United States Special Operations Command hosted Sovereign Challenge VII, June 6-9, in the heart of the nations’ largest Arab- American community, Dearborn, Mich.
Sovereign Challenge is a USSOCOM Strategic Communication sponsored international engagement program focused on defending the sovereignty of nations and how extremism threatens that independence. This conference, titled “Minorities and Ethnic Groups: Separation, Assimilation and Radicalization,” highlighted the possibility of extremism potentially arising out of ethnic and minority groups within a nation.
Stan Schrager, Sovereign Challenge Coordinator, says the conference provides a venue for representatives from participating nations to foster relationships and share national policies, positions, and ideas related to sovereignty, security and associated threats. Participant feedback helps the conference progress. This year’s event included more than 80 government and civilian attachés from 55 countries, as well as influential community, political and religious leaders.
According to Brig. Gen. Peter Resch, Austrian Defense Attaché, the interaction among participants and the lessons learned from each Sovereign Challenge event can is applied globally. The evolution of the conference has been valuable.
“I would describe Sovereign Challenge as a platform for exchange of views,” said Resch. “What is real interesting to me is the changing of Sovereign Challenge over the years. In the beginning it was a military platform, the participants were soldiers and we always wanted to integrate more and more law enforcement and political attachés. When I look now to this conference, it’s what we wanted, and this is great.”
The cultural diversity of Sovereign Challenge VII attendees creates an opportunity for a variety of perspectives to be presented. Throughout the four-day conference, 26 guest speakers and subject matter experts from diverse backgrounds discussed the conference topics and how they affect their country.
“I would say that nearly all nations deal with this issue – in some it is more significant than others –but in today’s world, the movement of ethnic and national groups and minorities, which is common, clearly alters the character of a nation,” said Schrager. “These groups may remain separate though they may reside in our nations, they may assimilate, or they may become radicalized – we call it ‘homegrown terrorism’.”
The conference’s location complemented its theme. Of approximately 100,000 people residing in Dearborn, nearly 45,000 are Arab-Americans. The city’s diverse heritage is traced back to the early 20th century, when Lebanese immigrants came in large numbers seeking employment in the local automotive industry. Since that time, immigrants from Iraq, Yemen and other Middle-Eastern countries have also immigrated, creating a melting pot of Arab-American culture.
Attendees visited the Arab-American National Museum, the first museum in the world devoted to Arab- American history and culture. Robert Stockton, professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, Dearborn campus, spoke with the conference guests regarding Arab integration into Dearborn and the effects of 9/11 on the community.
Although the Arab-American community in Dearborn grieved along with the rest of the nation, they were instantly viewed as a threat.
“I wish I could take you back to September 12th,” said Stockton.”I can’t tell you the level of shock. It was chilling. We didn’t know what was happening next.”
In addition to the AANM, Dearborn is home to the Islamic Center of America, the largest Muslim mosque in North America. These notable facilities, supported by the cities unique ethnic identity, are a paradigm of Arab integration into America’s heartland.
The documentary film, “Fordson the Movie: Faith, Fasting, and Football” features another Dearborn landmark, Fordson High School. The film looks at the school’s football players and how a student body comprised of 95 percent Arab-Americans impacts the team, especially after 9/11. Conference attendees watched a private screening of the film.
“I think it’s an interesting lesson,” said Schrager. “It’s about more than American football, obviously. It’s a parable, a metaphor. I think it fits in very well with the theme of this conference about minorities and ethnic groups and their valued place in American society.”
The following day commenced with a panel discussion titled the “Dearborn Experience.” Its focus brought community leaders, including the mayor, chief of police and local imam, together to educate attendees on issues affecting Dearborn.
“Muslims live in the Unites States in peace. And especially in this beautiful city, the city of Dearborn,” said Imam Sayid Hassan Al-Qazwini, the religious leader at the Islamic Center of America. “They are as normal as any other American individual or citizen. They love America. And they eat like Americans. They dream like Americans. They laugh like Americans.”
As part of the afternoon agenda, the conference focus shifted from local demographics to international terrorism concerns. Peter Bergen, CNN national security analyst and author, presented his global view on violent extremism, particularly the future of Al-Qaida in the Middle East after the death of Osama bin Laden.
“Al Qaida and its allies have been losing the war of ideas in the Muslim world for a long time,” said Bergen. “The death of bin Laden and the Arab Spring have accelerated this process.”
Panels and discussion groups accompanied the conference presentations, allowing more in-depth communication among participants.
“These discussion groups are intentionally structured to have a mix of countries talking about these topics together,” said Schrager. “It’s a way to continue the main conference topics in a more intimate, informal environment. The ongoing dialogue via these conferences, seminars and other appropriate forums enhances security within the global environment.”
Before a private tour of the Henry Ford Museum, Adm. Eric T. Olson, USSOCOM Commander, spoke with the audience and expressed his gratitude for their interest and participation in Sovereign Challenge VII.
“We do intend that Sovereign Challenge is a forum for discovery, for casual conversations, for building relationships, for learning from one another,” said Olson. “I believe it’s a very important topic to address, at this particular conference, at this particular time. We’re dealing with issues that strike at the soul of who people are and what they stand for. I would say that it is not always about what people think; it is often about what people believe that is the subject of this conference. I thank you for being here. I thank you for being active participants.”
The following day commenced with a presentation titled “Homegrown Terrorism: Prevent, Pursue, and Engage.” It focused on ethnic and minority groups increasing within global capitals and suburbs. According to Dr. Shanthikumar Hettiarachchi, a religion, conflict and social cohesion lecturer and consultant from Sri Lanka, many homegrown terrorists are second or third generation citizens searching for a new identity. These individuals are often mentored from terrorist groups overseas with a religiously motivated agenda.
According to Hettiarachchi, these ideals must be countered early in order to prevent future attacks. Communities must study, analyze, monitor, pursue and engage these individuals. Community engagement prevents radicalization in a practical way. It encourages people to fall back on community to counter terrorism, because violent behavior proves unproductive. It helps individuals understand and respect people’s values, cultural norms, social etiquette and behaviors.
“We cannot fear, it will defeat us,” said Hettiarachchi. “Victory is no entitlement, but an obligation to our future.”
With terrorists using the Internet as an open forum to spread their violent propaganda worldwide, law enforcement agencies are playing a larger role in efforts to counter terrorism.
International Law Enforcement attachés provided insight into issues they face. In addition to various community engagements, a European Union program called “Check the Web” finds, translates and assesses various documents posted on extremist websites. Check the Web is used as an information portal for nations to analyze information from more than 400 web sites worldwide. It includes statements, videos and audio files from multiple terrorist networks. Used to combat terrorist propaganda, it is increasingly recognized within the EU Member State Counter Terrorism community as a point of reference for documenting extremist web sites and material. Once credible information’s discovered, it’s shared with international agencies to counter the terrorist threat.
The conference agenda featured other topics including U.S. border security and programs designed to de-radicalize extremists before, or even after, they have committed a terrorist act.
The final day of Sovereign Challenge VII continued the issue of countering violent extremism. The first panel discussion titled “Use of Sports to Reduce Radicalization of Youth,” encouraged bringing adolescents together through team sports to promote positive values and life skills. These values, such as leadership, cooperation and conflict resolution, enhance relationships within a diverse community. Over time, coaches and staff become positive role model to the players. Various countries worldwide have implemented sports programs, reducing stress and tension among youth and providing constructive alternatives to gang activity and violence.
Concluding the conference presentations, a representative from the Department of Homeland Security discussed the importance of protecting Americans and their values, regardless of ethnic background. Additionally, he spoke about community involvement and public engagement programs fostering domestic and international benefit.
“One of the specialties of Sovereign Challenge is the global approach,” said Resch. “It’s easy in a region to find agreements to common problems because we have a similar approach to the problem. If you discuss the same problem with someone from Indonesia, you discover a different dimension of the same problem. This is something we very often forget.”
For more information on the Sovereign Challenge program visit www.sovereignchallange.org.