The Obama administration has chosen Los Angeles as one of three cities to launch pilot programs aimed at deterring U.S. citizens from traveling abroad to fight with militant groups and to prevent attacks by fighters returning from Syria and Iraq, a senior administration official told reporters Monday.
The program is modeled on an effort in the United Kingdom that works with local communities to identify potential homegrown jihadists and terrorists, said the official, who asked not to be named to discuss internal plans.
The effort, which has also been launched in Boston and Minneapolis, is part of a broader strategy known as countering violent extremism. As part of the pilot program first announced by Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. last week, the administration is looking for new ways to intervene in the lives of people who may be considering an attack against the U.S.
Federal agencies, including the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, are working to identify people who may be interested in traveling to Syria to try to persuade them not to go, as well as finding people who have fought with jihadist groups and monitoring them when they return to the U.S.
The administration has a coordinator in Los Angeles and another in Boston reaching out to schools, healthcare providers and community groups to get their help in monitoring and deterring the radicalization of people who may be susceptible to recruitment by groups such as Islamic State and Al Qaeda, the administration official told reporters. Authorities are also looking to identify a "point person" in Minneapolis, and in the meantime, the FBI and Justice Department officials there are working to build relationships with local institutions, the official said.
In Southern California, previous attempts to build similar relationships and identify potential homegrown jihadists have yielded mixed results. This summer, federal authorities arrested an Orange County man who they said was traveling abroad to pledge his allegiance to Islamic State as he was about to board a flight bound for Istanbul, and charged him with lying on his passport application.
But one controversial FBI operation that used an informant to infiltrate an Orange County mosque in 2006 led to accusations that agents were profiling Muslims based solely on their religion.
U.S. officials have said in recent months that as many as 100 of the estimated 10,000 foreign fighters who have joined or attempted to join militant groups in Syria and Iraq hold U.S. passports, a number that they say is growing. Among those was Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, San Diego student who was killed in Syria this summer while reportedly fighting for Islamic State.
The number of Americans interested in joining the fight in Syria and Iraq "dwarfs what we have seen previously," a second administration official told reporters Monday.
Holder said the program's ultimate goal was "to build a broad network of community partnerships to keep our nation safe," including religious leaders and community representatives.
Southern California-based civil rights groups and organizations representing local Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities have been invited to town hall meetings this week by a Department of Homeland Security official, said Fatima Dadabhoy, senior civil rights attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Dadabhoy said her group was reserving judgment on the pilot program until its details became clear. The invitation stated that Los Angeles had been selected by the White House for the program but did not elaborate, she said.
"If it's going to lead to more profiling and surveillance, that's clearly going to be problematic," she said, noting that the Los Angeles region was home to one of the nation's largest Muslim communities. "Is it really a project to counter violent extremism, or is it really a project to counter violent extremism in the Muslim community?"
The FBI and other federal agencies declined to discuss details of the program.
The Los Angeles Police Department has been working closely with federal authorities to identify residents who have joined battlefields abroad or are considering it, said LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Downing, commanding officer of the Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau. Police have intervened with people suspected of having extremist beliefs, Downing said.
The LAPD's recent outreach efforts have focused on countering the aggressive online recruiting campaign mounted by groups such as Islamic State, he said. Downing said the aim was to build trust so that parents or acquaintances of those who may be enamored of radical teachings will notify law enforcement.
"Their kids are watching this on YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet. We're talking with families and communities about how to counter that message," he said.
The administration official said the White House is also considering asking social media companies such as Twitter and YouTube to take down propaganda videos used by groups such as Islamic State to recruit Americans and other nationalities.