Suspect Communities: Defining the enemy within.



The following is an excerpt from Suspect Communities: Anti-Muslim Racism and the Domestic War on Terror. This book is free to read online until August 31, 2020, along with dozens of others in our Reading for Racial Justice collection.


In September 2015, ninth-grade student Ahmed Mohamed brought a homemade clock to his U.S. public high school. As a robotics enthusiast, Ahmed proudly showed his engineering teacher his latest invention, complete with a circuit board and digital display. Ahmed’s English teacher, however, later confiscated the clock and reported him to school administration. The principal escorted Ahmed to his office, where five police officers questioned him for ninety minutes. Believing the clock was a “hoax bomb,” the police arrested Ahmed and transported him to a juvenile detention facility for fingerprinting and additional questioning (Selk 2015). Ahmed’s story illustrates how anti-Muslim racism affixes the “terrorist” label to students perceived to be Muslim. Governing national security policies and discourses infused with anti-Muslim racism shaped how school staff responded to Ahmed as a potential terrorist.[1]

Ahmed’s experience fits into broader national security fears, anxieties, and practices that position youth as incipient terrorists. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) (2016d), for example, warns that “high school students are ideal targets for recruitment by violent extremists seeking support for their radical ideologies, foreign fighter networks, or conducting acts of targeted violence within our borders” (1). Given this framing of students, the FBI cautions that “high schools must remain vigilant in educating their students about catalysts that drive violent extremism and the potential consequences of embracing extremist beliefs” (1). Moreover, the FBI calls on teachers, guidance counselors, and other social service providers to “observ[e] and assess[] concerning behaviors and communications” indicative of “students embracing extremist ideologies and progressing on a trajectory toward violence” (3). Much like the growth of high school homeland security programs, the FBI’s call places teachers on the frontlines of the global war on terror.

Just a few months before Ahmed’s arrest, President Obama convened a global summit where he formally introduced a new “countering violent extremism” (CVE) initiative to facilitate “community-oriented approaches to counter hateful extremist ideologies that radicalize, recruit, or incite to violence” (Office of the Press Secretary 2015, para. 1). Increasingly concerned about “homegrown terrorists,” the Obama administration promoted CVE as a new national security strategy to deter young people from joining “violent extremist” groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) without abrogating their constitutional rights. The Obama administration designed CVE with the understanding that communities “are best placed to recognize and confront the threat” and therefore should serve as critical partners in “efforts to combat violent extremist ideologies and organizations that seek to weaken our society” (White House 2011, 3). In this new national security model, community members act as key national security operatives tasked with countering terrorist propaganda as well as identifying, reporting, and working with individuals perceived to be at risk of or in the process of radicalizing.



The CVE model has mobilized social service providers like Ahmed’s teachers as coproducers of national security in the domestic war on terror. In addition, local, state, and federal officials have called on “American Muslims,” “Somali-Americans,” “U.S. minorities,” “refugees and immigrants,” and “cities with significant Muslim Diasporas” to protect their children from terrorist radicalization by contributing to CVE programming.[2] Working from the premise that Muslim, immigrant, and other nondominant youth are uniquely susceptible to terrorist radicalization, CVE actors have argued that this coproduction of national security offers a progressive alternative to conventional counterterrorism methods like FBI stings, preemptive prosecutions, and indefinite detention.

To develop this model, U.S. security experts used the United Kingdom’s comprehensive antiterrorism portfolio, CONTEST, as a blueprint for countering violent extremism in the United States (Thomas 2010). Launched in 2003, CONTEST relies on a four-pronged approach to combat terrorism: Pursue, Prevent, Protect, and Prepare. The Pursue, Protect, and Prepare initiatives work to prosecute terrorists, increase hard security measures like border enforcement, and mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack, respectively.[3] To support these counterterrorism measures, Prevent strives to win the “hearts and minds” of British Muslims who “share core British values” and “stand up to terrorists and their extremist supporters” (U.K. Department for Communities and Local Government 2007). To stymie violent extremism, Prevent seeks to counter terrorist recruitment, persuade British Muslims to reject violence, identify and support individuals vulnerable to radicalization, and gather intelligence on Muslim communities.

To carry out Prevent, the United Kingdom has called on social service providers to detect and report individuals vulnerable to, or in the process of, radicalizing. Prevent’s Duty Guidance, for example, requires teachers and childcare providers to refer students to the government’s deradicalization program, Channel, if students express “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs” (Her Majesty’s Government 2015, 19). Legal scholars, civil rights advocates, and community members have contested Prevent, especially after teachers began reporting Muslim youth for benign discussions, behaviors, and political debates in the classroom. In a shocking but familiar incident, nursery staff referred a four-year-old Muslim child to Channel after he mispronounced the word cucumber as “cucker bum.” Nursery staff interpreted this mispronunciation as “cooker bomb” and therefore completed a government “Early Help Assessment” form, writing that the child’s drawings “have previously had violent tendencies” (Prevent Watch 2016). The child’s mother, however, explained that her son enjoyed watching Power Rangers and other popular media featuring superheroes, which informed his artwork (Prevent Watch 2016). Despite growing opposition to these referrals that disproportionately have targeted Muslim children, the Prevent program informed the design of the U.S. countering violent extremism policy framework. Like Prevent, CVE has served as one component of a multipronged approach to combatting terrorism.[4]

Informed by Prevent, CVE initiatives intend to (1) counter online extremist propaganda, (2) identify individuals vulnerable to terrorist radicalization, (3) intervene in a “person’s pathway to radicalization before the line of criminal activity is crossed,” (4) rehabilitate and reintegrate individuals convicted of terrorism-related crimes or returning from combat with a violent extremist organization, and (5) prevent or “build resilience to” violent extremism through the provision of social services like culturally relevant counseling, soccer leagues, and religious training (Department of Homeland Security 2015, 2). Like Prevent, CVE has mobilized social service providers and community members as the “eyes and ears” and “foot soldiers” on the frontlines of the domestic war on terror (participant observation, October 27, 2017).

This national security approach has involved both “prevention” and “intervention” lines of effort. In the CVE policy environment, “prevention” refers to the proactive measures that “seek, as much as possible, to stop extremism and a pathway toward violence from arising in the first place” (Muslim Public Affairs Council 2014, 35). At the time of my fieldwork, these proactive community-wide measures included counter-messaging campaigns to thwart terrorist propaganda, after-school activities like youth soccer leagues to reduce feelings of disaffection and alienation, family programs to increase “parental involvement and supportive adult mentorship for youth,” and civic participation initiatives to “tap into that youthful energy” and “channel [it] in a positive direction” rather than toward an extremist group (Muslim Public Affairs Council 2014, 42; Susan Bailey, participant observation, May 16, 2017). These preemptive programs have worked to prevent youth from radicalizing.

To support this mission, the FBI (2016b) developed Don’t Be a Puppet: Pull Back the Curtain on Violent Extremism, a preventative online learning module to “keep young people . . . from embracing violent extremist ideologies.” The FBI describes Don’t Be a Puppet as “an interactive website designed to educate teenagers on the destructive and deceptive reality of violent extremism and to strengthen their resistance to self-radicalization and possible recruitment.” Through Don’t Be a Puppet, young people learn to define violent extremism, recognize extremist propaganda, and identify “where to get help” if they know someone “in trouble.” These efforts have sought to prevent radicalization before extreme ideas take root.

Unlike prevention programs, intervention efforts have focused on individuals identified as already “‘at the edge’ of going down a path of violence, or moving dangerously close to it” (Muslim Public Affairs Council 2014, 56). The Muslim Public Affairs Council (2014), for example, encouraged communities to develop “crisis inquiry teams” to reach “troubled individuals” (62). Composed of imams, social workers, mental health professionals, teachers, law enforcement officials, and lawyers, these crisis inquiry teams identify individuals perceived to be vulnerable to or in the process of radicalizing and then conduct interventions like mental health treatment to “off-ramp” individuals from the pathway toward violent extremism. These teams intervene in the lives of young people when they exhibit the perceived indicators, risk factors, or early warning signs of violent extremism.

In addition to Don’t Be a Puppet, the federal government has allocated millions of dollars to support local CVE programs. Across the United States, city officials have used these funds to develop their own programs, often in partnership with other federal, state, and local entities like community organizations, school districts, and law enforcement agencies. Despite shared goals, cities have created and implemented different types of programs, depending on local understandings of CVE, available resources, level of community trust and participation, and demographics.



In Minneapolis, the U.S. Attorney led the development of CVE initiatives to “build resilience to violent extremism” through Somali community organizations and public schools while Rochester Institute of Technology students focused more broadly on Muslim communities in upstate New York through social media messaging that countered extremist propaganda (United States Attorney’s Office of Minneapolis 2015; Rochester Institute of Technology 2016).[5] In Chicago, CVE actors mobilized mental health professionals to identify and work with individuals “who exhibit warning signs of radicalization,” while Los Angeles officials developed more robust community policing practices to prevent homegrown terrorism (Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority 2016, 2; Los Angeles Interagency Coordination Group in collaboration with community stakeholders 2015). Local conditions, therefore, have shaped the types of programming each city has developed, creating an uneven but connected geography of CVE initiatives that articulate with context-specific racial hierarchies, social histories, and institutional arrangements.

Despite the rapid proliferation of CVE programs across the United States, military experts, legal scholars, social scientists, and global leaders disagree on the benefits, harms, and effects of CVE programs. Like the FBI, some contend that CVE is the most effective strategy to combat the perceived rise of “homegrown terrorism” while safeguarding constitutional rights. Amnesty International’s Naureen Shah (2014b), however, warns that although the CVE approach “may sound innocuous,” it “sets American Muslim teenagers apart, stigmatizes them as potential terrorists, and drives a dividing line between them and their non-Muslim peers” (para. 5). In a statement endorsing CVE, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (2016) expressed similar concerns, cautioning against “mindless policy” that “turn[s] people against each other, alienate[s] already marginalized groups, and play[s] into the hands of the enemy” (para. 11). By accelerating stigmatization, some worry that CVE programs both harm Muslim communities in the United States and fuel the very drivers of extremism they aim to combat.[6]

Despite these concerns, some Muslim leaders have welcomed CVE as an alternative to more coercive antiterrorism programs typically deployed without community input or oversight. Others have cautioned that such collaborations have used Muslim leaders to intensify anti-Muslim policing, surveillance, and monitoring while appearing attentive to the civil liberties of targeted communities. These conflicting interpretations of CVE’s impetuses and implications have generated distrust, hostility, and resistance within communities, a defining feature that CVE actors have negotiated in their everyday work.


Nicole Nguyen is assistant professor of social foundations of education at the University of Illinois–Chicago. She is author of Suspect Communities: Anti-Muslim Racism and the Domestic War on Terror and A Curriculum of Fear: Homeland Security in U.S. Public Schools.

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