BOSTON (AP) — Muslim groups and civil rights activists across the nation Thursday called for greater transparency in a program by President Barack Obama’s administration that’s aimed at countering homegrown terrorism.
Organizers, including representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, spoke out at coordinated events in Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis — the three cities where the Countering Violent Extremism program is being piloted.
Among their concerns is that organizers still refuse to share basic information about what the localized efforts will actually look like. They also object to federal authorities conducting invitation-only discussions about the program, referred to as CVE, to the exclusion of dissenting groups.
Last week, more than 200 academics, terrorism experts and government officials gathered for a conference in Arlington, Virginia, sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. It was titled “Radicalization and Violent Extremism: Lessons Learned from Canada, the UK and the US.”
Among the attendees and panelists were leaders of the CVE efforts in the pilot cities, according to a copy of the program provided to The Associated Press.
“This isn’t a community-based process,” Nadeem Mazen, a city councilor in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and board member of the local CAIR chapter, said during a small gathering in front of Boston City Hall. “This is a whole different level of federally coordinated assault on our civil liberties.”
The Homeland Security Department in Washington said it was committed to participating in the CVE effort “at all levels,” noting that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson had personally taken part in meetings in communities across the country.
“As we have often said, CVE efforts are best pursued at the local level and we will continue to support efforts across the country toward this goal,” said spokeswoman Marsha Catron.
In Los Angeles, opponents announced Thursday they’ve filed public records requests of federal, state and local authorities in an effort to obtain all available information about the operation of the program in California. Boston opponents said they, too, were crafting a similar request.
In Minnesota, opponents speaking at a Somali marketplace delivered a message shared by their Boston and Los Angeles counterparts — that Muslims are being unfairly targeted by the pilot programs.
“We believe it is morally and democratically repugnant to single out a community based solely on its religious affiliation and ethnic makeup,” said Kassim Busuri, education director at the Da’wah Institute in St. Paul, speaking at an event.
Family members of some of the men who face trial for conspiring to go to Syria to join the Islamic State group were in attendance and said they were opposed to the CVE program.
Minneapolis’ pilot program focuses on its sizeable Somali community, which has been a target for terror recruiters in recent years, first for al-Shabab and now for the Islamic State group.
U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz in Massachusetts, whose office is coordinating the Boston program, promised to take steps to bring her program out of the shadows.
In a statement, she said organizers will be holding publically noticed events focused on violent extremism and prevention strategies. They’ll also be launching a competitive grant process for about $216,000 in federal funds dedicated toward Massachusetts’ counter extremism efforts.
But a planned September meeting of law enforcement, community and religious groups involved in the program will assess its progress and their meeting will not be public, Ortiz’s office said. However, the meeting minutes will be made public later.
Robert Trestan, who has been involved with the Boston initiative as regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, a national organization that fights anti-Semitism, cautions that it’s still too soon to cast judgment on local efforts.
Efforts in Boston are still young, although the Obama administration announced the pilot cities nearly a year ago, he said.
“Some of the questioning is understandable,” Trestan said. “But nothing I’ve seen or participated in has gone anywhere near proposing or suggesting anything close to surveillance, crossing the line of people’s civil rights or profiling.”
In Minneapolis, supporters of the local CVE initiative — known as “Building Community Resilience” — hastily called a news conference Thursday to explain their work.
They said they’ve been meeting since the start of the year to develop youth programs, such as mentorships and sports competitions, as well as mental health services. They said they hope to release more det0ails in about a month.
The group has also signed a memorandum of understanding with Minnesota’s U.S. attorney stating the pilot project will not be used to conduct surveillance on the Somali community or build intelligence databases.
“We have nothing to hide,” Jibril Afyare, one of the volunteer organizers, said. “Nothing to be afraid of, except kids being recruited.”
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