“Don’t Be a Puppet”: New FBI CVE Tool Targets Young People

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A report issued by the 9/11 Review Commission in May 2015 concluded that the FBI, as a law enforcement and intelligence agency, is not “an appropriate vehicle” for producing preventative programs for the US government’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program.

However, Laurie Goodstein writing for the New York Times recently reported about an interactive, video-styled program the FBI is set to introduce. The program—developed for teachers and students—aims to train them to prevent young people from being drawn into violent extremism.

Don’t Be a Puppet, the game developed by the FBI, “leads the viewer through a series of games and tips intended to teach students how to identify someone who may be falling prey to radical extremists. With each successful answer, scissors cut a puppet’s string, until the puppet is free.” (NYT)

The game asks students to identify the types of social media activities that “should raise alarm.” “Among the choices were a person posting about a plan to attend a political event, or someone with an Arabic name posting about going on ‘a mission’ overseas. The correct answer was the posting with the Arabic name,” Goodstein described.

This program follows numerous computer programs like Impero “that monitor pupils’ Internet searches online, noting searches for particular Muslim figures and radicalization keywords like “Islamism,” “apostate,” “jihobbyist,” and “YODO” (You Only Die Once) that have been created to help British teachers fulfill their new legal requirement to monitor their students for “extremism,” and Kill-Igil (IGIL means ISIS in Russian): “a new video game has been launched online that allows anyone with the Internet to play as a pilot of a Russian jet fighter launching airstrikes against Islamic State (ISIL) militants.”

Website Stalled After Community Leaders Protest

Although the website was scheduled to go live on November 2, 2015, it has since been put on hold following objections by community leaders representing Arab, Muslim and other civil rights organizations who were given a preview during a meeting with the FBI. It has been reported that those who saw the preview immediately raised serious objections, accusing the agency of having “misplaced priorities,” and asked that the program be cancelled.

In June 2015, the New York Times published statistics that strongly suggest that post-9/11 white supremacists and domestic terrorism have posed a much graver threat than radical Islamic extremists. However, according to a Washington Post article anti-Islam sentiments and hate crimes against Muslim communities in the United States are five times more common today than compared to 14 years ago. A 2010 Gallup poll suggests that about 48 percent of all American Muslims said they have experienced racial or religious discrimination.

Community leaders present in the FBI preview of the program expressed serious reservations, saying that “these programs could result (directly or not) in the religious profiling of Muslim students by teachers and law enforcement, and could also foster a climate of mistrust between students and authority figures, who would serve as de facto informants.” They cited the arrest of Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old who brought a homemade clock to school, as evidence for potential harm that could result from this initiative.

Civil rights groups across the country have also responded strongly to the FBI’s new program, which they believe encourages teachers and students to surveil and discriminate against their Muslim peers, in violation of their First Amendment rights. Bullying and discrimination is already rampant in America’s schools. According to the Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights(Karamah), “this web-based program will only exacerbate this mistreatment and will lead to the ‘othering’ of children of color which will ensure more bullying, bias, and racial and religious profiling.  Arab and Muslim students, and those perceived to be Arab or Muslim will be singled out, targeted, and reported to the FBI. Students who support the Black Lives Matter movement and other social and political causes–First Amendment protected activity–will be singled out, targeted, and reported to the FBI.”

Prof. Arjun S. Sethi of Georgetown University Law Center believes that it’s not a teacher or student’s job to act as law enforcement by vetting potential suspects. Talking to the New York Times, Sethi said:

“Teachers in classrooms should not become an extension of law enforcement. The program is based on flawed theories of radicalization, namely that individuals radicalize in the exact same way and it’s entirely discernible. But it’s not, and the FBI is basically asking teachers and students to suss these things out. The greatest threat facing American schoolchildren today is gun violence. It’s not Muslim extremism.”

Hoda Hawa, the Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Muslims Public Affairs Council said in a statement that, “while we welcome efforts to promote the safety and security of our nation, tools like this that improperly characterize American Muslims as a suspect community with its targeted focus and stereotypical depictions stigmatize Muslim students (or those perceived as such) and can actually exasperate the problem by leading to bullying, bias, and religious profiling of students.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was extremely critical of the program, saying it continues the “government’s pattern of stigmatizing the Muslim community through its [countering violent extremism] initiative and fails to deal with the main threat to students, that of school shootings. The FBI’s job is to protect children of all faiths and backgrounds, not to offer programs that introduce suspicion into their relations with teachers and can lead to stigmatization and bullying by their peers.”