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Community Strategies Key to Countering Violent Extremism

The Bipartisan Policy Center, together with Rutgers University, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and in collaboration with the FBI hosted a summit on July 22 and 23 on Developing Community Strategies to Prevent Targeted Violence and Mass Casualty Attacks.

The severity of the threat is clear: influxes of foreign fighters are joining the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq and may return as a threat to the homeland, mass shootings in the United States devastate communities, and incidents of violent anti-Semitism in Europe are on the rise.

While the threat posed by extremist ideologies is global, the solutions are local. Countering violent extremism requires educating and mobilizing individuals on the community level to identify and respond to warning signs, and for law enforcement and the communities they serve to learn from and assist each other.

In light of this reality, the summit brought together practitioners from around the United States and Europe—from local law enforcement to faith leaders to public officials—to share knowledge and identify best practices for community-based, multi-disciplinary intervention strategies.

Here are some takeaways from their discussions:

The threat is evolving. Particularly, the threat is atomizing. No longer are terrorist groups focused on achieving another 9/11—a large-scale, sophisticated attack—but are instead focused on smaller scale, street-level attacks carried out by homegrown radicals inspired by extremist ideologies, whether or not they are formally affiliated with extremist groups.

Recruitment is changing. To carry out that goal, extremists are changing how they communicate and recruit. Today, ISIS is preeminent, and it has a unique communications strategy based on its use of social media and its emphasis on using the English language in its messaging. Social media has changed how extremist messages are being disseminated: messages are shared horizontally instead of hierarchically and are no longer disseminated through one source, such as a single website or al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine. Instead, an estimated 90 percent of ISIS’ messages comes from supporters and sympathizers, who are nowhere near the front lines in Syria and Iraq.

Extremists are also changing their recruiting targets. Where targets for extremist messages used to be young adults in their 20s and 30s, ISIS in particular is now focusing on teenagers. The window for intervention, too, is shrinking. With extremists able to have immediate and constant communication with their targets due to the ubiquity of cellphones and social media platforms, the time between first contact and action has shrunk from months to just weeks.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” was the common refrain from federal and local law enforcement officers. Law enforcement is limited in the actions it can take, and therefore partnership with local communities is crucial. Communities that are empowered to identify signs of radicalization in individual members and intervene before the situation escalates into criminal activity—the point at which law enforcement would get involved—will make communities safer.

Identifying counternarratives and counternarrators. The sheer volume of extremist messages being shared on social media present a serious challenge for law enforcement, who must whittle down the list from those who have been exposed to extremist messages and recruitment attempts to those few that are likely to act on them. Community members have a vital role in engaging with those that have been targeted by extremist messages and may be persuaded by them. In fact, their role is even greater than government’s.

Several participants in the summit reiterated that, for young people especially, the government is not a credible messenger. Countermessages are better delivered within communities, whether on a peer-to-peer basis or from a leader in the community. The role of government should be to identify credible counternarrators and amplify their voices.

Building communities of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve is crucial to responding to today’s evolving threats. Communities are best positioned to know their members and to identify worrying changes in behavior that may be precursors to violent action, and to conduct interventions that connect individuals to support and care before criminal activity occurs—providing an “off-ramp” on the path to violence.

Community-based policing is more than a program or a division, it is a fundamental philosophy to guide law enforcement in all areas, not just countering violent extremism. Partnership with law enforcement, including training and information sharing, will empower communities to best recognize and respond to warning signs. Building trust requires building relationships and open lines of communication between law enforcement and the communities they serve, and that law enforcement actively seeks community input and buy-in for its initiatives.

Best practices from local law enforcement agencies across the United States, such as the examples being set in Dearborn, Michigan; Cook County, Illinois; Hennepin County, Minnesota; and Rutland, Vermont, as well as examples from the United Kingdom and European Jewish communities, can provide models for building trust with communities to strengthen policing.

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