“Channeling”: The United Kingdom’s Approach to CVE-A Plan Americans Deserve But Will Never Receive
Responding to a perceived increase in radicalization among American Muslims, the White House recently convened a summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). However, the concept remains poorly defined and places a disproportionate emphasis on preventing radical beliefs instead of violent behavior, making it nearly impossible to quantify success. Despite the fanfare, the United States has yet to develop a sophisticated prevention and de-radicalization infrastructure to counter the myriad push-and-pull factors that draw susceptible individuals towards violent extremist organizations like the Islamic State (ISIS).
To date, over 150 U.S. residents have attempted to travel to Syria to join Sunni jihadist groups; to counter ISIS’ recruitment successes, the FBI must exploit ISIS’ social media networks to identify supporters in the United States, use disinformation to sow doubts about Western recruits’ loyalty, and counter ISIS’ narrative that “the State is a state for all Muslims”[i] by elevating criticisms from aggrieved members and Muslims living in ISIS-controlled territory. For the purposes of this strategy, CVE entails the use of non-coercive means to reduce the overall number of American residents attempting to join ISIS.[ii] Congress should authorize and fund an intervention program along the lines of the United Kingdom’s Channel Program. The program will try to encourage ‘law abiding supporters’[iii] to disengage from extremist networks by offering positive alternatives to violence. The analysis concludes by showing how the plan might be implemented.
While this strategy would improve upon US counter-terrorism policies and help initiate a more constructive dialogue about the “lone-wolf” terrorism threat, the pendulum has already swung away from CVE towards “preventive prosecution.”[iv] In the last five weeks alone, the FBI has arrested more than 10 suspected ISIS sympathizers;[v] unfortunately, this is a proposal that Americans deserve but will never receive.
Intelligence: The government could try to limit the availability of ISIS’ propaganda by pressuring private companies to suspend supporters’ social media accounts. However, efforts to do so are unlikely to succeed, set a dangerous precedent in regards to free speech, and conflict with the government’s imperative to gather intelligence. Trying to remove ISIS’ propaganda from social media platforms represents an impractical game of “whack-a-mole;” popular disseminators usually maintain backup accounts in case one is flagged and suspended.[vi] Because ISIS’ propaganda is so widely available on the Internet, those extremists who wish to find it will still be able to. Even if social media companies were willing and able to identify and suspend most ISIS propagandists’ accounts, doing so would be counterproductive, eliminating a valuable supply of intelligence.
Instead, we should exploit social media networks to gather intelligence on supporters in the United States. Western foreign fighters are rather unsophisticated operatives, often posting incriminating photos of themselves on social media.[vii] Because of this, the FBI has a better opportunity of identifying potential recruits who might otherwise have gone undetected. Once American foreign fighters are identified, the FBI should prioritize investigating these individuals’ social networks to try to identify other ISIS supporters. The FBI can map out known recruits’ social media networks to identify any US residents who are openly celebrating ISIS propaganda or ‘following’ the group’s official accounts or popular disseminators.
Once recruits are identified, the FBI should try to gain access to these individuals’ private social media accounts. Although companies have incentives to protect users’ privacy, this is not an insurmountable obstacle. In 2014, Twitter cooperated in roughly 80% of the cases in which authorities requested access to Americans’ accounts.[viii] Since these foreign fighters’ social media posts, activities, and geo-location indicators will have already demonstrated their membership in a Foreign Terrorist Organization, it is expected that social media companies will comply with these specific requests for information.
The government should highlight information gathered from recruits’ private social media conversations to spread disinformation about the level of infiltration by Western security services. By sowing doubts about Westerners’ loyalties, intelligence agencies might encourage ISIS leaders to recruit fewer Americans.[ix] Disinformation can help to weaken the group’s solidarity and exacerbate tensions between Middle Eastern and North African fighters and Western recruits. If US recruits are seen as potential spies, local fighters might assume that they can mistreat them without being punished. This may increase the number of Western members who are mistreated, become disillusioned, defect, and choose to speak out.
Turn Away: This intervention program aims to dissuade ‘law abiding supporters’ from attempting to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State. If social media ‘friends,’ peers, or family members suspect that an individual is radicalizing, they can refer that person to “Turn Away.” A designated Turn Away employee from the nearest FBI field office will be responsible for assessing whether the supporter should enter the program or, in serious cases, FBI informants should be used. Similar to the Channel Program, “Turn Away” uses a vulnerability framework to assess extremists along three dimensions: their degree of engagement with ISIS’ networks or ideology, their intent to cause harm, and their capability to do so.[x] Possible indicators of capability include having a history of violence or crime, having military training, and having occupational skills like civil engineering that can enable acts of terrorism. When these dimensions are considered together, they provide a rounded view about an individual’s vulnerability to recruitment and the likely security risk that he or she poses to other US residents.
Many of the individuals who openly celebrate terrorist propaganda online would now fall under “Turn Away’s” jurisdiction. This allows the FBI to distinguish more serious threats that will require confidential informants from less-serious threats in which local authorities would approach the supporter and suggest that they enter “Turn Away.” Informants should only be used against extremists who are deemed most vulnerable to recruitment or violence and those individuals who are referred to but refuse to participate in “Turn Away.” Rather than trying to build criminal cases against non-violent extremists who might support terrorism if given the right encouragement and support, informants will only target extremists whose vulnerability assessments suggest that they are least likely to be dissuaded. This allows the FBI to apportion scarce intelligence and law enforcement resources more effectively.
Since “Turn Away” enables the FBI to be more selective in its use of informants, the number of indictments filed against ISIS supporters may decrease. These frequent indictments attract media attention and reinforce the perception that ISIS is the preeminent threat to the homeland.[xi] This may have the unintended effect of encouraging supporters to join or conduct homegrown terrorist attacks; sympathizers might feel that they’re missing out on a chance to be a part of a larger cause. Even if aspiring recruits are arrested, sensationalized media coverage may increase their status among jihadist fan boys.
If an individual is referred to “Turn Away” and agrees to participate, support packages will be tailored to resolve participants’ unique motivations for supporting ISIS; potential services include but are not limited to anger management, substance abuse interventions, housing support, and theological and peer mentoring.[xii] Once Congress establishes “Turn Away,” it should earmark funds to finance support providers. Ideological or theological mentors must currently oppose violence; repentant terrorists and non-violent extremists are eligible.
In fact, these ‘formers’ and non-violent radicals are more credible messengers. They are more likely to understand the unique emotional and psychological push factors that may have primed an individual to extremist ideologies, be able to connect with susceptible young adults by highlighting their own experiences with disengagement, and build the trust and rapport needed to pull these individuals away from violent extremist networks.
Support providers do not need to be experts in counter-radicalization but should at least be informed about the indicators “Turn Away” uses to assess vulnerability so that they can assess participants’ progress. Local “Turn Away” police practitioners will be responsible for approving support providers, supervising the delivery of the support package, monitoring high-risk participants, assessing participants’ progress with his or her providers, and updating extremists’ vulnerability assessments.[xiii] If the risk of criminality related to terrorism increases, the police practitioner will determine whether the intervention should continue or the case should be referred to the FBI.
Counter-Messaging: Because the vast majority of homegrown jihadists were radicalized, in part, through interactions on the Internet,[xiv] any counter-terrorism strategy must attempt to contest the messages that the terrorists use to try to encourage supporters to travel to Syria. While ‘formers’ and non-violent extremists acting as mentors can provide theological counter-arguments to ‘Turn Away’ participants, any large-scale counter-messaging campaign conducted over the Internet and social media should not wade into the thicket of religious debates. Instead, the counter-messaging effort will try to delegitimize some of the non-religious narratives that might motivate Westerners to join the Islamic State.
One way to do so is to de-romanticize the notion of ‘jihad cool.’ Counter-messaging should highlight Western defectors’ complaints about being mistreated by local fighters, forced to perform menial tasks like cleaning toilets and washing dishes,[xv] and living without electricity, clean water, and access to medical care.
Pragmatic arguments that highlight the hardships that Western recruits will experience might dissuade some supporters from attempting to travel to Syria. When ISIS’ media outlets claim that they’re winning military battles only to be defeated, these statements can be juxtaposed against images of ISIS’ insurgents fleeing, leaving dead and wounded members behind. These counter-narratives may help to dissuade aspiring recruits who are searching for excitement, a sense of purpose, or solidarity.
Rather than framing recruits as committed terrorists motivated purely by religious ideology, the government should investigate other possible explanations. If recruits have a criminal history, known mental illnesses, or substance abuse problems, authorities should publicize this information. If supporters suspect that they will be framed as confused teens or petty criminals, they might be less willing to risk arrest by trying to join or plotting lone-wolf attacks.
We must crystallize the difference between ISIS’ words and deeds. While humanitarian motivations may be becoming less important for Westerners trying to join ISIS, we must contest the group’s claim that it is defending the ummah from repressive governments by showing that Muslims will be the greatest victims of ISIS’ expansion. If the intelligence community intercepts communications between senior leaders and emirs that reveal disagreements over how fighters are treating local Muslim populations, the government should declassify this information. We can also exploit the infighting within the global jihadist movement, pointing out that even al-Qaeda condemns ISIS for its wanton violence against Muslims.
While a counter-messaging campaign can discredit ISIS’ narratives by elevating criticisms and stories of hardships posted on social media by current members and Muslims living in ISIS-controlled territories, it is incumbent on ‘Turn Away’ practitioners to provide alternative narratives for US sympathizers. Mentors interacting regularly with ISIS sympathizers, discussing their own previous feelings of alienation, inadequacy, or emotional distress, and explaining how their lives improved after disengaging from violent extremist networks offer powerful alternative narratives; mentors can demonstrate that they found meaning, belonging, and solidarity as devout Muslims living in the United States. When they chose to disengage from violent extremist networks, these individuals were able to find purpose in the West by building relationships with other Muslims who had similar experiences and worldviews, and helping to encourage these wayward youth not to throw away their lives.
If vulnerable individuals participating in the ‘Turn Away’ program are judged to have disengaged from violent extremist networks and de-radicalized, the government can solicit their support as mentors. This can provide a positive outlet for these ‘formers’ to talk about their own experiences and disengagement from violent extremist networks and ideologies and gain their own sense of self-worth and belonging. By employing these individuals as mentors, the government can gradually scale up its intervention infrastructure by increasing the number of credible messengers willing and able to connect with ISIS sympathizers.
Counter-Messaging Implementation: ISIS sympathizers are unlikely to view agencies like the US Department of State as credible messengers so the government’s primary role should be to encourage private companies to elevate existing counter-narratives. Public officials should solicit help to establish an initiative similar to Google’s Network Against Violent Extremism. The idea would be to lobby social media companies to establish a global network of Westerners who defected from ISIS and Muslims who survived its attacks and wish to share their experiences. The government should frame social media companies’ participation in the program as a way to discredit allegations that they have not done enough to prevent terrorists from using their platforms to communicate and proselytize.
To have any hope of influencing sympathetic fence sitters, activists must produce material that can compete with ISIS’ high-definition, flashy propaganda videos. The Department of State can organize competitions and provide grants for start up companies who design the most compelling music videos, short films, or comedic skits challenging ISIS’ narratives. The intelligence community can help these companies to identify and connect with defectors and survivors so that they have a larger platform to broadcast counter-narratives.
Assessment/Feasibility: The government has a role to play in convening activists to counter the Islamic State’s narratives. However, those messengers whom ISIS’ supporters are most likely to listen to are the same individuals who the government would be least willing to partner with. Defectors are credible messengers but amplifying their criticisms might require working with individuals with blood on their hands. Similarly, officials might decide not to provide grants to online activists who wish to publicize al-Qaeda ideologues’ condemnations of ISIS; doing so could expose the administration to allegations that it is giving these jihadist ideologues attention and publicity and connecting them with a wider audience.
The government can try to solicit social media companies’ participation in a counter-messaging campaign by framing it as a form of corporate social responsibility. Nevertheless, most companies will be unwilling to invest large amounts of equity in the program and even if they do, this will be insufficient without significant financial support from the central government. However, this is unlikely to materialize. Most government funding goes towards kinetic solutions to terrorism, interdicting or killing terrorists, as opposed to preventive measures.[xvi]
Additionally, it is unclear how effective a counter-messaging campaign can be. Many fence sitters will not be dissuaded by a counter-messaging campaign unless they decide to disengage from violent extremist networks. Inserting counter-narratives into ISIS’ online networks does not guarantee that they will have the desired impact. Since ISIS’ online social networks are incredibly interconnected,[xvii] they act as ‘echo chambers’[xviii] in which sustained interactions with other supporters may reinforce radical views. In these ideologically segregated free spaces, accepting counter-narratives is costly because doing so will expose an individual to vocal criticism from within the network and may lead to the loss of valuable relationships.
By requesting that social media companies partner with the government to provide access to known foreign fighters accounts and private conversations, civil libertarians would likely protest that innocent, law-abiding residents might be caught up in the government’s surveillance drag-net. These advocates offer compelling counter-arguments in the debate between security and civil liberties; if the government inadvertently violates Muslims’ civil liberties it not only legitimizes many of the Islamic State’s criticisms of the West but also forfeits the core values that American society is built upon.
However, these criticisms are unlikely to apply in these specific requests for additional information. By gaining access to and analyzing foreign fighters’ private conversations, intelligence agencies can distinguish between those US residents who have reached out to known ISIS members for research purposes or cursory curiosity and those Muslims who are actively committed to the group’s extremist ideology and deemed most likely to support violence.
Providing higher-risk extremists who have not yet broken the law with the opportunity to enter an intervention program enables the government to more effectively balance the national security-civil liberties pendulum than the FBI is with its current “preventive prosecution” approach. Rather than using confidential FBI informants to target every known extremist who might resort to violence if given the right encouragement and support, the government would prioritize providing higher-risk individuals with an opportunity to disengage from violent extremist networks and turn around their lives before they crossed the boundary between protected speech and criminal activity.
Nevertheless, federal, state, and local law enforcement will vigorously lobby against an intervention program. Building criminal cases against “law-abiding supporters,” regardless of their competence or the likelihood that they will join ISIS, increases public concern about the possibility of domestic terrorism and helps the FBI to demonstrate its role in protecting Americans and make the case for budgetary increases. From the FBI’s standpoint, it is risky if ISIS supporters, even incompetent ones, enter “Turn Away.” The agency would not receive any credit for successful interventions but would shoulder a large part of the blame if one of the program’s participants went on to attack the United States.
While local governments across the United States have established intervention programs for gang members, it is unlikely that there would be political support for similar programs designed to dissuade aspiring terrorists. Since most of the public perceives non-incarcerated terrorist supporters as irredeemable,[xix] American voters would likely oppose an intervention program. It is psychologically reassuring to know that the FBI is disrupting terrorist plots. Americans will remain convinced that trying to interdict all supporters is the least risky approach; they are unlikely to be swayed by arguments that some terrorists might not have acted without informants’ encouragement and support. Thus, an intervention program will remain a political non-starter. There are few benefits but significant risks for voting for the program. If one of “Turn Away’s” participants attempted or succeeded in carrying out a terrorist attack, it is likely that most of the politicians who authorized the program would lose reelection.
If Congress authorizes “Turn Away,” there are limits to what it can achieve. Some youth will spend long hours online interacting with ISIS supporters but will successfully conceal their ongoing radicalization from family members and peers. In other cases, parents or friends might suspect that an individual is radicalizing but choose not to bring the case to authorities’ attention. Some parents might assume that preventive measures, taking the teen’s passports or monitoring his or her computer access, will resolve the issue. In other cases, parents might ignore the problem, fearing that intervention will fail and their child will end up in prison.
Even if an individual is accepted into to the program, the government cannot force non-incarcerated extremists to participate.[xx] Inevitably, some people who are referred to the program will decide not to participate. Furthermore, interventions will only succeed if extremists remain convinced that the potential costs of joining the Islamic State outweigh the benefits. By offering support packages and reminding participants about the criminal consequences of supporting terrorism, the government can somewhat influence extremists’ cost-benefit calculations.
However, the likelihood that interventions succeed or fail is greatly influenced by factors largely outside of the government’s control. Interventions will work best when individuals and their families “fully engage with the program.”[xxi] In cases involving minors, parents can monitor teens’ activities, reprimand children if they are caught interacting with extremists on the Internet, and emphasize the emotional pain that the child’s support for terrorism would cause his or her family. Nevertheless, if extremists do not disengage from the networks that are pulling them towards terrorism, even the most supportive families might not be able to dissuade sympathizers.
While beyond the scope of this analysis, another concern is that by making it seem less attractive to travel to Syria to join ISIS the government may unintentionally make other behaviors more attractive. To illustrate, an ISIS supporter might accept the argument that life in Syria will be miserable, that local fighters will treat him poorly, and that he will be forced to perform unexciting, menial chores. However, this may make it seem more attractive to conduct a terrorist attack in the United States.
It will be difficult to measure the program’s efficacy. In the vast majority cases in which extremists who participate in “Turn Away” do not try to join ISIS, there is no way to prove that the intervention itself is the reason why. On the other hand, if one of the participants carries out a terrorist attack or is arrested for trying to join ISIS, the public will likely deem the program a failure and demand that it be ended.
Conclusion: Congress should authorize “Turn Away.” By providing support packages to address extremists’ unique motivations for joining terrorist groups, we may be able to prevent some wayward individuals from ruining their lives. “Turn Away” may encourage the FBI to be more selective in its use of informants, allowing the agency to focus on more serious domestic terrorism threats.[xxii] However, the politicized nature of the terrorism debate means that this strategy will not be implemented.[xxiii] Despite the recent attention devoted to Countering Violent Extremism, talk goes a lot further than action in Washington.
[i] “The Return of the Khalifah,” Dabiq Issue 1, July 06, 2014.
[ii] Humera Khan, “Why Countering Extremism Fails,” Foreign Affairs, Feb. 18, 2015.
[iii] William McCants, “Countering Violent Extremism, Pt. 2: Scope,” Jihadica, Mar. 1, 2012.
[iv] Robert Chesney, “The Resurgence of the Terrorism-Prevention Paradigm for Law Enforcement,” Lawfareblog, July 9, 2015.
[v] Greg Miller and Ellen Nakashima, “Recent Islamic State Arrests Include Suspects in Alleged July 4 Plots,” The Washington Post, July 9, 2015.
[vi] JM Berger and Jonathon Morgan, “The ISIS Twitter Census: Defining and Describing the Population of ISIS Supporters on Twitter,” The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, Mar. 2015. 41-42.
[vii] Stewart Bell, “Kodaimati Criminal Complaint,” Apr. 23, 2015.
[viii] “Twitter Transparency Report,” Twitter, Dec. 31, 2014. https://transparency.twitter.com/information-requests/2014/jul-dec
[ix] Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro, “Be Afraid. Be A Little Afraid: The Threat of Terrorism from Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq,” Foreign Policy at Brookings, Nov. 2014. 26.
[x] “Channel: Protecting Vulnerable People From Being Drawn Into Terrorism,” HMGovernment, Oct. 2012. 17.
[xi] Tom Porter, “Majority of Americans Believe ISIS Poses Greatest Threat To USA,” International Business Times, Feb. 14, 2015.
[xii] “Channel,” 17.
[xiii] “Channel,” 22.
[xiv] Michael Jensen, Patrick James, and Herbert Tinsley. “Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States: Preliminary Findings,” National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), Jan 2015.
[xv] John Hall, “European ISIS Fighters Who Are Seen As Cannon Fodder By Their Commanders Desperately Try to Prove Their Worth By Committing The Most Sickening Atrocities, Says Former Prisoner,” The Daily Mail. Apr. 10, 2015.
[xvi] William McCants, “Don’t Be Evil,” Foreign Policy, Jun. 30, 2011.
[xvii] JM Berger and Jonathon Morgan, “The ISIS Twitter Census,” 45-50.
[xviii] Ines von Behr, Anais Reding, Charlie Edwards, and Luke Gribbon, “Radicalisation in the Digital Era: The Use of the Internet in 15 Cases of Terrorism and Extremism,” RAND Europe, 2013.
[xix] William McCants and Clint Watts, “U.S. Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism: An Assessment,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, December 2012.
[xx] “Channel,” 24.
[xxi] “Channel,” 15-19.
[xxii] “Homegrown Extremism 2001-2015,” New America Foundation, Feb. 2015.
[xxiii] For a discussion of right-wing terrorist attacks being labeled hate crimes see: Peter Bergen and David Sternman, “US Right Wing Extremists More Deadly Than Jihadists,” CNN, Apr. 15, 2015.