In the past, extremist ideologies and movements have existed on the fringe of mainstream society. Today, domestic violent extremism has found a new home and greater acceptance as technology provides the means to connect disparate communities across the country. Domestic violent extremists seek to undermine our democratically elected government, threaten the peaceful democratic processes, and deny many Americans their civil rights and liberties. To appropriately respond to the threat of domestic extremism, it is critical first to understand the root causes and cultural landscape that have allowed extremist ideas and groups to gain a foothold in American society.
Domestic Extremism’s Cultural Metamorphosis
The reach of extremist groups used to be isolated to geographic regions, and their recruitment was limited mainly to personal introductions and interpersonal relationships. However, since the 1980s, technological advances have allowed extremists to broadcast their messages to a broader audience. But it is not technology alone that has allowed extreme ideologies to creep closer to the mainstream. Extremist groups have cleverly adapted to the evolving internet environment in their messaging and tactics, leading to stronger recruitment efforts and more durable, connected networks of like-minded individuals.
While technology is an easy scapegoat, it is important to note that extremism, particularly violent extremism, has a long history and is part of the culture writ large. Some of the most enduring strains of modern extremism have their origins in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of Medieval Europe. Extremism has always been inextricably linked with the political issues of the age. Extremists are social and political entrepreneurs. They find wedge issues, policies, or ideas that divide people. Then, they exploit the strong feelings generated by these issues to further their own agenda.
There are numerous examples of this approach. For example, ISIS exploited the grievances of Muslim communities in Western countries rooted in experiences of discrimination and exclusion to inspire young people to join their cause. Groups like Atomwaffen, also known as the National Socialist Order, is an international right-wing extremist and Neo-Nazi terrorist network that exploits fears over immigration to recruit young men to join their cause. Leveraging this hot political topic, the group seeks to expunge the United States of nonwhite peoples before all white people are “replaced.” Similarly, anti-semitic groups exploit fear and anger over jobs moving overseas to promote the idea that a global, Jewish-led cabal is trying to harm hard-working Americans.
Exploit to Propagate: The Modern Extremist Playbook
Extremism is difficult to discuss. Extremism is also difficult to define, and that is by design. Extremists hide in plain sight by cloaking themselves in seemingly noble principles of defending themselves against encroachment or oppression. Even the most blatant extremist rhetoric is designed to leave the reader unaware that they have just been exposed to an extreme position. Extremist articles or social media posts masquerade as hyperbolic parody or end with a simple “just kidding” or “lol” to keep the reader guessing.
Extremists also know that one of their biggest hurdles is proving their legitimacy. Therefore, they look for opportunities to validate their existence and beliefs. An increasingly common way to do this is for extremists to borrow the social and authoritative credibility of established political leaders or influencers. While they may not be able to fully recruit these individuals, having them repeat extremist talking points goes a long way and they know this.
Extremists are able to do so because they accurately understand the boundaries of free speech and exploit them. Stating your opinion, even if inaccurate or inflammatory, is protected speech. Threats of violence are not.
Knowing this, most extremists seeking to legitimize their beliefs do not make explicit calls for violence to avoid criminal or civil charges. For instance, white separatist groups claim they want their own autonomous whites-only homeland where they can live in peace. They intentionally leave unanswered the question of what will become of nonwhite people within the borders of this hypothetical state who do not want to leave. They hide the inherent violence of such a demand by simply not mentioning it so as to sound less extreme.
Extremist Recruitment Strategies that Create Insider Threat Risks
In a tactic that bears similarities to that of co-opting public person’s platforms, domestic violent extremism groups actively attempt to recruit military and U.S. government personnel. These groups also encourage their current members to join the military to acquire combat and tactical experience that they will later use against our nation instead of on its behalf.
This is where domestic extremism transforms from a broad social threat to an insider threat. The damage a radicalized individual within the military or government may compromise our ability to protect the nation and its interests. It is important that we ensure extremists do not use government resources to further their agendas.
Identifying Domestic Violent Extremists to Mitigate Insider Threat
The ability to identify potential indicators of domestic violent extremism group membership is one of the best tools we have to mitigate the risk to persons, property, and an organization’s reputation. While insider threat was once narrowly defined and less well-known, the shifting landscape as well as government policy mandating counter-insider threat programs has brought it to the forefront as essential to national security. Many organizations are doing interesting work in this area.
The National Insider Threat Task Force (NITTF) sponsored the Defense Personnel and Security Research Center (PERSEREC) and The Threat Lab to host a series of Domestic Extremism Workshops in 2021. This workshop’s objective was to prepare government security personnel to understand, identify, disrupt, and manage personnel who adhere to extremist ideologies. Through reviewing case studies and discussions with subject matter experts and deradicalized individuals, participants finished the workshop with a greater understanding of domestic extremism, both from a research and operational perspective.
PERSEREC is also in the final phase of developing Ideologies and Symbols Associated with Domestic Violent Extremism, a web-based training that focuses on recognizing symbols associated with domestic violent extremist ideologies. This course will be available to government employees later this year via the Joint Knowledge Online (JKO) platform.
Knowledge is Power: Resources for Combating Domestic Violent Extremism
Modern-day challenges continue to shape the violent extremism landscape. One of the only things we can be sure of is that extremists and their tactics will continue to evolve as will threats they pose. So must mitigation techniques and practices. New and seasoned security professionals alike should share different techniques and new indicators to analyze and identify potential domestic extremist threats.
Education and continued vigilance are the key to countering the threat of violent extremism.
To support this effort, The Threat Lab regularly publishes reports, job aids, toolkits, and more which can be accessed at https://opa.mil/research-analysis/personnel-security/insider-threat and https://www.cdse.edu/Training/Toolkits/Insider-Threat-Toolkit. You can also stay on top of new releases and get exclusive invitations to continuing education courses from The Threat Lab by signing up to join the distribution list by emailing DoDHRA.ThreatLab@mail.mil.
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