Six Lessons on Countering Violent Extremism

The Proud Boys in Raleigh, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Anthony Crider.

Guest post by Hilary Matfess and Rebecca Wolfe

On January 6, we witnessed a violent attack on our Capitol building by white supremacists, who erected a working noose and waved Confederate flags in our legislature’s halls. The ideology represented in the attack, and the threat it presents, are not new; the ideas that underpin the insurrection on Capitol Hill are old wine in a new, Trump-branded bottle. But what we witnessed in Washington DC showed that such beliefs are a credible threat to our democracy, in addition to a persistent source of insecurity for American minority communities. Consequently, we are finally beginning to see US officials muster the political will necessary to address right-wing extremism in the United States. As President Biden stated in his inaugural address, rooting out extremism in all its forms is a priority of his administration, and last week, his administration announced an initiative to overhaul the US response to domestic terrorism.

Programs to counter violent extremism (CVE) have been run by the Department of Homeland Security for many years, but have been largely ineffective and often discriminatory. Despite internal intelligence acknowledging that the threat from white supremacist groups is greater than the threat from domestic jihadist groups, domestic efforts to combat violent extremism have primarily focused on the latter, with deleterious effects for Muslim Americans, people of color, and for civil liberties generally.

The events of January 6 suggest we are at a turning point. The growing momentum to counter violent extremism is an opportunity to shift away from the focus on demographic profiling that has left the United States with glaring blind-spots domestically and underwhelming results abroad. Here are six key lessons based on decades of policy research on how to effectively counter violent extremism.

What We’ve Learned from Two Decades of Countering Violent Extremism

Efforts to counter violent extremism globally over the past two decades have generated many lessons about what does and does not work in deterring violent extremism. First, people largely join extremist groups because of grievances—not poverty. Evidence shows that many members and supporters of foreign terrorist groups come from the middle class; similar points are now emerging about the white supremacists who traveled to DC.

When you ask people why they support or join extremist groups, what becomes clear is that a strong motivator is anger at real and perceived injustices. These grievances are often the result of discrimination and unfair treatment by government and security forces, and they are heightened when groups feel they are losing power. ISIS emerged when Sunnis lost their hold on power in Iraq. Similarly, white supremacy has grown and become more visible as the United States’ population and power structure has become more diverse. These changes have created grievance narratives among white Americans, which right-wing extremists and white supremacists have escalated, advocating for violence to restore the racial balance of power.

Second, a significant misstep in America’s efforts to counter violent extremism at home and abroad has been a focus on the demographic communities that these groups purport to represent, rather than the tactics they sanction. This has contributed to poor targeting of interventions—focusing on those assumed to be terrorists due to the color of their skin, and ignoring those who express extremist ideology but do not look like who we think of as terrorists. Though ISIS and the Proud Boys are demographically dissimilar, they both endorse violence in pursuit of their political ideology.

Third, the most compelling voices in quelling extremist violence are those from members of the “in-group.” There is some evidence, for example, that Imams and other religious leaders are able to deter violence and promote more moderate interpretations of Islam; similarly, former gang members have been effective in persuading young community members not to join gangs. This means that defected members of white supremacist groups should be incorporated into efforts to influence current members and deter future members, and that key figures in the Republican Party need to denounce the use of violence, white supremacist ideology, and former President Trump.

Fourth, we have to grapple with the role of social media. The Internet has become an important forum for recruitment, disinformation, and the creation of radicalizing information bubbles and feedback loops. Research on jihadist groups shows that community-based efforts to counter violent extremism push members to less public platforms where they are freer to express extremist ideology. Thus, unsurprisingly, as Twitter, Facebook, and Amazon have begun to remove content, white supremacists have switched to less public platforms like Parler and Telegram. “De-platforming” right-wing extremists may be even more difficult, since they enjoy mainstream political support, and tech companies face a greater potential loss in profits by censoring their content than they do the content of Salafi-jihadist groups.

Fifth, the means by which we hold the perpetrators of white supremacist violence accountable must hew strictly to the rule of law. Domestic programs that profile Muslims and people of color have eroded trust and undermined democracy by abusing civil liberties. Similar patterns have emerged abroad, where heavy-handed security responses have generated greater support for violence and helped to attract new recruits.

Sixth, we need a robust prevention agenda and accessible means for those who have become disillusioned with radical ideologies to exit those groups. Flexibility is key to designing effective “off-ramps”; just as radicalization into violent extremism is a complex process with a number of causes, there is rarely one factor that will cause disengagement from violent extremism. Off-ramps should not include total amnesty but should offer the possibility of rehabilitation and integration. A review of studies on criminology, violent extremism, and gangs notes that community support and the possibility of pro-social interactions are a critical aspect of encouraging people to adopt norms of non-violence as they return.

Where do we go from here?

A new approach to countering violent extremism is long overdue. It is a testament to the institutionalization of racism and Islamophobia within the American national security and policing apparatus that it was a violent attack by white supremacists on our nation’s Capitol rather than decades of advocacy by Muslims and communities of color—that finally made clear the shortcomings of our approach to countering violent extremism. Now is the time to acknowledge the threat white supremacy presents to the United States; grapple with how our racial and religious biases prevented the country from responding to this threat sooner; and push programs to counter violent extremism to become more evidence-based and less discriminatory. If we apply these lessons broadly—whether to supporters of ISIS in Syria, al Shabab in Somalia, or the Proud Boys in the US—countering violent extremism programs may finally contribute to a more stable and peaceful global community. 

Hilary Matfess is a peace scholar fellow with the US Institute of Peace and a PhD candidate at Yale University, where her research focuses on gender and political violence. Rebecca J. Wolfe is an Assistant Instructional Professor at the Harris School for Public Policy at the University of Chicago, where she also is an associate at the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts.

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