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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Recruited on social media by the terrorist group ISIS, three Denver-area girls – ages 15, 16 and 17 – boarded a plane for Turkey in October 2014, planning to make their
way to Syria. Law enforcement intercepted the trio during a layover in Germany and returned them home.
The father of one of the girls said there were no warning signs of his daughter’s plan.
“She’s just like any teenager,” the father said in a recent interview with Denver7 TV. “It came out of nowhere.”
The story is one example of a growing number of U.S. teens who have been recruited by ISIS over the Internet and have attempted to travel or have traveled to Syria.
The FBI is moving to combat the trend with programs aimed at students and school personnel – a move that civil libertarians call an intrusion into thought and speech protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Last month, the FBI unveiled an interactive website called “Don’t Be a Puppet” for use in schools to educate teens about violent extremism, both foreign and homegrown, and to encourage students to report suspicious behavior to teachers or others, including law enforcement.
The listed possible warning signs of someone planning to commit violent extremism: “talking about traveling to places that sound suspicious,” “researching or training with weapons or explosives” and “studying or taking pictures of potential targets (like a government building).”
The FBI has also released a 27-page guide for school personnel that encourages them to notify law enforcement when a student exhibits “concerning behaviors and communications – students embracing extremist ideologies and progressing on a trajectory toward violence.”
The website’s examples of international violent extremist groups include ISIS, al-Qaida and Hezbollah, all based in the Middle East. The website doesn’t name domestic violent extremist groups but says they include abortion extremists, animal rights and environmental extremists, white supremacy extremists and militia extremists.
Hugh Handeyside, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, says the FBI wants educators to police the thoughts of students even though their thoughts, beliefs and speech are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“Our schools shouldn’t be mini-FBI offices,” Handeyside says, adding that research shows future terrorists can’t be identified by their thoughts.
The FBI website acknowledges that extremist thoughts are not illegal, and it encourages students to be tolerant and inclusive of all people.
But Handeyside says that is “lip service” to free speech rights, and he notes that the guide for educators warns there is “a very small period of time” between a youth embracing an extremist ideology and acting in furtherance of that ideology.
Handeyside also says the FBI’s efforts to curb violent extremism are focused on American Muslims. He points to a sentence in the FBI guides that says, “Some immigrant families may not be sufficiently present in a youth’s life due to work constraints to foster critical thinking.”
The FBI declined to comment for this story.
The FBI says in its guide for educators that high schools can incorporate a two-hour training on violent extremism awareness as part of their core curriculums. It says it developed the “Don’t Be a Puppet” website for help with that training.
The state Public Education Department requires that schools have plans to address a wide array of safety issues but not specifically violent extremism, says department spokesman Robert McEntyre. He says PED wouldn’t discourage schools if they wanted to use the FBI material.
Rigo Chavez, a spokesman for Albuquerque Public Schools, says he wasn’t able to find anyone at APS who is working specifically on trying to prevent violent extremism among students.
“We do have staff who work in bullying prevention and other related counseling efforts,” Chavez says.
Jo Galvan, a spokeswoman for Las Cruces Public Schools, says the district hadn’t heard of any issues related to violent extremism and hasn’t tapped into the FBI resources.
“Perhaps this is more of an issue in larger urban areas,” Galvan says.
Santa Fe Public Schools didn’t respond to an inquiry.
The FBI website defines violent extremism as “encouraging, condoning, justifying, or supporting the commission of a violent act to achieve political, ideological, religious, social, or economic goals.” It adds, “Many violent extremist ideologies are based on the hatred of another race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or country/government.”
The website says violent extremism organizations “represent fringe ideologies and should not be confused with the beliefs of any mainstream religious, ethnic, or political group.”
Possible warning signs of someone planning to commit violent extremism include “spending a lot of time reading violent extremist information online,” “using code words or unusual language” and “looking for ways to disrupt computers or other technology,” according to the website.
The website advises students to immediately tell a person they trust or a person in a position of authority – such as a teacher, social worker or law enforcement officer – if they are contacted by a violent extremist or come across any suspicious or dangerous behavior.
“High school students are ideal targets for recruitment by violent extremists seeking support for their radical ideologies, foreign fighter networks, or conducting acts of targeted violence within our borders,” the FBI guide for educators says,
The guide says risk factors for students include nutrition, health care, parents, neighborhoods, cultural background and employment opportunities.
“One or several of these factors might affect a student’s coping ability and drive acceptance of violent extremist ideologies,” it says.
The guide says supporters of extremist organizations make contacts through online gaming to assess youth for recruitment opportunities.
“Online gaming can also teach rudimentary warfare protocols, rules of engagement, and other military actions, which can be applied to real-life scenarios such as conducting an act of targeted violence,” the guide says.
The guide says schools can expand their current efforts to identify and help at-risk students to include youths who have shown concerning behavior involving violent extremism. Intervention in extremism cases should involve law enforcement, it says.
“Acting decisively is paramount for educators,” the guide says. “There are limited opportunities for intervention with at-risk youth and schools must be cognizant of this. … It’s imperative schools maintain a compendium of local law enforcement, civic leaders, and trusted partner to aid in developing an individualized school support network and action plan.”