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Denver Emerges As Model For Countering ISIS Recruiting Tactics


The FBI learned a lesson after stopping three Denver girls from joining ISIS. Today on Morning Edition, we heard how the terrorist group convinced the teenagers to go to Syria. They got as far as Germany. That's where authorities intercepted them. The FBI learned of their plans only after their fathers contacted the bureau. And here's the lesson - if law enforcement hopes to stop people before they join terrorist groups, it needs the cooperation of Muslim communities in the U.S. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Just days before those three Colorado teenagers skipped school, boarded planes and tried to go to Syria, local Muslim leaders gathered in an office tower in downtown Denver. They met with a U.S. attorney, John Walsh, to talk about, among other things, how the community might resist ISIS's recruiting efforts in America. Less than a week later, they were calling Walsh about the girls.

JOHN WALSH: Some leaders from the Muslim community reached out to me - to us - and asked for help. They were scared. They were concerned. They were shocked, frankly, like any parents would be.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Like any parents would be, he said. That actually represents a change for law enforcement. For years, Muslim leaders have criticized authorities for racial profiling, planting undercover agents to mosques and strong-arming members of the community into becoming confidential informants. The relationship is changing. Officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department say those heavy-handed tactics don't work. Instead, the new strategy calls for bringing together people from across ethnic and religious lines. Countering violent extremism is discussed at the same time as online stalkers, cyber bullying or gangs.

WALSH: The approach is to basically help build resilient communities.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Kareem Shora works at the Department of Homeland Security's civil liberties division.

KAREEM SHORA: Communities that are aware of the threats we face as a society - for example, online predators are part of that threat, as well as violent extremists who choose to recruit susceptible individuals...

TEMPLE-RASTON: Now, DHS and the Justice Department aren't doing this just to be nice. The case of the Denver girls got their attention. U.S. authorities know that they can't track all the Americans who are thinking about joining groups like ISIS, so they are counting on the communities to let them know. The girls had been reunited with their parents when Kareem Shora, with Homeland Security, landed in Denver. He was part of a team that organized a town meeting to educate parents. He explained to them how ISIS works...

SHORA: They basically have facilitators who are engaging not just in English, in many different languages - western European languages - operating almost as travel agents.

TEMPLE-RASTON: ...And how ISIS makes it easy for anyone even considering going to Syria.

SHORA: Individuals even ask, you know, are there clean bathrooms? Oh, yes, but it doesn't clean themselves. What kind of clothes should I bring? Well, I brought North Face because it's so and so. Make sure you get boots that are blah, blah, blah. I mean, it's that level of conversation where they're being told how to prepare.

TEMPLE-RASTON: I wanted to see if the relationship with the Muslim community was really as good as DHS and the FBI made it out to be. So I went to see Qusair Mohamedbhai. He's a civil rights attorney in Denver and the general counsel for the city's largest mosque, The Colorado Muslim Society.



TEMPLE-RASTON: I'm here to see - oh...


TEMPLE-RASTON: I know what you look like. (Laughter).



MOHAMEDBHAI: Qusair, hi.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Nice to see you.

MOHAMEDBHAI: So you're in a friendly place...

TEMPLE-RASTON: Mohamedbhai was one of the first people to find out that the three girls had tried to go to Syria. He usually hears about any contact the community has with law enforcement because of his role at the mosque. He also knew that the girls' fathers had called the FBI to try to get the girls back.

MOHAMEDBHAI: The families were forced with the choice of evils - one, the thought of their children being killed in Syria or potentially having to be incarcerated here for breaking the law - and they chose the latter.

TEMPLE-RASTON: They chose to trust the FBI. Leaders in the Muslim community say that trust has been rewarded. They were told that the girls won't face any terrorism charges.

MOHAMEDBHAI: And fortunately, law enforcement here and the U.S. Attorney's Office made extraordinarily responsible reactions to this and treated these three girls as victims, rather than part of something much more nefarious.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Mohamedbhai says the relationship between law enforcement and local Muslims in Denver is better now than it was, say, five years ago.

MOHAMEDBHAI: If there are people that are trying to hurt our children, then there will be active and open cooperation.

TEMPLE-RASTON: U.S. authorities have tracked more than 150 Americans to Syria. And about a dozen of them, they say, are known to have jointed ISIS. Denver came close to adding three more. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

CORNISH: Tomorrow on Morning Edition, law enforcement's new dilemma - what to do with Americans who try to go to Syria to join ISIS? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.

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