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Obama Focuses on Local Connections to Combat Extremists

The Obama administration said that, while al-Qaeda and its affiliates remain the nation’s biggest threat, the government must focus on rooting out homegrown extremists inspired by the terrorist group.

The administration released a report today that outlines ways federal officials are engaging with groups and communities that are potential targets for recruitment by terrorists.

The administration’s strategy includes establishing a task force to coordinate government outreach; lending support to community-led efforts to combat violent extremism; studying and sharing strategy with local law enforcement officials, and enhancing training to counter extremism.

The report sets out how the government is implementing a strategy to prevent violent extremism in the U.S. that was signed by President Barack Obama in August 2011.

“Radicalization to violence depends on a variety of factors, which in some instances may be most effectively addressed by departments and agencies that historically have not been responsible for national security or law enforcement,” the report says.

The effort parallels programs to combat gangs, sexual offenses, school shootings and other criminal violence by raising awareness of the threats and sharing information and supporting people in the communities most affect, it says.

Identifying Extremists

Among the communities involved are Muslims in the U.S., who have been valuable in identifying al-Qaeda-inspired extremists in the country, said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity during a conference call with reporters.

The administration also considers white supremacists and violent anarchists among the extremist groups that pose a threat, the official said.

Traditional law enforcement agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are involved in assisting affected communities as well as agencies such as the Department of Education.

The report says the Internet and social networking can be used as a tool to help “engage communities, build and mobilize networks against violent extremists and undercut terrorist narratives.” It also recognizes that the Internet can be used by violent extremists for recruitment and radicalization.

Exposing Hypocrisy

“As much as we can get to the point where we can unpack and expose the hypocrisy of al-Qaeda and the jihadi narrative and facilitate its fall under its own weight is a good thing,” said Frank J. Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at the George Washington University in Washington.

Cilluffo said he is concerned the administration hasn’t done enough to “push back” and “clean up” extremist information available on the Internet and hasn’t done enough to coordinate efforts to stop al-Qaeda-related terrorists abroad.

According to the report, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties doubled its outreach to communities this year holding 72 community engagement events in fiscal year 2011.

“There’s a lot of discussion about engagement with various communities and constituencies, which is all fine and good but not at the expense of collection and enforcement,” Cilluffo said in an interview.

Obama defended his administration’s efforts against terrorists when asked during a White House news conference today to respond to allegations by some Republican presidential candidates, including former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, that he has pursued a policy of “appeasement” that has undermined U.S. security in the Middle East.

“Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al-Qaeda leaders who’ve been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement, or whoever’s left out there,” Obama said.

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