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Radic­al­iz­a­tion is complex. Yet a thinly-sourced, reduc­tion­ist view of how people become terror­ists has gained unwar­ran­ted legit­im­acy in some coun­terter­ror­ism circles. This view corres­ponds with—and seems to legit­im­ize—“counter-radic­al­iz­a­tion” meas­ures that rely heav­ily on non-threat-based intel­li­gence collec­tion, a tactic that may be inef­fect­ive or even coun­ter­pro­duct­ive. Only by analyz­ing what we know about radic­al­iz­a­tion and the govern­ment’s response to it can we be sure that these reac­tions are groun­ded in fact rather than stereo­types and truly advance our efforts to combat terror­ism.

The govern­ment’s lead agen­cies to combat radic­al­iz­a­tion recog­nize the complex­ity of the radic­al­iz­a­tion process. However, they have not expressly repu­di­ated theor­ies suggest­ing it is possible to detect radic­al­iz­a­tion long before people take concrete steps toward viol­ence.

Domestic law enforce­ment agen­cies, includ­ing the FBI and state and local police depart­ments, have stepped into the breach, devel­op­ing simplistic theor­ies, such as the “reli­gious conveyer belt” theory, of how Amer­ican Muslims become radic­al­ized. These theor­ies suggest, contrary to empir­ical social science stud­ies, that the path to terror­ism has a fixed traject­ory and that each step of the process has specific, iden­ti­fi­able mark­ers, accord­ing to the report.

This accep­ted under­stand­ing of how someone becomes a terror­ist influ­ences the selec­tion of invest­ig­at­ive tech­niques. For example, accord­ing to the report, the assumed link between reli­gi­os­ity and terror­ism encour­ages intru­sion into mosques, tradi­tion­ally considered off-limits to the govern­ment absent a specific connec­tion to suspec­ted crim­inal or terror­ist activ­ity.

This emphasis on intel­li­gence collec­tion about radic­al­iz­a­tion, much of which involves First Amend­ment-protec­ted speech and activ­it­ies, has under­mined a much-touted prong of the govern­ment’s strategy—the attempt to engage Amer­ican Muslim communit­ies in the fight against terror­ism.

“Many Amer­ican Muslims believe their communit­ies are treated as inher­ently suspi­cious by the govern­ment,” states the report. “As a result, while Amer­ican Muslim communit­ies have been invalu­able part­ners in the govern­ment’s coun­terter­ror­ism efforts, some Amer­ican Muslims are becom­ing more guarded in their rela­tions with law enforce­ment agen­cies. The obvi­ous tension between the govern­ment’s vari­ous responses to radic­al­iz­a­tion is increas­ingly noted, but remains unad­dressed: Can a community simul­tan­eously be treated as suspect and also be expec­ted to func­tion as a part­ner?”

The report has specific recom­mend­a­tions for the federal govern­ment to recal­ib­rate its approach to radic­al­iz­a­tion, includ­ing:

  • Repu­di­at­ing the unfoun­ded theory of radic­al­iz­a­tion that is popu­lar with law enforce­ment agen­cies;
  • Estab­lish­ing a mech­an­ism to eval­u­ate the effect­ive­ness of the pleth­ora of anti-radic­al­iz­a­tion meas­ures that have been under­taken;
  • Consti­tut­ing the Privacy and Civil Liber­ties Over­sight Board (already mandated by Congress) to analyze the civil liber­ties impact of counter-radic­al­iz­a­tion policies, partic­u­larly on Amer­ican Muslims’ First Amend­ment freedoms;
  • Increas­ing the trans­par­ency of law enforce­ment policies in this area; and
  • Recon­fig­ur­ing its outreach activ­it­ies to Muslim communit­ies to ensure sustained outreach at the local level accom­pan­ied by a seri­ous policy dialogue at the national level.