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‘Countering Violent Extremism’ Program Targets Muslims in Alameda County Jails

by Rasheed Shabazz
The Alameda County Sheriff's Office applied for and received a grant targeting incarcerated Black Muslims in Alameda County. The Homeland Security CVE, or Countering Violent Extremism program, has been criticized for solely targeting Muslims as susceptible to violence and extremism, while not addressing the rising threat of white supremacists. "Operation E Pluribus Unum" has been criticized for its focus on incarcerated Muslims. Law enforcement said the program was necessary to support reentry efforts.
In June 2018, Alameda County’s Board of Supervisors approved contracts for a new project to “create a culturally competent and informed network of support … for incarcerated adults in the criminal justice system within Alameda County.” The project, Operation E Pluribus Unum, received $499,125 from the federal Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program. The $10 million grant program is administered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The CVE grant program seeks to prevent terrorism by “building and fostering community resilience to violent extremism recruitment and radicalization,” according to the DHS.

“E Pluribus Unum,” is Latin for “out of many, one.” In the 2016 grant application to Homeland Security, the sheriff’s office wrote that Operation E Pluribus Unum, or EPU, “stands for one community woven from diverse strands” and will focus on many forms of extremism. But civil rights advocates say the project only targets one group of people: Muslims.

“CVE is a problematic government initiative that claims to want to mitigate violent extremism but very frighteningly primarily targets the Muslim community as an exclusive or primary source of violence,” said Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Council of American Islamic Relations, San Francisco Bay Area chapter. She said the money is “tainted” and the project falls short of addressing needs of “returning citizens,” people returning from incarceration.

The sheriff’s office said the grant is necessary to expand local reentry services for all people, including Muslims. EPU is being mischaracterized due to the negative discourse about Muslims at the national level and the CVE program being associated with President Trump. Controversy over the project has led to criticism of one Bay Area Muslim group and their withdrawal from a CVE partnership with the sheriff’s office.

What is CVE? And how did Operation E Pluribus Unum emerge?
CVE’s origins are in the post-9/11 “War on Terror.” Over a decade later, the Obama administration announced the CVE program in 2014 and convened the White House CVE Summit in February 2015. Congress later authorized $10 million to establish the CVE grant program. According to a 2016 announcement on the DHS website, funding would support local organizations to “identify and counter terrorist recruitment and radicalization,” and “build resiliency” in order to prevent extremism from taking root. DHS received 200 applications and awarded grants to 26 organizations, including the EPU project.

Over the past 14 years, Captain Martin Neideffer of the sheriff’s office has worked to provide an alternative model of policing in the unincorporated area of Alameda County called Ashland. In 2004, he founded the Deputy Sheriffs Activities League (DSAL) in 2004, a nonprofit that collaborates with the Sheriff Office’s behavioral health unit which Neideffer oversees, the Youth and Family Services Bureau. Since 2011, the unit has operated Operation My Home Town, an evidence-based re-entry program that provides support with clinical case management, employment, and housing for returning citizens before and after their release from the County’s jails. “The purpose of our grant program is to expand our ability to connect folks in the jail and bring services, such as mindfulness and other wellness and support services, to integrate the evidence based reentry model in an effort to get ahead of all forms of criminal behavior, antisocial behavior, perhaps including the possibility of someone becoming radicalization,” Neideffer said. He said the CVE grant was part a “righteous pursuit” and a “well intentioned commit” to develop community partnerships and provide resources for under-resourced populations, including Muslims in the East Bay.

A few years ago, an acquaintance introduced Neideffer to Usama Canon, a former Muslim prison chaplain and founder of Ta’leef Collective. The Fremont-based non-profit Muslim community organization was seeking to improve its reentry programming at the time and the sheriff’s office hoped to expand its reentry programming and develop relationships with Muslims. The CVE grant program provided an opportunity for a funded partnership, so Neideffer reached out.

According to its website, “Ta’leef Collective provides the space, content, and companionship necessary for a healthy understanding, embrace, and realization of Islam.” Founded in 2005, Ta’leef organizes popular weekly programs, activities, and retreats for active Muslims and “newcomers” to Islam, as well as youth in both its Fremont and Chicago campuses. In 2015, Ta’leef launched a re-entry program and began exploring programming for formerly incarcerated people in 2016.

The partnership began to crystalize in August 2016, Neideffer and Lt. Michael Carroll met with Canon, Ta’leef’s Wellness Director Micah Anderson, and two grant writers to develop a community partnership to “build relationship between law enforcement and Muslim community in Alameda County,” according to documents released by Public Records Act request. Carroll is active in the “Barbershop Forums,” community discussions at Black barber shops which have attempted to spark conversations between law enforcement and the community. Later that month, the sheriff’s office submitted the application for EPU “provide evidence-based, culturally relevant mental health and support services to justice-involved individuals at risk for radicalization” in order to “counter violent extremism in Alameda County,” according to the grant application on the Homeland Security website.

Targeting Muslims?
The sheriff’s office emphasizes that CVE emerged under Obama administration, not Trump, and and that the program goes does not focus on Muslims, but analyses of the grant proposals differ.

The partnership under Operation E Pluribus Unum between the sheriff’s office, Ta’leef, and DSAL would accomplish two goals: creating services to support the reentry of those “who may be susceptible to radicalization and violent extremism,” and strengthening Muslim community relationships with law enforcement. Sheriff’s office staff would “identify individuals susceptible to radicalization and violent extremism” and develop a referral tool to work with those individuals, according to the proposal. Ta’leef would develop a “trauma-informed, evidence-based curriculum” which would then be offered, along with one-on-one counseling, to 60 incarcerated people in Santa Rita Jail in Dublin and the Glenn Dyer Detention Facility in downtown Oakland, as well as 60 reentry clients. Finally, up to 80 participants that complete the curriculum could receive paid internships upon release, administered by the DSAL. To develop police-Muslim relationships, Ta’leef would provide “Islamic sensitivity and cultural awareness trainings” for OMHT case managers and at least 25 sworn sheriff’s deputies. The sheriff’s office would also use social media to “expand awareness of EPU.”

EPU is “clearly targeted at Muslims,” according to a recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice, a law and policy institute at NYU. According to the grant, “Ta’leef will provide services for Muslim clients, both converts and individuals raised in the faith, as well as for people interested in exploring Islam,” while “Inmates identified as being at risk of radicalization by other ideologies” would be referred to case managers or a different, new program. A report in the East Bay Express found the words “Muslim” and “violent” appear 31 times each in the proposal; “extremism” is used 26 times and “radicalization” 12 times. “White supremacists” is mentioned once.

To explain why Black and lower-income Muslims could be susceptible to radicalization, the proposal also cited the “Bay Area Muslim Study,” a benchmark study published by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in 2013. The proposal notes that a third of Bay Area Muslims live in Alameda County including high concentrations of Afghanis and African Americans. “One third of Muslims in the county make less than $40,000 in household income annually with Hispanic, Afghani, and African American Muslims at the lowest end of this economic spectrum,” according to the proposal. These conditions, along with discrimination, hate crimes, and negative images of Muslims in media, and trauma, “a growing majority of Muslims [are] experiencing a tangible sense of disconnect and isolation.”

EPU’s proposal focuses specifically on incarcerated African American Muslims as being potentially “radicalized.” The sheriff’s office estimated that 123 people, or five percent of those incarcerated in the two county jails, were Muslim, based on counts made for Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. While the sheriff’s tracked no specific racial data of Muslims, the proposal states, “the vast majority of Muslim inmates in U.S. are African American converts to Islam.” Although incarcerated Muslims can access Qurans, the Islamic holy book, and participate in Ramadan and Jummah (Friday) prayer services led by Muslim chaplains, they lack access to culturally relevant services before release that would support reintegration in society. Upon release almost 60 percent of all incarcerated people return to neighborhoods with “persistent high poverty,” with higher than county average rates of crime and unemployment, lower income and educational attainment “which increase the risks of alienation, recidivism and radicalization.”

Although there were “no investigations into violent extremism in the last three years from any source,” the proposal said, “we believe it is vital to be alert to potential threats from individuals who are already justice-involved as well as to develop respectful, trusting relationships with Alameda County’s large Muslim population.”

The Sheriff’s office now emphasizes that CVE emerged under the Obama administration, but Operation E Pluribus Unum only exists due to the support of the Trump administration. A week before President Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, then-DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson announced the first round of CVE awardees. Operation E Pluribus Unum was not among the 31 awardees. The incoming Trump administration later froze the $10 million in CVE grants. Trump considered both discontinuing CVE and floated plans of renaming it “Countering Islamic Extremism,” but with a purported rise in terrorism, then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly released a revised list on June 23, 2017. “We are witnessing a global surge in terrorist activity, and in many ways our own backyard has become the battleground,” Kelly said in the press release. Among that list was EPU, a $499,125 award that both included the Sheriff’s Office and focused on Muslims. The Brennan Center study found that CVE grants to law enforcement tripled under the Trump administration.

Ta'leef Collective withdraws from CVE partnership
However, between July and October 2017, the sheriff's office lost their touted community partner when Ta’leef quietly withdrew from EPU, according to a first quarter Program Performance report sent to DHS. When the proposal first came before the Alameda County Board of Supervisors on August 1, 2017, Sheriff Gregory Ahern’s office pulled the item from the agenda without explanation. Although the agenda item did not explicitly associate Muslims with violence, in highlighting Ta’leef’s expertise in “mental health” and “spiritual wellness,” the report implies a need to avoid a “radical” Islam. “[Ta’leef] provides the ideal experience in learning of the Islamic culture and promote an innovative approach in which clients can embrace a moderate translation of the Islamic faith.”

Concern with “biased Trump dollars coming into our region to target members of our community” led Billoo and other civil rights advocates to contact Ta’leef. “We were really concerned that Ta’leef Collective had agreed to partner on the program,” since CVE partnerships with Muslim organizations can give the appearance that the community approves of these programs, Billoo said. She said that Ta’leef agreed to participate in CVE when the program was under the Obama administration, but changed their mind once the President Trump came to power. “The stakes were very different when approved under the Trump administration. It was a relief for us to learn that Ta’leef revisited their decision and had decided that it was not a good idea to proceed.”

A nearly identical agenda item came before to the Board of Supervisors for approval in October 2017. This time, the proposal had a different title and community partner. The EPU grant title changed from “Countering Violent Extremism…” to “Homeland Security FEMA Grant to support community engagement.” Documents associated with agenda item eliminated all direct references to Islam and Muslims. EPU also appeared to have a different community partner: The Mind Body Awareness Project, or MBA Project. Notably, Micah Anderson, director of wellness at Ta’leef is also a program director for MBA Project. This past June, Anderson signed the county contract on behalf of MBA Project for EPU.

Anderson’s role at both organizations has raised questions about Ta’leef’s initial role in exploring the CVE grant, and how and why MBA Project accepted the CVE-funded contract after Ta’leef withdrew from the partnership. It’s unclear exactly how MBA Project became the subgrantee. Although Alameda County contracts over $25,000 require a competitive bidding process, in June of this year, MBA Project received a no-bid contract for $270,000 as the new community partner replacing Ta’leef. Anderson was also part of the initial meeting with sheriff’s staff, Ta’leef and grant writers in August 2016. A memorandum attached to the June 2018 contract states, “MBA project was named in the grant application as a condition of receiving the grant,” however; the original EPU application lists Ta’leef, not MBA Project, as the primary community partner. MBA Project founder Vinny Ferraro is listed as an expert on CVE application. Anderson declined an interview request and to answer questions by email, citing organization policy.

Ann Romero, procurement and contracts supervisor in Alameda County’s General Services Agency did not respond to phone calls or an email regarding the no-bid contract for MBA Project.

With the shift from Ta’leef Collective to MBA Project, it is not entirely clear that the Operation E Pluribus Unum no longer targets Muslims. Throughout the fall of 2017 and the first half of 2018, the sheriff’s office worked to finalize contracts for the project, according to a third quarter performance report to Homeland Security. In June 2018, the Board of Supervisors approved contracts for EPU. The MBA Project contract states, “OMHT is targeting the reentry population that may be at risk of radicalization through a variety of influences: domestic terrorism, white supremacist movements, anti-government extremists, or extremists claiming ties to foreign extremist groups.” The contract for Deputy Sheriff’s Activities League contains identical language, but substitutes that last clause with “extremists claiming ties to Islamic State.”

CVE contractors and activities in Alameda County
MBA Project’s expenses are allocated for services for incarcerated people and preparing and supervising the organization’s staff. Activities include 1-on-1 counseling for 45 incarcerated participants, and 30 for reentry clients; two group facilitators will facilitate six 11-week sessions. Activities would include “re-writing personal narratives, emotional awareness and literacy, radicalization and extremism and its causes, and transforming negative core beliefs.” MBA will offer curriculum to people referred to the program as well as those that sign-up voluntarily at both jails and one reentry cohort through Operation My Home Town (OMHT). Cohorts will be reduced from 15 to 10 participants to provide a “safe container” for the weekly two-hour sessions. Top graduates can return as peer facilitators. MBA will also provide one-on-one individualized spiritual guidance and counseling to participants. Each cohort will end with a commencement ceremony.

EPU will provide those that complete the curriculum paid employment and internships. DSAL will oversee placement. Committed employers currently include Dig Deep Farms, a DSAL-led program, Oakland-based Roots Community Health, and Mirchi Cafe, a halal Pakistani restaurant based in Fremont, according to the contract. MBA will offer three-part training to OMHT case managers to increase understanding of “mindfulness and emotional resilience” and train them on the MBA curriculum. MBA Project will also offer training on CVE curriculum to at least 25 sworn staff. MBA will work with an evaluator to establish a system of sharing appropriate data to support Community Pathways Model.

Of the nearly half million contract, $105,000 is allocated for DSAL, $118,348 for evaluators, Action Research International (ARI), and $49k with the remainder going to the sheriff's office for overhead. In total, MBA Project will receive $270,000 from the project. In 2016, MBA Project reported $252,891 in total revenue in its IRS filing.

DSAL did not include a proposed budget in either the original grant or in the contract approved by Supervisors. As part of the project, the DSAL would provide financial support for emergency shelter, clothing for employment, and hygiene products for participants, according to the contract. DSAL will also act as fiscal sponsor for internships. Neideffer is responsible for processing all contractors’ invoices.

Action Research International will evaluate EPU. The evaluation team includes ARI President Gayle Woodsom, Monica Hargraves, currently involved in evaluating another the sheriff's office effort, and Cecilia Benning. ARI also will subcontract with Jayne Williams to coordinate evaluations, site visits, and data collection, according to the contract. Williams, former principal of the influential Meyers Nave law firm, also participated in the August 2016 meeting between the sheriff's office and Ta’leef, according to internal documents obtained through a public records act request.

Muslim community responses to CVE collaboration
Some local Muslims were surprise that Ta’leef considered accepting funding in the name of counterterrorism, due to the history of the federal government surveilling Muslims and the role that Islam has played historically in transforming the lives of incarcerated Muslims in the U.S., particularly African Americans.

Imam Abu Qadir Al-Amin, imam of San Francisco Muslim Community Center and long-time chaplain in California prison system said that collaboration with DHS could compromise the integrity of an organization. Al-Amin was approached at Muhammad Ali’s funeral in 2016 about applying for CVE funds, but “wasn’t interested in getting in bed with Homeland Security,” he said. For the past 15 years various federal agencies have reported that incarcerated African American Muslim chaplains spread radical Islamic influence, and prisons were “hotbeds for radicalization” in order to increase their own budgets, Al Amin said. “Most of the people that I’m aware of in California that came to Islam after being incarcerated were looking for a way to make improvements to their life.”

Others have have criticized Ta’leef for initially agreeing to a partnership and Anderson for shuffling the grant to MBA Project, despite Ta’leef’s withdrawal due to civil liberties concerns raised by Muslim advocacy groups about EPU. “Ta’leef has never been held accountable for the application,” said Paula Thompson, a graduate student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley who studies Muslim participation in counterterrorism programs like CVE globally. She thought CVE in the Bay Area was quashed last year when she learned Ta’leef withdrew from EPU. Now now voices suspicion with MBA Project since Anderson has leadership roles at both organizations and moved forward as a CVE contractor even after Ta’leef withdrew. Although the language of the signed contract differs from the original grant proposal, Thompson called it “CVE washing.” While the community partner has changed, “the project is still called E Pluribus Unum,” she said. As the survey coordinator for the 2013 Bay Area Muslim Study, she is also disappointed that EPU used information gathered from that study to obtain CVE funds.

Ta’leef Collective’s executive director Diane Stair declined requests for comment and to respond to a list of questions. However, in response to criticism on social media for applying for the CVE grant, Stair emailed Ta’leef supporters on September 11 “Setting the record straight on CVE.” Ta’leef had not “accepted or received any CVE money, according to Stair. “Ta’leef considered and then DECLINED a substantial grant from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office in 2017 … which would have provided funds to deliver mindfulness/wellness services to a largely underserved segment of the population. But after hearing from Muslim leaders in our community regarding their concerns about CVE funding, Ta’leef decided to decline the work and turned down the nearly [half] million dollar grant.” According to the proposal, Ta’leef would have received $270,000. Ta’leef received $1.2 million in total grants in 2016, according to its IRS filing. “Ta’leef does not have a formal relationship with Mind Body Awareness,” according to Stair.

Ta’leef may also have backed out from the project due to concerns about their reputation. A July 2017 “Risk Management Plan” required by DHS lists “community suspicions” that EPU “is unfairly targeting or surveilling members of the Muslim community” as a risk to the project. “In the current political climate, the notion of collaboration” between Muslim community members and law enforcement “may arouse suspicion,” “lead to negative media coverage,” “community backlash,” and “jeopardize the standing and credibility of Ta’leef,” the according to the document. To minimize this risk, the sheriff's office planned to “maximize transparency about the aims and activities” of EPU and “emphasize in all communications that we are not targeting members of any religious or ethnic group as having higher potential for violent extremism.” Since Ta’leef already worked with people of different faiths, participation would be “voluntary for inmates and reentry clients,” the document said. the sheriff's office also “already developed talking points and a communications plan to address these issues,” according to the plan.

Islamophobia and Policing of Muslims
“We are not targeting the Muslim community,” the sheriff's office spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly said. EPU is an intervention to prevent violent “homegrown extremism” of all types. In the same way law enforcement has sought to intervene in communities at risk for committing crime, EPU hopes to prevent extremist behavior, he said. “This is not an intelligence gathering project. It’s a chance to intervene and change an extremist mindset.” People that commit extremist acts of violence feel disenfranchised and alienated from the system, Kelly said, so EPU seeks to build trust through community outreach and building relationships, he said. The goal is to identify extremism, intervene, and prevent people from engaging in “hate crimes” or ideology, and let them know that they “are welcome in the mainstream American culture and we accept them for who they are.”

EPU also echoes recent concerns about the Sheriff’s office reach extending too far into health, social services, and youth programs. Neideffer emphasized that the Sheriff’s Office viewed the CVE grant as an opportunity to expand on its own reentry work with OMHT.

#AuditAhern: Organizations call for transparency from Sheriff Greg Ahern
In the past few months, the Sheriff’s Office has also also been under fire for two deaths at Santa Rita Jail, a lawsuit by a woman who said she gave birth while in solitary confinement, and the death of a woman, Jessica St. Louis, 26, at a BART station after being released from jail at 1:30 a.m. The Sheriff’s Office has previously been criticized for sponsoring the Urban Shield law enforcement and emergency preparedness war games, at which Arabs and Muslims had been portrayed as terrorists.

Beyond the current Islamophobia of Trump’s Muslim ban, reports of rising hate crimes against Muslims, and concerns that Oakland Muslim youth have been entrapped in terrorism cases, there is also a history of spying against Muslims in the region as part of the “War on Terror.” Federal agencies have targeted Bay Area Muslims for surveillance in the past. In 2012, the ACLU of Northern California, Asian Law Caucus and the SF Bay Guardian obtained and published documents through Freedom of Information Act requests that showed from 2004 through at least 2008 that the FBI’s San Francisco office used “Community Outreach” and “Mosque Outreach” programs to systematically gather intelligence on mosques and Muslim religious organizations. FBI agents documented the ideas of religious leaders and worshippers, personal information and identifying characteristics, religious views, travel activities, and the physical locations and layouts of mosques. Twelve of the 20 Bay Area mosques included in a 2007 “Mosque Liaison Contacts” Memorandum were located in the East Bay.

It is unclear what information about currently and formerly incarcerated individuals EPU will be required to share. While mental health professionals and clinicians pledge not to share information about clients, DHS grants Terms and Conditions requires recipients to comply with reviews and investigations and allow access to examine and copy records, and comply with special reporting, data collection, and evaluation requirements. Action Research International will provide evaluations of the program as apart of the project.

EPU is one of three CVE grants awarded by the Homeland Security to California, the “State of Resistance” to the Trump administration. The Los Angeles Mayor’s Office declined CVE money after a lawsuit and “#StopCVE” campaign by activists there. Billoo and other civil rights advocates in the Bay Area said Alameda County should follow suit and return the money.

Despite the conflict over the source of the money, law enforcement, mental health providers, religious leaders, civil rights activists, and formerly incarcerated people interviewed for this story all agree that better support services are needed for returning citizens, including Muslims. MBA Project is still developing the referral tool and the CVE/mindfulness curriculum, according to Neideffer. Due to the project delays, the grant period was extended to November 2019.
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