EDITOR'S NOTE: Stevan Weine is Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Testimony after Catastrophe: Narrating the Traumas of Political Violence.
By Stevan Weine, Special for CNN
The Obama administration has begun preparing the public for a prolonged war on terrorism that will extend well into the future.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke of an "enduring presence" in Afghanistan to fight terror threats. And the Pentagon's top lawyer said recently the United States will use every tool in its arsenal as al Qaeda continues to operate through affiliates in countries, like Iraq, Mali and Nigeria.
While much attention is paid to lethal efforts, not discussed as much is a broad policy directive undertaken by the Obama administration since 2011 to try to stop terrorism in the United States through influencing attitudes.
Through this policy, the U.S. government engages communities in America under the threat of al Qaeda-inspired violent extremism and develops community-based solutions.
Behind this policy is the widespread concern among Americans over how to prevent homegrown violent extremism and the knowledge that some Muslim-American communities in the United States have been targeted by terrorist recruiters.
By emphasizing building community resilience, this policy underlines the positive attributes of Muslim-American communities often stigmatized in the United States. Doing so has helped open the door to stronger community-government collaboration focused on prevention of violent radicalization.
Collaboration is necessary because the government cannot support resilience in communities under threat either alone or from a distance. That is also why the U.S. government, in part through the Department of Homeland Security, also sponsors research that listens to community members and learns about their history, culture, values, needs, and resources, in order to determine precisely how building resilience to violent extremism could work with them.
In a recent study of the Somali-American community in Minneapolis-St. Paul conducted by myself and my Somali-American collaborator, Osman Ahmed, we found opportunities for entering violent extremism as well as family and community capacities for diminishing those opportunities.
For example, given that the new policies aim to promote "well-equipped" families, we sought to understand what exactly makes a family well-equipped to protect against violent extremism? We learned about Somali-American parents who either talked their children out of going back to Somalia to engage in terrorism or hid their passports. They managed to find a solution, either through family discussion or pragmatically, to prevent their children from going back to the war-torn country they fled 20 years earlier.
Now driven by fear, more parents are doing so, but will it last and will it be enough? What sorts of resources are available to families in this community so that they can come together to help their children? And what is happening to other parents in other communities that have not been shocked into awareness?
What the new policies appear to call for, and what our research results indicate, is that building community resilience to violent extremism depends on sustaining and strengthening (or in some cases initiating) a spectrum of protective resources among youth, families, communities, and organizations.
This could include: identifying and changing family and community values and norms around violent extremism; supporting families and communities upholding values and norms, and; providing direct guidance to youth and families regarding threats and risks. One possible strategy suggested by community members is to provide training and logistical support for community elders to talk with parents and youth about strategies for preventing recruitment.
Several obstacles lie ahead. The first is that nobody imagines building resilience to recruitment without adequately funding essential community building activities (e.g. after-school programs, mentoring programs, community policing, opportunities for civic dialogue). These community capacities are key building blocks for resilience that require government investment not directly linked with security concerns.
This is because Somali-Americans in Minneapolis-St. Paul have a poverty rate of more than 40%. Furthermore, because most moved to Minneapolis after initially resettling in other U.S. states, they were not eligible for federal support to refugees usually given to states for housing, education, job development, and social services.
Another obstacle is that identifying and strengthening resilience will most likely occur slowly. Yet security policymakers are often on a fast track. Building community resilience is inconceivable without both the government and communities thinking and working together long-term in the face of pressures for quick fixes.
A third is that although these new initiatives are promising and indirectly supported by successful prevention efforts in public health and criminology, there is presently no direct scientific evidence for the effectiveness of such programs. To support this paradigm-shifting policy, we need new research that demonstrates which acts of building resilience work with whom under what circumstances and why.
In its second term, the Obama administration, with its forward-looking resilience policy, should continue working toward improving security through community engagement. Government, communities, families, and youth in the United States need to deepen and extend their efforts to work together on building resilience to violent radicalization.
Studies like ours can be used by policymakers to inform and evaluate the new strategies.
Though the recent presidential election helped bring this important new policy directive into public awareness, the task of developing community-based solutions to violent extremism should be considered a generational challenge that is far bigger than any one election and needs to be sustained.