A Marine general rallies for communities to fight against ISIS

Recently I heard one of the most clear and powerful articulations on the need to fight against ISIS radicalization and recruitment in U.S. communities. What was surprising to me was that it came from a former top Marine general.

On June 3, retired Marine General John Allen, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIL, spoke at the Brookings Institution’s U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar.

After speaking about the work of the coalition to defeat ISIS in the Middle East, he turned to address the threat in the United States and the many other countries where ISIS is trying to recruit.  

“We must save our children,” said the general.  

Young people these days find themselves on the front lines of global migration, revolutions in information technology, cultural transitions, economic collapse, and local and global violent conflict. General Allen said that as a consequence, many young people’s lives in the United States are characterized by troubling “separations”. 

“There is a separation between these young people and what is defined as mainstream or the majority culture. There is separation between the opportunities young people see on their smart phones and those they believe are available to them in their own lives. There is separation between these young people and the true depth and richness of the Islamic faith.”

These separations can create anxiety and rootlessness and ISIS expertly seeks to exploit them and to get young people to become foreign fighters or to launch attacks at home. 

General Allen nailed it when he said: “It is a horrible irony that such an anti-modern force as Daesh has such a deft understanding of certain insecurities that come with being a young person in a modern, multi-cultural world. Daesh is practiced in exploiting a sense of rootlessness and separation that many young people feel in their communities.”

I give General Allen a lot of credit for drawing attention to the community and youth issues that underlie this current threat. I for one am not accustomed to hearing Marine generals speak to these issues with such precision and sensitivity.

I especially liked the non-stigmatizing way that he framed the vulnerability of mass numbers of young persons to radicalization and recruitment. He evoked powerful sociologic ideas—social exclusion, isolation, alienation—to explain the breath of the vulnerabilities experienced by many young people growing up today’s world.  

What did the general prescribe as a remedy for this vulnerability? One, he emphasized counter-messaging or “defeating Daesh as an idea.”  Two, he pointed to working to counter foreign fighters, “in their home communities, and at the point of recruitment and radicalization, which is often a personal computer or cell phone.”

Not surprisingly, General Allen provided more details on the coalition’s global strategies (military campaign, disrupting financial resources, and humanitarian relief) than on how precisely to address these domestic issues.

This is too bad because many practitioners and community members feel that the U.S. government has not succeeded in effectively explaining its domestic strategy for countering violent extremism (CVE). According to the White House, CVE is a set of strategies intended to, “counter hateful extremist ideologies that radicalize, recruit or incite to violence.”

General Allen’s words suggest that there is a vulnerability (or separation) problem among young persons in the community, as well as an exploitation problem being pursued by ISIS. Law enforcement is far better at addressing exploitation problems than vulnerability problems, which are more in the realms of education, social services, mental health, and public health.

This is part of what is so challenging, and difficult to explain, about CVE. Done right, CVE should enlist community resources to develop community level prevention and individual level interventions conducted not by law enforcement but by community-based organizations within the pre-criminal space.

From the community perspective, one potential liability for CVE is that the government practitioners come mostly from law enforcement agencies — including the U.S. attorneys, the FBI, and local police. The use of community friendly strategies, including community policing, has tempered the community members’ anxieties, but nonetheless CVE is still widely perceived by community members as a law enforcement led effort.

Alternatively, a team assembled by Dr. Heidi Ellis of Boston Children’s Hospital and myself (funded by the University of Maryland’s START and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate), recently demonstrated how CVE could evolve from a criminal justice focus on the terrorist threat to a more multidisciplinary approach to building healthy, resilient communities. This approach addresses a spectrum of threats to community well-being, including radicalization to violence, but also other more common threats such as targeted violence more generally, drugs, and suicide.

This makes sense because the problems of separation that the general identifies can lead to a range of other negative outcomes and are by no means limited to one community. We need broader efforts aimed at empowering community advocates, practitioners, and organizations to build healthy, resilient communities that ameliorate the vulnerabilities that Gen. Allen has identified, with the community buy-in which CVE has not achieved.

It was surprising to me to hear a top Marine general evoke sociocultural and psychosocial problems and remedies, but then again, General Allen himself said that we are at a crossroads and that if we are to understand and defeat the threat posed by ISIS, and other current threats in communities, we must be prepared to change assumptions. We should follow General Allen’s lead and apply new, broader ways of thinking and acting to save our young people.