The White House hosted a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, during which Obama discussed concrete steps world powers “can take to develop community-oriented approaches to counter hateful extremist ideologies that radicalize, recruit or incite to violence” (Office of the Press Secretary 2015); however, the U.S. government seems to be overstating their role in countering zealous behavior with lofty speeches and poorly run initiatives. In a recent interview with ABC, Jeh Johnson, the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, spoke about a “new phase” of terrorism that has moved beyond battlegrounds in the Middle East. Johnson notes that the unpredictable nature of media-savvy jihadists requires law enforcement officers to be vigilant and local communities to be even more so. Johnson states, “It [countering extremism] has to come from within the community. It has to come from Islamic leaders, who frankly can talk the language better than the federal government can”(U.S. Security Chief Warns of ‘New Phase’ in Terror Threat). However, the government’s policies under Johnson’s guidance are inconsistent with this sentiment. This discrepancy demonstrates the contradiction inherent in the U.S. government’s current counter-radicalization approach.
Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, the project’s coordinator, proudly describes Think Again, Turn Away as an “overt, adversarial, counter-terrorism engagement by the US government” (Plett Usher 2014). Experts, on the other hand, recognize that the campaign is a governmental blunder. Perhaps the most vocal opponent of Think Again, Turn Away is Rita Katz, a terrorist analyst and co-founder of SITE, a private intelligence firm based in Washington D.C. Katz describes the project as “embarrassing”, “ineffective”, and “distressing” (Edelman 2014). After all, it not only provides a platform for radical jihadists by engaging in petty Twitter arguments, but in videos intended to deter youth susceptible to recruitment, the U.S. highlights enticing elements of the Islamic State’s propaganda. The U.S. government is repurposing graphic images used by extremist groups in an attempt to delegitimize them, but in fact they are simply facilitating the spread of dangerous recruitment material. This is particularly seen in Think Again, Turn Away’s representation of jihadists violence as a “scare straight” tactic, which is both lauded by ISIS supporters and seen as alluring to potential recruits. For example, when Think Again, Turn Away attempted to discredit jihad by posting a photo of children standing next to a crucified man, there was an overwhelmingly positive response in the comment section: one tweet reads, “i rather my children see this so they know whats their fate when they aganst shariah of ALLAH, than democazy” (Johnson 2014).
Think Again, Turn Away is too combative for its own good, primarily because it refuses to acknowledge a central element of truth in ISIS’ tweets. A fundamental part of extremist propaganda revolves around ISIS as a counter-force of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. As bad as ISIS is, their opposition to al-Assad, responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, makes them look justified. In an attempt to undermine this approach, the U.S. often compares ISIS to Assad, however, without acknowledging the dialogue of extremists, Think Again, Turn Away is simply offering empty rhetoric. As Rita Katz says, “In order to counter a problem, one must first study it before adopting a solution. Had the people behind Think Again, Turn Away understood jihadists’ mindsets and reasons for their behavior, they would have known that their project of counter messaging would not only be a waste of taxpayer money, but ultimately be counterproductive” (Edelman 2014).
Jihadist are successful in radicalizing youth for the same reason that the U.S. is failing at counter-radicalizing them: the presence of a target audience. ISIS and other extremist groups target a decentralized network of disengaged youth seeking an identity that society often stigmatizes; the U.S., on the other hand, seems to be targeting slightly too political adults unsure how to use social media. Think Again, Turn Away has a uniform online profile: a picture of the Department of State Seal and the captivating bio “Some truths about terrorism”: a red flag for anybody trolling online jihad accounts. While ISIS is luring youth with enticing images that glorify jihad, such as lavish residences and high end artillery, Think Again, Turn Away has a mundane profile with a government logos that chances are would deter the exact people it should be aiming to contact. The U.S.’s most prominent attempt at a counter-narrative has been a graphic video of executions and beheadings entitled “Welcome to the ‘Islamic State’ Land”, and while it has over 850,000 views, it requires viewers to be 21 years of age. This not only further disseminates ISIS recruitment footage, but is unviewable by a significant sector of what should have been an intentional target audience. The U.S. government has the right idea of using social media to provide a counter-narrative, but they should be competent enough to recognize that their current strategy is ineffective.
In fact, the only people that seem to recognize the Twitter account are the terrorists themselves who often use the page to gain followers. The Telegraph reached out to Islamic Twitter users who had engaged in “Twitter fights” with the State Department; one cavalierly responded, “One mention and you get more followers. Who doesn’t like free marketing?”(Sanchez 2014). Essentially, the U.S. is behind the curve. From a marketing perspective, ISIS is successful because they are able to effectively utilize the forum of social media to contact their audience. However, the detached processes of the U.S. prevents it from being in any way productive, sometimes even assisting ISIS by bringing to light violent propaganda that they have not yet spread on broad scale. If Jeh Johnson thinks that community leaders are imperative to counter-radicalization, why fund $6 million to a counterintuitive, large-scale governmental program (Gearan 2014)? Perhaps the U.S. government should do their research and acknowledge that attitudes are more likely to be changed with more direct, reciprocal dialogue.
A study published by the journal Science, although currently controversial, found that when openly gay activists went door-to-door to speak with conservative opponents in a heartfelt and responsive way about gay marriage, the residents were more likely to form long term and favorable views than if the activist was heterosexual. Columbia University professor Donald P. Green, a co-author on the study, says that although he previously thought attitudes were stable entities, the key to changing an opinion lies in open channels of communication: “In an era where the constant talk is of implacable differences and polarization, what’s interesting here is that you have an honest, open, two-way conversation, and opinions do change” (Shapiro 2015). A year after the twenty-minute meeting with the canvasser, researchers went back to the homes that were spoken to and found that when the canvasser was gay there was a fourteen percentage point increase in lasting favorable opinion, in comparison to straight canvassers that increased only be three points. Recently, Green retracted it as his co-author allegedly “failed to produce raw data” (Shapiro 2015). Whether this is found to be accurate or not, the central tenets of study remain: society is more receptive to vulnerable dialogue that stems from legitimate stake in a controversy. This is highlighted by drawing parallels to various mentor programs. While the ideologies could not be more different, the process is the same when addressing counter-radicalization.
In March, the New York Times published an article focusing on deradicalization through mentor programs. In the article they compare the radicalization of neo-Nazi’s and jihadists: “Both had grievances that eroded their self-esteem and made them angry. Both were seduced by a narrative that put them at the center of a greater cause and offered them what they craved most: a sense of belonging and a plan to act on their resentment” (Bennhold 2015). Ibrahim Ahmed, a former jihadist, and Robert Orell, a former neo-Nazi, eventually walked away from violence, not because of governmental programs, but because of intervention from former zealots like themselves. Now directors of Exit, a counter-extremism organization, Ahmed and Orell say the key to deradicalization is receptive conversations: exactly the opposite of the “Twitter fights” that the U.S. government frequently engages in. Ahmed says he acknowledges the strife of his mentees and then channels their discontent away from violence, often suggesting finding a strong community connection outside of that of jihad. While this idea runs parallel to Johnson’s statement on ABC, Ahmed and Orell suggest it be executed through grassroot mentor programs opposed to extensive government campaigns.
The U.S. government has a created a facade of counter radicalization that is used as internalized marketing for the State Department more than it is to provide a counter-narrative to vulnerable youth. Barack Obama has released various statements regarding the dangers of jihadist exploitation of social media, yet the U.S. government does not seem to understand the problem enough to combat it successfully. Instead of spending their time creating embarrassing Ask.fm and Tumblr profiles that a local middle schooler could create as a social studies project, the U.S. should be studying more complex approaches to counter-radicalizaiton; specifically, small mentor programs that are critical to curbing domestic terrorism in the United States.
Bennhold, Katrin. “Same Anger, Different Ideologies: Radical Muslim and Neo-Nazi.” New York Times. March 5, 2015. Accessed May 10, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/06/world/europe/two-outcomes-similar-paths-radical-muslim-and-neo-nazi.html?_r=0.
Edelman, Adam. “State Department’s ‘Embarrassing’ ‘Think Again Turn Away’ Twitter Campaign Could Actually Legitimize Terrorists: Expert.” New York Daily News. September 16, 2014. Accessed May 15, 2015. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/state-department-embarrassing-turn-twitter-campaign-legitimizes-terrorists-expert-article-1.1941990.
Gearan, Anne. “U.S. Attempts to Combat Islamic State Propaganda.” The Washington Post. September 7, 2014. Accessed May 21, 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-attempts-to-combat-islamic-state-propaganda/2014/09/07/c0283cea-3534-11e4-9f4d-24103cb8b742_story.html.
Johnson, Andrew. “Even State Dept’s Social-Media Strategy to Counter ISIS Is a Mess.” National Review. September 17, 2014. Accessed May 16, 2015. http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/388216/even-state-depts-social-media-strategy-counter-isis-mess-andrew-johnson.
Office of the Press Secretary. “FACT SHEET: The White House Summit on Countering Violent
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Plett Usher, Barbara. “The US State Department’s YouTube ‘Digital Jihad’.” BBC News. November 28, 2014. Accessed May 15, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30045038.
Sanchez, Raf. “Here’s How The US Is Fighting Terrorists Through Twitter.” The Telegraph. May 21, 2014. Accessed May 18, 2015. http://www.businessinsider.com/think-again-turn-away-twitter-account-2014-5.
Shapiro, Lilo. “Study On Changing Minds About Same-Sex Marriage Disavowed By Co-Author.” Huffington Post. May 20, 2015. Accessed May 21, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/11/same-sex-marriage_n_6309374.html.
“U.S. Security Chief Warns of ‘New Phase’ in Terror Threat.” Yahoo News. May 10, 2015. Accessed May 12, 2015. http://news.yahoo.com/us-security-chief-warns-phase-terror-threat-154452221.html.