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Noor Salman, Domestic Violence, & Criminal Liability?

Noor Salman, the wife of mass murderer/terrorist Omar Mateen (the man who killed 49 people and injured many others at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, FL in 2016) is being prosecuted for providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization , because she allegedly aided and abetted her husband’s violence. The trial is (or soon will be) underway.  It will be important to pay attention to this trial. It could have far-reaching implications for family members of other perpetrators of mass casualty violence.

According to one news report Salman is alleged to have known about her husband’s plan beforehand and did not stop him. The case certainly has to be more nuanced than that, because I am unaware of a law that puts an affirmative duty on an individual to stop someone from engaging in violence. If such an obligation does exist, then why do we not see more parents prosecuted for gang related violence, for example?

First, what constitutes “knowing” in this scenario? Did Mateen tell his wife “I’m off to attack the nightclub now”? If he talked about hypotheticals wondering “what’s worse, attacking a park or a nightclub?” does that constitute “knowing”?

Either way, what is one’s legal obligation? Do we each have a legal responsibility (I do think we have a moral one) to stop someone from committing an act of violence? Conspiracy to commit violence is a crime. Providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization is also a crime. Knowing that a spouse is going to go out and commit an act of violence on behalf of a foreign terrorist organization and then doing nothing is not the same as taking an overt action to help in the commission of that violence.

Second, is this really the right case to pursue this legal theory? Noor Salman was repeatedly battered and abused by her husband. Domestic violence victims advocates – where are you? Victims advocates know very well, as do many of us who work in the criminal justice system, that victims of domestic abuse often have a very hard time confronting their abusive family member.

Is it material support of terrorism when a battered spouse who is living in fear fails to call the police?

When was the last time a family member of another mass murderer was exposed to similar criminal liability? Were Dylann Roof’s family members or friends prosecuted? How about the family members of any of the school shooters over the last 20 years who were not also killed by their loved one? How about the girlfriend of the 2017 Las Vegas mass murderer – Marilou Danley?

I cannot help but wonder if this prosecution is intended to send a message to the Muslim community: report or face criminal prosecution. Federal prosecutions are very selective, and they are used to send messages about the priorities of law enforcement. I have heard U.S. attorneys say this in public many times.

Of course Marilou Danley and the family members of Dylann Roof are not under the same legal jeopardy as Noor Salman.  Even though their loved ones committed equally heinous crimes, those other crimes are not classified as terrorism. White supremacists and individuals with idiosyncratic ideologies supporting mass murder borne of their personal grievances will not be charged with terrorism even if their intention is to coerce others through violence based on politics or other social issues. But this is an aside that is long overdue to become a main topic of discussion.

In addition to the material support of terrorism charge, Salman is also charged with obstruction of justice. Lying to the FBI is a felony. Lie and you can be prosecuted.  And if you are found guilty you will go to jail. I do not have a problem with this charge.  It is wrong to lie to the FBI or to any other law enforcement officer.

I wonder, though, if this is another case where terrorism charges are touted but convictions are secured on the less sexy and the far less sensational obstruction of justice charge?

I would be leery of taking the prosecution’s word in that case that “justice was served” on the crime of material support of terrorism even if the only conviction is on obstruction of justice. If Salman provided material support then prove it.  Prove it so that we have the necessary legal guidance to advise families as to their legal obligations going forward. We have seen too many instances where terrorism is alleged but not proven.

Still, I do believe we need to do more long before a person mobilizes to violence. It is in our collective self-interest to safeguard our communities. We cannot reasonably expect law enforcement to interdict every assailant. And the law will not allow for – thankfully – the mass surveillance that would be required to make that possible.

These acts of mass casualty violence – whether we label them rampage shootings, school shootings, violent hate crimes, or terrorism – are often instances of targeted violence. There are important similarities in many of these cases.

In about 80% of such cases the assailant told someone about his plans – directly or indirectly – before carrying out the violence. Rarely is it a case of good people suddenly “snapping,” and rarely is it caused by a mental illness. Instead, in many of these cases there are warning behaviors that may suggest an increased risk of targeted violence.

We as a society must become more educated about how to notice these warning behaviors. We must learn to interpret the things we see – which often suggest that someone we know and care for is in crisis – and we must learn to take some preventative, helpful actions.  We can learn strategies to engage someone and persuade them to get help, or if necessary, we can refer them for help anonymously. And when we see a mobilization to violence, we must – as a moral imperative – report it to law enforcement.

There is no way to predict these horrific acts of violence based on warning behaviors, but by noticing, interpreting, and acting it may be that we help that person with whatever he or she was struggling with, and that by itself can contribute to community wellbeing.

While the impetus for a change in our social contract – in how we relate with one another and the responsibilities we have towards one another – may be to prevent future acts of mass casualty violence, the day to day actions that result can be focused on promoting a stronger, more resilient community.


Islamophobia Pretending to be Policy

There are some things that should never make it into even a rough first draft of a kid’s grammar school essay let alone a policy document from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

This is from the Washington Post:

A recent draft report by the Department of Homeland Security urges authorities to conduct long-term surveillance of Sunni Muslim immigrants with “at-risk” demographic profiles.

The report, compiled in January for U.S. Customs and Border Protection acting commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan and published Monday by Foreign Policy magazine, looks at the people behind 25 terrorist attacks in the United States from October 2001 to December 2017 and, based on their demographics, recommends Muslim immigrants be monitored on a “long-term basis.”

Seriously? That’s absurd. It’s religious profiling, it’s unlawful, and it will do nothing to make our communities more safe.

Click here to check out the draft report on the Foreign Policy magazine’s website.

Lose It! App

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I started using the Lose It! app on my iphone last week. It makes a difference.

In just a few days I’ve come to recognize that I eat way too much even as I view my consumption as healthy and moderate.

Logging all the things I eat everyday is a rude awakening to just how many calories are in the foods I eat.  The calories add up fast too. Counting calories (and the macro-nutrient levels) helps me make better food choices (so far).

A breakfast sandwich from McDonald’s (I love the steak, egg, & cheese on an english muffin) barely fills me up and it has over 400 calories!  That’s just shy of 1/4 of my daily caloric limit (the calorie limit recommended for losing 2 pounds per week). I would need to eat two of them to be reasonably satiated, and that would make the rest of the day painful as I’d have only about 900 calories left!

Also, seeing the number of calories in the food I eat and keeping track of them is motivating me to eat at home rather than at restaurants.

Every person is different. I’ve read often that we don’t need to count calories as much as we need to eat healthy and cut out processed foods, sugar, and carbs. I agree that if I were eating a very low carb diet then I wouldn’t have to count calories, but barring that strategy the calorie counting is necessary.

The app is only useful if you commit to logging in everything eaten every day – even on bad days.  I had one of those last week, but it helped to log in the food so that I could look back on it and see what pushed me over my limit.

I can see myself using this app not just to lose weight but to manage it and my macro-nutrient levels in the future after I achieve my weight loss goals.


Lessons on MLK Day

Almost exactly one year ago I was at a civil rights forum at Elgin Community College where we heard from experts from the FBI, the ACLU, and the Illinois Coalition on Immigrant and Refugee Rights and discussed how we as a community can secure civil rights for all in the coming years.

Reflecting on the past 12 months, one take away I have is that this is going to be much harder than I ever imagined. I’m stunned by the number of people around me that I care about and work with regularly who support politicians and policies that are antithetical to civil rights.

It’s easy to write off people we don’t know personally as racist or bigoted when they say or do things that make us cringe. The folks that cause me the greatest heart ache are those whose outlooks and perceptions support racist or bigoted policies and who are close to me personally. I can’t bring myself to see them as racist or bigoted, but their views can sometimes be extremely ugly.

I don’t talk about politics with these folks.  We talk about sports, fitness, football, and wrestling. We’ve avoided any conversations about the whole kneeling during the anthem protests in the NFL.  For the most part these folks are not on social media with me, and so they don’t see or hear my political opinions. But from time to time comments are made that give me clear indications of where they stand on the issues of the day. Their opinions are shaped by perspectives and information that I see as grossly inaccurate and sometimes downright wrong.

I need to find a way to bring them other perspectives in ways that make it hard for them to demonize these other points of view.

I think I’ve been pretty good about doing my part to promote civil rights vis-a-vis public speaking and writing in my own small way. I think the challenge going forward, however, is getting out of my comfort zone and educating those around me with information that is accurate even if it challenges their notions of what is right and wrong; and I need to do it in way that does not destroy the underlying relationship.

Gettin’ the real “skinny” on my fat numbers

I don’t feel as fat (note: I said “as fat”) as the standard charts say I am. These charts are used by doctors and they’re usually pretty firm in their opinion that the charts are right.

These charts use a person’s height and weight to identify one’s body mass index or BMI.  BMI is a percentage that tells us what percent of our total body weight is made up of fat. BMI is a measure that can tell a person whether she/he is within a healthy range or at risk of ailments related to obesity. One thing to note is that every person has to have some fat (essential fat) in the body. I’ve read that for men it is 2-5% and for women it is 10-12%. Here is what the BMI calculator at the Centers for Disease Control says about me:

CDC BMI Calculator

Obese!  Yikes! That is worse than being called fat in my book. But I don’t think of myself as obese. These calculators can’t be right!

I did some research into bodybuilders.  Arnold Shwarzenegger (yes, the actor who was in his early career was perhaps one of the greatest bodybuilders ever) weighed 235 pounds at 6’2″ tall. According to the same BMI calculator Shwarzenegger was – during his prime – at 30% BMI.  Here are the results:

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Here is what Arnold Shwarzenegger looked like at 6’2″ and 235 pounds:


Does he look obese? I think not. In this picture Arnold is probably at 12-13% BMI (that’s my ballpark guess; he’s not shredded but he is very lean).

I’m using Shwarzenegger’s physique and stats to point out that these calculators do not take into consideration a person’s muscle mass (or rather, they assume a very average amount of muscle). For those of us who strength train this can be problematic. That was my contention for myself.

To get an accurate measurement I did some research and found that one of the most accurate ways of determining one’s BMI is through hydrostatic underwater weighing. The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Human Performance Laboratory defines this as follows: “hydrostatic underwater weighing, or hydrostatic testing, determines a person’s total body density using Archimedes’ Principle of displacement. Hydrostatic underwater weighing has been considered the gold standard for body composition assessment.”

The image atop this post is the testing tank.

I went into the UIC Human Performance Laboratory last week and had myself tested. The test confirmed what I believed to be true, but it also gave me specifics that I can use to improve myself. Here is what the test showed:


According to the hydrostatic weighing at UIC Human Performance Laboratory my current BMI is 27.4%***. My fat-free mass is 166 pounds which is 8 pounds more than what the height-weight charts suggest I should weigh (with a 18-20% BMI)!

I’m glad I got this test done. It gives me the kind of details that can boost my effort at self-improvement. As they say “if you can measure it, then you can improve it!” That observation applies in many aspects of our lives including our health and fitness.

I would like to get down to a BMI level where I am below the average but still not necessarily at the fitness athlete levels. According to the folks at UIC Human Performance Laboratory I need to lose 33 pounds to achieve a BMI of 15%.

This is my goal and I’m giving myself until June 30, 2018 to reach it.

*** My hunch is that this testing has some margin of error because the way the test is done. If the individual being tested does not follow the pre-testing dietary guidelines or does not execute his part of the test (where one is required to exhale as much air as possible while submerged), then the numbers can come be off by a bit (likely the fat-free body mass being a bit greater than what it really is).

Happy Holidays! Happy New Year!


Dear Friends,

I want to take this opportunity to wish everyone a very happy holiday season.  To my Jewish friends, a belated Happy Hanukah.  To my Christian friends, Merry Christmas! To my friends who celebrate Kwanza – Happy Kwanza.

The Afeef household doesn’t celebrate any of these holidays as part of our own religious tradition – we are Muslims. But that doesn’t stop us from feeling happy and festive as you all celebrate. We care deeply for our friends (near and far, old and new), our neighbors, our co-workers, our children’s teachers, coaches, friends and families – all the people whose lives touch ours for the better.

After our last youth wrestling practice before the holiday break earlier this week one of the other dad-coaches wished me a Merry Christmas and then he kind of checked himself and said “or Happy Holidays, you know what I mean… .” I looked at him, smiled and said “Merry Christmas.” I know he and his family celebrate it. There is absolutely no need for him to feel awkward for saying “Merry Christmas” to me. I know where his heart is, and I hope he knows a bit better now where mine is too.


One of my friends at the office asked me if I had finished my Christmas shopping.  I said no, not yet. He responded by saying he was kidding and that he knows I don’t celebrate Christmas. But in our home we do give gifts to our neighbors, our kids’ teachers, their bus drivers, and their coaches. My wife got gifts for the folks who work with her. I explained this to him without a lot of preaching, but I will explain why here.

In our lives growing up as minorities in America we’ve experienced bigotry, but we’ve experienced a lot of love too. We want to teach our children to show love and gratitude to others, and we want to teach them that respecting others’ faith traditions takes nothing away from our own religious convictions.

Our neighbors, the women and men who teach and coach our kids, and the folks who take our kids to and from school safely every day mean a lot to us, and during this wonderful season where some of the best sentiments are expressed (joy to the world, peace on Earth, unity, and diversity to name a few), we want to contribute to their celebration of the joyous season.

We’ve been doing this for a long time now, and while we give expecting nothing in return, these simple acts of kindness have been returned manifold. Our friends and neighbors never forget to wish us well at the start and end of Ramadan for example. From time to time neighbors have gifted us baskets of goodies at the end of Ramadan too. I cannot begin to convey just how much that means to a Muslim family in America in these times.

My children and the children they are growing up with, I hope, will be better human beings because of these little things we do for one another today.

Let’s hope, pray, and work for a better and very happy new year! Adversity can make us stronger, so I’m guessing we’re all a lot stronger going into the new year! I hope 2018 brings more kindness, love, civility, compassion, and openness for everyone!

Junaid/Coach J


Strength Gains without Weight Gain…


A recent (Fall 2017) milestone

In my youth I was in a hurry to get big and strong. In my middle age I’m struggling to stay strong and get smaller (not smaller really, but lean; I’m not interested in huge muscles as much as strong ones too)!

I recently saw a video of a guy bench pressing over 400 pounds at a body weight of 154. The guy looked fit but if I’m honest, I would not have guessed that he was THAT strong. Once upon a time I not only wanted to be strong but to look it too.

Today I would love to be lean (or just a lot less fat actually), strong as an ox, and capable of running steadily for miles and miles.  Big muscles are no longer important so long as they are really strong.

In my adult life my weight has been up and down.  When I turned 40 I hit my lowest point by hitting my highest weight of 260 pounds (I started college at 175  and finish at 200; 190 pounds was my best weight in my mid-20s), and I was the weakest I’ve been in my adult life as well.

I took up running and dropped down to 200 pounds.  I still had fat around the belly but I was a lot healthier.  With running and an Atkins-type diet I kept the weight off for about 4 years.  Then I injured a knee, stopped running for over one and a half and packed on about 30 pounds.

For about 18 months now I’ve been lifting and running.  I know I’ve replaced some fat with muscle as I’ve been able to fit into some of my smaller sized clothes (yes it’s sad but true – I have a range of clothing to accommodate my size fluctuations), but it’s not nearly enough. I am, however, a lot stronger than I’ve been in a long time (since my early 20s).

It feels so awesome to go to the gym, lift hard for 60 to 90 minutes along with 20-30 minutes of light cardio, and then eat lots of food (most of it good some of it real bad). But at 48 years of age this isn’t a healthy way to live (the latter part – eating lots of food that is).

So I’m about to make a public challenge to myself – weeks before the new year and to be started immediately (and therefore less likely to be targeted for a “new year’s resolution” ridicule), and this is it:

12 MONTH GOALS (deadline 12/21/18):

  1. Bodyweight: 185 lbs
  2. Run 7 miles on a treadmill at 6 MPH on a 2.0 incline
  3. Bench Press 310 lbs x 5 reps
  4. Squat 250 lbs x 5 reps (butt to calf full squats)
  5. Deadlift 350 lbs x 5 reps
  6. Clean 225 lbs x 5 reps
  7. Standing Military Press 225 lbs x 5 reps

For reference purposes here’s where I’m at right now (12/21/17):

  1. Bodyweight: 227 lbs
  2. Run 2.5 miles on a treadmill at 4.5 MPH on a 2.0 incline
  3. Bench Press 250 lbs x 7 reps
  4. Squat 145 lbs x 5 reps (butt to calf full squats)
  5. Deadlift 205 lbs x 5 reps
  6. Clean 135 lbs x 5 reps
  7. Standing Military Press 145 lbs x 5 reps

Some of my goals seem more ambitious than others.  My lower body is much weaker than my upper body (yes, I was like so many others who focused on the upper torso and severely neglected the legs and core) so my squats, deadlifts, and cleans are pretty weak. Add a bad knee lower back issues over the years, and you can get a sense of why I’m a bit more tentative with these lifts.

The weight loss plan is going to be based on some basic principles:

  1. Calorie reduction (slight)
  2. Low carbs
  3. Lots of green vegetables
  4. Protein shakes using casein protein
  5. Front load the carbs in the mornings and very low carbs after 3pm

I’ll revisit this in four to five weeks.






Youth Wrestling: keep it fun, retain more athletes


We had our first tournaments of the 2017-18 season for our youth wrestling club this past weekend. We took almost 20 kids to a beginners tournament. These tournaments are open to kids who are in their first or second year of wrestling. It is a great idea: give new or newer wrestlers a chance to compete in an environment where they can wrestle other kids who are very close in experience and skill levels. Done well it gives the kids a chance to get used to competition without a lot of stress, and it gives the kids a chance to have fun. I like seeing a new wrestler do his or her best and walk off the mat smiling even after a loss.

This is very important for wrestling in America. In order for this sport to be strong and to grow, and for kids to maximize the benefits it offers, we need to make sure kids coming through youth programs learn to love it so that they will stick with it at the high school level and beyond. Wrestling is a sport that just about every young person can participate in through high school, and it is a sport that can build grit in young student athletes like no other sport can.

So why push a kid so hard in his/her elementary and junior high school years that he/she becomes a youth wrestling champion only to walk away when he or she is poised to get the most out of it? We shouldn’t.

When my kids first started wrestling a few years ago I struggled watching them lose match after match. They started between 3 to 6 years after they first became eligible which meant they were often wrestling kids with more experience. I wanted to encourage them and keep their spirits up, but I also wanted to push them to work harder at practices so that they could experience the thrill of winning. At the time I felt winning was the only way to build self confidence.

I don’t think that way anymore, and thankfully for my sons my thinking evolved relatively early on. They’re still in youth wrestling, and now I try to focus on improvement and fun.

I understand the thinking that goes “winning is fun, and when you win more and more you’ll love the sport.” But if you push so hard early on before it’s fun, then there is a  chance youth wrestlers will choose to leave the sport long before they’ve developed a mastery of the techniques needed to give them the chance to win. Most folks believe that if you love what you do, then you will become good at it. That same logic ought to work with youth wrestling too.

Ideally I would have started my kids in wrestling when they were 5 or 6 years old. If I could do it over again, I would also keep them out of competitions until they had 2 years of wrestling practices under their belts. Not every youth wrestler will benefit from this approach. Some kids need the excitement of competition to stay excited. Other kids will pick up the skills quicker than others. But for those that do not fall into these two categories a brief delay in competition may be helpful in the longer run.

Instead of competitions I would have more practices, and those practices would feature more games to keep it fun, and fitness competitions to encourage them to take their conditioning and body weight exercises more seriously.

In America, at a time when wrestlers have the resources they need to compete at the international level consistently well, the attrition rates from youth wrestling to high school wrestling are reportedly around 70%. That means 7 out of 10 youth wrestlers choose not to go on!

We can do better than that by a lot. If we keep more kids in wrestling in high school, then those kids will learn lessons that will serve them well through out their lives even if they never step foot into a college wrestling room after high school. But some of those kids whom we otherwise would lose to attrition may go on to wrestle in college, and some of them will go on to even bigger stages around the world!

CVE critics are right and CVE is still necessary

This essay first appeared on on July 27, 2015 | Modified for this blog on October 23, 2016

by Junaid M. Afeef & Alejandro J. Beutel

The Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris in January 2015 seemed to renew the Obama Administration’s push for implementing countering violent extremism (CVE) as an alternative paradigm to the excesses of the War on Terror. However, many civil liberties groups, including several within the American Muslim community, have raised important criticisms and concerns about CVE that must be addressed to the satisfaction of the public.

There are lessons to be learned from the failed and ineffective government-led CVE efforts of the past, and it is necessary for American Muslim communities to take up the challenge of developing programs that incorporate these lessons in order to prevent Muslims from succumbing to ISIS’s powerful online recruitment efforts. The legitimate grievances of Americans — including Muslims — cannot be a reason to not do the right thing.

With ISIS’s social media onslaught raging and Islamophobia at home helping ISIS make the case for an “Us vs. Them” mindset, the future portends the possibility (but not the inevitability) of more young American Muslims succumbing to ISIS’s call to engage in political violence. The right thing to do in this case is to save as many of young people from hurting others and themselves. And, that requires community-led, research-informed and law enforcement-partnered programs to prevent recruitment in the first place. It also requires programs to successfully intervene when a person has begun traveling down the path towards political violence.

What the Government Got Wrong

Countering violent extremism (CVE) is a concept. It is also a generic name for various programs developed and deployed over the last decade. Some of these programs suffer serious design flaws. The biggest flaw of current and previous programs is that they existed within a law enforcement framework. This led to misunderstandings in the least egregious cases, and serious breaches of civil liberties in other instances.

In several communities the same law enforcement agency attempting to conduct community outreach to Muslims simultaneously deployed informants into mosques seeking to entice individuals into engaging in criminal acts. In other cases law enforcement used “community outreach” as a cover for engaging in warrantless intelligence gathering when there was no basis for obtaining a warrant.

In a post 9/11 era where every threat, no matter how remote, must be thoroughly investigated, law enforcement is struggling to find insights into who is most likely to engage in political violence. Using questionable research, many CVE programs were based on the notion that greater religiosity was evidence of movement into extreme ideas, which in turn, was believed to be the gateway to violent action. This “conveyor-belt” theory has been roundly criticized, even by proponents of CVE. The notion that there is one pathway towards political violence or that there is a particular reason why individuals choose to engage in political violence, has been discredited as well.

Preventing Targeted Violence on the Community’s Own Terms

Experts in behavioral psychology, psychiatry and other related fields, who focus on terrorism, acknowledge that very little is known about why individuals choose to engage in political violence. However, they also note that there may be other indicators that can help narrow the scope of potential threats. Not surprisingly, these other indicators are similar to those that relate to other types of criminal or antisocial behaviors.

Rather than wasting time, money and legitimacy with communities on fixing flawed programs built on questionable research, there is an opportunity to develop a new program focused on preventing targeted violence, which is more appropriately framed as a public health and human services issue. Instead of exclusively seeking to preempt every act of political violence (that law enforcement agencies increasingly acknowledge is untenable), this new approach would seek to help those who are most susceptible to recruitment and will work to re-direct them off the path to violence.

This approach, based on  fairly well researched studies in the context of juvenile delinquency and preventing mass shootings in schools and public places, will accomplish this by assessing at-risk individuals who are brought to the attention of community-led prevention and intervention programs by parents, teachers, friends and, in certain instances, by law enforcement. These assessments, performed by a “crisis intervention team” comprised of community members, social workers, mental health professionals and others as deemed necessary, will then identify any psychosocial deficits that may be interfering with the at-risk individual’s cognitive abilities to the extent that he or she believes that killing innocent people is a rational course of action.

At that point, working in coordination with social service providers, healthcare professionals, community-based mentors, and religious advisers, the identified deficits can be ameliorated and the at-risk individual may then be better equipped to re-direct him or herself away from a path of violence. Approaching at-risk individuals to re-direct them away from political violence does not negate the vitally important role of law enforcement in ensuring the public’s safety. If these programs can reduce the pipeline of individuals committed to political violence, then law enforcement’s job may become more manageable and our communities will become safer.

This is not ground-breaking thinking. Violence prevention efforts have often sought to identify and address risk-factors that contribute to individuals engaging in mass shootings and gang violence. It is also not a simple task. Ideally, these community-led programs will partner with academics to evaluate the effectiveness of these efforts, and whenever possible, these studies will seek to identify what works and what does not work.

Furthermore, an effective targeted violence prevention program, even when developed and led by the community, has to coordinate with law enforcement. That will require trust. This is why the concerns raised by civil liberties organizations must be addressed effectively and quickly. The threats are ongoing, and law enforcement agencies are themselves recognizing that they need help from the communities to stanch the flow of potential recruits. It is in the best interests of public safety that law enforcement be able to collaborate with communities when individuals are on their intelligence radar but have not yet committed any crimes.

Community Introspection on Current Threats

Some American Muslims are interested in, and are buying into, ISIS. This is a fact. There have been enough American Muslims who have gone abroad to fight to make this fact very clear. More recently, there have been a number of recruits who are turning their violent focus inward toward American soil. The shootings in Texas and the alleged plot in New York City are a few recent examples. In addition to the American Muslim cadre of foreign fighters are the ones who have been indicted and convicted of terrorism or related offenses.

How many young people need to screw up their lives and put the public’s safety at risk before American Muslims see that they need to take care an active role in addressing this problem?

It is true that there are other threats to our collective public safety in the form of hate crimes and political violence committed by white supremacists and others, and these acts of violence must be addressed as well.  However, American Muslim community members are better situated to address the threats created by ISIS’s online recruitment efforts, as the targets of this recruitment are all often Muslims, and this why this particular form of political violence must be a priority of American Muslim communities.

The other threats noted above must be effectively addressed by law enforcement not only because they are statistically more likely to erode public safety, but also because these other forms of political violence are used by ISIS in its recruitment narratives.

The work of civil liberties groups in raising public awareness of government overreach is invaluable. Many of the issues raised by these organizations must be addressed. However, the need for effective prevention and intervention is urgent, and alternative strategies for preventing political violence must be intelligently and diligently pursued. Seeking to protect the most vulnerable members of American Muslim communities from becoming killers or convicted felons or both makes sense in every instance.

Junaid M. Afeef is a Partner at the Truman National Security Project and the former Executive Director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. Alejandro J. Beutel is a Researcher for Countering Violent Extremism at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, College Park.  The views, opinions and positions expressed by Alejandro Beutel are solely his and do not necessarily represent those of the START Consortium.  The views, opinions and positions expressed by Alejandro Beutel are solely his and do not necessarily represent those of the START Consortium.

CVE in the Illinois Muslim Community – Presentation at Community Builders Council

On Friday, March 6, 2015 I gave a presentation on countering violent extremism (CVE) within the Muslim community in Illinois. I would like to thank Dr. Azher Quader and Community Builders Council for inviting me. Thank you also to Sabeel Center in Des Plaines for hosting the event. The following is an overview of my comments (taken from the prepared comments):


The specter violent extremism scares me. As an American Muslim parent, the fear of young Muslims becoming violent extremists is of paramount interest and concern to me. I recognize that violent extremism emanating from the Muslim community is not nearly as big a problem in America as other forms of politically motivated violence. Still, I focus on the Muslim community because it hits closest to home, and there is something I can do about it.

Domestically, white supremacists, sovereign citizen groups, and other groups are responsible for far more politically motivated violence than American Muslims. There is not much I can do to stop people in those groups. I hope that law enforcement will continue to interdict these groups and individuals before they cause harm. Violent extremism coming from the American Muslim community is something I can work on, and that is why it is on my radar.

The subject is really an interdisciplinary undertaking that involves the collaboration of community members, law enforcement, psychiatrists and psychologists, violence prevention service providers, civil liberties attorneys, criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors, researchers, and academics. I have a strong background (22+ years) as a Muslim community leader. I am a parent who is concerned about these issues, I have 22+ years of legal experience in the area of criminal law and civil liberties, and I have work in the field of criminal justice policy (which engages many of theses specialties).

I am here today to share my observations and to have a good discussion about what we can do together.


At the end of my presentation I will share some ideas that I believe will help the Muslim community deal more effectively with the threat of violent extremism emanating from within. The recommendations, not necessarily listed in order of priority, are as follows:

Teach Muslim children that being a good Muslim and being a patriotic American go hand in hand.


Develop a definition of patriotism (allegiance to country) that goes beyond symbols, and which is based on celebrating and using the fundamental freedoms that separate the United States from other countries, and which is based on service to others to make our country better.


Inoculate Muslim children beginning at a very young age from the deviant interpretations of Islam used by ISIS and Al Qaeda and their affiliates through online recruiters by giving them an accurate, well-reasoned understanding of Islam; focus early on those verses that are frequently taken out of context by extremists, from the start.


Develop and support American Muslim scholars and use their knowledge, expertise, and familiarity with American culture to articulate accurate and well-reasoned teachings of Islam (particularly on those selected verses most often taken out of context by extremist recruiters); make this information, in writing and in audio and video, available online so that these show up at the top of every search result on Islam.


Repair the mistrust between Muslim communities and law enforcement so that the community feels comfortable reporting suspicious activities without fear of being ensnared themselves, and so that law enforcement will feel comfortable diverting Muslim youth that appear on their radar before they reach a point that can only be handled through a criminal prosecution.


Muslim organizations must develop a wide array of social, religious, and mental health services that can help at-risk youth who need assistance such that help and assistance can be provided to Muslim youth whether they are identified by law enforcement or through the community’s own social service safety nets.

Violent Extremism within the Muslim Community

In the past few years we have seen a number of young Muslims ensnared in the criminal justice system for engaging in, or attempting to engage in, violent extremism. This is a problem the community must address.

Is it really a problem?

Our national security strategy views violent extremism inspired by Al Qaeda and ISIS as a priority. There have been numerous instances of violent extremists coming from the American Muslim community committing violent crimes domestically, or going abroad to fight with terrorist organizations. The New York Times estimates 70 to 100 American Muslims have joined ISIS.

In northern Illinois over the past 3 or 4 years 3 individuals have been indicted in federal court on terrorism related charges. In just the last few weeks, six individuals were indicted on charges of providing material support to terrorist groups in Syria, and of those six individuals, two reside in the Chicago suburbs.

The fact that the Muslim community is highlighted in America’s national security strategy makes it a priority for me. That does not mean that the community should not push back on the assumption that violent extremism inspired by Al Qaeda, ISIS, or its affiliates is a real problem in America. Additionally, the community should be wary of law enforcement efforts over the last 14 years. Some of the cases brought against American Muslims on terrorism-related charges have been questionable. Some of the investigative tactics have been abusive (click here for a very informative report by Human Rights Watch).

Fortunately, there are numerous organizations challenging the assumptions, as well as some of these cases and tactics. These groups include Muslim Advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union. We are truly fortunate to have strong civil rights and civil liberties groups constantly challenging the government on these issues.

That does not mean, however, that we cannot simultaneously look for this problem in the Muslim community, examine what we find, look for solutions, apply solutions that make sense, and measure the impact our efforts are making in stanching the flow of young people from our communities become violent extremists. The examples cited above are enough to make me concerned. I believe it is a problem, and I believe that it is a problem that the Muslim community must take an active role in addressing.

How is the Muslim community supposed to counter violent extremism?

Given that I believe we should be addressing violent extremism coming from the Muslim community, the next question I have is “How?” This is a challenging question. I do not believe there is a proven method that simply requires implementation at the grassroots level to solve the problem. In fact, this is a topic that is vigorously debated.

The individuals most at risk within our community are young people. I believe that our efforts should begin with a focus on the youth. Our youth are not just the high school and college aged individuals, but also the twenty-something members of our community as well. This is the community on which we should focus. A friend of mine who has been doing some great work for the Muslim community for decades made the following comment during a presentation he made on CVE: he said “I don’t do CVE, I do Muslim youth empowerment.” I think re-framing our discussion at the community level this way will help us think in positive terms.

We have a lot of young Muslims in the community. How can we identify which of them are at risk? Do we look at the causes of violent extremism? Do we even know what are the causes?

What causes a Muslim to become a violent extremist?

The big question everyone is asking is “What causes a Muslim to become a violent extremist?” My observation is that it is not clear what causes a person to become a violent extremist.

The initial thought was that Muslims who become violent extremists are ideologically motivated. Some argue that it is the religion of Islam itself that is to blame. Others argue that it is Salafism, or “Islamism” that are to blame. Clearly religion plays a role, but is it the cause?

Experts (click here and here for more information) argue that the reasons for becoming a violent extremist can vary from individual to individual. In order to stop young people from becoming violent extremists, we should be looking at trying to narrow the field of people who are risk for becoming violent extremists.

How are Muslim youth being recruited to become violent extremists?

The FBI says that ISIS recruitment is being tracked in all 50 states. It appears that the majority of that recruitment is online. It is done in the shadows. This makes it very hard to intercept youth who are in fact engaging with online influences.

If we don’t know why they join, and if the recruitment is secretive, then what can the community do to stop it?

We may not know what causes a person to become a violent extremist, but we can identify aspects of individuals who have become violent extremists, and then we can think about what we as a community can do to reduce or totally eliminate those risk factors. Some have argued that there is a profile of would be violent extremists. Experts believe that identity plays a significant role in pushing an individual towards violent extremism. This is something we can address in our community.

We need to ask ourselves: How can we build a strong identity for our young people? One that is fully Muslim and fully American? The onus for developing a strong and healthy identity among Muslim youth falls upon parents and on the Muslim community, but there is also a role to be played by the broader community as well.

Others have argued that there are various risk factors that create “cognitive openings” (click here and here for more information) that make individuals receptive to the online recruiting messages of ISIS. These cognitive openings can be the result of trauma. There may be parallels in this area with gangs that we can look to for guidance on how this works out in practice.

Looking to research on gangs does not meant assuming that joining gangs and joining ISIS involve exactly the same issues and processes. However, what ever has been learned over the last 50 or more years about gangs may be helpful in understanding the process of recruitment (how, who, why, etc; click here for more information on gangs and violent extremism studies).

We do not have to start from scratch when trying to formulate programs that can counter violent extremism in the Muslim community. Many of the things our community does well already in the arenas of civic engagement, public service, youth enrichment, and inter-religious dialogue (with a fair amount of overlap in these arenas) are excellent forms of countering violent extremism, because they help build strong identity, they teach skills that people can use to work on changing bad policies and for implementing good policies (and thereby giving Muslim youth a means through which to channel their desire to impact change), and they provide a means for engaging with fellow Americans beyond the Muslim community.

Furthermore, there are pilot programs underway in other parts of the country that the Illinois Muslim community can tap into for guidance and for ideas. In Boston, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles there are CVE programs that bring together the local Muslim community, federal and state law enforcement, public schools and other public health and human service agencies, and community service providers all working to identify at-risk individuals and to then provide those individuals with whatever is needed to re-direct them onto a more healthy and productive path and away from the path towards violent extremism.

Each program will be unique to the community it serves so it is not as simple as picking up the template for one of these pilot programs and copying it in Illinois. Furthermore, these programs are in varying degrees of progress so there may not be a well defined program that can be replicated. And lastly, these programs still need to be evaluated through a collaboration with researchers and academics to see what is working and what is not. Nearly everything in these programs sound good, but some things may be more effective then others, and that is one place where research can help create the most effective programs (and thereby maximizing the use of limited resources).

Trying to counter violent extremism is challenging to begin with, and the various shortcomings in the Muslim community exacerbate the difficulty. There are limited resources in the community, and too many of those resources are disproportionately deployed for bricks and mortar projects. What we need are community investments into human resources. Too many of the people doing the work of running Muslim institutions and community programs are volunteers. The few social service agencies serving Muslim communities are underfunded, and in some instances, kept at arms length from the community (because they deal with domestic violence, sexual abuse, and other problems that are perceived to be taboo issues by some). This creates limitations and gaps in the provision of services.

There are still too many anti-American/anti-Western ideas being promoted in our mosques. At the very least these views should be challenged. These ideas (objecting to inter-religious dialogue, promoting Muslim supremacy, and generally promoting a theology that makes living in America untenable) are not what cause Muslims to become violent extremists, but they do have an impact on identity, and that, in turn, may contribute to the transformation into a violent extremist.


The community needs to make a commitment to CVE if it is to do it well. The community needs to acknowledge that Muslims in our community are at risk for committing violent extremism, and that regardless of how big or small this problem is relative to all other domestic violent extremism, it is a huge problem for the Muslim community.We know that calling it “Islamic extremism” is wrong, because the acts of violence perpetrated by Muslims are not condoned by Islam. We’ve known intuitively that it was not Islam that caused Muslims to become violent extremists, and now research is showing that this gut feeling is true. The six recommendations I made at the beginning of my presentation are simply my initial thoughts on what we can do. Once the community acknowledges that this is a problem, then it is up to the community to develop a set of solutions, and to then implement those solutions.


After I gave my presentation there was another hour of discussion between me and the individuals who came to hear my presentation. Professor Inamul Haq was present at the event, and Professor Haq made some very interesting observations that were very relevant to the topic. Professor Haq teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Elmhurst College and at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, IL. His area of expertise is Islamic Studies.

The following is a summary of Professor Haq’s observations:

Religion does have a role to play in making a Muslim become a violent extremist. Because Islam, like any other Religion is prone to a variety of interpretations. ISIS does represent one such interpretation. ISIS does build it,s case from Islamic sources such as Quran, Hadith & opinions of Islamic Scholars of the past , Ibn Taimia & others.This methodology gives them an authenticity in the eyes of it,s followers even when majority of Muslims do not consider it valid. .To understand why someone in the U.S becomes an ISIS supporter one has to look at the progression in the following way. & here I am referring only to religious dimension of the issue.There are & Their can be social /psychological factors which I am not discussing here.

(1) A Particular Theology within U.S. Mosques: local mosques led by Muftis who adhere to a very conservative interpretation of Islam and they influence young Muslims to their religious understanding; the result of this is a worldview that is rigid and unworkable in Western societies, and this leads to various forms of marginalization. This marginalization creates social and economic frustration which leads to scapegoating modernity, which in turn, sometimes leads to anger towards the West coupled with a belief that an Islamic society would eradicate the sources of social and economic frustration. This anger & Alienation in Western society takes the individual to the next level which is radicalization.

(2) Radicalization: the angry or disaffect individuals now see that the only solution to their problems and to the injustices they see all around them and abroad are to create a pure Islamic state. It sees the U.S. and the West in general as corrupt & root cause of every wrong in the world.

(3) ISIS: recruiters focus on these radicalized individuals, gain access to them via the internet through social media, and tell them that the only way to really make a difference is to act on their convictions (those convictions generally being: (a) the U.S. and the West are the enemy, (b) Muslims in the West are sellouts, (c) there is now the re-emergence of a true Caliphate and it is ISIS, and (d) to be a real Muslim one has to act on his beliefs and join a real struggle by coming to Syria or “doing” something wherever he is.

Its wrong to use term Islamic Terrorism because it creates impression that this violence is theologically connected to faith. It is also playing in the hands of ISIS who would want its followers to believe exactly this. However the term “Muslim Terrorist Groups” can be used because we are referring to the “identity” of Group not the confession of their faith. When we say “Irish Terrorists” we do not mean there is something fundamentally wrong with being “Irish”. We are simply referring to social identity of Group.