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Friday, April 12, 2024

Why I Talk to Domestic Violent Extremists

I have crisscrossed the globe for the past 20 years studying the international enemy, interviewing more than 800 militant jihadists, terrorists, and violent extremists from ISIS, Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab and more—mostly men, but also women and even children who escaped and survived to tell their stories. Then just days after the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol, after months earlier beginning to also interview white supremacists, I secured a rare interview with one of the Proud Boys who had entered the building. From there an enlightening line-up of further interviews with domestic hate group members followed.

While the terms “white Christian Nationalism” and “MAGA extremism” have made recent headlines, the FBI has long warned that Domestic Violent Extremism (DVE) is the biggest security threat to the U.S., responsible for decades of domestic violence. Hate-filled extremists have massacred people while worshipping, grocery shopping, and celebrating the 4th of July. From daycares to dance clubs, homegrown extremists are at the center of horrific carnage.

But I don’t confront the extremists I study—domestic or international— I instead try to understand who they are, their backgrounds, and motivations. Some may question why I take this approach. To me the answer is clear: No one is born a terrorist. What we decide to do about these threats depends in part on how we choose to understand them.

I’ve interviewed 52 (mostly former) domestic hate group members from five countries and representing more than a dozen different groups since January 6th.  In their diversity, I found a surprising and important commonality: Rarely was anyone motivated by hate to join a hate group. While that may sound counterintuitive, what I saw were clear patterns of vulnerabilities that were exploited by recruiters. Most who joined a hate group sought to meet their deep needs for identity, dignity, significance, purpose, and belonging. Over time, buy-in to the hate group’s brand of ideology, conspiracy theories, and violence followed with isolation and the echo chamber of hate.

I met Kerry who targeted the Oklahoma City Federal Building long before Timothy McVeigh and who carried in and almost detonated a bomb in a LGBTQ church until he suddenly woke up to the fact that these were worshippers just like himself.  Klayton from New Zealand has his hate regrettably evident in the symbols tattooed across his face and now seeks to erases those symbols on his body of what once filled his heart. Benji got so deeply pulled into hate rhetoric that he wanted to become a hero for God and shoot up a synagogue to “honor” the young man who slaughtered nine African Americans during Bible study at the historic Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Thankfully, he failed when his Grand Wizard initiated an FBI sting ending in his purchase of an assault weapon.)

I do not suggest that the lack of hate as the prime motivator lessens the threat they pose. Most extremists told me their former hate groups are well-armed, prioritize recruiting from the military and police, and have obtained some military training. Many believe January 6th was a harbinger of a racial holy war many seek, called RAHOWA, and it’s closer than we think. Some hate groups are staunchly anti-government and seek to accelerate the collapse of society while claiming to uphold their interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Some root their ideologies in white Christian nationalism, and some follow bizarre interpretations of Christianity where Jews are the descendants of a literal sexual liaison between Eve and the serpent and Blacks are subhuman “beasts” created before humans. Still others are anti-Christian, some follow Viking gods, and others weren’t radicalized until after they wound up in prison and needed to find security in prison gangs.

What I do know is we cannot simply slap labels of bigoted, ignorant, uneducated, stupid, or just plain evil on this swath of humanity living in every state and most Western countries. They were made into haters by forces in and around their lives. Once we acknowledge that premise, we will be better able to take steps to tackle it.

As security experts and advocates, we need to ramp up our research efforts into prevention efforts and deradicalization programs that work and find greater support for this work. Troubled students need intervention not school suspension. Psychologists, social workers, police, parole officers and all those on the front lines need training to help them understand the roots behind domestic violent extremism, catch it and intervene earlier rather than when it’s already too late. Greater digital literacy and help deciphering “fake news” is a must to help debunk rampant online conspiracy claims and to compete with extremists’ online recruiting. I record my interviews with former extremists (with permission) and feed short videos that look like recruiting videos onto social media sites, so potential recruits hear about the horrors and costs of joining up from those who know best. Police and military awareness and prevention and intervention training clearly needs increased. Engaging influential former haters with their perceived enemies has also proven effective and can be done safely.

We all have skills to bring to bear and they are needed. January 6th opened the Pandora’s Box of Domestic Violent Extremism for all to see. The extremists I’ve interviewed say that threat continues to grow with a vengeance. The increase in targeted violence and hate crimes statistics, anti-immigration movements, and the growing antisemitic rhetoric evidence they are surely correct.

Buy the book here.

author avatar
Anne Speckhard
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past three years, she has interviewed ISIS (n=239) defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as al Shabaab cadres (n=16) and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 175 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 125 Facebook campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting with governments on issues of repatriation and rehabilitation. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard
Anne Speckhard
Anne Speckhard
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past three years, she has interviewed ISIS (n=239) defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as al Shabaab cadres (n=16) and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 175 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 125 Facebook campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting with governments on issues of repatriation and rehabilitation. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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