Reporting Terror Suspicions May Not be a Simple Call

Posted Jun 21, 2016

(TNS) - If you see something, say something.

It is a dictum for terrorizing times, and as the carnage mounts, law enforcement is more urgently pressing the public to turn tipster.

But what, exactly, does something mean?

That depends.

"If I have a friend who all of a sudden starts going to the masjid [mosque] five times a day, is that a sign of radicalization - or of admirable devotion?" said Quasier Abdullah, assistant imam at Quba Institute, a school and mosque in West Philadelphia.

Abdullah is hardly the only one pondering such judgment calls. Little more than a month before the Orlando massacre, 50 local faith leaders, including imams, pastors, and rabbis, were invited to meet with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in Philadelphia as part of a federal effort to combat terrorism by opening channels to community groups. He encouraged them to find the alienated youths within their circles, to counsel them away from violence - and, if they persist on the path to extremism, to report them.
Self-surveillance is critical, Johnson told them, "given the global terrorist threat environment we face right now."

Many of those present were "happy to be part of the conversation," but they needed guidance, said the Rev. Nicole Diroff, associate executive director of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia.

"See something, say something - sure," she said. "But what does 'saying something' mean? What does this actually look like? How do we do this? This is a nuanced thing. This is a hard thing. Do we have the right tools?"

Johnson offered them technical expertise, such as help in distinguishing between benign websites and those that aim to radicalize.

Some concerns, however, make self-surveillance a tough sell. Ethnic profiling is one, Abdullah said.

"Our communities have some reservations with the government asking us to report on X, Y, and Z. They are very reluctant when the federal government comes with a mandate like this," he said. "But there is no Muslim community in Philadelphia that I am aware of that, if they see criminal activity, would not report it."

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