Partnering with Communities to Prevent Violent Extremism in America

Sterling, VA–(ENEWSPF)–March 6, 2011.  The following remarks are attributed to Denis McDonough, Deputy National Security Advisor to President Obama.

Thank you, Imam Magid, for your very kind introduction and welcome.  I know that President Obama was very grateful that you led the prayer at last summer’s Iftar dinner at the White House—which, as the President noted, is a tradition stretching back more than two centuries to when Thomas Jefferson hosted the first Iftar at the White House.

Thank you, also, for being one of our nation’s leading voices for the values that make America so strong, especially religious freedom and tolerance.  Whether it’s here at the ADAMS Center, or as President of the Islamic Society of North America, you’ve spoken with passion and eloquence, not only about your own Islamic faith, but for the need to build bridges of understanding and trust between faiths.

That’s evident here today, in the presence of so many different faith communities—Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists.  The fact that we can come together in a spirit of respect and fellowship speaks to the bonds that we share, as people of faith and as Americans.

That’s why, on a very personal level, it’s such an honor to be with you today.  Sunday afternoons at a parish center – or a community center – is familiar territory for me.  I grew up in Stillwater, Minnesota in a proud Catholic family.  I am one of 11 kids, and I can think of countless Sunday afternoons like this one spent at festivals, games or meetings at our home parish of St. Mike’s or at the church of my older brother, who is a priest.

Like all of you and like me, millions of Americans find community, comfort and support in their faith.  That includes President Obama, drawing as he does on his Christian faith.  So today reminds us that being religious is never un-American. Being religious is quintessentially American.

In my life—working in government and studying and traveling in many parts of the world—I’ve also come to appreciate the diversity and richness of Muslim communities, here in America and abroad.  I accompanied then-Senator Obama when he traveled to the Middle East, including Israel and the West Bank, where he spoke to Israelis and Palestinians about the imperative of peace.  During the presidential campaign, I had the honor of meeting with Muslim American leaders and communities across the country, in places like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home to the oldest mosque in America.

Over the past two years, I—along with my White House colleagues—have benefited from the advice of many of your organizations through our Office of Public Engagement. Because, after all, your communities have the same concerns as all Americans—the economy, education, health care, the safety of our children and our country.  For example, this week at the White House, students from the Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities will join young people from across America for a conference with the President and First Lady to prevent bullying.

I was privileged to join the President in Cairo, where he called for a new beginning between the United States and Muslim communities around the world.  And here at the ADAMS Center—with one of the largest mosques in America—you see the incredible racial and ethnic diversity of Islam.  And yet, as Imam Magid once explained, here you find common ground, as Americans.

So, for me, being here is not unlike going to St. Mike’s back home in Minnesota, or for that matter, going to any house of worship or community center in America.  This is a typically American place.  We just saw that in the wonderful program this afternoon, including the Boy Scouts presenting the American flag and leading us in the Pledge of Allegiance.

You see it in all the activities that occur here, just like in communities all across America—youth programs, sports, playgroups for moms and their young children, charitable programs, including help for the homeless.  This is a place where Americans come together—not only to practice their faith, but to build stronger communities, with people of many faiths.

Here in Virginia and across the country, Muslim Americans are our neighbors and fellow citizens.  You inspire our children as teachers.  You strengthen our communities as volunteers, often through interfaith projects, like the President’s “United We Serve” program.  You protect our communities as police officers and firefighters.

You create jobs and opportunity as small business owners and executives of major corporations.  You enrich our culture as athletes and entertainers.  You lead us as elected officials and Members of Congress.  And no one should ever forget that Muslim Americans help keep America safe every day as proud Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen. Indeed, some of these heroes have made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation and now rest in our hallowed national cemeteries.

That’s why I appreciate the opportunity to be here today.  It’s this very idea—the idea of America as a secure and pluralistic nation; as a society that doesn’t just accept diversity; but which is strengthened by it—this idea is more important than ever.

Over the last several months and again later this month in New York City, John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, will continue to outline the steps we are taking—across our government—to keep America and our communities safe and secure, including from the threat of al Qaeda and its adherents.

I am here to talk with you about how our communities – your communities – contribute to keeping our country safe: specifically, as part of our approach to preventing the radicalization that leads to a range of threats here at home, including terrorism.  As the President’s Deputy National Security Advisor, I’ve been responsible, for more than a year, for coordinating and integrating our efforts across the federal government to help prevent violent extremism in the United States.  And today I want to discuss our approach, which we’ll be releasing publicly in the coming weeks.

Preventing radicalization that leads to violence here in America is part of our larger strategy to decisively defeat al Qaeda.   Overseas, because of the new focus and resources that the President has devoted to this fight, the al Qaeda leadership in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan is hunkered down and it’s harder than ever for them to plot and launch attacks against our country.  Because we’re helping other countries build their capacity to defend themselves, we’re making it harder for al Qaeda’s adherents to operate around the world.

Here at home, we’ve strengthened our defenses, with improvements to intelligence and aviation screening and enhanced security at our borders, ports and airports.  As we’ve seen in recent attempted attacks, al Qaeda and its adherents are constantly trying to exploit any vulnerability in our open society.  But it’s also clear that our dedicated intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security personnel have disrupted many more plots and saved many American lives.

At the same time, we’re confronting the broader challenge of violent extremism generally—including the political, economic and social forces that can sometimes lead people to embrace al Qaeda’s murderous ideology.  This includes challenging and undermining the twisted ideology—the political propaganda—that al Qaeda uses to recruit, radicalize and mobilize its supporters to violence.

Of course, the most effective voices against al Qaeda’s warped worldview and interpretation of Islam are other Muslims.  As the President said in Cairo, “Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism – it is an important part of promoting peace.” Around the world, poll after poll shows that the overwhelming majority of Muslims reject al Qaeda.  Many Muslim leaders around the world have loudly condemned al Qaeda and its murderous tactics and declared that it is a violation of Islam to murder innocent people.  They’ve spoken out at great risk to their lives, and some have lost their lives because of it.

Still, President Obama recognizes that through our words and deeds we can either play into al Qaeda’s narrative and messaging or we can challenge it and thereby undermine it.  We’re determined to undermine it.

For example, we know there are many different reasons why individuals—from many different faiths—succumb to terrorist ideologies.  And there is no one easy profile of a terrorist. But based on extensive investigations, research and profiles of the violent extremists we’ve captured or arrested, and who falsely claim to be fighting in the name of Islam, we know that they all share one thing—they all believe that the United States is somehow at war with Islam, and that this justifies violence against Americans.

So we are actively and aggressively undermining that ideology.  We’re exposing the lie that America and Islam are somehow in conflict.  That is why President Obama has stated time and again that the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam.

On the contrary, we’ve strengthened alliances and partnerships with Muslim-majority nations around the world, from Turkey to Indonesia.  As a result of the President’s speech in Cairo, we’ve forged new partnerships with Muslim communities to promote entrepreneurship, health, science and technology, educational exchanges and opportunities for women.  In fact, the President insisted that his National Security Staff create a new office, a Global Engagement Directorate, to make these partnerships a priority.

We also undermine al Qaeda’s ideology by exposing the lie that it is somehow defending Islamic traditions when, in fact, al Qaeda violates the basic tenets of Islam.  The overwhelming majority of al Qaeda’s victims are Muslim.  In contrast to the ethics and accomplishments of the Islamic Golden Age—a period of scientific learning; networks of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish intellectuals and philosophers; advances in mathematics, agriculture, technology, and the arts—al Qaeda practices nothing but religious bigotry and glorifies suicide bombing.
We undermine al Qaeda’s ideology by showing that it is the power of nonviolence and democratic change that leads to progress, not senseless terrorism. And now people across the Arab world are proving the point. 
Consider this.  Al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman Zawahiri, an Egyptian, has spent decades trying to overthrow the government of Egypt through terrorism.  But in just a few short weeks, it was the people of Egypt—men and women, young and old, secular and religious, Muslims and Christians—who came together and changed their government, peacefully.  It is the most dramatic change in the Arab world in decades, and al Qaeda had nothing to do with it.  And so President Obama made it a point to commend the Egyptian people and their embrace of “the moral force of nonviolence—not terrorism, not mindless killing.”
There’s another way that we expose and undermine the lies of al Qaeda’s ideology. They want Muslims around the world to think that the United States is somehow anti-Muslim—when, in fact, we embrace people of all faiths and creeds.  That is why President Obama has said repeatedly—“Islam is part of America.”  And that’s one of the reasons why this administration makes it a point—whether in the President’s speech in Cairo, at Iftars at the White House, in outreach by our federal agencies, or with my presence here today—to celebrate the extraordinary contributions that Muslim Americans make to our country every day.

For all these reasons—our stronger defenses at home; our progress against al Qaeda overseas; the rejection of al Qaeda by so many Muslims around the world; and the powerful image of Muslims thriving in America—al Qaeda and its adherents have increasingly turned to another troubling tactic: attempting to recruit and radicalize people to terrorism here in the United States.

For a long time, many in the U.S. thought that our unique melting pot meant we were immune from this threat – this despite the history of violent extremists of all kinds in the United States.  That was false hope, and false comfort.  This threat is real, and it is serious.

How do we know this?  Well, al Qaeda tells us.  They’re not subtle. They make videos, create Internet forums, even publish online magazines, all for the expressed purpose of trying to convince Muslim Americans to reject their country and attack their fellow Americans.

There’s Adam Gadahn, who grew up in California and now calls himself an al Qaeda spokesman.  There’s Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in the United States and now exhorts Americans to violence from hiding in Yemen as part of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  And there’s Omar Hammami, an Alabama native who joined the terrorist group al-Shabaab in Somalia and uses rap and hip hop in an attempt to reach young Americans.

Sadly, these violent extremists have found a miniscule but receptive audience.  Fortunately, good intelligence, effective law enforcement, and community partnerships have allowed us to discover and thwart many of their plots before they could kill.  Examples include: Najibullah Zazi of Denver, who conspired to bomb the New York City subway; Daniel Patrick Boyd of North Carolina, and others, who conspired to murder U.S. military personnel; and individuals who planned to bomb buildings in Illinois and Texas.  Over the past two years, dozens of American citizens have been arrested and charged with terrorism counts.

Tragically, other plots were not prevented, among them: the murder of 13 innocent Americans at Fort Hood; David Headley, of Chicago, who helped to plan the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India; and Faisal Shazad, who packed an SUV with explosives and attempted to detonate it in Times Square.

Of course, disrupting plots is dealing with this threat at the back end, after individuals have succumbed to violent extremism.  Our challenge, and the goal that President Obama has insisted that we also focus on, is on the front end—preventing al Qaeda from recruiting and radicalizing people in America in the first place.  And we know this isn’t the job of government alone.  It has to be a partnership with you—the communities being targeted most directly by al Qaeda.

I work with President Obama every day.  He’s been focused on this since he took office.  Behind closed doors, he has insisted that his national security team make this a priority. The effort that I’ve been leading is a policy committee made up of deputy secretaries from departments and agencies across government.  We meet regularly to consider new policy, drawing not only on the expertise of our traditional national security agencies, but also the departments of Education and Health and Human Services.

In our review of the Fort Hood attack, we deepened our understanding of the tactics that extremists like al-Awlaki use to push people toward violence, as well as how an individual becomes radicalized.  The President’s National Security Strategy, released last year, stated, “Our best defenses against this threat are well-informed and equipped families, local communities, and institutions.”

Indeed, senior administration officials—including Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Attorney General Eric Holder, and John Brennan—have met with and engaged many of your organizations.  Many of you have approached the administration offering to help, and you’ve worked with us to help prevent terrorists from targeting your communities.

Most recently, in the State of the Union, the President summed up our approach this way. “As extremists try to inspire acts of violence within our borders,” he said, “we are responding with the strength of our communities, with respect for the rule of law, and with the conviction that Muslim Americans are a part of our American family.”

With the time I have left I want to address three aspects of our approach: how we think about and see this challenge; the principles that are guiding our efforts; and what we’re actually doing, in partnership with your communities.

How are we in government thinking about this challenge?  After years of experience, we have a better understanding, not only of how terrorist recruiters try to radicalize people, but how we can reduce the chances that they will succeed.

We know, for example, that not unlike gang lords and drug dealers, terrorist recruiters prey on those who feel disillusioned or disconnected from their family, community or country.  They target individuals who are perhaps struggling with their identity, suggesting to them that their identities as an American and as a Muslim are somehow incompatible and that they must choose between their faith and their country.

But we also know that this is a false choice and that it fails to resonate with individuals when they have the strong support of their families and communities; when they have faith in their ability to achieve change through the political process; and when they feel that they, too, have a chance to realize the American Dream.

In other words, we know, as the President said, that the best defense against terrorist ideologies is strong and resilient individuals and communities.  This should be no surprise.  In America we have a long history of community-based initiatives and partnerships dealing successfully with a whole range of challenges, like violent crime.

And we know something else—that just as our words and deeds can either fuel or undermine violent extremism abroad, so too can they here at home.

We have a choice. We can choose to send a message to certain Americans that they are somehow “less American” because of their faith or how they look; that we see their entire community as a potential threat—as we’ve seen in several inexcusable incidents in recent weeks across the country that were captured on video.  Well, those incidents do not represent America.  And if we make that choice, we risk feeding the very feelings of disenchantment that may push some members of that community to violent extremism.

Or, we can make another choice. We can send the message that we’re all Americans.  That’s the message that the President conveyed last summer when he was discussing Muslim Americans serving in our military and the need to honor their service.  “Part of honoring their service, he said, “is making sure that they understand that we don’t differentiate between them and us.  It’s just us.”

Informed by what we know, several basic principles must guide us in what we do—as individuals, as communities and as a country.  We must resolve not to label someone as an extremist simply because of their opposition to the policies of the U.S. government or their strong religious beliefs.  Under our Constitution, we have the freedom to speak our minds.  And we have the right to practice our faiths freely knowing that the government should neither promote nor hinder any one religion over the other.

As such, we must resolve to protect the rights and civil liberties of every American.  That’s why, under President Obama, the civil rights division at the Justice Department is devoting new energy and effort to its founding mission—protecting civil rights.  It’s why we are vigorously enforcing new hate crimes laws.  And it’s why even as we do everything in our power to protect the American people from terrorist attacks, we’re also doing everything in our power to uphold civil liberties.

We must resolve that, in our determination to protect our nation, we will not stigmatize or demonize entire communities because of the actions of a few.  In the United States of America, we don’t practice guilt by association. And let’s remember that just as violence and extremism are not unique to any one faith, the responsibility to oppose ignorance and violence rests with us all. 

In the wake of terrorist attacks, instead of condemning whole communities, we need to join with those communities to help them protect themselves as well.  And if one faith community faces intimidation, we need to come together across faiths, as happened several years ago here at the ADAMS Center, when Christian and Jewish leaders literally stood guard overnight to protect this center from vandalism.  You showed us the true meaning of e pluribus unum—out of many, one.

Let’s resolve that efforts to protect communities against violent extremists must be led by those communities.  Indeed, we’re fortunate that Muslim Americans, including organizations represented here today, have taken an unequivocal stand against terrorism.

Islamic scholars have issued fatwas declaring terrorism as un-Islamic. Like Muslim American communities across the country, the ADAMS Center has consistently and forcefully condemned terrorist attacks.  And not only here in the United States.  You’ve condemned terrorism around the world against people of other faiths, including Christians and Jews.  In so doing, you’ve sent a message that those who perpetrate such horrific attacks do not represent you or your faith, and that they will not succeed in pitting believers of different faiths against one another.

After the attack at Fort Hood, Muslim Americans reached out to offer sympathy and support to the victims and their families.  Across the country, Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities have held conferences and launched awareness campaigns to address the challenge of radicalization that leads to violence.  Imam Magid is among the many Muslim leaders who have been recognized by the Director of the FBI for their efforts to strengthen cooperation between Muslim communities and law enforcement.

To counter the propaganda videos from the likes of al-Awlaki, Imam Magid even joined with other clerics and scholars to make their own videos, which have gone viral, explaining that Islam preaches peace, not violence.  Most Americans never hear about these efforts, and, regrettably, they’re rarely covered by the media. But they’re going on every day—and they’re helping to keep our country safe.

In fact, many of the incidents and arrests that do make headlines are because of the good citizenship and patriotism of Muslim Americans who noticed something and spoke up.  Since the September 11th attacks, a number of individuals inspired by al Qaeda’s ideology and involved in supporting or plotting terrorism were stopped, in part, because of the vigilance of members of local communities, including Muslim Americans.

That’s why Lee Baca, the Sheriff in Los Angeles County—which has one of the largest Muslim communities in the country—has said that Muslim Americans “have been pivotal in helping to fight terrorism.”  And it’s why Attorney General Holder has said that cooperation from Muslim Americans and Arab Americans “has been absolutely essential in identifying and preventing, terrorist threats.”

The bottom line is this—when it comes to preventing violent extremism and terrorism in the United States, Muslim Americans are not part of the problem, you’re part of the solution.

We also believe in another principle—that no community can be expected to meet a challenge as complex as this alone.  No one community can be expected to become experts in terrorist organizations, how they are evolving, how they are using new tools and technologies to reach young or impressionable minds.  And that’s where government can play a role.

Which leads me to the final area that I want to address today—our approach at the federal level, in partnership with communities.  Broadly speaking, we’re working along five areas of effort.

First, we’re constantly working to improve our understanding of the process of radicalization that leads people to terrorism—because the more we understand it, the more we can do to stop it.  As I said, we’ve learned a great deal about the factors that make individuals susceptible to extremist ideologies and violence.  Our success in disrupting so many plots is a testament to this.  But with al Qaeda and its adherents constantly evolving and refining their tactics, our understanding of the threat has to evolve as well.

So we’re devoting extensive resources and expertise to this, including entire analytic units at the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center.  We have a new senior intelligence official focused full-time on radicalization that leads to violence.  And we’re constantly working with Congress, academic and research institutions, as well as foreign governments, to gain a more precise understanding of this challenge and how to address it.

Second, equipped with this information, we’ve expanded our engagement with local communities that are being targeted by terrorist recruiters.  The departments of Homeland Security and Justice have created new advisory groups, instituted regular outreach sessions, and held dozens of roundtables across the country.  It’s all been with the goal of listening to your communities, sharing information on how al Qaeda attempts to recruit and radicalize, and answering the question so many communities have asked us—what can we do to protect our young people?

But we’ve also recognized that this engagement can’t simply be about terrorism.  We refuse to “securitize” the relationship between the government and millions of law-abiding, patriotic Muslim Americans and other citizens.  We refuse to limit our engagement to what we’re against, because we need to forge partnerships that advance what we’re for—which is opportunity and equal treatment for all.

So other departments, like Health and Human Services and Education, have joined with communities to better understand and address the social, emotional and economic challenges faced by young people so they can realize their full potential in America. And our U.S. Attorneys are leading a new coordinated federal effort to deepen our partnerships with communities on a host of issues. Because we don’t just want to keep our young people from committing acts of violence, we want them to help build our country.

Third, based on this engagement, we’re increasing the support we offer to communities as they build their own local initiatives.  Every community is unique, and our enemy—al Qaeda—is savvy.  It targets different communities differently.  So we’re working to empower local communities with the information and tools they need to build their own capacity to disrupt, challenge and counter propaganda, in both the real world and the virtual world.

Where the federal government can add value, we’ll offer it.  But often times, the best expertise and solutions for a community will be found in that community—in the local organizations, institutions and businesses that understand the unique challenges of that community.  Technology experts in the private sector, for instance, can share tools to counter terrorist narratives and recruiting on the Internet.  In those instances, the federal government will use our convening power to help communities find the partnerships and resources they need to stay safe.

Fourth, because the federal government cannot and should not be everywhere, we’re expanding our coordination with state and local governments, including law enforcement, which work directly with communities every day.  We are in close collaboration with local governments, like Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio, and we’re drawing on their best practices.  We recognize, as Secretary Napolitano has said, that “homeland security begins with hometown security.”

But we also recognize that while local officials have the best and deepest understanding of the challenges facing individuals, groups and families in their communities, they also have limited knowledge of al Qaeda and its tactics.  We have therefore developed and expanded training for law enforcement, counter-terrorism fusion centers, and state officials.  We’re putting a new emphasis on training to help officials better understand and relate to a diverse range of community partners.  In fact, in just the past five months alone, DHS has offered this sort of training to more than 1,000 law enforcement and other government personnel across the country.

Finally, we’re working to improve how we communicate with the American people about the threat of violent extremism in this country and what we’re doing to address it—because we cannot meet this challenge if we do not see it for what it is, and what it is not.  This includes dispelling the myths that have developed over the years, including misperceptions about our fellow Americans who are Muslim.

Put simply, we must do exactly what al Qaeda is trying to prevent.  We must come together, as Americans, to protect our country in a spirit of respect, tolerance and partnership.  That is the message I hope to leave with you today.  And that is the message that President Obama has delivered, and will continue to deliver, throughout his presidency.

As he said in a speech at West Point last year, al Qaeda and its supporters “will continue to recruit, and plot, and exploit our open society.”  But, he went on to say, “We need not give in to fear every time a terrorist tries to scare us. We should not discard our freedoms because extremists try to exploit them. We cannot succumb to division because others try to drive us apart. We are the United States of America.”

Thank you all very much and thank you for all that you do to enrich and protect this country that we all love.