Almost 200 Americans have tried to leave the U.S. to join Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria.
The Federal Bureau of Investigations made that claim this summer at a Senate intelligence committee hearing. Texas has a seen its fair share of individuals attempting to join ISIS; in the last year, the federal government sentenced two men from Austin who were caught trying to join the group.
In another case, a 20-year-old from a suburb near Houston currently faces up to 30 years in prison after he attempted to join, and later returned home. It’s a situation that so concerns the FBI that they’ve decided to roll out a new program designed to help teachers and students identify those who they feel are most vulnerable to extremism.
The tool has received significant backlash from critics who see it as ineffective and a borderline racist program.
Arjun Sethi, adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, specializes in counterterrorism and law enforcement. He says the program is actually a web portal to help teachers identify students who are at risk of becoming violent extremists. The site includes over a hundred slides, questions and pop questions.
“The program is based on what the FBI considers to be early indicators of violent extremism,” Sethi says. “[This includes] students who become angry, students who express an interest in visiting a conflict zone, students who increasingly become isolated, things like that.”
Critics have pointed to a variety of issues, particularly the idea that teachers should profile students. Sethi says teachers in classrooms should not be an extension of law enforcement.
“On the most basic level, if the FBI and local law enforcement are not able to identify violent extremists, what makes them think that students and teachers can identify violent extremists?” Sethi says.
“I would also say that the program is another example of misplaced priorities,” Sethi adds. “So the fact remains that the greatest threat facing America’s schoolchildren today is gun violence, not Muslim extremism, yet there is no web portal regarding gun violence or gang violence. There’s only a web portal regarding students who might one day, in the distant future, perhaps, become violent extremists.”
Sethi says the FBI’s job description does not include profiling potential criminals.
“The FBI shouldn’t be profiling anyone,” Sethi says. “The FBI should only be investigating individuals for whom there is evidence of wrongdoing…. Furthermore, if the U.S. was serious about helping children who were at risk of becoming violent extremists, that should be a program handled not by law enforcement, but by the Department of Education.”
Sethi says after advocates spoke out against the program on Monday, the FBI temporarily suspended it.
“My understanding is that it has not been permanently suspended, and that they are still looking to roll it out later this year,” Sethi says. “I’m optimistic that they are taking our criticisms to heart and will significantly change the program, if not altogether abandon it.
“It overwhelmingly targets the phenomena of violent extremists in the Muslim-American community. [Yet] there is little to no focus on violent extremists that arise from the Neo Nazi community or the White supremacy community. As a consequence, the program in its current form is discriminatory and will end up culminating in bullying and discrimination, just as we saw with Ahmed Mohamed.”