By Aaron Leibowitz
Apr. 22, 2016 at 12:05 PM
Lieutenant Colonel Scott Mann preaches the power of going local — not for buying groceries, but in America’s fight against the terrorist group ISIS.
Last Thursday, Mann, who served in the United States Army for 23 years and spent much of that time as a Green Beret in the Special Forces, visited Melrose to talk to community leaders about his approach at an invitation-only event at Memorial Hall.
According to Pam Witkowski, a Melrose resident who organized the event with her husband, Dan, the approximately 50 attendees included school principals, teachers, firemen, coaches, nurses, business owners and veterans.
Earlier in the day, Mann spoke to a small group of law enforcement officials at a private event at Mount Hood Golf Club. The Melrose Police Department was not represented, Witkowski said, but two chiefs of police, local and state police officers, and a former Boston Police Superintendent were in attendance.
“They were really attentive,” Witkowski said. “It was great.”
Witkowski said she invited the Melrose Police Department and the city’s elected officials, and Ward 2 Alderman Jennifer Lemmerman and Ward 4 Alderman Bob Boisselle attended.
…informed citizens are paramount to national security… ~ Scott Mann
“They always have been and they always will be,” said Mann, who lives in Florida. “The way we’re going to defeat ISIS starts at a community level.”
Mann believes U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has failed since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and that the country’s continuing “top-down” approach is only putting Americans at greater risk.
A ground-up approach, he argues, is the only one that will work.
“When you take a top-down approach to a bottom-up enemy, all you do is end up pushing the population of those places away from you and into the hands of the enemy,” Mann said. “I’ve seen it time and time again — in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia. When communities can stand up against this stuff from the bottom up, that’s when you actually have an effect.”
ISIS has not carried out any direct attacks in the U.S., although several attackers, including a couple in San Bernadino, Calif., who shot and killed 14 people in December, appear to have been inspired by the Islamic State.
At the same time, the rate of hate crimes against Muslim Americans and mosques in the U.S. has spiked in recent years and tripled in the weeks after the November attacks in Paris, according to an analysis by a California State University research group.
Mann said it’s important for Americans to understand the difference between Islam as a religion and the Islamist extremism espoused by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
At a local level, he said, police and other community members should work to build relationships with people he referred to as “responsible Muslims.”
“You’ve got to come in and practice community policing, connect with people,” Mann said. “You do have to swing a big stick from time to time, but the broader community-level engagement is the best way. The extremists are terrified of that.”
During his time in the military, Mann served three tours of duty in Afghanistan and was also deployed to Iraq and Colombia. According to his personal website, MannUp.com, Mann was an “architect and original implementer” of the Village Stability Operations and Afghan Local Police programs in Afghanistan.
Mann now heads a nonprofit organization called Mission America, whose stated purpose is to reintegrate veterans into society by connecting them with citizens. After the Paris attacks left 130 people dead, Mann shifted the group’s focus to ISIS, which claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Last week, Mann called on Melrosians to sign a “Contract to Protect America” on the Mission America website. The contract outlines 10 key points, including, “we need to understand our enemy and how they operate”; “the current war strategy is not working and needs an overhaul”; and, No. 10, “we must act now.”
“If you’re not familiar personally with ISIS and the broader extremist threat, then you’re leaving it to other people to define it for you,” Mann said. “Don’t sit in the bleachers and just take foreign policy as something you are relegated to follow because your politicians say so.”
Mann walks a thorny line as he conveys the threat he feels ISIS poses to the U.S. On the one hand, he emphasizes that Americans must differentiate between Islam and Islamist extremism. But he also suggests that, if there are indicators that “Islamist extremism is manifesting” within Muslim communities, police should have the freedom to investigate that activity.
He believes “PC,” or political correctness, is making it harder for police around Greater Boston to do that.
“In my conversations with law enforcement at the meeting, I think considerable steps are being taken to reach out to mosques and Islamic leaders in the community, and I applaud that,” Mann said. “I did get a sense of frustration from law enforcement in the trenches that maybe the relationships are not as well-established at that level, and that there are policies and procedures that make it very difficult to investigate. In other words, PC is still out there.”
Witkowski said that after the event at Memorial Hall, people stuck around to buy Mann’s book — “Game Changers: Going Local to Defeat Violent Extremists” — and exchange stories about “brushes” they had with terrorism after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013.
Witkowski’s son was a college student in Boston at the time.
“Those emotions are right there for me,” Witkowski said. “I remember the fear, the hopelessness, the helplessness.”
A few residents who attended the event are already trying to bring Mann back to Melrose in front of a bigger audience, Witkowski said.
Mann praised the Witkowskis’ organizing effort, calling it a perfect example of the approach that he believes will trigger ISIS’s demise.
“They literally put together a police training session and a town hall just out of some grassroots,” he said. “I can come in and talk about ISIS all day long, but it’s really the leadership that Pam and Dan showed that’s going to make the difference.”