What can the U.S. do to stop radicalization at home?

With growing concern over global extremism, the question of how to counter and prevent radicalization is the focus of a three-day summit at the White House. Judy Woodruff talks to Zainab Al-Suwaij of the American Islamic Congress and Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy about tailoring strategies to American communities.

Read the Full Transcript

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now: how to combat violent extremism. That was the focus of a gathering at the White House today.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    These terrorists are a threat first and foremost to the communities that they target, which means, communities have to take lead in protecting themselves.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Being careful not to fault a set of religious beliefs, the president urged religious leaders to do more to defeat the Islamic State group and similar radical organizations. He said the three-day summit was designed to prevent terrorists from inspiring more followers, not to single out Muslims.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    And when all of us together are doing our part to reject the narratives of violent extremists, when all of us are doing our part to be very clear about the fact that there are certain universal precepts and values that need to be respected in this interconnected world, that's the beginnings of a partnership.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Beyond the brutality that Islamic State has made its gruesome calling card, it has also focused on luring recruits from around the world to join its ranks.

    Sophisticated Web-based media, much of it in English, is aimed at potential recruits. More than 3,000 Westerners have reportedly traveled to Syria to join Islamic State militants. While most of the recruits are European, it's cause for concern in the U.S. as well.

    The focus of today's summit was to highlight domestic efforts to engage local communities in countering radicalization. But the focus of the summit has itself come under attack. Some conservatives have criticized President Obama for avoiding the term Islamic extremism, while Muslim groups argue the summit is unfairly singling out Muslims and Islam

    U.S. Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim member of Congress, highlighted another concern: that outreach to Muslim communities is a cover for surveillance

    REP. KEITH ELLISON, (D) Minnesota: We reinforce the false narrative that America is at war with Islam when we appear to violate our own requirements of the Constitution regarding surveillance, when we mix surveillance and outreach. This is a very shortsighted thing to do.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The summit comes after two high-profile attacks in Europe this year. A Danish Muslim man, radicalized in prison, shot up a free speech meeting and a synagogue in Copenhagen over the weekend.

    And Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, spoke today, her city still reeling from last month's killings at "Charlie Hebdo" magazine and a kosher grocery. French-born gunmen claiming allegiance to an al-Qaida group and Islamic State were responsible.

  • MAYOR ANNE HIDALGO, Paris (through interpreter):

    Regardless of one's religion or one's origin, everybody in Paris must find a way to success, integration, and fulfillment.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Tomorrow, the summit's focus moves to counter extremism overseas.

    For more on the conference and the fight against extremism, I'm joined now by Zainab Al-Suwaij, co-founder and executive director of the American Islamic Congress. And Matthew Levitt, he's the director of the Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute. He was deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the Treasury Department and an FBI analyst.

    And we welcome you both to the NewsHour.

    Matthew Levitt how much is known about why people are drawn to the kind of extremism we're seeing today?

  • MATTHEW LEVITT, Former FBI Counterterrorism Analyst:

    A lot is known.

    And one of the things you are going to hear coming out of this conference is how much more needs to be done and how much more empirical research we need. Anybody who answers the question how are people radicalized with a simple answer is someone you shouldn't listen to.

    There are so many different things that can radicalize a person. And for any given individual, it's going to be a different combination of issues and circumstances. So, while there are local grievances that factor in, and the includes access to education and job opportunities and whether one feels that one is fully, for example, French or Danish or American, along with other identities, there are also ideological issues.

    And the president was quite clear today, really the first time I have heard him this clear, in the need to contest those ideologies as well, both dealing with the community issues, very important, and also the counternarrative.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Zainab Al-Suwaij, what would you add to that?

  • ZAINAB AL-SUWAIJ, American Islamic Congress:

    What the president emphasized today, that the war, it is not against Islam. It's against radical extremists who are speaking and committing all of these crimes in the name of Islam.

    A lot of people were part of the summit today. And they were emphasizing on the same message, the ideology was of radical extremists. It's very clear. It's very loud. It's been demonstrated in a very violent way against so many people. And Muslims are the first victims of that.

    And the message was clear in terms of, what are the measures that we should be taking? What are the things that we should be doing differently to overcome this problem?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Before we get to that, what would you add to our understanding of why people, especially young people, are drawn to this ideology?

  • ZAINAB AL-SUWAIJ:

    There are so many different reasons.

    I think there — a lot of people are recruiting these young people, whether here in the Western world or in the Middle East, providing them with extreme ideologies through books, through social media, through sermons sometimes, and recruiting these young people for one reason or another, in the name of their religion, in the name of God, and many people get drawn into that.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Matt Levitt, we know some effort is being been made, the administration talking about pilot programs in a few cities right now.

    Is what you see — do you have a sense that they're moving in the right direction, getting closer to these communities, trying to talk to them about what to watch out for? I mean, do you have a sense that they're on the — moving in the right direction?

  • MATTHEW LEVITT:

    It's taken a very long time, but we now really are finally moving in the right direction.

    And one of the things I like about these three pilot programs in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Boston is that they're not the same. Each is tailored to the circumstances that they find in those particular communities, because, as both Zainab and I have said, so many different things can lead someone to radicalization.

    Some people are driven mostly by ideology, some by lack of opportunity. Many people today going to Syria and Iraq are there for adventure, for the companionship. The percentage of people going to Syria and Iraq from the West who are from broken homes and criminal backgrounds is much larger than we have ever seen before.

    So, when you work in communities, each of these communities is different and we need to tailor these issues. What you can at 40,000 foot recognize is the need to counter the narrative and work with communities, community policing, community outreach, and building the trust with these communities.

    As Zainab said, there are people who are carrying out acts of violent extremism in the name of ideologies and in the name of Islam. That doesn't mean that it's Islam that is doing it. It means that people are doing it in the name of that religion. And that needs to be contested.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, one of the things, Zainab Al-Suwaij, the president said today is that while it's not religion that is solely responsible for this, he said Muslim leaders have a responsibility to talk to people in their community about that.

    Is that being done now? Is it being done enough? What more needs to be done?

  • ZAINAB AL-SUWAIJ:

    Certainly, it's being done on many different levels, on many different fronts.

    I can tell you about a program that American Islamic Congress is doing called Project Nur in over 55 college campuses to — when we have young Muslim students involved encountering radicalism and violence, extremism, and they just had — they launched a campaign called Voices Against Extremism — I'm sorry — Voices Against Radicalism, when these young students from these 55 colleges around the country taking the initiative to encounter such a radical movement that they are facing.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    What is an example of the message that they are trying to convey to these young people?

  • ZAINAB AL-SUWAIJ:

    There are so many different messages, some of them, the idea of victimhood that's been spread, the Western world is against you, the Westerners are — non-Muslims are out there to get you, to get Islam.

    And people at a young age, sometimes, they don't — they feel that maybe they are bullied at school, or they're having problems, and they get drawn into these ideologies very easily, and then they get recruited. Within no time, they are shipped somewhere to be fighting alongside with all of these radical groups.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Matt Levitt, at this stage, clearly, this is a long process. What needs to be done in the near term to make progress? Are we talking more pilot programs, more people in the community involved? What's needed?

  • MATTHEW LEVITT:

    Yes, we need more programs like these three pilot programs that get the attention of the federal government and get funding.

    What I keep telling people is, it's wonderful for the president to host this conference and come and speak to this conference. Show me the money. There are programs now the Department of Justice and others are putting in place to secure funding for these types of programs that will be carried out by local NGOs, local community groups like the American Islamic Congress and others, which are doing fantastic work.

    But we need to put in place the ability for these programs to exist over the long term. This is something that is going to take significant investment in time, in manpower and, yes, in money.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We hear you both, something that is going to take time.

    Matthew Levitt, Zainab Al-Suwaij, it's good to have you both with us.

  • ZAINAB AL-SUWAIJ:

    Thank you.

  • MATTHEW LEVITT:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment