The program, called “Don’t Be a Puppet,” described in a recent New York Times report as “a series of games and tips intended to teach how to identify someone who may be falling prey to radical extremists,” was to launch last week. But the launch has been put on hold, the Washington Post says, after blowback from critics who said it discriminated based on race and religion and focused on Islamic extremism while ignoring the far more prevalent forms of violence facing young people in American schools.
The FBI’s pause offers the bureau an opportunity to take stock of its efforts to detect extremism in children and to look at the blowback such efforts have engendered in the United Kingdom. Some experts suggest that the agency should scale back its efforts or scrap them entirely.
In a statement issued yesterday, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), one of the organizations that had been invited to screen the program last month, praised its suspension, saying that it had “improperly characterized American Muslims as a suspect community,” and would have contributed to “bullying, bias, and religious profiling” of Muslim students if implemented in the classroom.
The idea of profiling students and young people as possible future extremists is not new. This February, The Intercept published internal government documents revealing that the National Counterterrorism Center developed questionnaires, described in a May 2014 document, to allow teachers and social service workers to rate the extent to which children, families, or entire communities might be at risk for “radicalization.”
The United Kingdom has even more experience attempting to root out potential future terrorists in the school system. Beginning as early as toddler age, British teachers are asked to help gauge whether any of the children in their care may be showing signs of potential extremism, although that term has not been clearly defined. As part of this effort, schools have been provided with questionnaires, training and even “anti-radicalization software,” for use in classrooms to help identify students believed to be at risk. Public support for such measures has increased following reports in recent months of British schoolchildren leaving home to join the Islamic State, including three teenage girls who joined the group in Syria this February.
But experts warn that such policies risk stigmatizing young students without actually combating radicalization. “The social science of radicalization tells us that there is no set of indicators that can be used to predict who is at risk of becoming a terrorist,” says Arun Kundnani, a British researcher on radicalization and professor at New York University. The lack of any objective criteria about what constitutes radical behavior “makes testing school students for signs of extremism both absurd and dangerous,” while risking the criminalization of legitimate forms of expression by students.
Furthermore, according to Kundnani, asking teachers to do law enforcement work “fosters an atmosphere of suspicion against Muslim students and undermines norms of confidentiality and trust between young people and the professionals who work with them.”
Yahya Birt, a British academic and researcher on radicalization, also criticized the implementation of counter-radicalization programs in educational institutions, saying that since the government began making such programs mandatory in Britain this year, “We have begun to hear more cases about students being reported, and of profiling being run through schools.”
And indeed the British press in recent months has included stories of Muslim students being taken aside and questioned for expressing support for political causes, including environmental activism, as well as for conducting academic research into terrorism. According to Birt, there is a burgeoning civil society backlash brewing over these cases. “Some resistance is developing among parent groups and universities and even concerned police officers,” he said, “but we are about to get a new anti-extremism bill that is likely going to make matters even worse.”
In the U.S., where ISIS’ message has resonated with at least some young people, one potential path for the FBI is to simply scrap any school-based efforts at preventing the recruitment of children by extremists. Critics argue that bullying is much a greater danger to children than extremist recruiting, and that programs like “Don’t Be a Puppet” will exacerbate the problem. More than half of Muslim students in the California school system experienced bullying and discrimination based on their religious background during the 2014 school year, according to an October study by the California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.
“Part of the FBI’s mandate is to fight bullying, but programs designed to identify potentially radicalized children in schools would almost certainly increase it,” says Naureen Shah, a director at Amnesty International. Such programs, she adds, “create a line between Muslim and Arab students and their peers, marking out for such kids that in order to be safe they have to be apolitical, and that they should expect to have less of a right to freedom of speech and expression than others.”
But it might be possible for the FBI to repackage counter-radicalization efforts so they’re less susceptible to abuse and less likely to produce blowback.
“Education about radicalization should be placed under a larger rubric of internet safety,” says Seamus Hughes, a former National Counterterrorism Center official, now helping to steer George Washington University’s research program on extremism. “Alongside training for teachers about dangers online such as sexting, online bullying and child predators, there could be added a small component on how violent extremists use social media to propagate their message.” Stressing that any classroom component to countering radicalization must take pains to avoid hysteria and prejudice, Hughes also said that the threat of groups like ISIS in the United States is not large enough to warrant a national program on school radicalization, arguing instead that the issue would be better served by a “discrete, case-by-case, localized approach.”