“I was happy and just felt accepted. I was just a patriot that loved my country.” Former Proud Boys member and Capitol Hill rioter.
In light of a year of violent protests culminating in the Capitol Hill riots, fueled in part by conspiracy theories such as QAnon and possibly incited by our own president, a question arises of what lessons can be learned from two decades of fighting the War on Terror as we turn to confront domestic violent extremism. Indeed, in light of the recent Capitol Hill riots, there has been a growing realization that domestic terrorism is now a greater threat to the homeland than internationally linked militant jihadist threats from groups like ISIS, al Qaeda, al Shabaab, etc. It may be time to take a look at how we addressed the latter to learn what might be effective in addressing the former.
Violent Extremist Ideologies and Conspiracy Theories
During and prior to the rise of ISIS, Muslims around the world were exposed to ideologies first espoused and spread by al Qaeda, and later by ISIS, that are at least in part conspiracy theories, blaming the West for attacking Muslims, Muslim lands, and even Islam itself. George W. Bush and the American-led invasion of Iraq was claimed by jihadists to be conducted on behalf of a Zionist-Crusader Hindu alliance as jihadist concepts such as kufr-bi-taghut (rejecting false idols such as the Arab authoritarian regimes that fail to implement shariah law in totality) and al-wala’ wal-bara’ (loving and hating for the sake of Allah) rose to prominence, as did the claim that joining militant jihad was an obligation upon all Muslims to defend Islam from attack, and later, in the case of ISIS, to pledge allegiance to the Caliph and help build a transnational Caliphate.
Yet, the conspiracy theories that played in response to the U.S.-led War on Terror were not seen as conspiracies at all to those who believed them for a number of important reasons. First, they were couched within ordinarily accepted Islamic beliefs that one has an obligation to protect the global body of Muslims, (the ummah), and to protect the religion. Second, it was not only Muslims or those who aligned themselves to al Qaeda and later to ISIS who believed that the Americans were looking to exploit oil and other natural resources in Muslim lands. The narrative resonated with many non-Muslims who also believed this to be a Western incentive, particularly for the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the case of those who stormed the Capitol, it appears that many among them are also adherents of conspiracy theories including that of white supremacists’ claims of a white genocide, the need for another American civil war to create a white homeland and to preserve Western civilization. Additionally, supporters for such movements as accelerationism, which aims to collapse society via random acts of violence and terrorism to speed up this reorganization of society. Like ISIS’s own Management of Savagery, the approach aims to destroy and then to establish a new civilization. Not unlike Al-Qaeda’s terrorism, the end justifies the means. Some Capitol Hill rioters were also adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which alleges that there is a secret cabal made up of “deep state” actors who are Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles running a child sex-trafficking ring, a black-and-white worldview all too compatible with the Manichean worldview of Salafi jihadists.
The QAnon conspiracy theory first started in October 2017 and began gaining adherents who started to appear at Trump re-election campaign rallies. As early as 2017, it became clear that Russian-backed Twitter accounts were also playing a role in spreading QAnon claims, and in July 2018, QAnon adherents appeared en masse at a Tampa, Florida, Trump rally. As of 2021, QAnon had spread to millions of followers inside the U.S., in Canada, across Europe and the Balkans, as well as into Central and South America, with social media activity on 4Chan, Reddit, 8chan, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
In August 2019, the FBI published a report warning that QAnon in particular, among anti-government extremism conspiracy theories, could be a source of domestic terrorism. Q is a shadowy figure, or group of figures, who claims insider information, posts from time to time, guiding the groups’ followers with cryptic clues that require they search for more information and map their own beliefs onto those they discover. The community in turn cooperates in solving the puzzle. Q also incites followers to support Trump and to stand against the supposed cabal, including a June 2020 exhortation to take the “digital soldier’s oath” which resulted in many tweets made under the hashtag #TaketheOath. As the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential elections occurred, many followers engaged in information warfare to influence the results and bots were found to be retweeting many of the QAnon postings.
Former U.S. President Trump, never loath to make use of a following, retweeted and mentioned accounts affiliated with QAnon. QAnon adherents believe that Trump was leading the fight against the cabal and that he was organizing a day of reckoning, referred to as the “Storm,” in which thousands of members of the cabal would be arrested and the U.S. military would take charge of the country, after which salvation and utopia was to reign over the earth. When Trump lost the election but refused to concede, engaging in what some pundits refer to as the “big lie,” QAnon supporters coalesced with other far-right extremists who decided to try to overturn the election results, which culminated in the January 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol. Even today QAnon supporters reject President Joe Biden’s inauguration as a deepfake.
What is important to understand is that the strongest conspiracy theories, those that can move people into action, even to endorse and carry out violence, have to have resonance with the grievances of those they reach and contain some elements of truth so that they are believable. Likewise, conspiracy theories that are millenarian and apocalyptic often move followers into violence and acts of self-sacrifice. In the case of ISIS, Assad’s atrocities in Syria followed by the declaration of a utopian Caliphate, which came a decade after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in which at least 182,000 Iraqi civilians died, made it believable to many that the West was not a defender of Muslims and that an Islamic form of governance might provide a much better alternative. When it became clear that ISIS was winning large swathes of land in both Iraq and Syria, defeating the armies of both countries and awash in money and oil resources, it appeared to many that God was indeed on their side.
In the case of QAnon, the conspiracy theory arose during a time when a public awakening toward female sexual harassment and child sexual abuse was occurring through the #MeToo movement for the former and the Jeffrey Epstein revelations and trial for the latter. By 2020, some QAnon followers were tweeting under the hashtag #SaveTheChildren due to the fact that QAnon followers believe that children are being abducted in large numbers to supply a child sex trafficking ring. While this claim to many appears outlandish and has no evidence to support it, one should put the ease of many to believe these claims into context. Globally, children are abducted and trafficked into sex rings all the time, although less than one percent of child abductions in the United States are by non-family members and though an alarmingly high 25 percent of girls and 7.7 percent of boys are sexually abused at some time during their childhoods, 91 percent of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by a family member or someone the child knows, not by strangers. So a real concern over sexual abuse in the United States is not without some merit.
In the case of white supremacists, the narrative is that white people are being replaced by minorities and that there is a white genocide occurring, often attributed to a Zionist Occupied Government or a secret Jewish cabal. The remedy becomes one of promoting racial purity and a white homeland, which comes about through the collapse of the multi-ethnic and multicultural United States. Aligned with this are the more extreme concepts of accelerationism, in which any actions that contribute to bringing about the “inevitable” second American civil war are seen as positive. With demographics in the U.S. shifting so that white people will eventually become a minority, and many white men feeling disenfranchised as jobs move offshore and factories close, white supremacist claims also find resonance in real-life challenges.
Internet and Social Media Recruitment
It used to be that most terrorism recruitment happened in person and involved considerable risk. Likewise, terrorists used to rely on journalists to get their messages out. Nowadays, however, the nature of the Internet and social media makes it much easier for terrorist and violent extremist groups to bypass journalists and go directly, via social media, to their audiences and potential recruits.
ISIS, in particular, has often been credited with its slick propaganda videos and broad-based worldwide Internet recruiting campaigns. Indeed, ISIS emerged at a time when social media was advanced enough to allow the group to blanket the Internet with its messaging and then sit back and wait to see who liked, retweeted, shared or otherwise endorsed their messaging. Then they could home in upon and swarm these interested parties to recruit them into the group.
The nature of online text, phone and video messaging also creates a situation in which terrorist and violent extremist recruiters can now create an online intimacy and sense of belonging for a new recruit with individuals who may be located far away or in completely different cities and countries. The main ingredients which I have learned from over 700 interviews of terrorists to creating one include: individual vulnerabilities, social support, ideology and a terrorist group which can all be brought together via the Internet these days to coalesce in the life of an individual. This immediate intimacy available today in online relationships coupled with conferring a sense of significance, purpose, dignity and belonging can often move persons quickly along the terrorist trajectory into carrying out real-life violence as a result of online interactions.
White supremacists and QAnon conspiracists followed in the footsteps of ISIS and make similar use of the Internet and social media platforms. While ISIS recruiters were de-platformed in recent years and continue to be the target of takedown polices on most mainstream social media sites, until very recently white supremacists and QAnon were not as likely to be subject to takedowns. However, following the alarming Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, they too have been the subject of de-platforming, with the most infamous example being President Trump being removed from Twitter and Facebook.
A result of de-platforming that we have learned from the War on Terror is that while denying terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, al Shabaab, and ISIS a voice on mainstream social media platforms can diminish their wide global reach, these actions hardly cause them to disappear and may even give their potential adherents one more cause for joining – the grievance of feeling that they cannot express themselves or be heard. Likewise, when takedowns happened for ISIS, the group quickly morphed its methods to avoid using overt materials and messaging on the mainstream platforms while moving potential recruits they were able to still garner over to encrypted applications like WhatsApp and ISIS’s favorite, Telegram. Likewise, a cat-and-mouse game currently ensues in which the group makes use of the mainstream platforms to fleetingly advertise links to follow on Telegram where the real action occurs. Moreover, foreign language takedowns became difficult, as ISIS propagandists began using words that machine learning couldn’t track, such as spelling “j1had” with the number one. Now, we see the same happening with white supremacists and QAnon conspiracists. They are being removed from social media only to reappear on encrypted apps, including a mass exodus to Telegram, that makes it much harder for law enforcement to track them and also for interventions and online off-ramping efforts to occur.
Resonance in Recruitment
It’s important to understand that those who join terrorist and violent extremist groups do so because of socio-political concerns as well as psycho-social needs that are not being met by the society in which they live. They join believing the terrorist or violent extremist group will provide solutions and that their needs will finally be met. Likewise, if their grievances are strong enough, or they identify with victims, they can often be mobilized into violence on behalf of the group believing violence will deliver good outcomes for themselves or at least the victims with whom they identify.
In the case of militant jihadist groups like al Qaeda, al Shabaab, and ISIS, local grievances were often exploited while harking back to deeply revered and widely held religious beliefs. The narrative that Islam is under attack, Muslims lands are being taken and that sincere Muslims are victims was not a hard sell given Russian atrocities in Afghanistan and Chechnya, nor a U.S.-led coalition that killed many Iraqis or when Assad carried out atrocities against his own people. Given these conditions, alongside issues of poverty, frustrated aspirations, discrimination and marginalization, Muslims in significant numbers around the world easily resonated to the ideological call of these groups to defend the Muslim ummah (family), to claims that Islam requires men and women to take hijrah to live under shariah and to fight jihad. When ISIS suddenly arose and took over the town of Dabiq, sundered the borders between Iraq and Syria and proclaimed their Islamic Caliphate, all of which had significant Prophetic import, it awakened a longing amongst many Muslims for the return of former Islamic glories. Tens of thousands felt compelled to go join the Caliphate. Likewise, ISIS’s wealth, alongside their offers of jobs, free housing, marriages, significance, purpose, dignity and belonging also attracted these new recruits.
In the case of white supremacists, the need for a sense of dignity, positive identity and belonging in a time of massive socio-economic upheaval abounds in profiles of those I have thus far been able to interview. While white men have traditionally fared well in the American economy, the offshore migration of jobs and closing of factories alongside the rise of women’s participation in the workplace has left the bottom levels of white male society in a much more competitive situation than their fathers faced, one in which some come out the losers. White men who find that immigrants, minorities and women are doing better than they can feel humiliated and angered and easily resonate to messages like the Trump campaign’s slogan of Make America Great Again, which, when coupled with tough anti-immigration policies and racist rhetoric, was taken as code for Make America White Again. In any case, with a strong figurehead at the helm of government seemingly supporting them, many white supremacist groups found it easier to recruit and felt increased impunity in spewing racist propaganda in on and offline recruitment efforts. Thus, we’ve see the rise of Boogaloo Boys, Proud Boys, and other white supremacist groups as well as QAnon.
The promise of manhood delivered via traditional roles and entry into warrior roles to “defend” the group and its values occurs across both militant jihadist and white supremacist groups appealing to those men who feel the need to consolidate a strong sense of manhood. In the case of ISIS, video games and their heroes were used to entice new recruits with the promise of enacting such roles in real life versus on the screen. In the case of white supremacists, a positive identity is offered to men who are failing in life, unemployed, struggling, etc. to defend the idea of a superior race, its purity and define for it a homeland.
In the case of QAnon, the conspiracies abounding about an inner circle of pedophiles supported by the “deep state” can appear totally crazy. However, if one considers the high rate of child sexual abuse in the United States, as noted previously, it may become less insane. Child sexual abuse nearly always involves an older abuser who imposes secrecy upon his or her victim while deeply terrifying and psychologically traumatizing him and warning him that to break the secret will result in negative consequences for the victim – such as a threat that his mother, father, beloved pet, or someone will be hurt or even killed. Likewise, when children do tell someone about being victims of child sexual abuse, authority figures often don’t believe them or are so shocked by the horror of it that they also silence the child.
Given that a significant minority of the population with child abuse histories exists in this country, it no longer seems so crazy that some might readily identify with child abuse victims, easily be angered by the idea of pedophilia, no longer want to be silent but find it easier to stand up for other victims rather than reveal one’s own abuse and that they would resonate to the idea that there is a group of adult authority figures that are both carrying it out and imposing secrecy upon their victims. These individuals could easily be motivated to track cryptic clues to put a stop to it and in some cases probably even be manipulated into enacting violence on behalf of saving other potential victims. Indeed, this would feel heroic for them and be a substitute means of addressing painfully held psychological trauma without ever having to directly address it or stand up to one’s own abusers. That others would deny the truth and call them crazy would likely be expected from such victims and perhaps even deepen their commitment to the group and cement their resolve to its cause.
In all types of recruitment to violent extremism and terrorism, it always helps to be able to back one’s claims with statements by authority figures. In the case of ISIS, al Qaeda and al Shabaab, militant jihadists made use of fatwas, or rulings made by religious authority figures, to back their claims and militant actions. In the case of white supremacists and QAnon, President Trump always appeared to have their back and, in the case of QAnon, there are also claimed shadowy insiders (i.e. Q himself) who gave an air of legitimacy to the group’s claims.
Some refer to QAnon as a cult. Indeed, as new recruits begin to feel special diving deeper into the online secrets revealed by the group, while they also become more removed from friends and family that are not believers, mind control can easily become a feature of their experience. Mind control in cults occurs as they entice new recruits by at first meeting some of their needs and slowly inducting them into a group where they begin to feel special, a sense of purpose and significance and belonging. Likewise, questioning the group or even receiving information from outsiders generally becomes forbidden, the deeper one enters into it, and information and focus is narrowed to messaging coming only from the group itself. Punishments are generally erected for questioning or daring to leave the group. ISIS killed those who tried to leave but there are other punishments such as being shamed, excluded and temporarily shunned that can also be used. For QAnon, even giving up on the children can internally be experienced as giving up on one’s own self if the person is an abuse victim.
This narrowing of focus and mind control is one of the reasons we have learned that using insiders to counter message against such groups is both powerful and necessary as the narrowed focus precludes listening to outsiders. In the ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project and our new Escape Hate Project, which mirrors the same efforts to reach white supremacists, we always use insiders to speak against the group and go so far as to name the counter narrative videos ambiguous names that sound like they endorse the groups they are speaking against so that those who are already in the clutches of such groups might mistakenly watch and be challenged by them.
Lethality Through Weaponization and Martyrdom
An important thing to consider when looking at these groups is that many of them work hard to attract military veterans and those with weapons training. ISIS and al Qaeda did this, even turning U.S. military members against their own units. As Jeff Schoep, former head of the National Socialist Movement who now heads anti-white supremacist group Beyond Barriers, remarks, “We always wanted military members because they had weapons training and were already very disciplined.” Likewise, Jeff remarks that vets often resonated to recruitment from groups like his and the social trappings they offered, saying, “We would often hear from them that joining provided structure, discipline, a sense of brotherhood they were missing after leaving the service.” Ryan LoRee also states that he joined a white supremacist group at a low point in his life after leaving military service in Iraq where he suffered psychological trauma. Unable to find employment, he felt betrayed by the U.S. military. Groups that are extreme in their approaches appeal to their members to be heroes for the cause, and the more horrible the victim stories are the more likely they can engender violence from their members. ISIS used Assad’s atrocities to get thousands of young men to sign up on “martyrs” lists, believing that their acts of suicide terrorism against the enemies of ISIS would take them straight to Paradise. We begin to see white supremacist groups also turning some of those who have “died for the cause” into martyrs. This is worrying, as we know that suicide terrorism has been an equalizer between terrorist groups and militaries with much greater might.
Reciprocal Radicalization and Galvanizing Actions of Political Figures
Reciprocal radicalization refers to a symbiotic incitement and escalation fueling the violent extremist narratives across the far right and left wings of the political spectrum. In Europe, there is significant evidence for the actions of militant jihadists inspiring white supremacists’ violent attacks. For instance, following the 2013 militant jihadist beheading of UK soldier Lee Rigby in London, there were 34 attacks on mosques. Likewise, the formation of the English Defense League in 2009 is thought by some to have emerged as an Islamophobic reaction to the al-Muhajiroun and other like-minded jihadist groups.
In the United States, the Black Lives Matter protests against excessive police force occurring during 2020 across the country, with looting in most major cities alongside the primarily peaceful protesting covered by media, in some cases incited far-right responses. Toppling of statues around the U.S. and even in the UK made many in white supremacist groups feel that their history was being erased, contributing to the feeling that claims of a white genocide are indeed correct. Likewise, as President Trump labeled Antifa a terrorist group, yet refused to denounce the Charlottesville far-right violence, and even encouraged by name the Proud Boys, far-right activities accelerated.
Certainly, we have learned from the War on Terror that the galvanizing forces of one extreme against another can greatly affect the success of such groups’ recruitment efforts. When George W. Bush was seen as a Crusader and painted his war on terror as you are either with us or against us, some Muslims who had not previously committed themselves to being against us suddenly took sides. An ISIS emir who was in Morocco at that time points to those words as pivotal for him: “I heard George Bush say it’s you are with us or without us, so it was really the action he applied on the ground, the words are not true but the actions he applied. When I heard that, I search for who stands up for the Muslims.”
In the 262 ISIS and 28 far-right interviews I’ve conducted thus far, I’ve repeatedly heard that violent, hateful and discriminatory actions on one side of the political spectrum often engender the same on the other. Thus, ISIS members tell me that they joined the group because they got tired of being judged and blocked from good jobs because of wearing hijab, or sporting a beard, or they were angered at having their wives in niqab spit upon, and that the Islamic State appeared like a good place to peacefully go and practice Islam. White extremists, on the other hand, repeatedly refer to interactions with Antifa complaining about the repercussions of being doxxed, the street fights and harassment that they say are carried out by Antifa members, which further cement their commitment to their group and reinforce their victim narrative.
While it is often hard to calm the radicalization that occurs across various ends of the political spectrum, leaders need to be aware that they can either attempt to calm or stoke the fires of such violent extremists and terrorists. Playing into the rhetoric or appearing to support any violent extremism is always a mistake. Similarly, if the police normalize or appear to be on the side of any violent extremist group, they too can contribute to reciprocal radicalization.
Violent extremists and terrorists love to couch their ideologies in the rhetoric of self-defense, so when political rhetoric or actual actions from the other side makes them feel a need for self-defense, they can feel justified in their violent actions. For instance, a left-wing antifascist group in Seattle that felt threatened by far-right groups in Seattle’s 2019 Trans Pride march announced, “If others have rifles, we’ll have rifles.” Current reports from those on the ground in Portland worryingly echo this trend, with reports that all sides of the political spectrum are arming themselves in anticipation of the need for self-defense.
Terrorists and violent extremists succeed where society and governments fail. When socio-political grievances and psycho-social grievances are not addressed, terrorists and violent extremists will not be far behind to exploit them. In the case of ISIS, Europe had far more recruits than the United States due to a number of factors, some of which have nothing to do with grievances, such as proximity and ease of undetected travel to Syria. However, the fact that many poor immigrants came to Europe as laborers and stayed and now many Muslims of second-generation immigrant descent live uneasily and frustrated over discrimination and marginalization in Europe, unlike their Muslim counterparts in the U.S. who, despite certainly facing Islamophobia, have generally fared better economically and have not been targeted by discriminatory laws such as “burqa bans,” ISIS found it easy to gain a foothold with them exploiting real and perceived grievances.
In the case of white supremacism and QAnon, other forces are at work. White men who struggle for employment and who are under or unemployed while their fathers did better than them is a grievance that can easily be exploited. Likewise, QAnon may be getting at a large undercurrent of societal trauma of undetected and untreated victims of sexual abuse in our societies. Just as the #MeToo movement brought countless stories of female victimhood to light, it may now be necessary to begin to uncover the real stories of childhood sexual abuse victims so that these society-wide traumas can be addressed by good trauma-informed care rather than be manipulated by groups like QAnon.
In the case of ISIS, ICSVE continues to work on both Facebook and Instagram to use insider messaging in the form of the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative videos and digital graphics to disrupt ISIS’s online and face-to-face recruiting with the idea being that an insider is likely to be listened to by those considering joining or already inside ISIS and that an insider’s story can be a powerful deterrent to continuing along the terrorist trajectory. ICSVE was even able to hyper target those on Facebook who were likely to have already been exposed to ISIS propaganda with such counter narratives. However, carrying out the same efforts on Telegram is very difficult as it requires constantly following the channels that change daily and sometimes hourly. This makes an argument for potentially using some of the resources which currently go to operators who track violent extremists to off-ramping efforts aimed at catching those using hate speech early on and approaching them with sensitive, trauma-informed care before they become committed to any violent group.
Jesse Morton, who founded Parallel Networks, is a strong proponent of the idea that you can only fight a violent extremist or terrorist network with another network and that it’s important to go after hubs of terrorism and violent extremism to off-ramp them and then, when possible, to use them to speak against the groups they once served.
Unity also must be a goal of good governance, but the current state of many news channels to no longer report unbiased apolitical news, the plethora of choices that allows for segmenting audiences, the social media algorithms that create echo chambers among group adherents and the tendency for political parties to go to the extremes versus the middle currently creates a situation that is ripe for violent extremism. Likewise, corruption in government erodes faith in our institutions. As one far-right protestor who was at the Capitol Hill riots told me, “Those who were there no longer believe their elected officials represent them, that they are all beholden to special interests.” Another said, “I was there because I’m a patriot. I believed our election was stolen.”
When the now-former president himself is fueling such beliefs, we can be sure that belief and confidence in government will be weak. Likewise, as we see actions like de-platforming, mass arrests and police brutality occurring in nonviolent protests, we can be sure that more protesters will feel that their free speech and avenues to activism are being squelched and violence is called for. These are dangerous vectors, and we must find ways to restore confidence in government and give voice to those who, if allowed to voice concerns and protest, maybe be less likely to move to violence. Still, it is nevertheless important to hold accountable those who do commit violent extremist crimes, especially since disparate treatment by the police toward Black Lives Matter protesters and the Capitol Hill rioters can fuel grievances, perhaps leading some to believe that violence is the only way to achieve one’s aims of social change.
When there is a great deal of popular support or when supporters no longer feel that political solutions exist due to crackdowns, recruitment into violent extremist movements and violence itself becomes much more easily supported. Thus, it seems that if we learn lessons from the War on Terror we need to become far less kinetic in our solutions, far more nuanced and compassionate about those who join violent extremist and terrorist groups and better at prevention than punishing those who might join.
That means that we need to be looking at the psycho-social and socio-political factors that push and pull individuals into violent groups and steer them into enacting violence. We need to understand that it is human nature to search for meaning, dignity, purpose, significance and belonging and that if it cannot be found anywhere else these needs will easily be exploited by such groups. While we can de-platform extremists and terrorists all day long, we will do so only to watch them migrate to other platforms and hide in encrypted spaces that will make understanding what they are plotting all the more difficult. Instead it may be smarter to spend more of our time and money currently invested in social media operators who become traumatized and morally exhausted by studying violent extremist and terrorist content to decide which individuals to de-platform and instead follow those who are expressing such tendencies and using hate speech to help them off-ramp from such groups with compassionate, trauma-informed care, offering them stories of insiders that compete with and take apart narratives they have come to believe. If networks are how terrorists and violent extremists win, why not take a page out of their playbooks and create competing ones that more fully meet the needs of those who respond and push them into creative, good, and positive forms of community service versus violence that harms us all?
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