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February 21, 2019

What Kenya can learn from US on countering terrorism

Irafan Saeed, director for countering violent extremism Bureau of Counterterrorism at the US Department of State. Photo/COURTESY
Irafan Saeed, director for countering violent extremism Bureau of Counterterrorism at the US Department of State. Photo/COURTESY

Kenya is one of the countries that has suffered because of extremism and radicalisation by al Qaeda-linked terror group al Shabaab.

The activities of the militants in Somalia has seen thousands of youths from the country lured to join them.

Al Shabaab has carried out hundreds of attacks in Kenya since 2011 when the Kenya Defence Forces launched an incursion into Somalia in a bid to eliminate them.

The government has been grappling with countering the vice which is now deep-rooted especially among youths who have complained of marginalisation.

Majority of Kenyan youth who joined al Shabaab want to quit the organisation but are afraid of being targeted and killed by government agencies.

Terrorism is a global phenomenon affecting all countries including the United States.

Since September 11, 2009 when al Qaeda carried out four coordinated attacks in the US, the country has established several strategies to counter violent extremism and avert more attacks, like those recently witnessed in Belgium and France.

The US government is concerned about threats posed by the emergent terror organisations, specifically the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Homeland Security, which was formed immediately after the September 11 attack, is has been looking into countering ISIS, which has vowed to deal with western nations due to the protracted military conflict in the Middle East.

Data from the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) indicates that ISIS has effectively lured foreigners to join the group’s jihad mission and propagate its ideologies.

The FBI pulls down more than 93,000 hate messages on ISIS websites and social media pages daily.

An FBI report says there are active investigations on ISIS have been going on in all the 50 states of the US. An individual has been charged in at least 24 states.

About 85 peope have been charged in the United States with ISIS-related offences since the first arrest was made in March 2014, the report says.

It also discloses that 38 per cent of ISIS suspects charged in the US are Islam converts.

The US is currentl implementing a Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) programme in different states.

The programme

The programme has three models: research, prevention and intervention - with emphasis on community engagement. US experts say this has yielded fruit.

The programme has seen the US administration finance, train and collaborate with civil society organisations to build institutions that assist families and parents with young people wo have turned away from violent extremism.

The measures are aimed at deterring young people from falling prey to ISIS propaganda through social media platforms easily accessed by youth.

Mokhar Awad, a research fellow in the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, is an expert on homegrown violent extremism and countering violent extremism (CVE).

Awad engages with Muslim-American communities across the country, counsels civic leaders after high-profile terror-related incidents and meets families of individuals who joined terrorist organisations.

He specialises in extremist and Salafists groups in the Middle East, and regional politics, with special focus on emerging violent extremist organisations.

Awad said the war on terrorism cannot be won by profiling and prosecuting suspected terrorists, but by engaging the community to build resilient interventions against terrorism.

"The civil society has a role of play... training communities to be aware of what makes the difference between a person who prays five times a day and someone who is on his way to become radical," he said.

Awad said security in partnership with local communities can lead to the interventions.

"We have established policy design and implementation, resource mobilisation and public service capacity to counter violent extremism (CVE) here in the US," he explained.

He addressed a group of journalists from 14 countries at the Foreign Press Center in Washington DC as part of a reporting tour hosted by the US State Department Bureau of Public Affairs.

Awad added: "We should always focus more on community engagement, building trust and making them aware of these issues. Somehow we will alleviate this problem," he said.

"How is it that someone born and raised as American with no connection to Islam converts quite literally to the violent interpretation of Islam and joins ISIS? This is serious problem that needs different interventions strategies."

Awad said the programme focuses on how and why young people from well-off backgrounds outside the United States join terror outfits such as ISIS, al Shabaab and Boko Haram.

The US Department of State engages scholars and professors from different universities in understanding the scope of homegrown terrorism. This is especially youth who frequently fall prey to social media propaganda by terrorists organisations.

Dr Anne Speckhard has interviewed hundreds of youth who joined ISIS, al Shabaab and Boko Haram.

She is a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University in Washington DC who specialises in the psychological analysis of terrorists and extremists in jail in the United States and Europe.

Speckhard's interaction has resulted in more than a dozen books on how they joined terror groups and what motivated them to kill unarmed civilians, more often women and children.

Her next project is to interview 85 members of ISIS arrested in the United States by the FBI over the last three years, but access does not come easily.

In one of her books- Brides of ISIS - Speckhard explores the militant propaganda strategy of luring American teens to the organisation.

"Why would a normal American teen convert to Islam and then try to join a terrorist organisation, and how do terrorists seduce women over the internet and lure them into traveling thousands of miles to become their wives," she said.

Speaking to the Star in Washington DC, Speckhard said her objective is to interview those who joined,  and re-humanise what so many others have demonised to understand motives and get on the road to finding solutions.

Irafan Saeed is the director for countering violent extremism Bureau of Counterterrorism at the US Department of State.

He served in the US Embassy in Islamabad Pakistan where he developed the community engagement office that used diplomacy tools to counter CVE in Pakistan.

Saeed said understanding global drivers luring teens to join violent extremist groups has helped the US develop programmes to prevent the radicalisation of children and the breeding of violent extremists.

"What makes these kids leave their comfortable homes to go to war torn countries like Syria, Somalia and Iraq? We need to understand global and local issues that drive youth into terrorism and intervene through CVE programmes," he says.

Saaed said various cities in the US, Boston and Los Angeles are running their own pilot programmes for countering terrorism.

FBI data states that in 2009 and 2010 more than 35 teens aged below 20, some still in high school, disappeared from Minnesota to join al Shabaab.

"The parents had no idea where the kids were. Apparently, they went to bed the night before... everything was fine but the next morning they knocked the doors and the kids were gone," he said.

"This scene played out in almost 30 homes. Eighteen, 17, 19,  and 20-year olds... and these are kids who are in school, some in colleges. Their parents called FBI saying they were missing persons’ cases; 'we have no idea where our kids are'."

Most of them ended up being key leaders in the al Shabaab while others managed to sneak back into US and started recruiting other members.

CVE programmes threatened by ISIS

Prominent Muslim-American religious leaders known for criticising extremism have been threatened with death by ISIS, according to the FBI.

At Denver Islamic Center, ISIS has threatened to execute worshippers who have been outspoken against Islamic extremism for decades

Leaders at the centre said the terror group has threatened to kill a moderate Muslim leader in the mosque who has spoken for decades against extremism and referred to ISIS ideologies as untrue to Islam.

Those who spoke to journalists on condition of anonymity  said the mosque does not advocate violent extremism although worshippers are allowed to exercise their freedom of worship.

The 10 Muslim-Americans ISIS has put on its hit list represent a range of beliefs and schools of thought within Islam. All were strongly condemned by ISIS in its magazine for alleging ISIS is not true Islam.

"We have always advocated for freedom of worship, but unfortunately the ISIS group continues to mislead some Muslims through misinterpreted ideologies. We are promoting a peaceful idea of jihad, not the violent version that ISIS endorses. ISIS does not speak for Muslims," said one the leaders.

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