News of the latest American arrested for attempting to join ISIS in Syria hit extremely close to home for me. 20 year old Asher Abid Khan, who was charged with conspiring to provide material support and resources to a foreign terrorist organization, was a member of my mosque in Houston, Texas. Our community was shocked to learn that one of our own was allegedly trying to join the terrorist group, a crime that carries a potential sentence up to 15 years and/or a fine of up to $250,000. My thoughts and prayers are with Khan's family and the community, who are no doubt reeling from this terrible news.
While it is unclear whether this was one of the FBI's notorious sting operations or if he actually was radicalized in Houston or Sydney, where he lived for the past few years, one thing is certain: our communities must step up and take responsibility for steering our youth away from violent extremism.
Unfortunately, Khan's case is not unique. Almost 200 Americans have reportedly tried to go to fight in Syria, no doubt influenced by ISIS's sophisticated propaganda machine that manipulates religion and power to attract gullible recruits. It misrepresents itself as an answer to US militarism, discrimination, and international crises that negatively impact Muslims around the world. It is important to note that Americans make up a very small fraction of the 20-32,000 estimated ISIS fighters from 100 different countries. However, every single one who joins or attempts to join is cause for concern.
This is especially true for parents of young, impressionable teens, who often have absolutely no idea that their kids are talking with ISIS recruiters or making travel plans to join them. Research shows that young males between the ages of 15 and 35 who are second or third generation immigrants, have difficulties in school or career progression, and experience a sense of rejection are more likely to look for an ideology to protect their personal beliefs onto and at risk for becoming a violent extremist.
Violent extremism is by far not an exclusively Muslim problem. Between 2001 and 2015, nearly 200 non-jihadist extremists were charged with a terrorism related crime in the U.S. On the international front, there are many terrorist groups that identify with ideologies and religions other than Islam, including the Lord's Resistance Army, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, and the Revolutionary Struggle in Greece.
Faith communities have a particular responsibility to guard against groups like ISIS which exploit religion. This requires teaching our youth true religious values and empowering them to find alternative, non-violent, and infinitely more effective tools for creating the changes they seek. All faith and community groups should offer judgement free zones in our mosques, synagogues, churches, and community centers where youth can share their frustrations and receive guidance from trained professionals and youth leaders on how to better handle these issues, including through interfaith work or political and civic engagement.
At the same time, the community's relationship with law enforcement must also change from an adverse and suspicious one that sacrifices our first amendment rights (such as through unwarranted religious surveillance programs) in the name of national security to a cooperative one that respects our rights while working toward the common goal of keeping our nation and her people safe. Again, despite this being mostly a non-Muslim problem, government countering violent extremism programs seem to focus exclusively on Muslim communities while ignoring the hundreds of non-jihadist terrorists that actually kill more people than violent jihadists do. In addition, the FBI continues to carry out sting operations that entrap vulnerable individuals instead of catching actual terrorists. These tactics are ineffective and deeply disrupt the trust between Muslim communities and law enforcement.
The dynamic must change so that communities themselves are leading the way when it comes to countering violent extremism. Fortunately, the Muslim American community in Houston is in the early stages of implementing a community plan that does just that. The community there has a long standing relationship with the Harris County Sheriff's Office and regularly engages with it on these issues in a manner similar to how one would deal with gangs. The plan was created late last year with the input of community leaders and professionals in a broad range of areas including mental health, drug abuse, prison rehabilitation, and religious services for converts. The idea is to help bolster Muslim American community programs for youth and adults to prevent violent extremism from taking hold in the first place.
It is my hope that communities in every major U.S. city create and implement a similar plan of their own. It may very well prevent another Asher from falling victim to the attraction of violent extremists in the future.
Wardah Khalid is a Scoville fellow in Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation Education Fund. She previously worked as a CVE consultant in Houston. Follow her on Twitter @YAmericanMuslim.