WASHINGTON - The adults thought they had done all they could. They had condemned extremist ideology, provided ski trips and scout meetings, and encouraged young people to speak openly about how to integrate their religion, Islam, with the secular world.
But since five college-age Virginia men were arrested in Pakistan earlier this month after allegedly being recruited over the Internet to join al-Qaeda, many Washington-area Muslims are questioning whether mere condemnation is enough.
Mustafa Abu Maryam, a Muslim youth leader who has known the five arrested men from Alexandria since 2006, said he was alarmed by their decision to go to Pakistan after exchanging coded e-mail messages with a recruiter for the Pakistani Taliban. "I always thought that they had a firm grasp on life and that they rejected extremism or terrorism," Maryam said.
Mosques and Islamic organizations across the United States regularly issue statements rejecting violence and fringe ideologies. But since the arrests, Muslim leaders are scrambling to fill what they describe as a gap in their own connection with young people, seeking new ways to counter the influence of the extremists young people may encounter, especially online.
"I'm really concerned about what the Internet is doing to my young people," said Mohamed Magid, imam at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling, Va. "I used to not be worried about the radicalism of our youth. But now, after this, I'm worried more."
Relatives of the five men have declined to speak to reporters.
"I have to be a virtual imam," Magid said, explaining that his mosque and other Muslim groups and institutions needed a larger and more effective online presence. Referring to extremists, he added: "Twenty-four hours, they're available; I want to be able to respond to that."
Until now, many Muslim leaders have focused on what they saw as external threats to young people, such as Islamophobia or the temptations of modern secular life. Now they say it is time to look inward, to provide a counterweight to those who misinterpret Quranic verses to promote violence - and to learn what rhetoric and methods appeal to young people.
Radicals "seem to understand our youth better than we do," said Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation. "They use hip-hop elements for some who relate to that."
Bray said "seductive videos" gradually lure in young people, building outrage against atrocities committed against Muslims. Extremist videos "play to what we call in the Muslim youth community 'jihad cool' - a kind of machismo, that this is the hip thing to do."
For some, a new approach cannot come too soon. Zaki Barzinji, 20, former president of Muslim Youths of North America, said mosques were "sort of in the Stone Age when it comes to outreach. Their youth programs are not attractive, not engaging.. . . They're shooting in the dark because it's always adults who are planning this outreach."
Nor is the threat limited to the Internet, Barzinji said, adding that groups of "traveling Muslim proselytizers" sometimes appear at Virginia Tech, where he is a senior, often attracting foreign students, who tend to be more socially isolated.
"They go to the dorms, look for Muslim-sounding names, knock on the door and say, 'Hey, we'd like to talk to you about hellfire and how you're heading that way,' " Barzinji said. "All they're offering is social connection and acceptance."
Barzinji said Muslim groups should create online forums where young Muslims can find answers from authoritative sources. Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman at CAIR's Washington headquarters, said he spent a recent day at work with a copy of
The Social Media Bible
, trying to figure out how to do just that.
Magid, the imam at the Sterling mosque, said Muslim leaders should be more active on social-networking sites and create an online network of imams to talk to young people, "even addressing questions about jihad," he said. It is no longer enough, he added, to rely only on mosque-based scout troops, basketball teams, and religious classes.
Hooper said some leaders were discussing an Islamic Peace Corps through which youth could help Muslims in underdeveloped countries. But some advocate a more adventuresome approach, borrowing from the extremists' own methods.
"A 20-year-old, he's not satisfied with a canned-food drive to solve the world's problems," said a religious leader whose mosque would not let him be quoted by name. "You've got to give them something more, even a little macho.. . . You've got to be as bad as the jihadis. You've got to show them jumping out of helicopters. This ain't no Peace Corps."