The following is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.
In April, an alleged American-born fighter affiliated with the ISIS movement posted a 19-page pamphlet -- “GPS of the Ghurabah [Strangers] in The West (American Edition) 2” – to an online forum. It seeks to provide prospective ISIS recruits with information on how to join the movement and maintain operational security by identifying and explaining a series of counter-surveillance practices.
Studying the document can provide policymakers, researchers, and community members with useful insights into community factors that inhibit recruitment into violent action and how would-be terrorists try to work around them.
The missive, purportedly written by an American-born ISIS fighter named Abu Ibrahim Al-Amriki appears to adopt a “Leaderless Resistance” approach that suggests forming small, stand-alone groups of seven to 12 people as “protection to keep the cover of other groups from being blown.” Al-Amriki also stressed the need for secure communications by generally avoiding electronic devices when “sensitive” matters are being discussed.
However the most important (and intriguing) piece of advice he had to offer: avoid Muslim communities and religious leaders altogether. According to Al-Amriki,
Unfortunately, the most common forms of agent surveillance are the Muslim communities in America. O Allah, expose and destroy these munafiqeen [hypocrites]. Your local Imam is most likely in regular contact with the Agency... So are the local [M]uslim community members.
Instead of congregating at mosques, Al-Amriki suggests forming prayer groups and study circles in cell members’ private homes, and if necessary meet secretly “from forest to forest and from cave to cave.”
Al-Amriki’s own words are a stark rebuttal to two common myths: that the more religiously grounded a person is, the more likely he or she is going to be set on a pathway to violence; and that the movement to violence begins with religious brainwashing within the physical space of a mosque. By contrast, Al-Amriki is exhorting fellow ideologues to circumvent traditional religious authority completely disassociating from Imams and mosques by forming private study circles in one’s homes and far-flung locations like forests and caves.
Second, the document demonstrates the importance of healthy communities and local partnerships with American Muslims to prevent violent extremism. Al-Amriki assumes that a “typical” American Muslim community is probably going to be hostile to his hateful worldviews. He’s right.
When it comes to rooting out ideologically-motivated violent criminals, approximately 30 percent of terrorist plots have been prevented due to initial tips coming from Muslim communities and family members.
However, Al-Amriki assumes this hostility exists because leaders and community members are government informants. This is where he is wrong.
The role played by an informant to disrupt a plot over the course of an investigation is well documented in publicly available court documents, and therefore spurs debate and captures the attention of the public and the media. But informants alone are not responsible for the deterrent effect highlighted by al-Amriki. The reason has to do with numbers. There are an estimated 15,000 FBI informants across the country—many of whom work on other crime issues—while there are approximately 2.6 million Muslims in the United States. Informants cannot be everywhere monitoring all Muslim communities.
Al-Amriki is probably frustrated by the organic resilience of local communities who overwhelmingly reject the premise that being an observant Muslim is incompatible with being a committed American citizen, and have an aversion to hateful propaganda and predatory recruitment tactics.
Much of this resilience has to do with the increased civic and political engagement of Muslim communities in the American democratic process. As Al-Amriki himself decries, “If your masjid [mosque] is calling to elections and interfaith and having agent job fairs in your mosque, then know my dear brother, that is [a] masjid dararr [of harm].”
However much of this resilience is also due to American Muslims and local law enforcement investing years of effort in building strong partnerships. While relations remain strained between many communities and certain law enforcement agencies, outreach programs from government officials raise awareness about who to contact when confronted with evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Even advocacy groups with a history of confrontation toward law enforcement notify authorities when faced with information directly related to terrorist activity.
Knowing this, Al-Amriki points out that would-be fighters cannot turn to these American Muslim organizations because they, “will give you up if needed to save their skin. Fear Allah and call only on Him and then upon the al muttiqeen [the pious ones].”
Overall, this document very vividly highlights that American Muslim communities are on the frontlines of the ideological fight against groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The very existence of a document that advises would-be militants to avoid their own communities is telling and speaks loudly to the importance of partnerships.
Moving forward, policymakers need to continue to find creative ways of supporting these communities. Three things come to mind.
First is to help communities empower themselves to create their own narratives that marginalize violent ideologies in the marketplace of ideas. Programs and market-based incentives that promote socially responsible entrepreneurship efforts like Affinis Labs are one way. START is curating an online publicly accessible library of extant narratives and counter-narratives to provide community members and community outreach professionals with a central resource of intellectual tools that they can use to fight bad ideas with good ones.
Second is to provide communities with the support they need to develop their own violence prevention programs as alternatives to arrest and surveillance. In countries like Indonesia and Germany they have civil society efforts like the Maarif Institute and the Violence Prevention Network to promote pluralism and provide crisis counseling for individuals at risk of engaging in violence. While some programs exist, like the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Safe Spaces and WORDE’s Montgomery County Model, they are only in their beginning stages.
While there are legal and strategic reasons to avoid federal government funding of such programs, one thing local law enforcement agencies can do is refer communities to local civil society and government resources, including mental health and social services. This is the spirit of community oriented policing.
Beyond resources, policymakers should reconsider current surveillance policies. Informants and other investigative measures are necessary tools to keeping our nation safe. Many Muslim community members want to engage in interventions that can dissuade at-risk individuals from engaging in violence, however they refrain doing so because they are concerned that they themselves may become the target of surveillance. A better balance can and needs to be struck between liberties and security so that communities can fully stand up their capabilities to counter violent individuals claiming to act in their name.
Finally, these communities need protection. Not only do they have to contend with anti-Muslim hate crimes, they also increasingly appear to be the violent crosshairs of terrorist groups.
Recently ISIS threatened to kill two prominent American Muslim religious scholars. The threat comes in the context of an article in ISIS’ English-language magazine, Dabiq, proclaiming, “The Extinction of the Grayzone” which is their way of saying to Western Muslims “you’re either with us or against us.”
In a similar vein Al-Amriki advises his readers that, “when we go out to battle, load ten bullets. Nine for your internal enemy and one for your external enemy.” His definition of the internal enemy are various American Muslim leaders that he describes as “pacifist Muslims, RAND munafiqeen, apostates, [and] celebrity scholars/imams.”
As our fellow Americans who contribute to our country in many ways, including many who make the ultimate sacrifice, they need our protection from some of our most tenacious adversaries, foreign and domestic.
In short, American Muslims not only deserve our support by virtue actively contributing to our nation, they are also on the front lines of our fight against terrorism. You don’t have to believe me; it’s evident in the very words of our violent adversaries.
 A reference to the notion in many extremist circles that they belong to a (undefined) “saved sect” of Islam that is mentioned in an apocryphal tradition of the Prophet Muhammad. Those who belong to this “saved sect” are “strangers” (ghuraba) in the world, even amongst other Muslim communities.
 This is probably a reference to the Central Intelligence Agency, a U.S. intelligence service focused solely on foreign targets, which the author has probably conflated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is primarily domestic-focused.
 This is a derogatory label toward Muslims that references a controversial report 2003 report called, Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, and Strategies, which advocated for ‘religion-building’ (i.e. government-supported attempts to advocate for theological changes to Islamic religious discourse). The connotation of the label is that RAND munafiqeen (hypocrites) are individuals who are alien and subversive to authentic teachings of Islam.
Alejandro J. Beutel is Researcher for Countering Violent Extremism at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). Prior to START, Beutel was the Policy and Research Engagement Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), an applied research think-tank specializing in the study and promotion of evidence-based development strategies for positive civic, social, and political engagement outcomes for American Muslim communities. He was also an independent research consultant to several non-profits, private corporations, and think-tanks.