The White House CVE Summit: What should we expect? More of the same or a new direction to counter ISIS?

Yesterday, Vice President Joseph Biden kicked off the much anticipated White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). He noted the need to,

“engage our communities and engage those who might be susceptible to being radicalized because they are marginalized….societies have to provide an affirmative alternative for immigrant communities, a sense of opportunity, a sense of belonging that discredits the terrorist’s appeal to fear, isolation, hatred, resentment.” 

This seems like a long and large task list to keep three guys with guns from killing people in the streets of Paris.

America trots out CVE every three years or so in response to the latest atrocity perpetrated in the West by a confused young man inspired by whichever terrorist group has recently grabbed headlines.  As the Vice President noted above, CVE proponents as a whole will likely propose eliminating extremism by solving all the problems of disenfranchised communities-–something no government in history has been able to achieve to date. This general theme will ultimately settle on pushing two feel-good programs as the mechanisms for CVE: (1) community engagement through law enforcement and NGOs and (2) countering the ideology of the latest terrorist group through the promotion of Mulsim “Moderate Voices”.  These programs, on the surface, seem great.  Who wouldn’t want to engage at risk communities and tell the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) they stink?  Despite their merits on paper though, these programs will have almost no impact on extremism aside from interdicting an occasional fence sitter who was likely torn between whether he should go to Syria, hang out with his friends, or play video games.  I’ll spare the reader my issues with CVE but for a longer critique see this article I wrote with Will McCants and my opening remarks at The Washington Institute a couple of weeks back. 

Properly conducting CVE today requires a simple, narrowly focused strategy that answers three questions: “Where?”, “Who?” and “How?”

Where do you want to counter violent extremism?

Today, jihadi extremism, labeled al Qaeda, ISIS or some other name, occurs in both physical and virtual worlds.  In the physical world, extremist recruits primarilly emerge from three separate theaters: (1) North Africa through the Middle East to South Asia (known hereafter as MENASA), (2) Europe to include the Caucuses and the Balkans, and (3) North America.  Each of these theaters hosts a mixture of virtual and physical radicalization and recruitment.  

On the ground in extremist environments now known for propelling three decades of militancy, young recruits physically encounter jihadist recruiters in mosques, apartments, and prisons where the disenfranchised congregate to share their lives’ misfortunes and collectively embrace jihadism and violence as an answer.  Online, virtual radicalization and recruitment occurs throughout nearly every social media platform and a few password protected Internet forums.  Online extremist content predominately comes in the form of Arabic, but can be found broadcast in any language for which there is a vulnerable community.   

The ratio of physical to virtual radicalization and recruitment generally decreases across all of these theaters the further one gets geographically from Syria and Iraq.  Of course, there are exceptions to this rule in certain extremist hotspots in Europe.  The chart below (Figure 1) shows my overall ballpark estimate of the breakdown of physical to virtual recruitment across each of these theaters and each theater’s total contribution of fighters to the Syria/Iraq jihad. 

Today, extremism is Europe’s problem more than America’s.  From a temporal perspective, the rate of American extremists recruited to Somalia may in fact outpace the rate at which American extremists have been recruited to Syria.  Meanwhile, Europe watched thousands of its citizens and immigrants stream into Syria over the past three years and are now feeling the pain of what was bound to come. Hint: It’s a little late for preemptive CVE, intelligence and law enforcement operations should be the main effort.  Overall, if one wants to counter the most extremists via physical engagement programs; MENASA is the place to do it.  If one wants to focus on virtual CVE programs, North America and Europe should be the focus–that’s right, those places most creeped out about governments playing around with peoples minds on the Internet–thank you Ed Snowden!

For the most part, CVE proponents recommend their pet strategy be applied everywhere to combat extremism.  But this is unwise.  Community engagement should be applied in locations where there is significant physical recruitment such as MENASA.  Instead, community engagement will probably be discussed more in the permissible environments of North America where physical recruitment to extremism is far less likely to occur and difficult to detect. 

Who do we want to counter? Which extremists do you want to counter?

Extremism as a term lacks a clear definition.  As Will McCants noted in this excellent piece, there are many people referred to as extremists ranging from the vulnerable community of disenfranchised youth suspectible to extremist messages to the committed, law-abiding supporter of a terrorist group.  Different CVE approaches should be applied against different characters on this spectrum.  Rarely, however, is this the case. Instead programs seek to target extremists as a whole without clearly identifying where the extremists are and where they reside on this spectrum. 

How do you want to counter extremists?

Today’s general CVE approach involves a milieu of efforts, some tackling virtual aspects of extremist radicalization and others focusing on mitigating physical recruitment.  In whole, these efforts may achieve limited success where they are applied but lack the needed synchronization and appropriate tailoring for how today’s ISIS recruit becomes radicalized.  Last decade’s CVE measures are tired and have been proven ineffective.  We have more extremists today than we did ten years ago.  Why would we continue using these same failed approaches?

Moving forward, CVE needs to recalibrate the message, messenger, medium and method by which they counter extremism.  CVE efforts should begin in the virtual environment where discussions can illuminate physical hotspots of extremism for the nimble application of traditional CVE programs.  As seen in Figure 2, ISIS’s recruitment message (“come to Syria and Iraq and create an Islamic State”), messenger (“a foreign fighter like you waging battle against the infidel”), medium (high quality video showing violence and administration of state), and method (through tailored social media mechanisms) is being countered through messages and messengers misaligned to the group’s success. 

Moving forward, conducting CVE to counter ISIS’s appeal should begin by engaging in the virtual space as a way to illuminate extremists hotspots where physical interactions such as community engagement and “Moderate Voices” can be effectively and efficiently applied. As seen in Figure 2, the message should focus not on convincing ideological novices that jihadi ideology is “bad”, but that when they travel to be a foreign fighter, they will be participating in something quite different than what they expected.  The best messenger for this message isn’t an elderly imam, but instead a disenfranchised foreign fighter that can relay their experience back to those with jihadi dreams that don’t match reality.  Defector videos should be coupled with well-produced dramatic video narratives that connect with vulnerable audiences.  Videos should be deliberately inserted into online audiences and discussion facilitated by non-governmental organizations that can then facilitate phsycial interventions. 

I could go write more, but I’ll instead end with a question.  Is the West really serious about CVE?  If so, Western governments should stop focusing on what ‘sounds’ or ‘feels’ good and re-examine what is likely to be most effective at curbing radicalization and recruitment.  The proposal I briefly outlined above doesn’t require a summit, but merely creativity, a credit card, and some film students.

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Detecting the radicalization and recruitment of the Boston Bombers

The investigation into the radicalization of the Boston Marathon bombing’s Tsarnaev brothers has only just begun. While the picture of the radicalization of the Tsarnaev brothers remains incomplete, many have already pointed to what appear to be obvious warning signs of violence.  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two brothers, seemingly became a recruit of his older sibling Tamerlan.  However, the older brother Tamerlan showed many classic signs of radicalization and a turn to violence.  When placed in context, the question shifts from “How was Tamerlan radicalized?” to “Why was Tamerlan’s radicalization not detected?”

Two years ago in the summer of 2011, I used a radicalization model designed by Chris Heffelfinger, author of Radical Islam in America, to outline a potential framework for researching and eventually creating indicators and warnings for law enforcement and the military trying to assess the move of vulnerable individuals down the pathway of violent extremism.  In the article, “Major Nidal Hasan and the Fort Hood Tragedy: Implications for the U.S. Armed Forces,” I tried to use Heffelfinger’s framework to note what indicators might emerge as individuals move through the process of radicalization and recruitment to violence.  The four stages of Heffelfinger’s construct are:

  1. Introduction – Initial contact with the extremist ideology
  2. Immersion – Immersion in the thinking and mindset of the extremist ideology
  3. Frustration – Frustration over inaction of other members of the ideology
  4. Resolve – Resolve to commit violence on behalf of the extremist ideology

Movement along the four phases of this framework varies for every extremist.  Some take years to move through the entire process, others only weeks or months.  And yet others travel through some of the initial phases and never commit to violent action.  The pace and intensity through which those being radicalized move through the process often hinges on one or more emotional triggers – significant life events accelerating the individual’s dive into extremism and increasing the susceptibility of an extremist ideology’s resonance.  Four broad categories of emotional triggers are: 

  • Family- Death of a family member or divorce may leave the service member searching for a coping ideology.
  • Professional- Failure to achieve professional goals or adapt to military lifestyle may result in the individual being particularly vulnerable to extremist recruitment.
  • Financial- Extremist ideologies often provide comfort to those suffering financial struggles.
  • Psychological- Witnessing or participating in a traumatic event may trigger distress leading to the pursuit of extremist ideologies.

Not discussed in the paper, but of equal importance to the framework and emotional triggers, is the presence of catalysts – people and places that help vulnerable individuals move along the phases of radicalization.  Today, these catalysts guiding radicalization are often extremist internet content, key influencers (oftentimes former foreign fighters, ideologues or family members) and social circles.  

Initial news reporting of Tamerlan’s recent past suggests the signs of radicalization were apparent and emotional triggers and catalysts were plentiful.  Roughly three to four years ago, Tamerlan seems have intiated his path to extremism with his mother becoming a catalyst.  The Wall Street Journal reports:

“Once known as a quiet teenager who aspired to be a boxer, Tamerlan Tsarnaev delved deeply into religion in recent years at the urging of his mother, who feared he was slipping into a life of marijuana, girls and alcohol. Tamerlan quit drinking and smoking, gave up boxing because he thought it was in opposition to his religion, and began pushing the rest of his family to pursue stricter ways, his mother recalled.”

At roughly the same time, numerous emotional triggers likely increased the appeal of radical Islam. 

“His growing religious interest coincided with a rocky period in his life during which his boxing career stalled, he drifted in and out of community-college courses, he was charged with assault by a girlfriend who said he slapped her, and a friend of his was murdered….He later married a different woman, Katherine Russell, a former Suffolk University student from North Kingstown, R.I., and she is the mother of his child.”

Differing news reports suggest the couple was prone to fighting and that Tamerlan’s wife Katherine, not Tamerlan, supported the family as he struggled to maintain a job. 

In recent years, Tamerlan’s family suggests his extremist pursuits were further catalyzed by an Armenian convert to Islam named “Misha”. His movement into the Frustration phase best symbolized by his outbursts and arguments with other members of the Islamic Center of Boston located in Cambridge, MA. 

“Tamerlan also protested at Friday prayers in January, around the Martin Luther King Day holiday, when a speaker compared the civil-rights leader with the Prophet Muhammad, Mr. Vali said. Tamerlan interrupted the sermon and called the speaker a hypocrite, while some in the congregation shouted back, “You’re the hypocrite!” Mr. Vali said.” 

Tamerlan apparently drew the attention of the Russian FSB sufficient for them to contact the FBI in 2011 with their concerns. The FBI interviewed Tamerlan in 2011 but at this point, his radicalization was likely difficult to detect for several reasons. First, the FBI was limited to an assessment of Tamerlan’s extremism; not authorized to conduct surveillance or use more intrusive methods. Second, Tamerlan appears to have been in the earlier ‘Immersion’ phase on the path of radicalization and likely didn’t signal his intentions toward violence at this point.  Third, the FBI must handle hundreds of terrorism cases and assessments at any given time.  Simply put, without a strong indicator of violent tendencies and in the presence of many other cases, it was likely difficult for the FBI to justify pursuing Tamerlan any further. 

Finally, Tamerlan appears to have entered the “Resolve” phase quite recently.   Tamerlan’s foreign travel should have and apparently did set off signals to the FBI and Homeland Security but they weren’t sufficient to ignite an investigation. According to his surviving brother Dzhokhar, the plot to attack the Boston Marathon was conceived and prepared for only a few weeks ago providing law enforcement limited time to detect the plot. 

Looking forward, several challenges still persist in the detection and disruption of extremist radicalization and recruitment.  First, as was identified after the shootings of Nidal Hasan, law enforcement and the military lack a well-researched and defined list of indicators and warnings associated with cases of violent extremism.  Despite more than a decade of attacks, there remains no defined method or supporting tools for assessing violent extremism.  Second, there remains a coordination and communication gap across law enforcement and homeland security.  Many signals of Tamerlan’s radicalization surfaced but there was little correlation of these disparate pieces of information.  Lastly, the U.S. has suffered several rounds of violent extremism yet little has changed in countering violent extremism. It’s time for the handwringing and government inquiries to end and for accountability and action to occur. 

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