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Communities Encouraged To Share Ways To Combat Extremists


Later this morning at the State Department, community leaders from around the world will compare notes about how they can counter violent extremism. Traditionally, law enforcement and counterterrorism officials have taken the lead on this. But now city officials - other city officials - are looking for new solutions, with an eye to preventing people from radicalizing in the first place. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has more.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The old saying goes that all politics is local. And counterterrorism officials are coming to the realization that applies to violent extremism too.

AHMED YOUNIS: I can tell you from my own experience growing up in Southern California, extremist discourse in San Diego is different than extremist discourse in San Francisco.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Ahmed Younis, one of the authors of a Los Angeles plan to counter violent extremism. And in his experience, because individual communities are different, and local leadership is different...

YOUNIS: ...The reality that we're dealing with is complex.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The fact that there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution is at the heart of an initiative called the Strong Cities Network. It's a coalition of communities from around the world that have either developed programs to combat extremist groups or are starting to do so. The network started out as a Wiki platform for community groups and has grown from there. Undersecretary of State Sarah Sewall explains.

SARAH SEWALL: The platform that was self-formed by several cities - municipal leaders that came together and brought in community leaders from those municipalities. And it's grown to over 35 from just a handful in the beginning.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The network includes an eclectic mix of cities, from Mumbai and Paris to Denver and Minneapolis. And Sewall says members see it as a way to get ahead of the curve and to stop the next generation of violent extremists. The State Department has made up to $700,000 available as seed money this year. And other governments and foundations are also expected to contribute additional funds. Humera Khan is the executive director of an NGO based in Virginia called Muflehun. And she's been working on radicalization issues for some time. She says making community leaders - civilians - so central to combating violent extremism is new.

HUMERA KHAN: The idea that you would actually have civilians in that space is unheard of, especially on the law enforcement side. I mean, they're struggling with it. Can you imagine law enforcement having to share that space with private sector?

TEMPLE-RASTON: The private sector is taking the lead in an experiment now going on in the Danish city of Aarhus. Instead of automatically arresting returnees from Syria, law enforcement is working with local mentors to help the young men and women reconnect with their communities. They don't ask them what they did while they were in Syria. Instead, they concentrate on the future. The hope is that the attention will help young people lose interest in groups like ISIS. Humera Khan says those kinds of experiments are vital.

KHAN: It's one thing to say we can't arrest our way out of the problem. But when you actually have to do it, (laughter) that's going to be where the rubber hits the road.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In Minnesota, the Twin Cities have launched a rehabilitation and counseling initiative that is testing public-private partnerships. Unlike the program in Denmark, to be eligible for rehab in Minneapolis, defendants have to plead guilty to terrorism charges first. So far, there's only one young man enrolled in the program. A second one is expected to join him soon. Khan says the downside to all of this is that while officials claim to be focusing on violent extremism generally, the unspoken subtext is that this is really about ISIS.

KHAN: There's a lot of disclaimers, oh no, this is about every type of extremism. But the reality is that people only talk about Muslims.

TEMPLE-RASTON: As more cities join the network, that could change. After today's gathering at the State Department, participants will start a three-week tour of a handful of U.S. cities. They'll be talking about violent extremism in all its forms, and looking for new ideas on how to combat it. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.
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