One of the most pressing challenges when it comes to counter terrorism is combating the so-called “lone wolf” or “Home Grown Violent Extremist (also known as an “HVE”). This week there has been considerable news coverage of the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, and according to media reports, the troubling increase in the number of HVE’s- essentially self-radicalized individuals or small groups of individuals was one important topic of discussion.
The thing that makes these individuals so hard to detect is that they haven’t necessarily had any direct in-person contact with representatives of terrorist organizations, but have adopted the violent ideology of groups like ISIS, Al-Queda, Neo-Nazi ,White Supremacist or anti-government groups nonetheless, often through exposure to social media. Further complicating matters, there are many more people who will view violent online propaganda without becoming violent themselves. As Bruce Riedel, Director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution noted in his report on this phenomenon, "...for the counter terrorist community, the issue is not whether an individual is “radical” or “extremist,” but whether they are violent and breaking the law. It’s likely that the prospective terrorist will hide the transition from radical to violent from all around him."
This presents a particular set of challenges for intelligence and security services around the world, since someone who travels to Syria to fight with ISIS and boasts about it on Facebook is much easier to spot than an individual who may have come to embrace the idea of violent jihad by watching Youtube videos of fighting in Iraq on their home computer. The fact that these individuals exist in the west and are open to the distorted narrative of Islamist terror groups is not lost on the terrorist organizations themselves, as is evidenced by the high production value of the materials that ISIS and others have posted online. Clearly, they believe that they will get a return on the resources they are investing in highly-polished videos and the launch of social media campaigns, as a tool both to recruit individuals to come and fight on the ground in the Middle East and Africa, as well as to inspire HVE's in Europe and North America. While world leaders are working on a range of initiatives, including expansion of police powers and criminal penalties for engaging in either type of activity, no government or leader has yet found a fully satisfactory solution to this multifaceted challenge.
For this reason, it is important that the Obama administration is taking the threat seriously and convening a diverse group of domestic and international stakeholders to discuss the problem of countering violent extremism, including the threat posed by HVE's. But the conference is not without some controversy, as reporter Juliet Eilperin noted recently in the Washington Post, writing that "... this attempt to enlist the aid of respected community officials has raised concern among Muslim American advocates who say that the Obama administration’s efforts have contributed to the perception that the majority of extremist threats arise from their ranks." Such concerns highlight the sensitive nature of the topic and the balance that the administration must strike between security and respecting the rights and privacy of all ethnic and religious communities.
The need for sensitivity to this balance adds another important element to the conversation around combating violent extremism, which may point to the root cause of its apparent intractability: in open western societies and in nascent democracies around the world, how do we balance the need to address the clear and present danger of extremism, while safeguarding the rights of individuals?
That this summit has drawn not only senior government officials from around the world, but key civil society stakeholders including representatives from the Anti-Defamation League and The American Islamic Congress, as well as leading scholars on terrorism, including Professor Mia Bloom of UMass, Lowell and Dr. Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, speaks to the fact that the administration views this problem in a holistic way. By including scholars, community leaders and NGO's, the White House is sending a clear signal that the answer to the question of how best to counter violent extremism will not be found solely with the military or law enforcement, but from a response by society as a whole.
While the White House and those gathered there are unlikely to come up with a complete solution to this challenge this week, with the right intentions and the right people in the room, perhaps the conversation can move forward just a little, and in my mind, that means some progress will have been made.
Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.