known as SRCs, “are expanding the informant program under the guise of an intervention program, which it is not,” said Abed Ayoub, legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
The FBI’s idea is to have social service workers, teachers, mental health professionals, religious figures, and others interdict young people they believe are on a path toward radicalization. The program was first revealed last November, and while details remain scant, it is widely believed to have been developed along the lines of similar “anti-radicalization” programs in the United Kingdom.
The FBI did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Experts acknowledge the need to have options beyond sending young people to jail for making threatening statements. The committees purport to offer such an option, by allowing members to offer non-binding recommendations to law enforcement about whether certain individuals should be arrested or offered rehabilitation for their alleged radicalization.
But critics say that despite the FBI’s benign characterization of the SRCs, the proposal amounts to nothing more than an expansion of already existing FBI informant programs. The committees “would be doing the work of the FBI, gathering information,” said Ayoub. “This initiative failed in the U.K. It’s not like this is a new idea.”
The U.K. program, called “Channel,” has been widely blamed for alienating the communities it targeted while inflaming attitudes toward authorities. Arun Kundnani, an adjunct professor at New York University and expert on U.K. counterterrorism policy, said he worries that the U.S. program would “suffer from the same problems, such as drawing non-policing professionals into becoming the eyes and ears of counterterrorism surveillance, and thereby undermining professional norms and relationships of trust among educators, health workers, and others.”
And Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center, said the U.K. program simply doesn’t work. “The premise of these committees is that school teachers, mental health and social workers, and Muslim religious leaders will be able to identify ‘radicalized’ youth. But this is completely contrary to the experience of the U.K., where about 80 percent of Channel referrals are rejected as unfounded.”
Why did those committees do such a poor job? “All the studies that I have reviewed, including those funded by the government, state quite clearly that there are no predictors or indicators of who is going to become a terrorist,” Patel said. “So on what basis are people going to be hauled before these committees?” she asked. “The idea that ‘alienation’ is an indicator of someone who is going to become a terrorist is so general as to be laughable. There are plenty of alienated people in the world and very, very few terrorists.”
An open letter to the United Nations published last December by the Brennan Center, the ACLU, and the British human rights organization Article 19 criticized a number of proposed government programs to fight radicalization, specifically identifying the forthcoming Shared Responsibility Committees as an area of concern. A report by the George Washington University Program on Extremism published last month showed that since March 2014, a total of 84 Americans have been arrested on charges of supporting ISIS.
As a recent HBO documentary revealed, many of those arrested were young men who came to the FBI’s attention through their online activities and ended up facing lengthy jail sentences. Law enforcement agencies faced with a mandate of preventive policing in terrorism cases say they are often compelled to err on the side of making arrests rather than giving a pass to individuals who might be just blowing smoke online.
Seamus Hughes, a former official with the National Counterterrorism Center and now the deputy director of the George Washington program, said that if implemented transparently, the SRCs could offer the promise of an “off-ramp” for people on a road to either radicalization or arrest.
“We haven’t provided families with any tools to help them. Parents are taking passports away, bringing their kids to local imams, but these are ad hoc approaches set up to fail with no support system in place,” Hughes said. “Law enforcement is given very few options besides arrest. There are a lot of attacks on heavy-handed counterterrorism approaches, like informants and agent provocateurs, but that’s the status quo now until we have other options.”
But, Hughes said, the responsibilities of the interveners would need to be well defined if SRCs are going to succeed. For instance, there are concerns that the social worker or mental health professional who fails to tell the FBI someone poses a threat before they go out and commit an attack might be held civilly liable by families of the victims.
Abed Ayoub of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee says the FBI has been unreceptive to community concerns. “We had a meeting in October, a couple meetings at local field offices and FBI headquarters,” he said. “But the FBI is not listening to the community advocates. They’re listening to the people receiving grants, who are paid to put programs like this into place.”