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Fighting terror by building ties

Photo by Christopher Huang/Northeastern University.

A community-based approach to combating terrorism and violent extremism, which has been actively championed by Northeastern University law professor Deborah Ramirez, recently gained a new proponent: President Barack Obama.

Earlier this month, the White House released a policy paper on the strategy, which, according to Ramirez, gives the United States an important set of guiding principles and an overarching framework for fighting terrorism.

For instance, one of the plan’s tenets urges law-enforcement officials to treat community members as partners rather than suspects.

“This new transformational paradigm encourages law enforcement to meet with the community in order to develop the most effective, efficient and collaborative strategies for countering hate crimes, terrorism and violent extremism,” Ramirez said.

The White House echoed Ramirez’s community call. “Protecting American communities from al-Qaida’s hateful ideology is not the work of government alone,” the White House statement said. “Communities — especially Muslim American communities whose children, families and neighbors are being targeted for recruitment by al-Qaida — are often best positioned to take the lead.”

Ramirez, who began building ties with community members and law-enforcement personnel in Boston during the 1980s, currently serves as executive director of Northeastern’s Partnering for Prevention and Community Safety Initiative. The program takes a community-based approach to counter-terrorism, focusing on building partnerships between law enforcement and Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian American communities.

Community members who share tips with police — often through trusted figures, such as clergy members — have helped drive down crime rates in Boston and has become standard practice around the world, Ramirez said.

“This model is even more important when you’re dealing with violent extremism, because you’re not trying to solve a crime after it has been committed,” said Ramirez, who recently discussed community-based approaches to combating terrorism at a conference in Birmingham, England, and has testified twice before Congress about the approach’s benefits.

“You’re looking to prevent something, and that is much, much more difficult.”