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The phenomenon of radicalization is at the forefront of national policy as the U.S. falls behind in efforts to mitigate the effects of extremist ideology. Yearly, dozens of Americans complete the path of radicalization into extremist ideologies such as violent Islam and violent single-party issues such as anti-abortion. Despite the repeated attacks on our soil, we collectively do not have a clear grasp on what tactics, techniques, and procedures are used to radicalize Americans. Additionally, we lack the situational awareness required to design a framework that promotes a full-spectrum counter-radicalization strategy.

Part of the issue lies in the lack of bridging of professional literature between the counterterrorism community, the law enforcement community, the intelligence community, and multi-level government. Another issue is the diverseness of definitions. The Department of Defense has one definition of terrorism, the Department of Justice another, and so on. The final key issue is how to tackle the difference between freedom of speech and other Constitutional freedoms and where to draw the line where an individual’s beliefs incites violent acts or inspires others depart the United States to join organizations deemed by the Department of State as terrorist organizations or stay in the homeland to take part in domestic acts of violence.

There are key sources of exposure to violent extremist ideologies and there are key sources of radicalization. I believe that these key sources of exposure are the following: broadcast media, online, literature (online and traditional print media), and in person. Conversely, key sources of radicalization occur from contact through family, friends, prison, and self. The basic framework of radicalization goes as this: an individual is socially deprived of a particular aspect (say self-fulfillment as an example), this individual then researches (online or print media) or is targeted by an extremist recruiter at places such as sporting events, gun show, protest rally, individual finds literature or social interactions fills their needs (usually as the result of strategic communication messaging), the individual researches more, maybe the individual joins a like-minded organization online or begins to hang out with a new crowd, the speed of radicalization can be increased based on the amount and duration of exposure to these sources radicalization. The more an individual feels that their social void (again we will say the lack of self-fulfillment) is being filled, the easier it is to manipulate and indoctrinate them.

We lack the situational awareness required to design a framework that promotes a full-spectrum counter-radicalization strategy.

Zachary Chessar is an example of an individual who fell victim to this pathway of radicalization into violent extremist ideology. Zachary was raised in a single parent household during his formative years of high school. In 2008, Zachary played soccer on a local team in Fairfax, Virginia where he met members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an extremist Islamic political organization that sponsored and organized his team. During this time, Zachary socialized and began his research phase. Online he encountered radical Islamic blogs (such as the blog maintained by Anwar al-Awlaki) and visited them more and more. He even contacted a daughter of one of these bloggers, begins a relationship, and ended with marriage in the spring of 2009. The following year, Zachary began his stage of violence and the incitement of violence, he formed his own blog where jihadist extremism was the theme, he threatened the creator of the South Park cartoon, and three months later boarded a flight with the intent of joining a violent extremist Islamic group in Somalia (al-Shabaab).

The critical question is how do we counter the radicalization process Zachary underwent? I believe the answer lies in countering the bystander mentality. The bystander mentality contributes to the path of radicalization. As the Homeland Security slogan goes: “If you see something say something.” Once identified, we could begin the process of de-radicalization, the introduction of moderate narratives, and reconciliation. Throughout Zachary’s radicalization process, his parents, classmates and his teachers noted his change in behavior. Yet no one said a word. The passive observer of the radicalization process has to transition from bystander to active participant in order to contribute to the counter-radicalization narrative.

[Photo Credit Ian Langsdon/European Pressphoto Agency: A memorial outside the Carillon restaurant in Paris, one of the sites of the attacks.]

Jolene Ayres is a Captain in the U.S. Army and a doctoral candidate in strategic security with Henley-Putnam University. She currently serves as an Instructor at the United States Military Academy. She has extensive combat experience in detention operations with violent extremists. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of Defense or U.S. government.

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