I attended an April 2011 educational exchange between U.S. Marine Corps Civil Affairs leaders and a community outreach expert who has worked both for Los Angeles County and the City of Irvine. Both California areas serve communities with diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, and challenges.
Although she never worked specifically counter-radicalisation or stability assistance issues, this outreach specialist’s recommended best practices can apply both to community extremism prevention strategies and to rehabilitation/de-radicalisation/de-mobilization/defection/de-escalation/desertion/desistance/reintegration/reinsertion programs.
Many of the best practices will mirror methods already in use in counter-radicalisation outreach programs. Counter-radicalisation practioners may find some of the points even tired and obvious. But it is my hope that these recommended best practices will serve to reinforce the efficacy of similar methods or spark new applicable concepts for counter-extremism and stability operations.
The following are community outreach recommendations:
- “No wrong door” policy—Any government receptionist at any level in every agency provides the same service and is trained in the same way to assist and direct walk-ins and call-ins with needs.
- Narratives and messages are as simple as possible—assuming high illiteracy and word of mouth being a primary community communications means. And each message is provided in multiple languages.
- One priority is correctly identifying and working through indigenous/natural (not necessarily official) key community leaders. Even on skid row in Los Angeles County there are trusted elders amongst the homeless communities to whom people go for advice and information. An elder’s counsel can range from what police officers to trust to what public programs are effective.
- To facilitate volunteers to conduct self-initiated community outreach, one should support mechanics and nothing else. Do not attempt to lead or steer. Such mechanics include providing administrative resources such as phones, free space, technical help, and free transportation.
- Often what a walk-in presents as an initial issue is just scratching the surface. For example a woman may seek job training but eventually may admit to being in an abusive relationship and needing legal assistance, police interdiction, and personal financial training to be independent. This comes through repetitive interaction without the government representative aggressively digging for information.
- What a community asks for is not always what is needed for stability and development. Although this is a standard assumption in stability operations, it may be important to note the ubiquity of this concept in any environment.
- One must always analyze possible tertiary effects. For example, if too much time, effort, and money are invested into one group others may feel disempowered and become disgruntled. Although this seems to be a common theme in the development, outreach, and stability operations communities, it should be noted that there are recent historical examples to the contrary. For example, a number of commanders in Iraq before and during the Anbar Awakening observed that favoring one tribe often propelled other tribes to act as the original to receive similar aid. In other words healthy competition can trump disenfranchisement in some cases.
- An outreach program must be able to actually provide a service. If one over promises then one loses credibility, and if one under promises one risks losing initial interest.
- Involving the young, at the first appropriate chance, is critical—giving them a purpose, belonging, and home may make them less susceptible to seeking security in an illicit group later on. One way to raise youth action teams is to give youth outreach duties to underworked staff. In the city of Irvine, for example, park staff had few duties during normal work hours, so the city government gave them the secondary task of building youth interaction teams. It is important to note that there is no evidence that youth outreach mitigates violent radicalisation in any environment. But for purposes of stability and anti-crime, tenacious youth outreach may be helpful.
- Positive messages appear to trump negative ones for youth. Telling kids not to smoke, for example, is unhelpful because it may engender curiosity and rebellion against authority. However, al-Qa`ida negative basic narrative of “Islam under attack” appears to have staying power even though it is inherently unconstructive.
- To train young persons to be ready for the work force, have them begin by volunteering—providing them the soft skills to operate in the workplace such as following orders, dressing appropriately, and being punctual.
- When empowering volunteers, it is important to ask volunteers about their skills and goals—to consider demand over supply and invest in volunteer management.
- Food is a key motivator for meetings and liaison. Therefore, it is important to learn meal protocol for different communities.
I hope these notes from a constructive meeting between those about to deploy to Afghanistan and an expert in inner-city outreach may sprout an idea or two (or at least re-motivate ideas already used) in radicalisation prevention and stability assistance.