In April 2008, Isa Ibrahim spoke with members of his mosque in Bristol, England, about his plans to die in a suicide bombing. He showed mosque members injuries on his hands, including marks from shards of glass, which he said were caused when a bottle blew up while he was mixing chemicals. After unsuccessfully attempting to change his mind, members of the mosque revealed what he had been saying to a local police officer. Based on this information, police searched Ibrahim's apartment where they found highly explosive chemicals and a detonator. Ibrahim was later convicted of making explosives with the intent of executing terrorist attacks, and received a minimum ten-year sentence.
The tip from the Muslim community that led to Ibrahim's conviction and prevented a terrorist act did not happen by coincidence. After the painful lessons learned from the London subway bombings in 2005, British counterterrorism agencies and police recognized that they needed to pursue a collaborative strategy with the Muslim community to prevent, detect, and deter homegrown terrorism. They developed and refined a clear path for community information to get to law enforcement, which they aptly call their PREVENT strategy. PREVENT is designed to build bridges of trust between law enforcement and the community, so they can develop the best strategies possible to thwart terrorism, hate crimes and radicalization.
There was a time when United States counterterrorism agencies believed that homegrown terrorism arising from a radicalized minority in the Muslim community was a British problem that would not pose any serious threat in the United States. The events of the past year, most dramatically the failed attempt to detonate a bomb in Times Square in New York, proved this optimism to be misplaced. On October 1, 2010 George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute released a widely publicized report about terrorism, Foreign Fighters: Trends, Trajectories & Conflict Zones.
Top government leaders, counterterrorism and security experts warn us that radicalization and homegrown terrorists threaten our livelihood, but they propose few concrete solutions. This makes little sense when a program loosely modeled after community-policing strategy has been implemented in Britain with proven effectiveness, and can readily be adapted to the United States.
Community partnerships are the answer.
American Muslims cannot be treated as enemies. They are one of the US's most affluent, well-educated communities, and have a vested interest in the fight against radicalization and homegrown terrorism. American Muslims have unwisely gone untapped as a resource in counterterrorism strategy due to the rise of anti-Muslim rhetoric and Islamophobia after September 11th. We have a choice: we can treat all Muslims as if they are terrorists and needlessly radicalize those that otherwise would join us in combating terrorism, or we can work with them to prevent radicalization and homegrown terrorism.
A nationally coordinated law enforcement-community partnership infrastructure can be implemented in five steps. First, law enforcement officials across the country, particularly counterterrorism officials, must meet the Muslim community at the table. Law enforcement must assemble real working groups with stakeholders and decision-makers, and meet with Muslim communities on a regular basis. This has been initiated ad-hoc and unfunded in Boston and Virginia, but with positive results on all sides.
Second, the United States government must fund a national academic training center and train law enforcement and communities nationwide on using the "best practices" for partnering success. Best practices have greatly benefited counterterrorism work in places like Virginia, but must be implemented nationwide. The UK government has already begun funding a virtual best practices training center.
Third, law enforcement and Muslim communities must use partnerships to deal with suspicious activities in mosques and community centers, hate crimes, youth disenfranchisement, among other issues of concern to all sides. Communities have proven that they will share whatever information they have if they can trust law enforcement and know who to call.
Fourth, once American Muslim communities are bona fide partners, law enforcement must train them to be its "eyes and ears" in the communities. Law enforcement can't be everywhere at once. The communities are those best equipped to spot suspicious activities, unusual occurrences, and out-of-place newcomers. They need to know how to do this and when it's time to alert law enforcement.
Fifth, American Muslim communities must educate law enforcement about Islam. This means arming law enforcement with the cultural and linguistic insights it needs to decipher and understand tips generated from within and outside the community. Law enforcement cannot fight the war on terror without an informed understanding of Islam, and it needs to take the time to listen.
The United States will only be made safer from radicalization and domestic terrorism when, as part of a multi-pronged counterterrorism strategy, law enforcement and Muslim American communities work together to create real trust and build authentic, sustained partnerships. By treating American Muslims as our partners in a strategy of proactive, intelligence-based, respectful law enforcement, we best ensure that our nation -- and our constitutional ideals -- remain safe.