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Outside the Box: The post-9/11 fight against extremism must take on propagandists’ tricks, not just ideology

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It has been two decades since the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. Since then, researchers, security professionals, and other experts have developed a greater understanding of the threat posed by violent extremism and terrorism.

But our anti-terrorism strategies have yet to adapt to the new ways people become radicalized, leaving us vulnerable to further violence and attacks from groups and individuals across the ideological spectrum. 

The early years after 9/11 saw a tremendous shift in the counterterrorism landscape. The U.S. built an entirely new agency– the Department of Homeland Security– to create enhanced security policies and thwart threats to the nation. And across the globe, dozens of programs emerged with the aim of deradicalizing extremists, often through counternarrative approaches that focused on challenging extremists’ ideological beliefs. 

The vast majority of deradicalization and prevention programs, however, were created with no pilot testing. Few were evaluated to determine whether they were effective. The evaluations that did take place produced mostly dubious reports that lacked transparency. As a result, there is little evidence to suggest that past deradicalization and prevention programs achieved their intended goals.

To make matters worse, new surveillance programs and prevention approaches were often biased and Islamophobic, leading to civil rights violations, unwarranted targeting of peaceful Muslim communities, and anger among those targeted. The myopic focus on Islamist and international forms of terrorism created tremendous blind spots, allowing far-right and white supremacist extremisms to grow unfettered.

The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a coalition of militant far-right extremists, QAnon conspiracy theorists, Proud Boys, white supremacists, unlawful militias and ordinary Trump voters illustrates how the beliefs that shape extremist violence have changed. While 20th-century terrorism was primarily driven by organized groups with clear ideological grounding, today’s extremism is much more eclectic, often drawing from cross-ideological and cross-cultural sources that can seem contradictory. Environmental and climate change justifications were key to the motivations of white supremacist terrorists in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso, for example, whose “ecofascist” ideas position immigration as a threat to declining environmental and natural resources that should be preserved for white people.

More idiosyncratic and unpredictable

This approach to ideology-building reflects the ways that people radicalize. Where past extremists were radicalized through membership in hierarchical groups with leaders, initiation rites, and clear ideologies, today’s extremists encounter their ideas through self-radicalizing networks and echo chambers online. The Department of Homeland Security late last year declared domestic violent extremism in general and white supremacist extremism in particular to be the most pressing and lethal threat facing the nation.

But even within the domestic extremist spectrum, ideological views are fragmenting and reassembling in unexpected ways. With the click of a mouse, a budding extremist can cobble together their ideology a la carte, making each extremist more idiosyncratic and unpredictable. 

This “choose-your-own-adventure” style of extremism demands a different approach to preventing threats. To effectively address evolving forms and expressions of extremism, we need to counter propaganda techniques, not just ideological ideas. 

One of the most promising approaches is called attitudinal inoculation, which is based on decades of research that promotes public health.

Based on a biological metaphor, attitudinal inoculation asserts that our minds can be made resistant to dangerous ideas in the same way that our bodies can be made resistant to dangerous pathogens.

The approach works by helping people understand the ways they are at risk of being manipulated by others who are trying to persuade them. They learn about the kinds of persuasive techniques that extremist groups use, and are shown examples of those strategies. For example, people could be shown how extremist groups often make promises of brotherhood and loyalty when in fact these groups are notorious for infighting, betrayal and violence against their own members. Evidence shows that even for violent extremism, inoculation helps individuals resist attempts to radicalize them. 

A key strength of this inoculation strategy is its flexibility and how it can be implemented in online spaces, where we need effective ways to engage and prevent radicalization. This is especially important in light of recent research showing that individuals who engage in harmful online behaviors like doxxing or trolling or spend time on unmoderated, anonymized, or encrypted platforms are more prone to persuasion by far-right propaganda.

Prevention vs. security-focused strategies

Attitudinal inoculation isn’t a panacea. But it can help stop radicalization before it begins. It assumes that people are inherently peaceful and want to remain that way- a sharp contrast to past approaches that sometimes assumed implicit guilt on the part of intervention targets. Rather than profile specific communities of “at risk” individuals, attitudinal inoculation works best when everyone is prepared to resist the persuasive potential of extremist rhetoric and manipulative techniques like fear mongering or scapegoating. 

The roots of radicalization are deep and complicated, and may precede political and ideological leanings altogether. Prevention programs can’t stop extremist radicalization entirely. But neither will the security-focused solutions which have dominated efforts to combat violent extremism for decades.

In the long run, preventing radicalization to extremism will require a combination of preventative media literacy and deep structural solutions to address rising polarization, a sense of middle class precariousness, white citizens’ fears of demographic change, and underlying supremacist thinking. Such changes will not occur overnight- but are essential to any success in preventing extremist violence.

Kurt Braddock is an assistant professor in the School of Communications at American University, Brian Hughes is an assistant research professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University, and Cynthia Miller-Idriss is a professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University. They are all researchers in the university’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL). 

More reflections on the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks:

‘There is an aircraft coming at you’ — remembering events inside the White House on 9/11

Windows on the World chef on his near-miss on 9/11 — he stopped off at the World Trade Center concourse to repair his glasses

From Bush to Giuliani to Howard Lutnick to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, their names are forever linked with the date 9/11 — where are they now?

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