Community outreach key to Obama counterterror plan

WASHINGTON – Within hours of the Boston Marathon blasts, government officials and Boston Muslims called each other to offer assistance, calls that were the fruits of years of cultivating such relationships in an effort to ultimately prevent the very type of attack Boston experienced April 15.

But the calls following the explosions were not about the unfolding investigation. Representatives from the departments of Justice and Homeland Security offered support to Muslim communities in case they suffered backlash or threats, even days before law enforcement connected the suspected bombers to a violent interpretation of Islam.

This type of outreach has been a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy. The goal is to prevent homegrown terrorist attacks by forming trusting relationships among law enforcement, government agencies and Muslim Americans.

“The best way to prevent violent extremism inspired by violent jihadists is to work with the Muslim American community – which has consistently rejected terrorism – to identify signs of radicalization and partner with law enforcement when an individual is drifting toward violence,” President Barack Obama said Thursday in his counterterrorism speech at National Defense University.

In Boston, the Muslim community handled the situation just as the Obama administration has asked them to. Yet the city suffered a terror attack from two of its own that killed three people and injured more than 260 others.

The Obama administration has asked communities to notify law enforcement if it suspects someone is becoming radicalized toward terrorist activity. And the administration has asked religious leaders to talk to members of their communities about views that may be outside the mainstream or raise red flags.

In the case of Boston, an imam and other members of the mosque where one of the bombing suspects had outbursts during services spoke with him after each incident.

In one instance, the lecturing imam spoke to suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev after the service about his views on Muslims celebrating American holidays like the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. Tsnarnaev believed that celebrating these holidays was not allowed in the Muslim faith. In the other instance, Tsarnaev disagreed with comparing the Prophet Muhammad to Martin Luther King Jr.

None of that suggested Tsarnaev would go out and kill people, said Yusufi Vali, spokesman for the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Cambridge, Mass., where Tsarnaev worshipped. Tsarnaev was killed in a police shootout four days after the bombings, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, has been charged with carrying out the attack.

“Just because people have views out of the mainstream, in our country, where we have freedom of religion, we don’t call law enforcement for that,” Vali said.

And if someone from the mosque had called the police after the outbursts, it’s not likely it would have led to further inquiries about terrorism, said Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas. The outbursts most likely would have been treated as disturbances, Haas said.

But as the intelligence community goes back over every thread of detail the government possessed about the Tsarnaev brothers before the deadly April 15 attack, these outbursts continue to raise questions about what else could have been done to prevent it.

“Are there more things that we can do, whether it’s engaging with communities where there’s a potential for self-radicalization of this sort,” Obama said on April 30.