BOSTON – Five years after two brothers who had been living in America for about a decade bombed the Boston Marathon, federally funded community programs to prevent attacks by homegrown extremists are barely underway and face an uncertain future.
Those projects, which grew out of a strategy developed during the Obama administration, are aimed at steering young people away from extremism.
But they have been hobbled almost from the start by suspicion and mistrust among Muslims, who complain they are being singled out. And it’s unclear whether the strategy will continue to be funded under the Trump administration.
In Massachusetts, the Somali Community and Cultural Association abruptly withdrew from a nearly $500,000 program with Boston police and two other organizations just as the work was beginning in earnest late last year. Another Somali group has since stepped in to take its place.
Deeqo Jibril, founder of the Somali Community and Cultural Association, said she has concerns about concentrating terrorism prevention efforts on the Somali community.
“Extremism, radicalization and violence exists across cultures, religions and ethnicities,” Jibril wrote in an October email in withdrawing from the program. “Focusing efforts specifically on one subgroup will ultimately create deeper divisions in our fractured society, doing more harm than good.”
Chad Wood, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which is funding the efforts, stressed the agency’s approach to preventing terrorism isn’t based on race or religion but instead seeks to develop “relationships and partnerships” in communities targeted by terrorists for recruitment.
“Local leaders have the flexibility to tailor their domestic terrorism prevention programs based on the unique challenges and demographics of the communities they serve,” he said.
Created in 2011, the Countering Violent Extremism strategy was seen as a way to short-circuit extremism before it exploded in violence.
The Obama administration called on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to do more to remove extremist propaganda. It encouraged local and federal law enforcement agencies to provide training to school and public health officials about terrorist recruitment and other online threats.
And it provided grants to universities, nonprofit organizations and other local institutions to develop after-school programs and sports and community service projects geared toward young people who might otherwise be drawn to violence.
Last June, 26 programs were awarded $10 million in grants, the largest pot of money doled out to local communities yet under the program.
Some Muslim leaders are troubled by the strategy.
A number of Muslim organizations turned down the money soon after President Donald Trump took office, including Leaders Advancing and Helping Communities, of Dearborn, Michigan ($500,000), and Ka Joog, a Somali organization in Minneapolis ($500,000).
In Los Angeles, civil rights groups such as Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the Council on American-Islamic Relations have been demanding more details on how the city intends to use its $425,000 grant.
Logan Ebel, a program manager at the nonprofit Nashville International Center for Empowerment in Tennessee, which works with refugees and immigrants and received a $445,110 grant, said: “There are still people in the community who think we’re up to something and that our intentions are not just.”
The Trump administration, meanwhile, has not proposed authorizing any further grants as it continues to review the program and intends to submit its own terrorism prevention strategy to Congress this year, Wood said.
Despite local opposition, Boston’s Youth and Police Initiative Plus program is set to begin this month with the first of six week-long “dialogues” between police and Somali youth over the next two years.
Like programs in Minneapolis and other cities, the Boston effort is motivated by concern over young Somali men traveling overseas to fight for al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.
Boston hasn’t had to deal with that phenomenon yet, and extremism and terrorist recruitment won’t be directly addressed unless youths bring it up, says Capt. Haseeb Hosein, a district commander who has been promoting the program as an active member of the city’s Muslim community.
“One of my goals is that the officers will understand the Somali community,” he said. “We’re going to focus on their day-to-day life and the issues that every youth is dealing with — school, bullying, assimilation, culture, language.”
The 2013 marathon attack, which killed three people and wounded more than 260, was carried out by two Muslim brothers of Chechen descent who emigrated from the former Soviet Union.
Federal money under the Countering Violent Extremism program is also helping Massachusetts inmates safely re-enter society. With the help of its $500,000 grant, a maximum-security prison has hired counselors to work with inmates on their behavior and coping skills in the months before and after they get out.
Arno Michaelis, a former skinhead leader in the Milwaukee area, said that if such efforts had been around in the 1980s and ’90s, he might have left the white supremacist movement much sooner.
“Giving kids an opportunity to address the injustices they see in the world in a healthy way,” Michaelis said, “is the most potent prevention of extremism.”