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Homeland Security Office Uses Community Outreach To Fight Violent Extremism


In September of this year, the Department of Homeland Security created a new office for community partnerships. It elevated a mission that the federal government had been working on for years - working with groups in the U.S. to fight violent extremism. George Selim runs that office, and he joins us now. Welcome.

GEORGE SELIM: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Now, I know you can't speak specifically about the San Bernardino attack, but when you see that sort of incident, do you think to yourself, well, here's how we can modify what we're doing to prevent these kinds of things from happening? Or are there incidents like San Bernardino where somebody might be radicalized online by somebody far away and there's nothing any federal government program can do about it?

SELIM: The research and the statistics have all indicated that peers, people that are in close association with subjects that ultimately commit an act like this, see something that's a little bit out of the norm, but they don't necessarily report it. And so part of our goal is to create the type of partnerships in which peers know when and how to elevate those type of suspicions.

SHAPIRO: Now, you talk about partnerships as being a key element of this. Is that because, perhaps, the federal government has a bad reputation? People don't want to be associated with the feds, and it's easier for them to be associated with local groups. Is that sort of the driving idea here?

SELIM: I think, early on, we realized that central governments aren't necessarily best placed to prevent and intervene in the process of radicalization. It's, in fact, local actors that are, in fact, best placed on this. What we saw earlier in this year in the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism is three cities - Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis - who are pioneering prevention programs on countering violent extremism in three different ways - the local demographics, the local municipal officials and religious leaders. And those three cities are all very different. It's not a one- size-fits-all.

SHAPIRO: It seems relatively straightforward to try to counter imams who are preaching radicalism or people who may be going to Syria for training. It seems a lot harder to counter the people who are radicalized on Twitter and Facebook and maybe by people who they will never meet face-to-face. How do you adjust to that emerging threat?

SELIM: So that's part of the pivot in the Office for Community Partnerships that Secretary Johnson has been very forward-leaning on specifically.

SHAPIRO: This is Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

SELIM: Correct. Part of the approach that we're increasingly taking is a keen focus on partnerships and engagement with the technology community and a number of different social media providers. We have some proven and effective programs and efforts on countering violent extremism that are offline. They're human-to-human. And so part of our pivot is involved in taking those real-world programs and moving those online.

SHAPIRO: Your office has the power to give grants to state and local organizations that you think are doing really good work to counter radicalization. What do you see happening on that level now that you are most excited about?

SELIM: So one of the key programs that we've seen earlier this year was a program called the Peer To Peer: Challenging Extremism Competition. So I'll give you one specific example that came out of the marketing department out of Missouri State University, who created an incredible platform that they called the 195.org campaign to raise awareness on the threat of violent extremism radicalization.

SHAPIRO: When you say platform, do you mean, like, a website - 195.org?

SELIM: It's a website. It's an app. There are downloads for marketing and branding materials and campaigns, tools and resources for people who want to get involved. That type of interaction - two-way street that young people designed for young people - is where I think the future of these types of efforts need to be.

SHAPIRO: That's George Selim, director of the Office of Community Partnerships at the Department of Homeland Security. Thanks for joining us.

SELIM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.