By Molly O'Toole
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House, citing concerns al Qaeda militants were actively recruiting Muslim Americans to carry out attacks, unveiled a strategy on Wednesday to combat home-grown extremism by reaching out to local communities.
The strategy includes enhancing engagement with relevant local communities, building law enforcement expertise in preventing violent extremism and countering messages that promote militancy.
"Protecting American communities from al Qaeda's hateful ideology is not the work of government alone," said an introduction to the strategy signed by President Barack Obama.
"Communities - especially Muslim American communities whose children, families, and neighbors are being targeted for recruitment by al Qaeda - are often best positioned to take the lead."
The strategy, which promises to protect civil liberties and avoid stigmatizing any community, said the threat of militancy in the United States was not new and that the government was working to prevent all types of extremism, regardless of its source.
But the plan focused primarily on al Qaeda, labeling the global Islamic militant network as the "preeminent terrorist threat" to the country.
Concerns that al Qaeda militants could recruit U.S. Muslims rose to prominence after a deadly 2009 shooting rampage in which a Muslim American military psychiatrist was accused of killing 13 people and wounding 32 others at Fort Hood, Texas.
Another Muslim American soldier was arrested last week and charged with illegal possession of a firearm. He told the FBI he planned to attack Fort Hood and blow up a local restaurant, according to an FBI affidavit.
The strategy said that more U.S. citizens or residents had been persuaded in recent years to support al Qaeda, whether through financing or active militancy, including some who traveled overseas to train or fight .
"The number of individuals remains limited, but the fact that al Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents are openly and specifically inciting Americans to support or commit acts of violence - through videos, magazines, and online forums - poses an ongoing and real threat," the strategy said.
"Rather than blame particular communities, it is essential that we find ways to help them protect themselves," it said.
It added that the federal government was often ill-suited to intervene "in the niches of society where radicalization to violence takes place" but could work with community partners to help combat such extremism.
The government also highlighted its security successes, namely the assassination of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan earlier this year by U.S. special forces.
At home, the best defenses are "well informed and equipped families, local communities and institutions," the plan said, citing a National Security Strategy statement.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement of support for the president's plan.
"Any effective strategy must avoid viewing the relationship between the American Muslim community and government agencies solely through the prism of national security," CAIR National Director Nihad Awad said.
"(It) should recognize Muslims as partners in projecting the best of American principles and values to the world."
(Reporting by Molly O'Toole; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)