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Flawed Theories on Violent Extremism Lead to Bad Policy

Michael German,
Senior Policy Counsel, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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May 6, 2010

(Originally posted on the Charity & Security Network.)

The recent spate of terrorist incidents and arrests involving Americans has policy-makers and security professionals scrambling to find a future-seeing Precog to help them identify so-called “homegrown terrorists” before they act, like in the movie Minority Report.

Several questionable government “studies” on this subject, including a controversial New York Police Department report, have promoted a theory of “radicalization” in which would-be terrorists follow a four-stage path from “unremarkable” and “ordinary” people into murderous terrorists (see the Brennan Center for Justice’s critique of the NYPD’s analysis here). Proponents of this theory posit that the different stages of radicalization function as a “funnel,” in which individuals entering the first phase by simply adopting particular beliefs, form the pool from which terrorists will eventually emerge at the other end of the process. And while the NYPD report acknowledges that not all people who enter the pool ultimately become terrorists, it warns that once in the funnel all will continue to pose a threat as potential “agents of influence” over future terrorists, regardless of whether they become terrorists themselves.

This is nonsense of course, as virtually all empirical studies of actual terrorists, like this one, find no discernable pattern or profile. In fact, the NYPD study even contradicts its own conclusions by acknowledging that though their model is sequential, progression through the stages is not, and not all who start the process finish, with different people stopping at different stages. So the path is not a series of steps after all, but rather a number of stones scattered in the woods that potential terrorists may or may not touch, in no particular order, on their way to becoming terrorists, or not becoming terrorists. Does that make sense?

Yet this “path” or “funnel” theory remains popular among some security experts and government officials because it is exactly what the government wants to believe — that terrorists (who are hard to find) progress from a discernable pool of ideological radicals and activists (who are easy to find and therefore much easier to target). Why should the government look for hard-to-find terrorists when they can more easily target political or religious groups for surveillance, screening, or pretext arrest? A simplistic theory justifies a simplistic approach and allows government to avoid doing the harder work of developing a more complex approach that might actually work.

This mentality drives the increase in law enforcement spying on political and religious groups. The Maryland State Police surveillance and infiltration of nonviolent peace groups and anti-death penalty activists is only one example of many across the country. Likewise, the FBI’s use of an ex-convict to infiltrate a number of southern California mosques failed to identify or arrest any terrorists, but managed to increase the community’s resentment toward the government. One man was arrested on an immigration violation, but he claims he was charged only after he declined to act as a spy for the government. Often called the “Al Capone strategy,” it is a scheme where the government charges a person with a relatively minor offense because they suspect the person is a threat but cannot prove any terrorism-related activity (Chicago crime boss Capone was indicted on tax charges). The problem is that sometimes the lack of evidence that someone is a terrorist or a crime boss is simply due to the fact that they are not really a terrorist or crime boss.

In such cases, an Al Capone strategy is nothing more than selective prosecution, and when the government pursues such prosecutions based on an erroneous theory that all persons with particular political or religious beliefs are potential terrorists, it leaves many in those communities feeling they are being treated unfairly. Ironically, this type of discrimination could lead to the moral outrage that Marc Sageman, a terrorism expert and former CIA officer, found real terrorists report as a factor influencing their decision to turn toward violence. Rather than merely predicting the future like the Minority Report‘s Precogs, counterterrorism policies that discriminate against religious or political groups could actually be creating an ominous self-fulfilling prophecy.

I am not saying there isn’t a place for outreach and intervention with wayward youth, or increasing education to counter extremist messaging that suggests there is a religious or ideological imperative toward violence. And if people want to call such efforts “counter-radicalization,” so be it. But the government should steer well clear of this activity and leave it to civil society. The government has no place in determining which religious or political interpretations are “correct,” and attempting to do so will cause more harm than good. A 2007 report by the EastWest Institute based on a study of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim extremism discusses many of these issues in further detail, as does a follow-up report from 2009. Creating policies based on a fraudulent model of terrorist behavior is a prescription for failure, not success.

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