Tailoring Violent Extremism Prevention: A Targeted Intervention Method

– Executive Summary –

Terrorist recruitment and radicalization is a hazard facing our nation, regardless of whether the threat is from a domestic or foreign terrorist organization.[1] There are many ways an individual can radicalize, and the path to radicalization is not linear.[2] In order to implement a sustainable program that disengages violent extremists and makes communities safer, we must first understand the diverse causes of violent extremism.

The thesis examines ten case studies to determine how individuals have historically been recruited, inspired, and radicalized to provide an analytic framework for assessing the diversity of the current threat environment. The subjects reviewed vary in age, race, and ideological beliefs. Within the ten cases, the analysis found thirty-eight total factors that contribute to violent extremism, demonstrated by grievances, ideology, networks (virtual and in-person), and public health. Together, these case studies show there is not a single contributing factor that causes an individual to carry out an act of terrorism. Many of the subjects ascribed to different ideologies and theologies, suffered from personal and specific grievances, or had a virtual or in-person network, and two individuals displayed signs of mental illness.

To prevent individuals from going down a path toward violent extremism, countering violent extremism (CVE) efforts began in the United States in approximately 2011. In September 2015, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson implemented the Office of Community Partnerships.[3] With the growing threat of homegrown terrorism, it became apparent that the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not conduct community engagement; the Office of Community Partnerships was established to fill this gap. Through this program, Johnson aimed to leverage positive community relationships to increase trust, create outlets for engagement, and better secure our nation.[4]

U.S. CVE programs have created a solid foundation from which to grow, and have certainly come a long way. They have fostered relationships with communities and established early interventions via youth education. Although community engagement is an essential aspect of this relationship building, it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of engagement when it comes to deradicalization. Government aspirations to facilitate better relationships with minority communities are undoubtedly well-intentioned; however, they may have an adverse effect if such relationship building is focused on only one community, or if they foster ulterior motives beyond establishing a genuine community bond. Moreover, CVE programs focus on building community relationships to counter the jihadist threat but fail to account for the full spectrum of other violent extremism, including white supremacy, left-wing terrorism, and non-ideologically motivated mass shooters.

Another problem with current CVE programs is that they are not designed to operate in the pre-criminal space. They do not address the surfacing issue of former law enforcement subjects who, though released from police investigation, go on to carry out an attack. Additionally, current programs do not provide a window for an active bystander to report concerning behavior before it becomes violent.[5] When a terrorist attack occurs that involves a prior subject of law enforcement, the media widely criticize law enforcement. This brings great public attention to particular segments of the community and can overshadow the community’s willingness to get involved, especially since people who are close to a radicalized individual—or a person in the process of radicalizing—have expressed desire to assist the appropriate agency.[6]

However, there is a model that helps address the issue of violent extremism using a range of diverse professionals. The model is known as multidisciplinary teams (MDTs). MDTs draw professionals from distinct disciplines (law enforcement, mental health, education, mentor organizations, religious organizations, etc.) who jointly work to address the community’s needs.[7] An MDT’s resources may not always be a perfect fit for at-risk persons; however, their interventions can contribute to early identification and intervention of impending violent behavior. Researchers have found that early preventative measures are most effective when they are carried out by multiple collaborating agencies or MDTs.[8] The research indicates that MDTs can play a vital role in two ways: by creating risk assessment identifiers that help pinpoint individuals who are at risk of violent extremism, and by determining the best way to prevent the individual from becoming more entrenched in the extreme ideology.[9]

The two risk assessment models studied in this thesis, the VERA-2R and the National Threat Assessment Center school safety model, focus on different types of threats but have commonalities. Both models use MDTs and stress an individualized approach, and both look at a broad spectrum of factors. Moreover, both stress that although there is a group dynamic involved in assessing risk, risk assessment tools should not be the only consideration. Gathering additional data from stakeholders or interviews might inform a better decision. As a recent DHS study points out, “Proper validation of an assessment instrument involves collecting data from a known population and applying the tool to those cases to determine how effectively it performs.”[10]

Equally important to MDTs is trust between communities and the police. An effective model shows the community members that they play a role in keeping their community safe. If MDTs can garner community support, they may be better able to identify the core causes of active targeted violence. This partnership could encourage community members to report alarming behavior to law enforcement, who can then intervene earlier in the radicalization process and offer appropriate treatment.[11] The NYPD neighborhood policing program has provided a platform that works to both establish trust and protect citizens. Such relationship-building techniques are essential for establishing a centralized reporting plan and a sense of shared responsibility—a connection between the local law enforcement department and its community members, and confidence in citizens who report crimes.

The thesis concludes by suggesting a law enforcement–led intervention model. The proposed model is not designed to replace current CVE programs exclusively; it should be used in addition to current existing preventive measures. The targeted intervention model is aimed at addressing all extremist ideologies that pose a threat toward our communities and advocates for forming an MDT that is chaired by law enforcement or another city agency. The thesis includes considerations about how the MDT should be organized, the factors team members should consider when developing an intervention topic, and the procedure for establishing a reporting and information-sharing system.

To support tailored disengagement programs, the public should be educated about the MDT program and its objectives. Both the public and the program’s stakeholders should also understand the different behavioral signs that might identify an individual who is going down a path to violent extremism. This is particularly important because, at times, there is a negative connotation when law enforcement is operating in the non-criminal space. The agencies involved should build on the existing relationships between members of the MDT and the community when explaining the program. Such relationships help the public become receptive to the program based on existing trust.

[1] “DHS Awards Grants to Counter Terrorist Recruitment and Radicalization in U.S,” DHS, accessed July 23, 2017, https://www.dhs.gov/news/2017/06/23/dhs-awards-grants-counter-terrorist-recruitment-and-radicalization-us.

[2] Martha Crenshaw, “The Causes of Terrorism,” Comparative Politics 13, no. 4 (July 1981): 379, http://courses.kvasaheim.com/hist319a/docs/Crenshaw%201981.PDF.

[3] “Countering Violent Extremism Task Force Fact Sheet,” U.S. Department of Justice, January 8, 2016, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/countering-violent-extremism-task-force-fact-sheet.

[4] “Statement by Secretary Jeh C. Johnson on DHS’s New Office for Community Partnerships,” Department of Homeland Security, accessed July 23, 2017, https://www.dhs.gov/news/2015/09/28/

[5] Robert L. McKenzie, “Countering Violent Extremism in America: Policy Recommendations for the next President,” Brookings, October 18, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/research/countering-violent-extremism-in-america-policy-recommendations-for-the-next-president/#footnote-22.

[6] Matt Apuzzo, “Only Hard Choices for Parents Whose Children Flirt with Terror,” New York Times, April 9, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/10/us/parents-face-limited-options-to-keep-children-from-terrorism.html.

[7] National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), “Reframing CVE as a Multidisciplinary Approach to Promoting Community Safety” (research brief, START, June 2015), 2, https://www.start.umd.edu/pubs/START_CVEtoPromotingCommunitySafety_ResearchBrief_

[8] Kiran M. Sarma, “Risk Assessment and the Prevention of Radicalization from Nonviolence into Terrorism,” American Psychologist 72, no. 3 (2017): 1, https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000121.

[9] RTI International, “Countering Violent Extremism: The Application of Risk Assessment Tools in the criminal Justice and Rehabilitation Process” (literature review, Science and Technology Directorate, February 2018), 1, https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/OPSR_TP_CVE-Application-Risk-Assessment-Tools-Criminal-Rehab-Process_2018Feb-508.pdf.

[10] RTI International, 32.

[11] John D. Cohen, “The Next Generation of Government CVE Strategies at Home: Expanding Opportunities for Intervention,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 668, no. 1 (2016), http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0002716216669933.

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