This paper explores community outreach and counterterrorism in the context of how they relate to weaknesses in the operation of transnational terrorist organizations. Discussions are centered on three issues. The first one is the importance of forging trust between law enforcers and community agents, while the second one is the need for security agencies to evolve into accountable organizations that can distance themselves from the negative and suspicious perception some members of the community attribute to them. Lastly, the need for law enforcement officers to open lines of communication with terrorist-linked agencies and cells is explored. These arguments are framed within the context of the need to maintain a delicate balance between community outreach and counterterrorism.
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Overall, this study shows that the best way to boost the counterterrorism campaign is to work with local communities. More importantly, this paper suggests that law enforcers should make community members understand the need to inform authorities about suspicious activities going on in their communities. At the same time, this document underscores the importance of law enforcement authorities to embrace community outreach in a mutually respectful and open manner to exploit weaknesses that terrorist organizations have traditionally used to justify their actions. This recommendation is proposed as the best way to provide good stewardship in the counterterrorism fight as implied by the Saint Leo University core value of responsible stewardship.
Terrorism is a global security issue that involves the unlawful use of violence to achieve political or religious goals. Many western countries have experienced this threat because they grapple with religious extremism as a problem both within and outside their borders. Owing to the complexity of this security issue, counterterrorism agencies have adopted sophisticated methods of addressing the threat, and community outreach are at the center of it. Sahar (2014) supports this statement by suggesting that community outreach programs are important in supporting the anti-terrorism fight. This approach has seen many security agencies in western nations collaborate with community organizations, such as religious groups and schools, in intelligence gathering. However, engaging community members in the anti-terrorism fight is often tense as people struggle to understand their role in counterterrorism (Cherney, 2018).
This paper explores community outreach and counterterrorism in the context of how they relate to weaknesses in the operation of transnational terrorist organizations. The importance of forging trust between law enforcers and community agents is one issue that dominates this paper. The second one is the need for security agencies to morph into accountable organizations that can distance themselves from the negative and suspicious perception some members of the community attribute to them. These discussions are further framed within the context of the need to maintain an open dialogue between security agencies and civilians. This issue emerges as the last point of discussion in this paper. Overall, this paper discusses the delicate balance between community outreach and counterterrorism within the context of exploiting the weaknesses of international terrorist organizations.
Build Trust between Community Members and Security Agencies
Some people perceive the role of law enforcement officers in counterterrorism with mistrust (Price, 2016). This inherent problem has influenced how community members respond to attempts by law enforcers to gather intelligence. Particularly, the lack of trust between religious leaders and law enforcement officers has significantly hampered intelligence gathering in Muslim communities. Although several researchers have explored this issue, law enforcement officers and community members share some blame for the existence of the problem. For example, security agencies and some international media outlets have partly created a narrative that certain sections of society are to blame for terrorist attacks. This view is partly underpinned by religious, racial, and ethnic connotations.
The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks partly highlighted this problem because some Muslims felt targeted by authorities for “extra scrutiny.” Recently, immigration policies pursued by the Trump administration have further worsened the situation by barring people in selected Muslim countries from traveling to the United States. Such strategies pursued by politicians, security agencies, and their proxies create a “we vs. them” mentality, which could undermine efforts to bridge the divide between community members and security agencies. More importantly, it creates distrust between both parties.
The government has to eliminate the idea that it will use oppressive policies in intelligence gathering to fight terrorism. More importantly, it needs to rethink how it formulates community outreach programs and justifies its actions in counterterrorism efforts. Unless this stereotype is shed off, it may be difficult for security agencies to truly realize the benefits of community outreach programs. Compared to traditional community engagement programs where security agencies play the role of protectors, community members should take the prerogative of dissuading security officers from spying in their mosques and infringing on their civil liberties. This concern highlights the need for law enforcers to protect people’s privacy and confidentiality concerns because some terrorist organizations have created a narrative that the government is the terrorist and not them.
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Relative to the above assertion, security agencies are supposed to respect the privacy of citizens when undertaking intelligence-gathering activities. However, this right has not always been respected. Evidence of this problem is partly highlighted by concerns among some human rights activists who have pointed out the state’s aggression in intelligence gathering (Sahar, 2014). Community outreach programs aimed at boosting the counterterrorism fight are affected by the same problem because it is unclear how much information community members can share, should share, and the extent that law enforcement officers can use the same information on intelligence gathering.
Based on the above view, law enforcement agencies should strive to change their approach to community engagement. One advantage of using the community outreach approach is its focus on the “soft tools” of countering terrorism, as opposed to traditional ones, such as home invasions and frisking. Community outreach programs provide a unique opportunity for law enforcement officers to engage local community members about their mission and the possible benefits they could enjoy by collaborating with them to fight terrorism. Through such a forum, community members need to be educated about what the government is doing and how they could plug into existing efforts to maintain a safe community (Sahar, 2014). Here, security agencies have an opportunity to debunk some of the myths clouding their work because, through honest engagement with community members, they can show their “human-side” and increase the ability of community members to relate with them. This action would help them to convince people that they will not be using the intelligence gathered to reinforce their hard-tackle tactics.
The approach described above is exploitative of weakness among international terrorist organizations, which is their persistence to use psychological tools to indoctrinate vulnerable youth to support their cause by misinforming them about their mission. Proper education about social and political issues, which could be fostered through community outreach programs, could help to empower the youth to make better-informed decisions about their lives (Price, 2016). With a growing body of educated people, it will be difficult for terrorist organizations to succeed because they have always relied on vulnerable youth to advance their goals. This is why the challenge of terrorism (when analyzed from a global lens) seems to be partly rooted in poverty and low literacy rates because terrorist organizations are exploiting these socioeconomic gaps to indoctrinate the youth about Jihad and other terrorist doctrines. Proper education and interaction between law enforcement officers and community members could help to change this narrative by helping community members to have a broader picture of the fight against terrorism and allow them to plug into it. Doing so will depend on the willingness of law enforcers to change their approach to community outreach.
There have been instances where trust has been built successfully between community members and local security agencies. For example, residents have in the past helped authorities to apprehend terror suspects based on intelligence reports they get and monetary rewards offered. Such actions are products of years of cultivating beneficial relationships between community members and law enforcers through community outreach programs. Trust is the pillar that supports such partnerships. Having a high level of accountability is also a useful tool that security agencies could use to achieve the same results.
Adopt a Higher Level of Accountability
The fight against terrorism is partly supported by increased efforts among terrorist organizations and law enforcement officers to “win the hearts” of the public. Law enforcement officers and agencies have an opportunity to show the public that they subscribe to a higher level of accountability than terrorist organizations do through community outreach programs. For example, they should recommit themselves to the values of mutual respect, trust, and shared responsibility. This way, they would show community partners that they are different from terrorist organizations because there has been a misinformed narrative propagated by terrorist sympathizers that the police are as bad as the terrorists are. Subscribing to a higher level of accountability would help to debunk such myths by showing the public that law enforcement agencies “mean well” for everyone. Here, the goal of law enforcement agencies should be to establish transparency, trust, and mutual understanding in their community outreach programs.
To differentiate themselves from terrorist propaganda, law enforcement agencies need to have a keen emphasis on promoting tailored engagements with community members because it better equips law enforcement agencies to respond to the changing nature of terrorist threats. For example, terrorists have shifted their strategy from organized criminal activities to individualized terrorist actions. Evidence of this fact could be seen in the recent shootings in Las Vegas, Brussels, Paris, and Orlando (just to mention a few) because they were planned and executed by “lone wolves.”
Security agencies need to focus more on tailoring their community outreach campaigns to address some of the above-mentioned issues as proposed by the IACP Committee on Terrorism (2013). This strategy would be unlike that adopted by terrorist organizations, which are typically broad-based and targeted at Muslims. Through a tailored community outreach approach, it will be easier for law enforcement officers to develop a comprehensive network of meaningful relationships with the public. This framework will help to create a high level of trust between community members and law enforcement agencies as well as foster transparent dialogue between both parties.
Law enforcement officers should also stress the importance of rehabilitation and integration in their community outreach framework as a distinguishing factor between their approach and those of terrorist organizations (IACP Committee on Terrorism, 2013). This strategy would demonstrate their willingness to reform radicalized youth to be better citizens. It is important to pursue this approach because many people have been imprisoned because of terrorism-related charges. By supporting a rehabilitative program, law enforcement agencies will demonstrate to community members that they are striving to improve the well-being of the community as opposed to being punitive. Overall, they will succeed in demonstrating to community members that they subscribe to a higher level of accountability than terrorist groups do.
Although the United States (US) and many western countries have traditionally adopted a policy of non-negotiation with terrorists, community outreach programs offer a unique channel of communication between radicalized individuals (living like civilians) and law enforcement officers (Brandt, George, & Sandler, 2016). The possibility that they could work with law enforcement officers in infiltrating terrorist camps is a weakness in many terrorist organizations that security agencies could exploit. More importantly, by working with terrorists who want to reform (through community outreach), law enforcement officers would be accomplishing one main goal, which is isolating “extreme elements” in terror groups.
Through such actions, community outreach programs provide an opportunity for officers to negotiate a political solution for radicalized youth who may want “a way out.” When both parties openly embrace such channels of dialogue, law enforcers would have an opportunity to learn how terrorists work and how they intend to accomplish their goals. This strategy would help to avert security threats because it is better for law enforcement officers to prevent a terrorist attack than to manage it after it happens.
The findings presented in this subsection of the paper appear to contradict the long-term policy of many western governments, which is not to negotiate with terrorists. However, it offers a good opportunity for law enforcement officers to preempt terrorist attacks and bolster their intelligence-gathering efforts, especially when it relates to understanding how terrorist organizations operate. In this assessment, community outreach should not be misconstrued as a solution to counter the terrorist problem; instead, it is a tool that security agencies could use to meet the same objective. At the same time, it is important for law enforcement officers and governments (in general) to review the extents that they would not be willing to negotiate with terrorists because such a policy is counterproductive to the goals of community outreach programs, which are premised on the principle of openness and trust (Feste, 2015). In other words, the approach should not be one-sided to accommodate only civilians who are willing to come forth with information regarding how terrorists work; instead, it should include the views of former terrorists or even members of terror gangs that may want to reform. Maintaining open channels of communication would help security agencies to exploit an inherent weakness in international terrorist organizations, which is the option to negotiate with the government.
Although the possibility of creating an open-policy approach that includes former members of terrorist organizations may seem controversial for western countries, there are instances, where such policies have worked. For example, the counterterrorism fight against Al Qaeda was partly bolstered by the willingness of some of its regional partners in Iraq and Afghanistan to negotiate a political solution that would ensure their interests and those of the public are protected (Bergen & Tiedemann, 2013). This move helped to isolate Al Qaeda because it was rendered irrelevant to the Taliban and the people it was purporting to fight for. Dialogue also has the ability to make terrorist organizations a liability to their fighters, the people they purport to fight for, and their regional partners. Community outreach programs are pivotal in making this happen because they provide a platform for weakening terrorist organizations from the point of view that they will be more isolated than when some of their members or partners are working with security agencies.
Based on the findings highlighted in this study, the best way to boost the counterterrorism campaign is to work with local communities. Since many Muslims reject terrorism, they are pivotal partners in the fight against it. They should be made to understand the need to inform law enforcement authorities about any suspicious activities going on in their neighborhoods. Nonetheless, the fight against terrorism is hampered by existing contingencies surrounding counterterrorism operations, such as building trust with hard-to-reach populations such as the Muslim youth. Therefore, it is important for law enforcement authorities to understand that embracing community outreach in a mutually respectful manner will exploit an age-old weakness that terrorist organizations have traditionally used to justify their actions – the government is unjust. This is the best way to provide good stewardship in the counterterrorism fight as implied by the Saint Leo University core value of responsible stewardship.
Bergen, P., & Tiedemann, K. (Eds.). (2013). Talibanistan: Negotiating the borders between terror, politics, and religion. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Brandt, P., George, J., & Sandler, T. (2016). Why concessions should not be made to terrorist kidnappers. European Journal of Political Economy, 44(1), 41-52.
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Cherney, A. (2018). Police community engagement and outreach in a counterterrorism context. Journal of Policing Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, 13(1), 60-79.
Feste, K. (2015). Terminate terrorism: Framing, gaming, and negotiating conflicts. London, UK: Routledge.
IACP Committee on Terrorism. (2013). Community outreach and engagement principles. Web.
Price, M. (2016). Community outreach or intelligence gathering? Web.
Sahar, F.A. (2014). Policing terrorists in the community. Harvard National Security Journal, 5(147), 147-224.