I recently published a novel, “SAFE HAVENS: Primed Charge,” which has an antagonist driven by extremism. The villain, Paulo Violardo, wasn’t the stereotypical Muslim terrorist, Chinese or Russian mafia, or a brainwashed rogue assassin. He was a white, ultra-religious zealot driven by a multitude of factors. My decision to distinguish him as different from most of today’s action thrillers was based on a desire to highlight him as still being the same. In the end, the hero can take out a few, but one man can’t defeat an ideology.
There is no shortage of headlines exposing spurred acts of extreme violence in our local communities and across the globe. From the killings by ISIS to neighborhood riots, individuals are increasingly incited by calls to action that result in death, destruction, and divides. The face of fear and the face of violence is both colored and colorless as it spreads.
An article, The Scourge of Extremism: Move Beyond the Symptoms and Treat the Disease, highlights that regardless of battlespaces, there is a worldwide tendency to focus on the symptoms and strategic or tactical means to stop extremist violence, but there is a dearth of efforts by leadership to address the cause and “disease” spread as well as stopping the creation of new extremists.
As the article Scourge of Extremism shares, individuals can be drawn to extremist groups by believing: distorted messages; that policies and laws are biased against them; that extremist groups and activities are the only available instrument of social, economic, and political change; and that violence is required to exact revenge for perceived wrongs.
While many would argue that macro-level ideologies and groups committing heinous and senseless acts should not be bucketed (i.e. ISIS vs. Black Lives Matter), the actions and root causes may have similarities. Further, the cries for help, awareness, and change can certainly have merit among these violent groups. At micro-levels, disorganized groups such as smaller street gangs, hate groups, and impoverished communities, can similarly be mobilized by the right calls to action—or message.
And let us not forget the random psychotic individual who doesn’t appear affiliated by any group, ideology, or belief-inspired activities, but is driven by their own message to kill. Such lone wolf actors will always exist but for the most part do not present a global threat.
So how do we counter the spread of radical and violent extremism? I promise I won’t say COIN. However, capture and killing extremists can only go so far and typically fuels the fire for more reprisals. We must better target and address the root causes or ideologies that spawn sectarian, ethnic, and religious discontent.
In a behavior model that I framed years ago, the Target Recipient is considered to be a person who is susceptible to a mediated message call to action. “Mediated” coming from media whether news, social, rallies, etc. “Target” doesn’t always mean a conscious effort has to be made for a specific person and can be simply a product of an environment. “Behavior” and “Environment” shapes the person to the degree that surrounding messages (direct and indirect) resonate with a degree of sentiment that can ultimately lead to a decision to mobilize or act.
Most SOFREP readers–who I haven’t already put to sleep–will agree that social networks enable resistance activities. This significantly hinders the ability of law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and militaries to penetrate tight family, tribe, and clan relationships.
So, let’s take this back to Iraq in 2004 for a way to deal with the extremist issue.
To deal with the growing IED threat in Iraq, we had to leverage a solution to destroy elusive alliances from within without adding to insurgency growth. The concept was viral network penetration built on similar physiological and psychological weaknesses. It was constructed upon adversarial insights as a disruptive tool that changed targeting by “viral” attacks to address a “disease,” which was a rampant arrangement of systems for an IED supply chain.
In short, social and psychological information operations can be conducted to push counter-messages by human or mediated message “viruses” in a lytic, or spreading, cycle similar to a biological or computer system attack. The virus is created by a strategic solution that directly correlates to the target and changes the group from within.
Viral message targeting is highly effective in counterinsurgency-type issues for a number of reasons. First of all, it directly concentrates on the human factors that are involved in potentially extreme and violent activities: demographics, culture, religion, political beliefs, class, economics, and key actors. Additionally, threats are often indistinguishable between insurgents and activists alike. This also includes active and tacit supporters and a surrounding general population, so a solution must not inflict irreparable “friendly casualties” to incite more sympathy towards resistance. Admittedly, this is contrary to most conventional approaches and solutions to current asymmetrical threats. It also had as many failures as successes in Iraq.
But, like most “counter”-type missions, there are also supporting social and humanitarian efforts that must be combined and executed in tandem. This approach for extremist activities requires the same. To address root cause issues related to extremism and violence, strategic plans and messages must address three core domains: moral domain leveraging the governance of community leaders and winning hearts and minds of the people; organizational civic health domain (organizations, schools, churches, mosques, law enforcement, and other grass roots groups); and physical domain of how the communities work within its infrastructure.
Much more details of how this can work is found in a report from a workshop that I was involved with, “From Gun Violence to Civic Health: A “Whole of City” Approach to Creating Chicago’s Future” leveraging the Art of Design in a partnership between McCormick Foundation and the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies.
To close and get you back to more exciting SOFREP topics, while we often criticize the administration or media for not calling violent acts of extremism by their names, perhaps there is some logic behind this. Actions of violence and other extremist behavior are beyond a simple label. They typically grow from issues at broader levels.
The question remains however, when we will start focusing on those broad levels and counter the messages with parallel messages and real solutions that are specifically tailored to change the targeted behavior and mobilization activities.
Featured image courtesy of http://www.dodmedia.osd.mil/
About the author
“J.T. Patten” is a best-selling military and spy thriller author who worked in counterterrorism intelligence support of national defense and policy. He has a degree in Foreign Language, a Masters in Strategic Intelligence, graduate studies in Counter Terrorism from the University of St. Andrews.