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Shifting Nature, Fluidity of Racially Motivated Violent Extremism Poses Unique Challenges for Justice Community

The criminal justice community and policymakers must adequately prepare to confront escalating racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism that is growing more transnational in nature, is rapidly disseminating propaganda and recruitment materials, and draws inspiration from violent attacks that have reached “iconic status within the violent extremist milieu,” says a new guidebook for police, prosecutors and other stakeholders.

“Although many countries traditionally considered REMVE a form of ‘domestic terrorism,’ it will become increasingly important to recognize these transnational dimensions in order to counter it effectively,” says the IIJ Criminal Justice Practitioner’s Guide Addressing Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremism.

The International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law, a 14-member intergovernmental organization based in Malta, said that while some of the experience practitioners have gained from countering international terror groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda can be “directly relevant to countering REMVE, there are also significant differences that require new knowledge, approaches, strategies and tools.”

While ISIS and al-Qaeda are “far more structured, hierarchical organizations,” many of the individuals connected to REMVE incitement, recruitment and radicalization “are loosely connected, mostly in the online space, posing significant challenges for law enforcement in uncovering and dismantling plots and related activity.”

REMVE has seen a demographic shift over the past decade to younger members as groups recruit on college campuses and online. REMVE groups can also “use the membership of mainstream political organizations as recruitment pools in seeking individuals who are receptive to more extremist ideas and to the use of violence.” And though such groups historically have had a “strong element of misogyny,” women are “increasingly taking more active leadership roles and acting as spokespersons for REMVE groups.” Blended ideologies — or “idiosyncratic blends of extreme viewpoints drawn from a broad ideological spectrum” — are also prevalent, such as white supremacism, accelerationism, eco-fascism, and adherents to the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory.

“The ad hoc, improvisational nature of some REMVE ideologies can help adherents rationalize collaboration with violent extremists of different stripes. Some REMVE actors have indeed interacted with elements from the extreme left-wing and jihadist networks, both offline and online,” the guide notes. REMVE groups also can “change shape quickly,” with this fluidity and lack of structure “often morphing into multiple groups due to differing personalities, ideologies and objectives, with group allegiances shifting rapidly.”

The State Department said that its Bureau of Counterterrorism worked closely with the Department of Justice, FBI, and the Department of the Treasury to ensure the guide reflects the U.S. government’s subject-matter expertise. In all, more than 20 countries and international organizations contributed to the drafting of the guide, which unfolded through a series of meetings from October 2020 through this March and included input from more than 60 global subject-matter experts.

“The Guide affords policymakers and practitioners a compendium of the tools at their disposal. It builds on existing tools and approaches, including good practices developed by the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), and outlines where new strategies and national authorities may be needed,” the State Department said. “The Guide also equips practitioners with a set of Good Practices for effectively addressing REMVE that encompasses trends, legislation and regulation, investigation and disruption, prosecution, prison rehabilitation and post-release monitoring, and community engagement and public outreach.”

The guide says its users should endeavor to recognize the unique traits of racially motivated violent extremism compared to other types of extremist activity, establish programs to teach policymakers and practitioners not only about what is unique to this type of extremism but how to distinguish extremist activity from protected free expression, assess and determine which successful and applicable tools and methods in the fight against international terrorism can be applied against REMVE, track and share REMVE propaganda, and “closely monitor information about REMVE actors’ new and emerging tactics and techniques which could be used in ‘copycat’ attacks, for sharing as appropriate.”

The appropriate legislation, the guide continues, should be available to prosecute REMVE violence or plots to commit violent acts — “clearly applicable” to both groups and lone actors, transnational or domestic — and sanctions should be applied when possible as entities “devote resources to better understand such groups’ financing.”

Government agencies should clarify jurisdictional roles to facilitate an efficient coordinated response along with the establishment of multi-agency task forces, and agencies should “build risk assessment tools to help identify individuals’ vulnerability to REMVE radicalization and violence.” REMVE actors should be analyzed “at a network level, rather than focusing exclusively on individuals or organized groups,” and a system to track insider threats within the military, police, or other sensitive positions should be developed, the guide adds. Agencies are advised to properly and generously devote resources to countering the threat, including monitoring online REMVE activity, coordinating and communicating with tech companies, sharing information to better monitor the travel of REMVE actors, and using fusion centers to disseminate timely threat intelligence to stakeholders.

Prosecutors are urged to levy “the most serious readily provable charges available” against REMVE actors, “taking advantage as necessary of non-terrorism-related criminal statutes, such as for weapons violations or hate crimes.” They are also advised to “use language of appropriate gravity to characterize REMVE offenders’ conduct, regardless of the chargeable offense, in order to communicate condemnation of such violent extremism to a public audience.”

Racially motivated violent extremism behind bars is also cited as a concern, and the guide stresses that prison activity of REMVE actors should be closely monitored “including potential recruitment activities or active escape or attack planning, that corresponds with the terrorist, rather than ‘ordinary’ criminal, nature of their offenses.” Prison staff should be educated on threat indicators and response. De-radicalization best practices should be utilized from what has been learned fighting other forms of terrorism, yet adapted to the unique character of REMVE. Pre-release risk assessments and post-release monitoring in accordance with the law are advised.

The guide also encourages greater public outreach from law enforcement agencies to refer radicalized or at-risk individuals for possible intervention in the spheres of public health, social services, or law enforcement.

“Devote significant resources to improving public awareness of the features unique to REMVE and the significant level of threat it may pose, through online as well as off-line programs, while also publicizing relevant tools and approaches developed to combat the range of terrorist threats,” the guidance states. “Such efforts should equip community members to help identify and counter radicalization and recruitment at the local level, while communicating clear moral condemnation of racially or ethnically motivated violence.”

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a speciality in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, anti-Semitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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