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The FBI Has a New Plan to Spy on High School Students Across the Country

Posted on Mar 4, 2016

By Sarah Lazare / AlterNet

EFF Photos / CC-BY-2.0

This piece first appeared at AlterNet.

Under new guidelines, the FBI is instructing high schools across the country to report students who criticize government policies and “western corruption” as potential future terrorists, warning that “anarchist extremists” are in the same category as ISIS and young people who are poor, immigrants or travel to “suspicious” countries are more likely to commit horrific violence.

Based on the widely unpopular British “anti-terror” mass surveillance program, the FBI’s “Preventing Violent Extremism in Schools” guidelines, released in January, are almost certainly designed to single out and target Muslim-American communities. However, in its caution to avoid the appearance of discrimination, the agency identifies risk factors that are so broad and vague that virtually any young person could be deemed dangerous and worthy of surveillance, especially if she is socio-economically marginalized or politically outspoken.

This overwhelming threat is then used to justify a massive surveillance apparatus, wherein educators and pupils function as extensions of the FBI by watching and informing on each other.

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The FBI’s justification for such surveillance is based on McCarthy-era theories of radicalization, in which authorities monitor thoughts and behaviors that they claim to lead to acts of violent subversion, even if those people being watched have not committed any wrongdoing. This model has been widely discredited as a violence prevention method, including by the U.S. government, but it is now being imported to schools nationwide as official federal policy.

Schools as hotbeds of extremism

The new guidelines depict high schools as hotbeds of extremism, where dangers lurk in every corner. “High school students are ideal targets for recruitment by violent extremists seeking support for their radical ideologies, foreign fighter networks, or conducting acts of violence within our borders,” the document warns, claiming that youth “possess inherent risk factors.” In light of this alleged threat, the FBI instructs teachers to “incorporate a two-hour block of violent extremism awareness training” into the core curriculum for all youth in grades 9 through 12.

According to the FBI’s educational materials for teenagers, circulated as a visual aide to their new guidelines, the following offenses constitute signs that “could mean that someone plans to commit violence” and therefore should be reported: “Talking about traveling to places that sound suspicious”; “Using code words or unusual language”; “Using several different cell phones and private messaging apps”; and “Studying or taking pictures of potential targets (like a government building).”

Under the category of domestic terrorists, the educational materials warn of the threat posed by “anarchist extremists.” The FBI states, “Anarchist extremists believe that society should have no government, laws, or police, and they are loosely organized, with no central leadership… Violent anarchist extremists usually target symbols of capitalism they believe to be the cause of all problems in society—such as large corporations, government organizations, and police agencies.”

Similarly, “Animal Rights Extremists and Environmental Extremists” are placed alongside “white supremacy extremists”, ISIS and Al Qaeda as terrorists out to recruit high school students. The materials also instruct students to watch out for  extremist propaganda messages that communicate criticisms of “corrupt western nations” and express “government mistrust.”

If you “see suspicious behavior that might lead to violent extremism,” the resource states, consider reporting it to “someone you trust,” including local law enforcement officials like police officers and FBI agents.

This terrorist threat does not stay within the geographic bounds of high schools, but extends to the Internet, which the FBI guidelines describe as a “playground” for extremism. The agency warns that online gaming “is sometimes used to communicate, train, or plan terrorist activities.” Encryption, ominously referred to as “going dark,” is often used to facilitate “extremism discussions,” the agency states. In reality, encryption is a commonly used form of protection against government spying and identity theft and is often employed to safeguard financial transactions.

Young Muslims are the real targets

At the surface level, the FBI’s new guidelines do not appear to single out Muslim students. The document and supplementary educational materials warn of a broad array of threats, including anti-abortion and white supremacist extremists. The Jewish Defense League is listed alongside Hizbollah and Al Qaeda as an imminent danger to young people in the United States.

But a closer read reveals that the FBI consistently invokes an Islamic threat without naming it. Cultural and religious differences, as well as criticisms of western imperialism, are repeatedly mentioned as risk factors for future extremism. “Some immigrant families may not be sufficiently present in a youth’s life due to work constraints to foster critical thinking,” the guidelines state.

“The document aims to encourage schools to monitor their students more carefully for signs of radicalization but its definition of radicalization is vague,” said Arun Kundnani, author of The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, extremism, and the domestic War on Terror and an adjunct professor at New York University. “Drawing on the junk science of radicalization models, the document dangerously blurs the distinction between legitimate ideological expression and violent criminal actions.”

“In practice, schools seeking to implement this document will end up monitoring Muslim students disproportionately,” Kundnani told AlterNet. “Muslims who access religious or political material will be seen as suspicious, even though there is no reason to think such material indicates a likelihood of terrorism.”

The Obama administration’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program is heavily influenced by its British counterpart, which exclusively focuses on spying on Muslim communities and has been deeply controversial from the onset.


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