Boston is among three cities where the Justice Department will launch a pilot program aimed at deterring US residents from joining violent extremist groups, according to federal and local authorities.
The office of US Attorney Carmen Ortiz offered few details about the program, but said in a statement Tuesday that it was “aimed at countering violent extremism using prevention and intervention-based approaches.”
Boston was chosen “for the strength of our existing relationships, community engagement and community oriented policing programs,” the statement said.
The program, first announced last week by US Attorney General Eric Holder, will also be launched in Los Angeles and Minneapolis. Holder said pilot programs in cities across the country will be run in partnership with the White House, Department of Homeland Security, and National Counterterrorism Center. The White House is hosting a Countering Violent Extremism summit in October.
The pilot program comes as the Islamic State militant group that has occupied parts of Syria and Iraq has been aggressively recruiting members on social media, and a number of Americans have traveled overseas to join the Islamic State and other militant groups.
Ahmad Abousamra, who grew up in Stoughton and allegedly fled to Syria in 2006 after being questioned by authorities, faces terrorism charges in federal court in Boston and was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list last year.
“It is no secret men and women from across the United States have traveled to Syria and other countries in support of terrorism, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is not unlike any other state,” Vincent Lisi, the special agent in the charge of the FBI’s Boston office said in a statement Tuesday. “We will take every step possible to deal with such travelers.”
But Lisi said the selection of Boston did not suggest that there was an organized network for travelers from Massachusetts to Syria or Iraq.
“We have no information to suggest there is a structured network or mechanism to move people to the battlefields,” Lisi said.
Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said the Justice Department’s new initiative “is about community policing and relationship building. And, given our success and proven track record in those areas, we look forward to playing a part in support of the program.”
The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and local law enforcement have launched numerous initiatives since the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, all of which are aimed at forging partnerships with the Muslim community and various community and religious groups.
The latest initiative will bring law enforcement, educators, mental health and public health professionals, and religious and community leaders together in an effort to share information, according to Marc Raimondi, a Justice Department spokesman.
“The intent is to identify and confront radicalization and deter it at the earliest possible point,” Raimondi said.
Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project, voiced concerns about the new initiative.
“Our concerns are with counterterrorism policies and programs that incorrectly target entire communities based on religion, race and ethnic origin,” Shamsi said. “Encouraging communities to report to law enforcement when young people are engaged in religious activities, exploring faith, exploring their views on what exists in the world, raises significant concerns about targeting people not because they’ve done anything wrong, but putting them in the impossible position of proving they are not a threat.”
Mike German, a former FBI agent and ACLU staffer who is now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, said he is troubled by government initiatives aimed at uncovering radicalization.
“It targets people who are critical of things like US government policy,” German said. “That says nothing about whether someone is going to be committing unlawful activity.”
He added, “This program is built on a false premise that these very bad things, acts of violence, terrorism, are somehow predictable. Mathematically, it’s just not so.”
Former Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis said it is difficult for law enforcement to identify homegrown, potential terrorists.
“Our role at the local level is to do as much outreach as possible,” Davis said. “The better relations you have with a broad swath in the community, the better you are to prevent things.”Shelley Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.