How The US Could Rethink Counter-Extremism Programs

Given the complexity of the radical right threat in the US, there are numerous factors to be considered when it comes to mass de-radicalization programs.
Proud Boys in Raleigh, North Carolina – November 28, 2020. (Anthony Crider, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Proud Boys in Raleigh, North Carolina – November 28, 2020. (Anthony Crider, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr. Jessica White is a Research Fellow in the Terrorism and Conflict group at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Her expertise encompasses countering terrorism and violent extremism policy and programming, as well as gender mainstreaming strategies. Before completing her PhD, she spent six years as an intelligence and language analyst in the United States Navy.

After the violent culmination to years of increasingly polarized and extreme political rhetoric on 6 January at the United States Capitol, it is easy to look at the worst aspects of humanity and lose sight of the good that exists. However, small acts of kindness can represent a common ground of humanity, upon which ties between disparate individuals and communities can be built – this shared humanity needs to be remembered, in order to move forward.

There are many countries that have dealt with the impact of radical right politics and violence on their wider social make-up, for example, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, or South Africa. While lessons can be taken from them on how to address these challenges, arguably there are some new elements in the US case. In a world of increasing online activity, connection, and ‘echo chambers’; media and political polarization; and a plethora of platforms that can spread mis- and dis-information at the touch of a button on a smartphone – there are new and complicating dynamics related to mass social radicalization.

Turning The Other Cheek

While the violent mob perpetrated an act of insurrection, and as many experts have argued domestic terrorism, there is a lingering question for some about the efficacy of the domestic terrorism label for the current situation of mass radicalization in the US – whether it was via conspiracy theories, disinformation or polarized, populist politics.

Many instances of the uneven nature of the response to the mob have been marked – with angry response to the disproportionate number of National Guardspeople deployed, for example, in anticipation of a Black Lives Matter protest earlier in the year; or an officer helping an older woman down the steps of the Capitol, after she had been part of the violent mob that had stormed it. It has left many in a conundrum, how to reconcile the inequality of treatment while recognizing the latter as a small act of kindness, a courtesy normally expected of members of society.

As history has shown time and time again, often those treated the poorest are asked to ‘turn the other cheek’ the greatest number of times on the path to finding a better way. In the post-9/11 environment, if that mob had been majority non-white or Muslim, they would undoubtedly have been subject to a much different response. Therefore, the question stands – whether the US national security response to this violence should be aiming to take an equal approach – or, learning from the mistakes of the last two decades, aiming to avert another pathway for counter-terrorism (CT) or even preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) programming to infringe on civil liberties or further stereotype certain populations?

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Effectiveness Of CT And P/CVE Programming For Mass Deradicalization

Thousands of people constituted the mob, representing a wide sampling of the majority population demographics – gender, age, background, occupation, etc. A limited number of them were linked directly to radical right extremism groups or networks, and for these, at least, a ‘harder’ CT approach is needed – as they actively engage in or are affiliated to organizations encouraging violence. However, that leaves the remaining majority.

How are current CT frameworks helpful, or not, in treating this issue of wider social buy-in to extremist conspiracy theories or disinformation? Some P/CVE strategies could be helpful, and lessons learned on ‘what works and what does not’ should certainly be considered when trying to determine a course of action.

Evidence shows that, ultimately, context is one of the most important factors in the design and implementation of effective P/CVE programming. This includes accounting for appropriate framing and targeting strategies, to identify and reach those most in need. Political polarization and conspiracy theories have drawn in a sometimes new and wider following than more traditional radical right extremist organizations.

While consensual, competent personal choice to participate in extremism should not be without repercussion, it is important to consider all of the intersecting dynamics and grievances (legitimate or perceived) which might be combined drivers of an individual’s radicalization process. Evidence shows that the more tailored programming is to individual needs the more successful it is in changing not only attitudes but also behavior. Impact assessment certainly needs to be at the forefront of any CT or P/CVE programming design.

There is also an element of accountability that government and leadership need to be held to. Evidence shows that CT and P/CVE efforts are unlikely to achieve significant or sustainable impacts unless institutional capacity gaps and violations are addressed. This, in the US case, might range from political leaders being held accountable for continually amplifying disinformation – for example, former President Trump or his enablers – to community police forces being held accountable for employing racism in their enforcement responses.

Finally, one size is not going to fit all. As mentioned above, a wider demographic is now represented in this mass radicalization. Attempts to counter and deradicalize will have to account for these differences and allow those who have engaged (but especially those who have not yet committed an act of violence) an opportunity and supportive community through which to disengage. This means that a significant and long-term commitment is needed to revitalize the civil discourse space (online and offline) where disparate individuals can discuss and critically assess different ideas and points of view together in a non-violent way.

No matter the ideology, the basis of extremist narrative is always to ‘other’ and dehumanize, and the effectiveness of these tactics has been highlighted in the last year. It will not be an easy task to account for lessons learned, hold people accountable, and yet offer a way out. Thus, it remains to be seen whether the US can present a positive case study in finding a way forward to a more equal, considerate society.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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