Connections Among Communities: Preventing Radicalization and Violent Extremism Through Social Network Analysis (SNA) in the Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) Framework

– Executive Summary –

Since the September 11 attacks, the United States alone has experienced a significant increase in violent extremist attacks motivated through social networks. In this environment of social complexity, we see differences in communities at risk to this threat.

This thesis takes a new approach and examines the concept of Social Network Analysis (SNA) to determine whether a community’s vulnerability can be reduced through incorporating the SNA methodology into the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) process. The assertion is that 1) there is a gap in counter radicalization and violent extremism studies and policies with regard to assessing a community’s vulnerability through an analysis of their social networks; 2) there should be a way to qualitatively and quantitatively measure the interpersonal relationships of violent extremists and at-risk communities by incorporating SNA in the THIRA process; and 3) that SNA can be used or acknowledged in homeland security organizations’ prevention assessment tools and methods for pre-empting radicalization and violence. Therefore, these questions are studied.

This research uses a multiple case study approach to answer these questions. Using literature that describes core SNA principles and related fields of study, a theoretical framework was developed to illustrate how extremist ideologies and motivations are socialized within a particular network.

Using multi-case analysis, a theoretical framework is refined to include social network factors affecting a community’s vulnerability of radicalization and violent extremism. The findings of the case studies allowed for the development of a theoretical framework illustrating how the SNA methodology can be incorporated into the THIRA process to not only mitigate against the process of radicalization, but to also build stronger social networks and a community’s resilience in preventing violent extremism and terrorism.

The goal of the new assessment framework is threefold: to identify communities lacking relevant social network information that would contribute to social outreach; to enhance trust between government and communities to foster cooperation and partnerships; and to link the right expertise, skills, and resources to help at-risk communities increase the number of proficient stakeholders and fora in which community members can work safely with their government to develop targeted support strategies. This framework is intended to support a new homeland security strategy to identify and assess the vulnerability of communities through an analysis of their social networks. In doing so, a determination can be made of which actors and relationships best lend themselves to opportunities for the government to develop, deliver, and sustain efforts for preventing the root causes of extremist ideologies.

To realize the new THIRA model, support would be needed to create a unified, national countering violent extremism (CVE) framework that looks at the spread of ideology and its impacts, which is distinct from imminent threats of terrorism and its intersection with law enforcement. Because communications from violent extremists are more ubiquitous than ever before, every state and community must be prepared to address the challenge of radicalization and violent extremism. While the cases studied in this thesis provide some examples of effective programs, at least one U.S. community would need to take the lead as a pilot program in testing SNA in the THIRA process. Successful implementation of an experimental case, particularly with a state or community with prior experience in conducting a THIRA, could make the case for national expansion, and ultimately initiate an addendum to the Comprehensive Preparedness Guide 201 that outlines the four-step process for accountability of the threat and risk assessment framework. Such findings would address the need to align federal government efforts with individual cities and towns to establish a nationwide approach to CVE.

The United States has already seen that predicting radicalization is difficult and efforts to disrupt the process are not always successful. While tactical approaches have thus far been largely effective, they usually rely on identifying a threat just before it is carried out. Because the knowledge of someone who may have already been radicalized to commit violence is inherently limited, this approach may not always be successful. However, by developing a strategy that prevents an individual’s trajectory toward radicalization while it is still in early stages of development, homeland security and intelligence officials may be more effective in reducing a community’s overall vulnerability and increasing its resilience. A focus on social networks brings to light areas previously unexplored that may improve our fundamental understanding of the radicalization process and offer a road map for successful interventions in the future.

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