Whose violent extremism are we countering? Revisiting CVE in the U.S. 2013

The threat of improvised explosive devices (IED) coming to the U.S. has been a nearly constant worry since about 2005.  As IED’s proliferated in Iraq, counterterrorism analysts and their agencies quickly realized that these easy to construct homemade devices could be the weapon of choice for al Qaeda popping up around the globe and even in the U.S. homeland.  So dangerous the threat of IED’s, entire organizations were constructed to disrupt and defeat their construction (JIEDDO). Around the U.S., law enforcement and homeland security folks were told to look for al Qaeda to begin using IED’s in the U.S.

On January 17, 2011, the fears of IED’s coming to the U.S. came to fruition.  A sophisticated IED was found on a park bench in Spokane, Washington set to be remotely detonated during a Martin Luther King day parade. A deliberate terrorist plot on a U.S. target using an IED.  Surely this would prompt the entire U.S. counterterrorism community to spring into action, right?  A whole-of-government approach to work with the population to root out support for extremism, right? While the FBI did quickly investigate the case and arrest the perpetrator, there was hardly any media coverage following up on how a terrorist attack could emerge from the community.  The attack, foiled by local law enforcement, quickly faded from the headlines.  Why you might ask? Because it wasn’t “al Qaeda” that perpetrated the attack, it was a white supremacist named Kevin Harpham from Kettle Falls, Washington. In Kettle Falls, some were “shocked” but others were less surprised (see the video below, watch to the 1:30 mark). Why would one be surprised? Kettle Falls sits in a region known for white supremacist and anti-government folks and is only a short drive from a place called Ruby Ridge, Idaho – the scene of a past U.S. government standoff.

Based on the location and severity of the Harpham plot, surely the U.S. government would see the need to engage in a whole-of-government approach to counter the persistent violent extremism emerging from this locale, right? Wouldn’t the U.S. want to employ its strategy to counter violent extremism as outlined in its new memorandum for state and local law enforcement? Couldn’t the federal government arrange an online and ground CVE program to win over the “hearts and minds” of locals and prevent this pervasive threat from emerging again in the Pacific Northwest?  The Harpham incident disappeared from the headlines quickly and on the Internet there’s actually very little reporting on Harpham or the plot.  I guess doing CVE in rural Washington amongst armed and often times well trained extremists was less than appealing for the CVE crowd.

For those that read this blog, you’ve probably read my rants and reservations about CVE in the U.S. (See #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, #10). After sitting for more than a year deliberating at this blog about CVE in the U.S., I teamed up with Dr. Will McCants to coherently organize my reservations about the amorphous definition of CVE, when CVE strategies are applied and how CVE strategies are executed in the United States.  Recently, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) published this co-authored article entitled “U.S. Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism: An Assessment.”  Will and I have focused on different aspects of CVE for years and in this article we combined some thoughts as to how the U.S. might move forward should it deem it necessary to conduct a CVE campaign in the U.S.  Below is the introduction to the paper and here is the link to the full post. For those that do read Dr. McCants and I’s article, I look forward to any thoughts you have for or against our analysis.

The United States and its allies devote considerable financial and human resources to countering violent extremism (CVE). CVE is a central pillar of the United States’ domestic and international counterterrorism effort, following the lead of the United Kingdom’s Prevent initiative begun several years earlier. Like the United Kingdom, the United States launched its CVE enterprise in response to a perceived increase in radicalization among its Muslim citizens. The U.S. enterprise, however, lacks a clear definition, is based on flawed assumptions about what works, and its proponents have yet to question whether CVE is worth doing in the first place. The United Kingdom’s approach suffered from similar shortcomings when it was first introduced, many of which were corrected in a later program update. It is time for the United States to do the same.

And for those interested in the Harpham video, here’s a short YouTube clip.  Make sure to watch to the 1:30 mark….


Results: Domestic vs. International Terrorism Survey

Last week, I posted a quick 1 question survey after receiving some feedback from my “Radicalization in the U.S.” article.  The question asked:

Question: Assuming a future terrorist attack in the U.S. is inevitable, which of the following two hypothetical terrorist attacks is more likely to occur first?

  • An al Qaeda Central, al Qaeda affiliated or al Qaeda inspired attack in the U.S. killing 50 or more U.S. citizens (Smaller than 9/11 attacks but still a significant attack)
  • A domestic terrorist group or domestic terrorist group affiliated lone perpetrator attack in the U.S. killing 50 or more U.S. citizens (Relatively equal in scale to Oklahoma City Bombing)

The results were decidedly of the belief that domestic terrorism is more likely than al Qaeda-style international terrorism to be the producer of the next big terrorist attack in the U.S.  Here is a chart showing the results of the 52 respondents:


Interestingly, domestic came out on top, but I wonder if this is as a result of recent incidents in the news. Here are the comments from those that participated:

–It won’t be “real” al-Qaida. It will be IRGC masquerading as al-Qaida. Likely w/AQs blessing and perhaps even w/ some assistance (e.g. media support)

–What makes this question so hard to answer is the proclivity (particularly in the mainstream media) of Americans to ascribe individualist motivations to “domestic” terror attacks, while ascribing AQ or other “Islamist” motivation for attacks committed by Muslims. Example: Major Nidal Hassan’s attack. The evidence does not show that Hassan was under orders of AQAP, or had been facilitated by AQAP, yet the attack is linked to that group. The criteria for “AQ inspired” are far too vague and low.

–In light of recent events I have to go with the lone psycho. I also don’t think al-qaeda is as relevant it was

–Terrorism; so easy a caveman can do it!

–Statistically, neither is a significant threat. The danger comes from hype and ‘state of fear’ that governments are trying to induce for political gains, not necessarily our safety. I am quite certain that pollution kills more Americans than any terrorists!

–my belief is an al-Qaeda INSPIRED (radicalized, or home-grown violent extremist) is more likely

–While AQ is generally more committed to action, DOMTERR as a whole has tends of thousands of adherents in the country and thousands of organizationally affiliated individuals. The numbers game is forbidding.

Terrorism: Domestic vs. International – Which is more dangerous?

On Monday, FPRI released an article I wrote in December 2011 comparing the radicalization of al Qaeda members with that of other extremist groups.  Some took my discussion to indicate that I believed domestic terrorism is more threatening than international terrorism.

While this was not the intent of the article, it still brings up an interesting question for debate: Which terrorist threat is currently the greatest threat in the U.S.?  International terrorist groups like al Qaeda? or domestic groups and their loose affiliates such as the Sikh Temple shooter a couple weeks back?  In the 1990’s, it was Timothy McVeigh, a domestic anti-government terrorist, executing the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history until the 9/11 attacks.

Similar to the “Who should we call al Qaeda?” question I ran a couple weeks back, I again have developed a one question survey addressing this week’s debate: international terrorism or domestic terrorism – which is more likely?

Below are two hypothetical terrorist attacks that might occur in the U.S.  In the survey block below, cast your vote as to which is a more likely threat and after voting you should see the results of all votes.  No experience required for voting.  Just take a guess based on your gut feeling.  For international readers, feel free to vote as well, the more votes the more interesting it becomes.  Also, if you’d like to leave a comment, I put a comment box in below where you can leave some additional notes, which I’ll post later similar to the results of the last question.

Question: Assuming a future terrorist attack in the U.S. is inevitable, which of the following two hypothetical terrorist attacks is more likely to occur first?

  • An al Qaeda Central, al Qaeda affiliated or al Qaeda inspired attack in the U.S. killing 50 or more U.S. citizens (Smaller than 9/11 attacks but still a significant attack)
  • A domestic terrorist group or domestic terrorist group affiliated lone perpetrator attack in the U.S. killing 50 or more U.S. citizens (Relatively equal in scale to Oklahoma City Bombing)

Vote here:

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world’s leading questionnaire tool.



Countering Violent Extremism: Where do we focus?

Yesterday, @will_mccants provided a needed perspective as to where the focus should be for countering violent extremism (CVE) in the domestic U.S. setting.  Will’s post, “Countering Violent Extremism, Part 2 – Scope” outlines a spectrum of people either vulnerable to, supporting of, or actively participating in violent extremism. As I’ve noted on this forum in the past, there is little evidence to warrant the overarching, highly bureaucratic response outlined in the White House Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism.  As Will reiterates here and I have pointed to in past posts, there are insufficient numbers of violent extremists to warrant large-scale national programs to win Muslim “Hearts and Minds”. Here’s Will’s opinion on where to focus:

Based on the incredibly low numbers of AQ supporters in the United States (see Charlie Kurzman’s recent study), the United States should treat the problem of AQ support like it treats supporters of white hate groups. It should focus on turning around law-abiding and incarcerated supporters rather than reaching out to the broader communities of which they are a part. This approach may not suit law enforcement (which prefers to build cases), the administration (which wants to increase the resilience of US Muslims against al-Qaeda propaganda), civil libertarians (who worry about infringing on personal freedoms), or large swathes of the public (who are terrified of fifth columns). But it is commensurate with the threat; its success can be measured; it carries less risk of alienating communities from which terrorists arise; it undermines the narrative that these communities are potential threats; and it is far less threatening to civil liberties than the current approach.

Will’s focus is on target, and that of the White House Strategy is not.  I’ve yet to see them explain where these lost communities requiring extremist de-programming reside.  Of course, they’ll quickly jump to the Minneapolis Somali recruits to al Shabaab which represents one case of mass recruitment of young vulnerable boys.  But, the reasons these young boys joined al Shabaab may have more to do with identity than ideology.  Likewise, the community didn’t seem to be very informed on what their young boys were doing.  So in the context of Minneapolis-Shabaab recruitment, what would have been accomplished or prevented in the White House CVE approach to engage vulnerable communities?

Of equal importance are the questions of “why now?” and “why this approach?”.  The administration seems convinced a “Spike in Homegrown Extremism” exists – or maybe three years ago there might have been.  Thus, the federal government committed years ago to execute a plan.  This plan emerges many years later looking like something that may have been worthwhile doing in 2002 more than 2012.  It’s taken so long to put this CVE plan together that the threat has evolved into something entirely different.  The current plan appears likely to exasperate current tensions playing out with regards to the NYPD’s surveillance of ‘vulnerable communities’.

Lastly, if I’ve learned anything, broad, top-down federal strategies to deal with local issues routinely fail.  The individuals, ideologies and threats of extremism arising from local communities vary wildly from place to place.  I doubt this strategy, its approach and its associated costs will have any significant impact on extremism – the ends will never justify the means.

My take: if the federal government needs to expend such energy and resources to protect Americans, they should apply their efforts on real, large scale problems which threaten the security of everyday citizens.  Disrupting the violence emanating from Mexican drug cartels immediately comes to mind.

Classifying Violent Extremists: A Problem of CVE

I wanted to draw attention to a new post at Jihadica by @will_mccants entitled, “Countering Violent Extremism, Part 1: Definition.”  Will does an excellent job of explaining a large flaw of the U.S. CVE approach – how do we define an extremist?

The White House strategies talk vaguely about winning hearts and minds of vulnerable populations in the U.S.  But, there is an entire spectrum of extremism from tacit support to outright mobilization for violence.  So, who is an extremist? So where do we focus?  I’ve been highly skeptical of the proposed CVE strategy as it is too focused on the Internet, designed for a threat that may be present in Europe rather than the U.S., and smells of COIN dogma.  See my skepticism in these five sections of “CVE Online in the U.S.” Parts #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5.

Will provides an excellent working definition:

In the interest of clarifying the activities covered by CVE and encouraging debate on their relative merits, I propose the following definition: Reducing the number of terrorist group supporters through non-coercive means. (I might also propose a new label and acronym for this activity but “CVE” is so bland and prevalent that it’s not worth jettisoning.)

I encourage everyone interested in CVE and the debates surrounding it to see Will’s discussion and his upcoming dialogue on where we might focus our CVE efforts.

Countering Violent Extremism of Terror Cell Recruits

Back in 2005 and 2006, I spent a large chunk of time applying labor economics theory for modeling the recruitment of terror cell members into al Qaeda.  I piled the research into a working paper entitled, “Jihadist Seeking Challenging Martyrdom Opportunity; Will Travel.”  I circulated the working paper around at presentations. But, as anyone that has ever read a labor economics paper can tell you, the topic is dry reading.  The most useful parts of the paper were used by Jacob Shapiro and I when we wrote Chapter 2 of al Qaeda’s (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa entitled “Theoretical Framework: The Challenges of Weak and Failed States”.

Recent pushes to Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) in the U.S. brought me to revisit this paper.  I focused on three general concepts to examine the terrorist labor market and will discuss one these in the following paragraph.  Rather than treating extremists as religious zealots motivated solely by ideology, I instead treated each terrorist as a rational actor (from their perspective) that chooses to work as a terrorist rather than seek other employment opportunities.  In this context, each recruit makes a decision to work based on a perceived wage generated from both pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits from employment as a terrorist.  Pecuniary benefits represent tangible items received in return for employment: pay, vacation, insurance, etc. – those things most commonly discussed in Western employment models.  For a good example of al Qaeda’s pecuniary benefits, see al Qaeda’s employment contract found in the report Harmony and Disharmony.  Non-pecuniary benefits represent intangible items received in return for employment: religious achievement, adventure seeking, group camaraderie, etc. The combination of these benefits presents the wage needed to recruit someone into a terror cell.  For those math nerds out there, I write as such:

Price of Recruitment = SUM(Pecuniary Benefits) + SUM(Non-Pecuniary Benefits)

Knowing the combination of benefits bringing about terrorist recruitment is essential in crafting an effective program for countering violent extremism.  Much like real employment markets, the price of recruitment varies depending on the skills needed by the terror group (job opening) and the location of the terror group (geography).  A terror cell’s operational leader requires more incentives than a new wannabe.  A terror cell operating in Africa likely requires less resources for recruitment than a group in Europe.

In this first post, I’ll focus on the price of recruitment for job openings in terror groups.  Terror cells usually consist of some combination of personnel including the following roles:

  • Ideologue – Inspirational figure preaching extremist ideology
  • Operations Leader – Skilled terrorist that can plan, execute and lead terrorist attacks
  • Seekers – Young foot soldiers to the terror group
  • Dr. Jekyl – A ‘Revert’ or new adherent to an extremist ideology that moves rapidly into a group in order to commit violence
  • Elite Members – Usually financiers that may or may not be direct/apparent members of the terror group but provide some package of finance and guidance to the cell

The above provides only a brief outline of terror cell member typologies.  I delve further into them in the paper but recognize that FFI’s Petter Nesser does a much better job describing these constructs in his paper “Jihadist Cell Structures in UK and Europe“.  For each of these roles, I tried to plot a conceptual chart showing the total price to recruit for each job opening and the combination of benefits required to achieve this price.  Note, this is conceptual and only a guess on my part.  I don’t have actual data to go behind this chart.


In the graph, I tried to show that the cost to recruit young seekers is likely to be lower in total and more about tangible benefits.  Meanwhile, a highly ideological or more senior recruit is joining for different reasons related more to group membership and ideological fulfillment.  In all cases though, joining requires a combination of tangible and intangible benefits; not simply one or the other.

So why is this important?  Who cares?  Many CVE approaches seek silver bullet programs to defeat terror group recruitment.  Some focus narrowly on community engagement, others focus solely on jihadi Internet portals.  The bottom line is that it will take a combination of CVE options to dismantle terror cells because each extremist joins a group for a different combination of incentives.  Before choosing a CVE approach, a community/government/nation must first determine which type of extremist they want to counter.  If this assessment isn’t done, one will find a CVE approach, for example, where a government seeks to counter the the extremist narrative in an attempt to deter young people from joining al Qaeda, only later to find out that recruits weren’t particularly knowledgeable of AQ’s ideology, joined for the adventure, and enjoy group membership more than radical sermons.

More to follow on ‘Location’ in the next post.

Al Qa’ida Influenced Radicalization – Yet Another Perspective

The past few weeks and months have shown a persistent “Surge” or “Spike” (pick your favorite term) in discussions related to ‘homegrown extremism’ and al Qa’ida radicalization.  Via Twitter, I stumbled on a new report from the UK Home Office authored by Dr. Noemie Bouhana and Professor Per-Olof H. Wikstrom.

Their report, entitled “al Qa’ida-influenced radicalisation: A rapid evidence assessment guided by Situational Action Theory, evaluates all of the available research in a professional and rigorous manner providing evidence to support their conclusions – a concept largely lost on the counterterrorism community.  Their framework evaluates the al Qa’ida Influenced Radicalization (AQIR) process by examining the vulnerability of recruits, the exposure of recruits to radicalizing agents and settings, and the settings in which radicalizing settings emerge.

I enjoyed Bouhana and Wikstrom’s analysis and found two quotes particularly interesting.  The first quote is their summary on radicalization research to date where they state:

“If this REA (study) has one overarching conclusion, it is that the evidence-base on the causes of AQIR is scientifically weak. Empirical research is still exploratory rather than explanatory. The problem is compounded by the absence of frameworks linking the levels of explanation (individual, ecological, systemic) by way of explicit mechanisms.  Without knowledge of mechanisms, there is no basis from which to design interventions. (p.viii)”

I could not agree more.  Even more interesting is this insight from their study where they discuss how recruits are exposed to al Qa’ida messaging.

“Membership of a social network containing one or more radicalized member, or containing a member connected in some way to one or more radicalizing settings, is one of the main factors linked to exposure to radicalizing influence. That the Internet does not appear to play a significant role in AQIR might be surprising, given that it is the social networking medium par excellence.  However, the fact that the technology presents obstacles to the formation of intimate bonds could explain the counter-intuitive finding.  Personal attachments to radicalizing agents, be they peers, recruiters, or moral authority figures, play a prominent role in AQIR. (p.x)”

Again, I concur with these findings and have argued at some length in the past that the best recruiter of a foreign fighter is a former foreign fighter – not the Internet.  In conclusion, another good resource for those studying al Qa’ida recruitment and radicalization.

Debunking the Spike in Homegrown Extremism

This week I read Dr. Risa Brooks new article “Muslim Homegrown Extremism in the U.S.: How Serious is the Threat?“.  Thank you Dr. Brooks for writing an excellent article and clear rebuttal to the incessant hand wringing over “Homegrown” extremism.  Terrorism researchers should take note of the construct of this article as much as the content.  She creates an excellent research design thoroughly discussing the hypotheses being examined.  I rarely see this in terrorism publications.  My only disappointment comes strictly from jealousy.  Dr. Brooks beat me to this topic and did a much better job researching this issue than I could have.  I highly recommend Dr. Brooks article and agree with her conclusion:

Muslim homegrown terrorism does not at present appear to constitute a serious threat to their (Americans) welfare. Nor is there a significant analytical or evidentiary basis for anticipating that it will become one in the near future.  It does not appear that Muslim Americans are increasingly motivated or capable of engaging in terrorist attacks against their fellow citizens and residents.

Will there be American-Muslim extremists in the future? Sure.

Will one of these extremists try to commit an attack? Yes.

But, on average, the threat of “homegrown extremism” is not the greatest threat to the U.S. homeland. Here are some of the reasons I agree with Dr. Brooks:

  1. The U.S. is better at counterterrorism – Brooks describes quantitatively the increase in counterterrorism resources over this past decade.  The FBI and state/local law enforcement have dramatically improved their ability to detect and interdict homegrown terrorism resulting in more arrests.  Prior to 9/11, most of today’s cases would have gone undetected.  Today, improved counterterrorism capability results in what appears to be more plots when in fact the U.S. is just successfully interdicting what was previously overlooked.  See her page 15 for a good breakdown.
  2. Counterterrorism folks find what they seek: terrorism –  If your entire purpose is to look for terrorism, then you will find terrorism.  Brooks accurately captures this phenomenon discussing the declining quality and increased volume of terrorism related matters referred by law enforcement for criminal prosecution (p.17). Brooks notes the CT “declination rate rose to 73 percent in fiscal year (FY) 2008 from 61 percent in FY 2005 and from 31 percent in 2002.”
  3. Misinterpreting data generated from infrequent, rare events –  The entire debate surrounding homegrown extremism suffers from the complications of counting rare events.  Brooks notes that the highest year for arrests occurred in 2003 with another peak in 2009 only to be followed by a mild slow down in 2010.  Additionally, many cases, such as Shabaab recruitment in Minneapolis and the Boyd network in North Carolina, result in a group of arrests resulting in what appears to be a spike. However, on average the numbers are fairly steady – and small.
  4. Lag time between extremism and action/arrest –  Some have advocated for increased Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) efforts in response to the perceived spike in “homegrown terrorism”.  Most extremist recruitment occurs over a period of time numbering in many months and often years.  A CVE program in Minneapolis to prevent the Shabaab recruitment spike of 2007 would likely have to begin in 2005 to be effective.  Going to Minneapolis today (2011) to deal with an extremism problem from 2007-2008 is pointless.  The Shabaab recruiting pool has likely been drained by now and the effort overall is about 5 years too late.
  5. Counterterrorism research incentives to find/exploit spikes – CT pundit focus on “homegrown extremism” correlates closely with their need to find a new topic.  Brook’s doesn’t address this point, but her data and discussion shows homegrown extremism to be in a relatively steady state.  CT pundit and media hype surrounding  homegrown extremism arose as discussions of Iraq dissipated.  Discussion of a Zachary Chesser type homegrown extremism case during the height of AQ in Iraq (2005-2006) wouldn’t have lasted more than a couple minutes in the news.  Bottom line: there is less to talk about in counterterrorism and thus every small-time jihadi wannabe gets ever more attention by an ever growing pool of CT pundits.

Overall, Dr. Brooks article is outstanding in every way.  Academics and researchers should be talking about it, but I imagine that won’t happen as it thoroughly undermines an industry in decline: counterterrorism.

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) online in the U.S.- Part 5 of 7

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) online requires private sector support and intervention.  Unlike national borders or illegal products, governments have few if any mechanisms to control the Internet and the distribution of its content.  In parts #1, #2, #3, and #4, I explored several problems with trying to identify and remove extremist content residing in the private sector.  Today, I’ll shift to:

5)     What happens when the U.S. government starts policing businesses (primarily ISP’s) based on their terms of service?

Right now, it appears a few ISP’s and content hosts have decided to try and police themselves enough to keep consumers and governments sufficiently content to stay off their backs without impeding their services.  However, their argument is a bit absurd when it comes to enforcing their own terms of service.  “we try, but there is so much data that we can’t help it, our product is so good we just can’t stop extremist content from moving through our service.”

Here’s a hypothetical example: A water company delivers water to an entire city and 0.01% of the water turns out to be poisoned resulting in a handful of deaths.  Would the citizens say? “it’s only a few people, no big deal, so we’ll just let it go for now and won’t hold the water company responsible because most of the water is really clean.” No way!

ISP’s operate in a similar fashion to water companies except the product moving through ISP pipes is information rather than water. Is poisonous information as dangerous as poisonous water?  Depending on one’s perspective, extremist content is a weapon and its transport into the U.S. via ISP pipes should result in regulation and/or action.  This analogy is again a bit extreme.  However, I use it to illustrate important questions which are fundamental in our online CVE approach: Can information be a weapon? Should we protect the freedom of all speech, regardless of its content? My guess is ‘no’ on both but I’m not sure I can identify the appropriate middle.

Businesses, by design, maximize profits and minimize costs.  Today, there is no incentive for ISP’s to slow down content upload and weaken their competitive advantage in order to filter out extremist content.  I expect that their push towards “wanting to counter violent extremism online” is two fold.  First, it’s good public relations.  It’s probably cheaper for them to project a desire to counter violent extremism online than it is to actually counter violent extremism online.  Second, by calling for an increased CVE effort online, they will likely advocate for government funding to deal with extremism.  Essentially, this would mean the government would be funding ISP’s and other web companies to counter a problem they created by not filtering their content.  These companies would receive funding to offset their costs while also maintaining or increasing their revenues.

I also wonder if companies would reduce their internal policing of extremist websites if the government takes on the role of identifying extremist content and notifying the providers.  A smart company might think, “well, the government will now tell me what is extremist content, so I’ll reduce my internal policing staff and resources and just wait for the government to tell me what content to take down.  This also saves our company the headache of dealing with customers that want to argue about my company’s judgment on what is extreme.”  Essentially, government policing of extremist content may provide ISP’s a disincentive to police their hosted content.

(A quick note: Some may think my comments above are anti-ISP’s.  Actually, if I operated an ISP, I doubt I would work vigorously to remove extremist content either.  The purpose of a business is to provide a product or service and earn profits.  By unilaterally pursuing the removal of extremist content, these ISP’s would only be raising their internal costs and hurting their competitive advantage.)

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) online in the U.S. – Part 4 of 7

Parts #1, #2, and #3 of CVE online in the U.S. discussed the challenges of implementing a strategy to remove/curb the presence of extremist content hosted on ISP’s based in the U.S.  In Part #4, I’ll shift to a question I’ve not really heard anyone bring up:

4)     We’ve let al Qa’ida extremism drive our thinking on eliminating extremist content online.  What about other domestic groups that advocate extremism and host extreme online content?

As seen by recent events in Norway, extremism comes in many shapes and sizes. Recently in the U.S., there have been significant increases in right-wing, white supremacist, anarchist and separatist groups.  I wrote about this phenomenon a few months back and received the usual response of “who cares?”.

Despite these domestic groups being quite organized, well trained, well armed and equally extreme to al Qa’ida (AQ) in many ways, the media and society treat non-AQ extremism much differently.  Violence carried out by members of right-wing or supremacist groups quickly moves from media headlines and is often attributed to a “crazed man” rather than an organized movement.  Then there are gangs, which also advocate violence much in the same way as terrorist groups.  Would we pursue the elimination of domestic terror group or gang content with equal zeal to the way we pursue AQ-related extremist content?

I think fairly instituting a policy of extremist content removal requires a balanced application of policy across all types of extremist groups.  It’s easy to police AQ websites because no one in the States will come to their defense.  However, the extremist content of right-wing, anarchist, and supremacist groups will likely use freedom of speech defenses to protect their content.  How would we handle these domestic groups that fight back against content removal?

Eliminating websites for many domestic extremist groups will play directly into their ideological justifications and enhance their recruitment.  These groups would see content removal as a violation of freedom of speech, expansion of government, etc.  Again, I’m taking this a bit far. But, I grew up in the Midwest and was exposed at an early age to some very extremist thinking (that was never followed up on).   While most of these groups are harmless, their rhetoric and websites can be strikingly similar to very serious extremist groups like AQ.  Just in the past few years I’ve heard political figures say things like “Separating from the Union” or  “Reload”.  While I don’t see these as serious extremist views advocating separatism or violence, it would be challenging to determine where the line between serious and silly resides.