WASHINGTON – The Obama administration's new strategy to fight the threat of al-Qaida and other violent radicals in the U.S. is short on details and fails to name a single point of coordination for all of the various initiatives at the federal and local levels, said lawmakers who have asked the government for years to develop a plan for the homegrown terror threat.
After more than two years of high-level meetings, the White House released an eight-page document Wednesday that broadly describes a strategy, mostly of initiatives already under way to prevent violent ideologically inspired attacks like the deadly 2009 shootings at an Arkansas military recruiting center and at the Holocaust museum in Washington.
Existing local police efforts, after-school programs and community outreach around the country are at the top of the Obama administration's continue-to-do list.
The plan assigns local communities the lead for protecting the country against violent extremists and pledges federal support and guidance toward that effort. It prescribes the nation's counter-gang program, that has mobilized communities around the country, to come up with ways to prevent gang activity to be a model to use when trying to prevent people from falling for any ideology that would inspire them to kill innocent people.
"I'm delighted that they're starting down this road," said Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C. But the strategy "raises more questions to me than it answers."
How do they plan to add counter radicalization components to gang outreach? How will they counter violent Islamic propaganda on the Internet? Who is in charge of coordinating all of the various efforts and measuring whether they're successful?
The strategy does not get into those details.
"Our belief that putting communities in the front here is just recognition, frankly, the fact of life ... that it's going to be communities that recognize abnormal behavior," said Denis McDonough, President Barack Obama's deputy national security advisor. "So we think that by prioritizing the threat, by training, by providing broad training applicable to the threat broadly, and by saying to communities, 'Hey we're going to rely on you as we do on identifying truancy being an early warning indicator for gang violence,' for an example — truancy is also going to be an early warning sign for violent extremism."
Criticized in the past for shying away from discussing the threat of violent Islamic radicalization in the U.S., the Obama administration made clear in its strategy that the No. 1 terror threat to America today is al-Qaida and like-minded people. Yet the White House strategy is designed to address threats posed by all varieties of violent ideologies.
"My concerns are with language in the report which suggests some equivalency of threats between al-Qaeda and domestic extremists," said Rep. Peter King, R-N..Y.
King, chairman of the House Homeland Security committee, has been criticized for holding hearings that investigate the radical Islamic threat in the U.S. "While I certainly support community involvement and initiatives, we must ensure that these do not become politically correct feel-good encounters which ignore the threats posed by dangerous individuals in the community."
The top two senators on the Homeland Security oversight committee said they appreciate the administration's plan to engage communities around the country, but they're concerned the place lacks a leader to see it through.
"The Administration must now quickly produce an implementation plan showing what specific actions should be taken and by whom, who is in charge, what resources are needed, and how to assess progress in countering the terrorist ideology," Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a joint statement. "A detailed implementation plan that focuses on violent Islamist extremism — the greatest threat we face today — is necessary for effective and efficient government action."
The psychological aspects of radicalization have been studied for years, and while there are some similarities among terrorism cases, there is no single profile of a violent extremist in the U.S. Complicating the challenge is that the threat is often rooted in an ideology protected by the Constitution.
The Bush administration also sought ways to counter violent ideologies and struggled with talking about religion in the context of terrorism. But the problem became more pressing for Obama, as there have been more attempted attacks and plots against the U.S. during his time in office.
Since 2009, at least 24 people have been killed in the U.S. due to actions of individuals who ascribe to a violent ideology: Fourteen were killed by people who supported al-Qaida, and 10 were killed by people who were motivated by other ideologies, like white supremacy.
The father of the gunman in the Arkansas shooting said the administration's strategy was inadequate.
"I think that time is running out for the people sitting on the sideline doing nothing," said Melvin Bledsoe, the father of Carlos Bledsoe who in 2009 shot and killed a soldier at a military recruiting center in Little Rock. "It's never going to fix the problem when they're trying to dance around the issues. It's really sad because innocent people are dying."
Carlos Bledsoe, who converted to Islam and adopted a violent interpretation of the religion, was recently sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Using the gang model to address the threat of violent Islamist extremism is a page from the Minneapolis region's playbook. After at least 21 men left the Minneapolis area since 2007 to join a Somalia-based terror organization with al-Qaida ties, local police have been doing regular outreach with the Somali community and utilized a Justice Department grant to launch after-school study programs, open gyms and arts and crafts projects.
"We have long worked to combat threats to our youth that have become all too familiar — alcohol abuse, drug abuse and gang violence," said Tom Smith, chief of the St. Paul, Minn., police department, speaking to lawmakers about radicalization last month. "As we have committed to combating those threats, the St. Paul police department committed to battling a new one — the potential radicalization of our Somali-American youth."
Myrick is concerned that local police officers won't have the appropriate training to identify at-risk members of the community.
Abdirizak Bihi, a community organizer and uncle of one of the Minneapolis teenagers who left for Somalia in 2008, said he agrees efforts to combat radicalism must come from the community and felt empowered when he read the new White House strategy.
""Here, the White House says 'Yes. This problem exists and we need to engage communities and we need to have resources out there, and we need to partner with communities and agencies and people working on this," Bihi said.
While Bihi is glad the White House has picked up on some of the work he and others in the community are already doing, the community needs more.
"We don't need just some meetings, and meetings that are ceremonial," he said. "We need support for the kind of work we have been doing in teaching the community, educating the community ... working with law enforcement."
Lieberman, Collins and Myrick have all asked individual federal agencies to provide detailed information about what they're doing to address the threat and so far have not received an answer.
The departments of Homeland Security and Justice and the FBI have also been leading outreach programs for years around the country, efforts that will continue under the new strategy. Training will also be a key focus and there are plans in the works to set up a website that has resources for training and shares information about programs that has worked in other communities.
Associated Press writer Amy Forliti contributed to this report from Minneapolis.