Muslim leaders on Long Island have stepped up efforts to prevent young Muslims from becoming prey to the kind of online radicalization that authorities say led to the Boston Marathon bombings.
The accused bombers were two young immigrant brothers from Russia's Caucasus region who fell under the influence of extremist jihadist websites and turned to terrorism, according to law enforcement officials.
The case has sent a chill through Long Island's Muslim community, along with fear of young people undergoing similar online-inspired radicalization. Dr. Faroque Khan, a leader of the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, one of the region's largest and oldest mosques, said that while the vast majority of young Muslims are peaceful, law-abiding residents who are on the path to successful lives, it takes only one extremist to damage the entire community.
"All you need is one or two loose cannons," Khan said. A physician, Khan said that a couple of decades ago "we used to talk about how to keep kids away from drugs and other influences. Now it's a question of the Internet, basically."
A mosque in Selden has brought in a Muslim police chaplain to talk to high school and college students about the dangers of online radicalization. In Bay Shore, the Masjid Darul Qur'an mosque rushed to open a youth center ahead of schedule. The Westbury mosque is working on a long-term plan to reach out to young people through a school it operates.
Muhammad A. Jabbar, the imam at Masjid Darul Qur'an, said he has never met a young person there who he thought was drifting into jihadism. But after the April 15 bombing in Boston, which killed three people, the opening of a youth center scheduled for this fall was moved up to May 12.
"We want to be pre-emptive," he said. "We want to utilize youth in constructive, positive pursuits instead of getting derailed." The mosque aims to hire a full-time youth director to focus on young people, he said.
Jabbar said he checks in on the Facebook pages of young members of the mosque to see what they are thinking and keeps his eyes open. "We are on the constant lookout, looking for those people, God forbid, that go negative," he said.
Cases of terrorists linked to Long Island are unusual but not unheard of. In July 2009, authorities announced the arrest of Bryant Neal Vinas, then 26. Vinas, the son of South American immigrants, grew up in Patchogue and for about 18 months attended a mosque in Selden. He ended up in an al-Qaida training camp in Pakistan and took part in a bombing attack on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, according to federal authorities.
Another former Long Islander, Samir Khan, lived in Westbury for about a decade, attending W.T. Clarke High School in the East Meadow school district from 1999 to 2003. He later became an al-Qaida propagandist who published the Web-based extremist magazine Inspire. Khan, 25, was killed in a 2011 U.S. drone strike in Yemen.
Nawab Faridi, president of the Islamic Association of Long Island mosque in Selden, said he didn't worry about his two sons, now 28 and 22, becoming radicalized because "I trained them very well."
Plotter's family 'oblivious'Mona Shah, an immigration attorney from Herricks, said she is not worried about her own teenage son. But she said she was representing one family from Pakistan in immigration matters in 2004 when they found out their son had been arrested for plotting to blow up a subway station at Manhattan's Herald Square. Shahawar Matin Siraj was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
His parents "had zero idea their son was being radicalized," Shah said. "The family was just devastated. They were absolutely oblivious he was going and meeting these people."
Shah said young people who are on a successful path in school or work and are socially integrated are less likely to fall into online radicalization than those who are floundering and alienated. Terroristic groups or online sites "go and look for the lonely ones. They look for the ones who are insecure and prey on them," she said.
Yaseen Eldik, 23, a Stony Brook University graduate from Kings Park, said the vast majority of young Muslims on Long Island are driven people who are busy preparing for careers and "feel connected to the fabric of this country."
For someone to fall into online radicalization "really requires social detachment. It requires isolation," he said. "They're just extreme individuals. They belong to every faith on earth."
By many accounts, Samir Khan was a typical teenager when he was growing up in Westbury, interested in video games and playing on the junior varsity football team. But he started developing militant "jihadist" ideas through the Internet, family friends told Newsday in 2011.
His parents tried to counteract it, arranging for respected Muslim imams, community leaders and even a psychiatrist to talk to him. They also forbade him from using the Internet. None of it worked.
In May, the mosque where Vinas was an occasional visitor held a session for about 30 high school students to discuss the Boston attacks. The meeting was led by Nayyar Imam, a former president of the mosque and the first Muslim chaplain to the Suffolk County Police Department.
"These things have to be addressed," Imam said. "If we don't talk to them, someone else will give them crazy ideas."
Imam and Faroque Khan said part of what they tell young people is that if they feel frustration, they should express it peacefully. "A lot of people are angry. There's no question about that," Khan said, citing grievances such as anti-Muslim discrimination and U.S. drone strikes overseas in which innocent people are sometimes killed.
But "there are ways to channel your anger, your energy. Instead of harming other people, be helpful," Khan said. He suggests young people contact their elected representatives and the media or do some public service such as volunteering at a soup kitchen.
Imam said his biggest concern is not young people who come to mosques but those who are not actively involved.
"These kids are under the radar," he said. "You can't even identify them."
To help develop a plan to reach them, Imam said, he visited the Islamic Circle of North America in Queens last month, which has done extensive work with such young Muslims.
On May 28, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a civil rights organization, held a briefing at its Washington headquarters with terror experts and Muslim leaders on how to combat online radicalization.
'Soul-searching' after Boston"The Boston bombings have inspired serious soul-searching within the American Muslim community and beyond, so that we can understand the dangerous forces that lead to such evil acts," said the group's head, Haris Tarin.
Mosques and mainstream Muslim institutions are not "conducive" places to "jihadi" ideas, Tarin said. Instead, disaffected youths "kind of go off on their own and go into the cyberworld," he said.
Tarin said his group is compiling a community guide to assist people in handling those they think may be edging toward extremism. "If a guy seems like trouble, instead of kicking him out, bring him in, talk to him, make sure law enforcement is watching him," he said.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the alleged Boston bombers, had visited a mosque in Cambridge, Mass., and upset leaders who ejected him for verbal outbursts. But they were not alarmed enough to alert law enforcement.
"A kid might not talk about violence. But he might have ideas that can lead to that path," Tarin said.
In such cases, rather than kick them out, mosque and community leaders should monitor them and engage them about their grievances, said Hoda Elshishtawy, the group's legislative and policy analyst. If the talk turns violent or there is suspicious behavior, authorities should be notified, Tarin and Elshishtawy said.