FBI anti-extremist website for kids on hold after Muslim, Arab groups protest

© Keith Bedford
Seeking to enlist students in counterterror operations, the FBI created a games website meant to help children identify someone in the process of radicalization. The site is now on hold as some questioned why it focused almost solely on Islamic extremism.

The website, called Don't Be a Puppet, offers users exercises, as described by the Washington Post, or "a series of games and tips," as reported by the New York Times, that aim to teach children signs to watch for that may indicate someone is falling deeper into extremist behavior. As players answer questions correctly, a pair of scissors cut the puppet's strings until it is set free.

"The quiz asked students: What would be activities that would concern the FBI?" the Post reported.

Some of the options included a youth posting on Facebook that she intended to attend a political protest, a young person posting about feeling emotional about something or a youth with a stereotypically Muslim-sounding name who 'posted that he’s going overseas on a mission [and] does anyone want to chat?'" Hoda Hawa, director of policy and advocacy for Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), told the Post.

"All our hands went up, like: What’s with this?” Hawa added.

The FBI would not detail the program or why it decided to hold off on releasing the website, but did offer a statement on Sunday.

“The FBI is developing a website designed to provide awareness about the dangers of violent extremist predators on the Internet with input from students, educators and community leaders,” an FBI spokeswoman said.

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MPAC and other Muslim, Arab, Yemeni and Sikh advocacy groups were briefed on the site by the FBI last month. At the meeting, the FBI also discussed its "Shared Responsibility Committees," which would be groups of community leaders and FBI agents who would share information on particular kids. Participating groups said they voiced concern with the agency, and with the US Department of Justice, over the plan.

“We were all on the same page in terms of being concerned,” said Hawa told the Post. “It seems like they’re asking teachers to be extensions of law enforcement and to police thought, and students as well. That was very concerning to us all.”

During "a very tense meeting" between the groups and the FBI, the law enforcement agency included a tutorial of the program various types of potentially-violent groups and ideologies, as well as some personality swings that could lead to extremist behavior, Abed A. Ayoub, legal and policy director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, told the NY Times.

The FBI said during the meeting that it would reach out to schools to promote participation, and that some school districts in Northern Virginia had already committed, Ayoub said.

“The one that should be involved is the Department of Education. The FBI is overreaching its mission,” Ayoub told the Post. “This kind of thing should come from professionals who create educational curriculum. You don’t just have a law enforcement agency get it out to students without thinking about the ramifications on students in schools.”

The groups at the meeting said the program fails to address issues relating to the common occurrence of school shootings in the US, with most of the emphasis on extremism relating to Muslim or Arab communities.

Domestic extremists, such as white supremacists and right-wing groups, have been responsible for twice as many murders in the US since 2001 as "individuals motivated by Jihadist ideology,"according to a June report by the New America Foundation.

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Reading too much into disaffection or alienation of youth can also be problematic, experts say.

“There is concern this will lead to a high level of self-policing and shut off open debate. If concern about US foreign policy and its impact is considered a sign of alienation, or call it what you will, people will stop talking about that, and that’s counterproductive, because you want safe spaces, rather than pushing kids on-line,” Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told the Post.

Ayoub said he was more concerned about the "Shared Responsibility Committees" plan outlined at the meeting.

“What if committee members aren’t properly trained or have an agenda? There were no uniform rules so each committee could have its own ideas. It’s very problematic,” Ayoub said. “What if the issue is one of mental health? We don’t believe the FBI has a role in this type of work. The FBI should be about protecting the community.”

The Justice Department told the groups that the committee plans were also on hold for now, the Post reported.