Local communities should be more active in programs aimed at ending violent extremism, top government officials told an international conference convened in Kuala Lumpur to help counter the Islamic State’s (IS) radical views.
By working with communities, governments can help nip IS-perpetrated violence in the bud and hasten the rehabilitation of militants jailed for their deadly actions, the officials said on Monday, the opening day of the two-day conference on "Deradicalization and Countering Violent Extremism" hosted by Malaysia.
David Gersten, a senior official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, asked delegates to learn more "about how we can effectively work with communities to prevent these tragedies from happening in the first place."
For example, he said, a local community could be trained to reveal any "observable warning signs that indicate an individual may be moving towards extremist violence."
"This might include helping community members and parents understand how to notice a young person who is justifying the needs for violent action based on terrorist propaganda, gathering money, such as by selling electronics in order to finance international travel, or applying for a passport with the intent to travel to a terrorist-held territory," he said.
Some of these behaviors may be noticed by close friends and family members before an individual drifts toward violent extremism, Gersten said.
"When family and friends are alerted to concerns, it is important that they report to the proper authorities, including law enforcement," he told the meeting in Malaysia's capital.
Malaysia: Enlisting clerics and ex-radicals
Ministers and officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the 10-member bloc’s strategic partners – the United States, France, Australia, Britain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, China and Italy – are attending the meeting.
Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told delegates that "preventive solutions" requiring deeper involvement of the community – in addition to punitive action – were needed to contain militant extremism.
He said Malaysia was engaging Muslim clerics, or ulama, and former terrorists in an integrated program to help rehabilitate those detained without trial under strict laws.
The ulama "have better influence over local communities and are considered to be more authoritative in giving the correct explanation of jihad from the religious perspective" while the ex-terrorists "can be good role models and are able to persuade former comrades to leave their misconceived struggle."
Zahid said local communities were also critical for the reintegration of released detainees into society.
"We need to ensure that the risk of being radicalized again is eliminated or greatly reduced during reintegration."
Australian officials said that Canberra's programs to counter violent extremism were aimed at reducing the community "vulnerability" to such influences, among other objectives.
Australia has developed a range of training and educational projects for families, schools, communities, institutions and frontline professionals to build awareness of radicalization, they said.
"We firmly believe that a strong, educated and empowered community is the key – the key to prevention and if necessary, the key to rehabilitation," according to an Australian paper presented at the conference.
‘Information is the key’
Aside from community involvement, intelligence sharing and cooperation among countries are key to combating the IS threat, officials attending the conference said.
"The more we cooperate and share our intelligence on radical and violent extremist activities, the easier it will be to suppress dangerous extremism and prevent future violence," Thai Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda said.
He said that intelligence was crucial for preparedness and response by government officials and law enforcement on the threat posed by radical ideologies.
"We believe that information is the key," he said.
Japan's envoy for countering terrorism and organized crime, Tsukasa Kawada, told the conference that Muslim communities should play a more effective role in combating the IS threat.
He said that when IS took two Japanese hostages last year, Muslims living in Japan – many of whom had come from Asia – appealed for their immediate release and prayed at mosques for their safe return.
"Seeing these actions through TV news, a number of Japanese people were impressed by their kind gestures and sympathized with them … most Japanese had little contact until then with the Muslim community which is relatively limited in Japanese society," Kawada said.
Since then, exchanges between Muslims and local people have increased, he said, adding that such efforts would help create "an inclusive society" and "contribute to the prevention of radicalization."