A recently released GAO report titled “Domestic Terrorism: Further Actions Needed to Strengthen FBI and DHS Collaboration to Counter Threats” indicates there was a 357 percent rise in incidents of domestic terrorism in America between 2013 and 2021. The justice system is still working to hold accountable domestic terrorists from that timeframe and beyond with the continuing trials of participants in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and a life sentence without parole for the 19-year-old perpetrator who pleaded guilty to charges of domestic terrorism, murder, and murder as a hate crime in the Buffalo Tops mass shooting. Given this context, it is natural that we ask ourselves what more we should be doing in the space of targeted violence and terrorism prevention.
The shift over the past several years from a focus on international terrorism to domestic terrorism has meant that the federal, state, and local governments have needed to build new partnerships and programs, while updating or building new guidance for continued protection of First Amendment speech. One key theme has emerged from these changes. As governments and practitioners continue to develop their capabilities and their programs, their focus should be on efforts to decrease and prevent an individual’s or group’s propensity to escalate to violence. As a former senior federal official in counterterrorism and law enforcement and a researcher focused on violent extremism and designing and evaluating programs for impact, we approach this problem from different perspectives but arrive at a similar conclusion.
1. Ideology vs. Violence
Don’t Focus on Fighting Ideology
Fighting extremist ideology is a Quixotic mission tilting at windmills. Even if it were uniformly acknowledged to be a good idea, there simply are not enough resources to identify and remove extremist propaganda, given the speed at which information moves in the current environment. With Twitter’s decision to loosen their restrictions on content, and continued press from adversary nation-states looking to exploit internal fractures within democracies, we believe efforts in this arena will have a modest impact on the current environment. We should also recognize that the model of violent extremism from a decade ago where individuals adhere to only one extremist ideology is no longer our primary threat. Whether you refer to it as “salad bar ideology,” “composite violent extremism,” or “hodgepodge extremism,” the reality is that ideology is far more fluid today with individuals taking what tactics, techniques, and procedures make sense for the violence they seek to cause, regardless of which ideology advocated them. It’s important to recognize that most people with extremist ideology don’t ever escalate to engage in violent action. This is all to say that, despite policy and practice focused heavily on it, ideology-focused programs haven’t resulted in the outcome we want to see – the reduction in an individual’s or group’s propensity to violence. It’s time we commit to an alternative approach.
Do Focus on Violence
None of this is to say that ideology is not a factor, rather that we should focus on violence and violence reduction as the key metrics. To position to combat violence more effectively, we should embrace a more complex model that incorporates several indicators associated with an individual’s move to conducting an act of violence. This analysis should be done in partnership with local prevention networks composed of academia, law enforcement, mental health providers, social workers, threat assessment and management teams, school resource officers, civic leaders, and others. Former extremists can also serve as a valuable source of information. These individuals know the ins and outs of violent extremism and can serve as an early warning system alert to the signs of potential violence.
2. Deradicalization vs. Disengagement
Don’t Focus Solely on Deradicalization
In the past many targeted violence and terrorism prevention programs have focused on deradicalizing those who have espoused extremist beliefs. By this we mean efforts to change individuals’ extreme ideological views. There is value to deradicalizing an individual who is incarcerated, especially those who have already committed violent criminal acts to further their beliefs, in order to prevent the proliferation of their beliefs. Where successful, these individuals can also serve as a positive example and inspiration of the alternate paths that exist.
Many of these programs, however, have failed to meet the mark on prevention of violence as the subjects are typically identified after they have committed a criminal act. To move “left of boom,” we need to focus on engaging extremists throughout their radicalization journey before they turn toward violence. Research has shown that not only is it difficult to change an individual’s ideology, it is incredibly resource-intensive, and the change itself may not last. Returning to the theme of our first section, given that violent extremists of today may not be joining groups out of ideological alignment, violence and terrorism prevention efforts need a broader lens.
Do Focus on Disengagement
The goal, then, should be to focus on creating programs that help individuals disengage from extremism in a non-coercive and non-punitive way earlier on their journeys. Research has shown that disengagement is far more effective than deradicalization with respect to people leaving extremist organizations. Disengagement can manifest itself in a number of ways: disenchantment with the leadership of the extremist organization, lack of confidence that the organization can affect the change the organization supposedly wants to bring about, or disgust with the violence being committed in the name of the cause.
Former extremists provide the valuable insight into the inner workings of these groups necessary to an effective disengagement strategy. These insights can be gathered through research on the tangible steps along an extremist’s journey from initial interaction with and support of extremist material to the smaller subset who go on to commit acts of violence, and investments in programming that focuses on the ways in which people leave. This often includes addressing issues of social cohesion, unaddressed political grievances, and misinformation: factors that are very different than deradicalization.
Of course, with investment – whether dollars or time devoted to development of capacity – there must be an assessment of the return, which leads us to our next point:
3. Right vs. Left of Boom Measures
Don’t Just Measure “Right of Boom”
Prevention of anything is always difficult to measure. How do you measure that which never happened? Given this difficulty, most measures in the targeted violence and terrorism prevention space have focused on “right of boom” activities, such as the number of attacks or even the number of referrals to tip lines. Unfortunately, these types of measures are uninformative for evaluating the impact of targeted violence and terrorism prevention programs. Typically, by the time calls come in, the individual has already taken tangible steps toward committing an act of violence. Certainly, once the act has occurred it is too late. Similarly, a reduction in calls may indicate that the community doesn’t trust that reporting will result in something positive, which would indicate that the programing is failing to meet its goals.
Do Develop Measures “Left of Boom”
Left of boom is more difficult to measure. Historically, given this difficulty, targeted violence and terrorism prevention programs have neglected these types of measures. We can clearly see the number of attacks over time, but preventive measures require more effort to assess. The reality is that we haven’t utilized the experts in this area as we should to develop more effective measures. In other words, we have relied on existing law enforcement data rather than a research-driven model informed by experts in local prevention networks. Social scientists, mental health practitioners, social workers, and others have spent substantial time thinking about the issue of violence prevention and can help inform better measures of success and assist in the development of more effective programs. For instance, leveraging research on political violence, a measure could focus on whether over the course of an intervention fewer individuals perceive that violence is a viable means to address their grievances. We need to invest both expertise and time to formulate measures of violence prevention programming effectiveness.
It may be the case that our greatest return on investment is at earlier-stage interventions. We can make more informed decisions through partnership with law enforcement, academia, mental health professionals, and civic leaders, and with a greater investment in and reliance on research and practice on targeted violence and terrorism prevention. These decisions will continue to influence and mature policy and programming.
4. Risk vs. Protective Factors
Don’t Invest Solely in Risk Factors
Much of the work on targeted violence and terrorism prevention has focused heavily on radicalization risk factors. This has often resulted in programming that assumes there can be a “pre-terrorism” assessment “checklist” that indicates someone’s propensity for radicalization. Research has shown this to be problematic both in the vast number of potential indicator factors identified as well as the fact that they often do not correlate accurately to violence. These also have led to the targeting of individuals for a law enforcement intervention, even where individuals were not at risk for committing violence. There have been several studies highlighting that these interventions create distrust in the programs and their approach. These results are not confined to the U.S.; officials around the globe have noted that when police and national government organizations don’t have the confidence of all parts of society, their distrust in targeted violence and terrorism prevention programs further inhibits their success in preventing violence. With a notable decline in trust in police in America to the lowest levels ever recorded in some polls, this association between risk factors and law enforcement could impact bystanders’ willingness to report concerning behaviors for fear of “getting someone in trouble,” leading both to less reporting and negatively impacting the credibility of the program. In contrast, community policing promoting non-punitive interactions with the public improves credibility and legitimacy of law enforcement.
Do Invest in Protective Factors
Prioritizing investment into assessing and building protective factors to improve community resilience can yield significant mission benefits. These factors can include programs that help mitigate adversity people face, provide social and psychological mechanisms to address adversity, and provide them with strategies to deal with extremist propaganda. We propose investing in this area heavily to mitigate violent extremism, drawing on the promising disengagement research, while also addressing root causes of extremism such as misplaced socio-political grievances or misinformation. Federal investment can be made through grants focused on building these programs, assessing their viability, and partnering with academia to determine measures of effectiveness. To achieve the best results, the research and investment in root-cause analysis must be free of politics or political intervention. As an example, some entities have been hesitant to note the rise in violence by those espousing far-right domestic violence extremist views for fear of political backlash, even if data shows this to be the vast majority of extremists in America. If instead violence prevention is geared toward protective factors and broad community interventions such as programs encouraging civic engagement or concerted efforts against political disinformation, concerns of targeting specific groups or First Amendment protected activity would be mitigated. It is our view that state-led, multi-disciplinary local prevention networks of experts are likely to be best positioned to achieve the type of resiliency we’ve described.
As research continues to show, the threat of domestic terrorism in the United States is growing. Unless we adopt a different approach soon, and face reality about the nature and scale of this growing concern, we risk it becoming a larger problem in our society. To do this, we argue that it is vital to address the issue head-on with an approach that focuses on violence instead of ideology, disengagement over deradicalization, greater attention to measures “left of boom,” and a refocus on investment in protective factors so that local prevention networks can carry out programs and policies geared broadly toward community resilience against targeted violence and terrorism. Learning lessons from the past, let us not wait until another attack forces us into action but rather make these much-needed changes today.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email Editor@Hstoday.us.