U.S. attorney lays out efforts against Islamic extremists

U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner speaks to members of the press outside the federal courthouse in Sacramento on Tuesday, February 12, 2013 following the sentencing of Scott Salyer. Known in the press as the “Tomato King,” Salyer was sentenced to 6 years for racketeering in his efforts to manipulate the nations tomato market.
U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner speaks to members of the press outside the federal courthouse in Sacramento on Tuesday, February 12, 2013 following the sentencing of Scott Salyer. Known in the press as the “Tomato King,” Salyer was sentenced to 6 years for racketeering in his efforts to manipulate the nations tomato market. RBenton@sacbee.com

How do you prevent the Islamic State and other violent terrorist groups from operating on American soil? By identifying lone wolves and disaffected youths ripe for recruitment, battling the extremists in cyberspace, and building bridges with local Muslim communities to identify potential threats from within, says one of those involved in the effort, Sacramento U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner.

Last week, Wagner was among a handful of U.S. attorneys invited to join President Obama’s summit on countering violent extremism. Obama told Wagner and 300 other invitees from 60 nations the key to stopping groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State (also known as ISIL and ISIS) is by preventing them “from radicalizing, recruiting or inspiring others to violence.”

Before Obama appointed him U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California – 34 inland counties from the L.A. County line to the Oregon border – Wagner served as the district’s hate crimes and anti-terrorism coordinator. Upon his return from the summit, he immediately began to put some of what he learned into action.

Q: What’s our first line of defense?

A: Saturday, my office and the California Office of Emergency Services held a “community resilience exercise” at Sacramento State with 30 members of the region’s Muslim community and 30 representatives from the FBI and eight local law enforcement agencies. The president said the best solutions are going to be community-based, because the community has the best information on who might be vulnerable to recruitment. The Muslim community here is very concerned about this and want to be seen as part of the solution and not part of the problem. We want law enforcement to have an understanding about the hurdles the community is facing, and to see what we can do to share information and build relationships so we can get ahead of some of these issues before something bad happens.

Q: More than 3,400 westerners are believed to have joined the Islamic State. In March, Lodi-area resident Nicholas Teausant, a former member of the California National Guard and recent convert to Islam, was arrested for allegedly trying to go to Syria to join ISIL. How are these groups recruiting, and why are they successful?

A: They are very heavy on the Internet and very sophisticated, and once they get people on the line they work them very assiduously to try and draw them in. A mayor from Belgium (at the summit) said 28 people had gone from his town to the Middle East. Much of the Muslim population in Europe is somewhat socio-economically marginalized from the mainstream. As the president said, poverty doesn’t cause terrorism, but if you don’t have a lot of economic opportunity and you feel marginalized, it can create a fertile environment for recruitment. About 150 Americans have gone or tried to go to join ISIL. The Muslim community here in the U.S. is very highly educated, and they tend to be more socio-economically successful than their counterparts in Europe.

Though Obama said ISIL has portrayed itself as “holy warriors” – the only ones standing up for Islam – a lot of people who have been recruited didn’t have a long-term, religious involvement. A lot of this seems to be a teenaged fantasy – “We have all of these buffed-out warriors, we’re changing the world, we’re sticking it to the man.” They have an appeal to angry, disaffected young people, and that really doesn’t have much to do with religion. The president said this really may be a long-term, generational struggle because there’s so much recruitment going on.

Q: What are the challenges facing law enforcement?

A: There’s sort of an online battle going on. ... A lot of young people ripe for recruitment by ISIS and al-Qaida tend to be isolated and shut out grown-up voices around them, and the only effective way to reach these young people is to present an alternative point of view. Last year, after two hostages and their captor were killed during the siege of a Sydney delicatessen, and a Muslim woman was afraid to ride the bus because of the potential backlash, the Twitter hashtag #IllRideWithYou became a worldwide phenomenon and was part of the social media groundswell in support of the Muslim community.

Bill Braniff, executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, said we’ve seen a drastic rise in the number of lone actors who radicalize on their own, and that’s problematic because they can move to act quickly... . If you have groups of people acting in concert, it’s easier to uncover it. The Muslim community can play an important role in helping law enforcement separate radical noise from radical action, and when it’s something to be worried about and when it’s not. If the community can be successful in stepping in first, law enforcement will never have to be involved.

Q: Are Californians in danger from the Islamic State and al-Qaida?

A: I would say it’s not a very high threat. It’s important that people be alert without being frightened. ISIS has been saying to people online and elsewhere if you can’t come to Syria, take action in your own communities, attack police, government buildings. They’re mostly recruiting people one at a time, and there are limits to how much one person can do to arm people, mobilize and do damage without law enforcement intercepting it.

What I’m more concerned about is some sort of backlash crime here – something gruesome will happen in Syria and someone will take revenge on the local community. Obama has said repeatedly, “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.” Religion doesn’t cause terrorism; people cause terrorist attacks. With grisly story after grisly story, there’s been a growth in Europe of xenophobic, anti-Islamic political movements, and one of the people at our community project yesterday said negative feelings toward Muslims in the U.S. are even worse than they were after 9/11. This summit and our “resilience exercise” project were about partnering with the Muslim community so they are better situated to defend themselves from recruitment and radicalization and know where to turn when they need help.

Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.