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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The International Banks Conspiracy, Explained

If you're not a white supremacist, you may have missed why some people are saying Donald Trump's stump speeches echo anti-Semitic tropes, with references to a conspiracy of secret meetings "with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial power." I discussed the origins of this language in a paper earlier this year on the sovereign citizen movement, excerpted below. It's worth noting in this context that Trump has specifically called out the Federal Reserve in recent weeks for being part of a conspiracy to defeat his campaign.

Financial Conspiracy Theories

Figure 1: Excerpt from The Federal Reserve Conspiracy by Eustace Mullins

Posse Comitatus [a sovereign citizen precursor group] drew some of its ideology from a boutique industry of financial conspiracy theories that sprang up during the early 20th century, in response to the growing complexity of the American economy and banking system. In particular, the creation and function of the Federal Reserve has fueled an immense reservoir of conspiracy theories regarding public debts, the value of currency, and the "international bankers" who profit from America's supposed economic misfortunes. The U.S. abandonment of the gold standard has also contributed significantly to these conspiracy theories, as many people within the sovereign movement believe U.S. currency is without real value if it is not backed by gold. 

"Only falsehoods and false principles need be discussed in mysterious terms," wrote Gertrude Coogan, author of the 1935 tract Money Creators, cited by Posse as a guide to American economic history. "Any citizen of ordinary mentality can readily understand the money system of this country."[i] This concept—that something must be simple in order to be true—paradoxically serves to undermine the reality of history and modern economics, even as its proponents generate conspiracy theories that are often themselves breathtakingly complex.

Among other things, Coogan claimed the Civil War was not about slavery but instead was the result of a conspiracy by "certain bankers" and "internationalists" to weaken America for future economic exploitation. Coogan's book was coy about the identity of the "international money masters and their domestic pawns" who were responsible for subverting the Constitution and destroying capitalism, but other authors cited by Posse did not bother to mask their anti-Semitism. Eustace Mullins, author of the Posse-recommended The Federal Reserve Conspiracy, dutifully enumerated the biographies of the "enemy aliens" who had seized control of the American banking system with information cited to the "Who's Who in American Jewry."[ii]

Coogan, Mullins, Wickliffe Vennard, and other favored authors cited by Posse Comitatus were all published or republished by a company known as Omni Publications, which today continues to distribute their works under the name Omni Christian Book Club. Omni represents one of the most significant propagators of these conspiracy theories. Over the course of decades, Omni has propagated a vast array of material related to "international banking conspiracy," some of it carefully generic, others overtly anti-Semitic. (The company also distributed the infamous anti-Semitic hoax, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.)

The short version of these various theories is that "international bankers," usually meaning Jews, rendered U.S. currency worthless in 1913 with the creation of the Federal Reserve. These theories generally hold that the international banking conspiracy was intended to subject Americans to "economic slavery." A 1968 Omni Publications pamphlet, The Green Magicians, blamed World War II on an "internationalist" effort to crush Hitler's superior financial system and includes an anti-Semitic quote falsely attributed to Ben Franklin. The "bankers" were in turn tied to the spread of Communism, a common theme in such publications from the 1950s onward.

Many of these concepts have filtered down into the sovereign citizen movement, but usually in a much-diluted form. While white supremacy and anti-Semitism can certainly be found among sovereign citizens, sovereign texts tend to strip out many details, including direct references to Jewish conspiracies, presenting a greatly simplified version of events with vague references to "bankers" as the source of the conspiracy. Key elements that have been carried into the modern movement, at something of a distance from their original context, include the sinister nature of the Federal Reserve, a host of incorrect inferences related to the effect of America's public debt, and the illusory nature of credit and the U.S. currency, with the accompanying implications for money-making procedures and schemes.

[i] Coogan, Gertrude. Money Creators. Unknown (1935).
[ii] Mullins, Eustace. The Federal Reserve Conspiracy. Christian Educational Association (1954). 

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Nazis vs. ISIS on Twitter

My new paper for GWU's Program on Extremism has been released:

Nazis vs. ISIS on Twitter
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has distinguished itself as a pioneer in the use of social media for recruitment. But, while ISIS continues to be one of the most influential terrorist groups in the material world, other extremists are closing the gap in the virtual realm. On Twitter, ISIS’s preferred social platform, American white nationalist movements have seen their followers grow by more than 600% since 2012. Today, they outperform ISIS in nearly every social metric, from follower counts to tweets per day. This study examines and compares the use of Twitter by white nationalists, Nazi sympathizers, and ISIS supporters respectively, providing some preliminary comparisons of how each movement uses the platform. 

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam

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15 Years of Terror -- PBS Nova

I appeared on PBS Nova to discuss terrorism on social media, and my relationship with Omar Hammami.

Nova: 15 Years of Terror

Related story: Omar and Me

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam

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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Social Apocalypse: A Forecast

By J.M. Berger

Tens of thousands of foreign fighters found their way to Afghanistan during the 1980s, without benefit of the Internet. More than 900 Americans found their way to Guyana in the 1970s, to die in the Jonestown massacre. Extremists have always found ways to make contact with like-minded recruits.

For a long time, I resisted the idea that social media was a global game changer. As new companies sprouted up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, each promised its technology would change everything. They came and they went, some faster than others, some still lingering in a vegetative state. Compuserve, AIM, Napster, Friendster, Tripod, Geocities, MySpace, Digg… It was hard to take their grandiose claims seriously.

But some survived, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Reddit. And I have watched as they changed the global game.

Many of these changes are neutral or good – from enabling global commerce to empowering free expression in authoritarian societies. But social media has also revolutionized the business of violent extremism, perhaps more profoundly than any other sphere.

In 2011, I wrote that terrorists use the Internet the same way that everyone else does. That is no longer true, and perhaps I should have seen it coming sooner.   

The last eight months have seen wall-to-wall chaos, with violence coming from multiple directions and diverse ideologies, capable of landing anywhere in the world, attacks that specifically target people by race, religion, gender and sexual orientation – resulting in widespread fear and anger among people of every identity group. The list goes on and on and on… Paris, Normandy, Nice, Brussels, Munich, Ansbach, Dhaka, Würzburg, San Bernardino, Orlando, Malheur, Dallas, Baton Rouge, a wave of stabbing attacks in Israel, attacks on mosques and Muslims.

There have been many cosmetic changes to extremist recruitment and radicalization in the Internet era, but also a few fundamental shifts. Recruiting in cyberspace offers critical advantages over meatspace – a term coined from cyberpunk novels of the 1980s and 1990s to describe the old-fashioned world of human bodies in proximity to one another. They include: 

  1. Security. Recruiters can search online for prospects without exposing themselves to scrutiny, and they enjoy better anonymity when they approach a target. Potential recruits can forge relationships with violent extremists before exposing themselves to physical risk in a face-to-face meeting.
  2. Discovery. Recruiters and potential recruits can now hunt through a target audience of millions to find each other. Before they were constrained by the cost of travel and the risk of exposure, and the reduced reach that comes with working in meatspace.
  3. Remote intimacy: Recruitment is ultimately about relationships. In a world of networked social media, it is easier to build intimate relationships over geographic distances, even while maintaining some veneer of anonymity.
  4. Speed of contagion: It took centuries for early Christianity to overwhelm the Roman Empire – enough time for its early apocalyptic strain to evolve and moderate, allowing for the rise of institutions to stabilize its belief system. Today, ideas spread as fast as they change, often faster. For now, at least, the contagion can outrace the evolutionary pressures that push movements into moderation. This shift favors more extreme ideas, which propagate faster than ever before. 
None of these dynamics are exclusive to jihadism. All of them are new developments in social interactions, and all of them have consequences.

The most prolific and extreme offender on social media has been the Islamic State, known as ISIS or ISIL, whose message has been broadcast around the world on social media, with extraordinary speed and success. But the Islamic State’s social media effort has peaked, and its successors are already on the rise.   

Consider white nationalism, an ideology that went through an extended period of decline, with sharp losses starting in the late 1990s and continuing through the 2000s. The movement’s adherents were fragmented, factionalized and isolated in the face of a powerful social current against overt racism. Now, a mix of political factors and the rise of social networking have sparked a worrying resurgence.

One element of white nationalism’s decline was its marginalization from the mainstream of society. The role of mainstream media gatekeepers was crucial in reinforcing that isolation through the second half of the 20th Century. Overt white nationalism was rarely found on editorial pages, and its leading figures were rarely seen on the news, except in a negative light. Popular entertainment and culture reinforced messages promoting diversity.

Social media was not the only factor driving the return of white nationalism – the election of an African-American president, economic and demographic shifts, and a new flood of refugees from the Syrian civil war all provide important political context. But the mechanics of the resurgence were swifter and more volatile because of instantaneous global networking, and some key offline factors – including the rise of the Islamic State and Donald Trump’s racially divisive presidential campaign – have been profoundly empowered by access to social media.

Early social media, such as bulletin boards and message boards, provided rare forums where white nationalists could gather and share their views without fear of censure. But when open social media platforms emerged – including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter – a pressure valve burst open, releasing a scalding jet of steam.

After decades of being silenced, white nationalists could suddenly organize into significant audiences, sometimes as many as tens of thousands of people, sometimes more. Functional anonymity insulated many adherents from the professional and social consequences of professing overt racism in the real world. And they could project their message to audiences who had not sought them out – hundreds of thousands more. 

While estimates of the total population of white nationalist supporters online are less concrete than those for the Islamic State, my preliminary research shows substantial increases in activist social media accounts since 2012, congruent with the rise of nationalist political movements in the United States and Europe. The total, at the least, runs into six figures. (These gains are detailed in my new paper for GWU’s Program on Extremism.) 

None of this comes as a surprise to anyone active on social media. Journalists, experts, celebrities and ordinary people are now routinely exposed to torrents of racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynistic abuse. Efforts to highlight this activity and shame the perpetrators often simply encourages the abusers and exposes more people to their message of hate, a paradox familiar to anyone working on jihadist social media.

Much of this abuse is organized, rather than spontaneous, and white nationalists are only part of the picture. From “Trumpkins” to “Bernie Bros,” antisocial content surrounding contentious online personalities has skyrocketed, carried out by users for whom trolling has become a consuming vocation, in some cases literally.  

Online culture has also led to convergence between those who sincerely believe in an extremist ideology, such as Nazism, and those who instrumentalize that ideology as an outlet for less defined antisocial impulses such as harassment and bullying. Some users eventually become true believers after starting out simply as antisocial harassers. Author Jesse Walker called this the “Mother Night” phenomenon, referring to a Kurt Vonnegut novel whose theme is summed up in the quote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Some pranksters and professional trolls now routinely skip among ideologies, and state-sponsored trolls are often on hand to pour fuel on the fire. One Jewish-American arrested for supporting the Islamic State turned out to be a full-time troll posing as everything from a jihadist to a neo-Nazi to radical feminist. Sometimes he argued with himself using his various accounts. His jihadi persona was virtually indistinguishable from the real thing, and sincere or not, he played a real part in supporting the Islamic State and encouraging terrorist attacks. He will not be the last such chimera we see.

The truly bad news in all of this is that the Islamic State was the easy problem.

The hyperactivity and hyperviolence of the Islamic State’s social media is prone to break most social media platforms’ terms of service, the rules that users agree to when they sign up. The Islamic State is also a discrete organization, an entity with a geographic locus. And it is the ultimate outsider, so incredibly marginalized that virtually no one will advocate on its behalf as its social media accounts are suspended – not even al Qaeda.

Consider then the much greater challenge that lies ahead. White nationalism is not an outsider in Western civilization, by any reasonable measure. We are scant decades past its overt domination of Western politics, and it is enjoying a resurgence today in the form of nationalist political parties and candidates throughout the Western world. While some white nationalist adherents are careless about the terms of service, many color within the lines, if only barely. While many people are repulsed by white nationalists and their principles, others are busy electing them to public office.

The blurred lines create new challenges. Even with Islamic State social networks, a handful of people have objected to disruption and suppression on the basis of free speech concerns, while not defending the group itself. For extremist movements that are less brazen and more integrated into host societies, the difficulties multiply.

For instance, sovereign citizen propaganda almost certainly leads some adherents to violence, but sovereign content does not typically cross the line with explicit calls to violence, as defined by most social media companies’ terms of service. Race hate without a threat of violence is not consistently suspended despite pertinent rules in social media platforms’ terms of service.

These problems cannot be easily solved. There is no central authority to litigate social media conflicts, which cross lines between private companies and public discourse, and must accommodate multiple jurisdictions around the globe. Few would favor such an approach even if the many practical obstacles could be surmounted.

It is possible that some sort of social or technological solution to these challenges will evolve organically, whether through the restructuring of online social platforms, the emergence of truly positive viral movements with real staying power (as opposed to the current paradigm of surge and fade).

But as of now, there is little visible reason for optimism.

While not everyone uses social media, those who do play an increasingly dominant role driving public policy and mainstream media coverage. What happens on social media matters, although it does not always provide a straight line from intention to result.

And although social media is a key facilitator of extremist sprawl, there is also a spillover effect. Public spectacle violence – more and more often inspired by social media – dominates the mainstream media, which takes cues about what to cover from social media, resulting in more coverage that reaches more people, inspiring copycats and creating more curiosity about extremist groups, which can then be satisfied online.

I believe we are seeing the start of a massive social reorganization with serious implications for global and national security.

Salafists and white nationalists already excel at creating online echo chambers, flocking to follow social media accounts focused on grievances related to Muslim prisoners and black violence, respectively. Both white nationalists and jihadists have been hobbled by the lone wolf model for years, but the rise of super-empowered super-minorities – such as the Islamic State – has created a new path toward the successful mobilization of fractional percentages of global demographic groups.

Russia, Iran, Syria and other state actors have carefully and strategically built their own echo chambers. Anarchists, socialists, sovereign citizens and black nationalists are not far behind, although various factors have slowed the crystallization of their social networks.

While there is no consistent estimate of the Islamic State’s foreign fighter base, no one believes it is greater than tens of thousands of fighters. Yet combined with its other assets, the Islamic State has thrown the world into a frenzy of activity, both productive and counterproductive.

Ten thousand people are a drop in the bucket compared to the population of the world or even most nations. But ten thousand people acting in concert can disrupt events on a global scale.

One million people comprise less than two one-thousandths of 1 percent of the world’s population. But one million people acting in concert can wreak unimaginable havoc. We are marching toward an event of that magnitude, whether next year, or in ten years.

We are not ready.

Turbulence, at least in the near-term, is almost assured. In the worst-case scenario, governments, social media companies and civil society will completely fail to agree on how to implement solutions. Without meaningful controls, we will see millions of people organize themselves according to racial, class or religious identity in defiance of a generation of progress toward pluralism. We will see migration driven by social media ties – as we have already seen with the Islamic State.

In the United States, white separatist movements have already staked out territories for a racially pure homeland, and travel to those territories is far simpler than making hijra to Syria from the West. We will see weaker movements attempt to implement the same sort of headline-grabbing broadcast violence that the Islamic State has perpetrated, along with ultraviolent splinters from larger mainstream radical currents. The current mainstreaming of white nationalism likely poses the most imminent threat of expanded broadcast violence, which the current political cycle is likely to aggravate. 

In a best-case scenario, the forces of tolerance and pluralism will organically evolve social media tools and dynamics that we cannot yet foresee, which will restore the status quo of a strong and resilient social center. While this is possible, maybe even likely, it seems certain that many years will pass before such tools and dynamics emerge and become widely adopted.

To reach this steady state will require great patience and a lot of luck. We will have to avoid hazards such as escalating sectarian and identity violence, moves toward segregation, and the potential for planet-destroying wars. Success is not assured, and we could experience serious violence and upheaval in the meantime.

Between these two poles is the middle road, with frequent viral outbursts of social instability amid only sporadic progress. If we’re lucky, these eruptions will take place consecutively, rather than concurrently, but that ship has arguably sailed.

This scenario still leads to a massive social reorganization, but more slowly, with slower transmission times for radical ideologies, which allow moderating influences to creep into extremist social networks.

Under this scenario, interim steps, such as the European Commission’s social media Code of Conduct announced in May, will provide some relief, while emerging behaviors and the inconsistent application of standards by different and new social media platforms will still allow surges through shifting loopholes. Progress will be stymied by new and unforeseen problems – such as when Twitter suspended a number of prominent accounts parodying the Russian government on the same day that the Code of Conduct was announced.

Freewheeling social media platforms, such as Twitter, may give way to more controlled environments such as Sidewire or adopt policies similar to Facebook, where users are (at least theoretically) required to provide real names and content is policed more aggressively. But there are many tradeoffs in such a transition, including limits on socially positive virality and the diminishment of value for OSINT and breaking news. Such a homogenization of social network models might not be ideal, but it may be a necessary stage on the way to a solution.

On the technical side, there are opportunities for innovation. The simplified structure and more-open data access offered by platforms like Twitter is ripe for exploitation to detect and address social trends before problems fully materialize. For instance, the extent of the the ideological and popular challenge that the Islamic State presented to al Qaeda was clearly visible online before it became visible in the news, as was the rise of Donald Trump and the fall of Jeb Bush. Currently, we have only scraped the surface of social media’s potential for early detection and forecasting of social trends.

On this middle road, the challenge from violent extremists and hate groups will persist, but slowly shift from large, drawn-out battles with extremists and harassers into a series of skirmishes that flare up and die down relatively quickly. As new ideologies and actors employ an ever-evolving array of techniques, fringe movements will establish beachheads on larger platforms -- such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube -- then take their adherents to smaller platforms where policing is less strict or less structurally feasible, as Islamic State supporters have done on Telegram

No matter which road we take, one intrinsic problem will remain. Social media has rapidly become the public square of the 21st Century. For many users, especially in countries with strict limits on speech and assembly, social media feels like a venue for free speech. But it is not.

Social media operates on a global stage made up of multiple overlapping jurisdictions. At the top of the hierarchy are the social media companies themselves. For all intents and purposes, these companies represent a genuine corporatocracy with near-absolute and – as of today – completely unaccountable control over who enjoys the benefits of speech and assembly.

Every large social media company suspends thousands of users per day for harassment, abuse, obscenity, pornography. They do not disclose the details of this activity. We do not know whether workers who police content reflect racial and religious diversity, or whether they are trained in those issues, and we do not know whether the demographics of users who are suspended reflect racial or religious biases.

While Twitter, Facebook and Google may have good intentions, they have very different and constantly evolving interpretations of their obligations and the boundaries of acceptable speech.

To date, social media companies have shown an admirable commitment to defying suppression of the Internet by authoritarian regimes, but these efforts will come under increasing pressure as markets like China beckon and political situations around the world grow more complex. While we may applaud social media companies’ efforts to promote free speech in these settings, we did not elect the executives of these companies in a democratic process to be the arbiters of acceptable speech on a global scale, nor do they have any particular qualifications for this job. Yet there is no immediate or obvious solution to the problem presented by the distribution of power and responsibility in this arena.

While we can hope for the best, we should prepare for the worst. For the foreseeable future, the advantage lies with the extremists. The coming era of radical change will likely be violent and unstable, and governments need to start preparing, by building resilience and innovating where they can, particularly in the area of early trend detection.

Instability can be survived, if we are prepared for it. What we cannot afford to repeat is the institutional response to the Islamic State, as a phenomenon that “came out of nowhere” in the eyes of many policy makers and news organizations, using tactics no one had foreseen. In a complex world, we must anticipate complex problems, not let them sweep us off our feet, over and over again.

J.M. Berger is a fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and an associate fellow with the International Centre for Counter Terrorism, The Hague.

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger. 

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam

Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Al Nusra Splits From Al Qaeda: What It Means

After years of rumours, Syrian jihadist group Jabhat al Nusra is expected to sever its longstanding affiliation with al Qaeda at any moment.

As news of the impending split broke, many questions arose: Was it simply a smokescreen? Would al Qaeda still be pulling al Nusra’s strings? Won’t al Nusra still represent an extremist, violent ideology?

Healthy skepticism is definitely called for, but this extraordinary development is far from inconsequential. Even if the ideology remains the same, even if al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri continues to influence al Nusra’s ranks and its leaders, the shift in allegiance will reverberate around the globe.

The break formalises a dynamic that has been apparent for some time – al Qaeda’s affiliates have become less and less global, and more and more local. The vision of al Qaeda as one big thing has given way to the reality of multiple al Qaedas – in Syria, Yemen, Northwest Africa, East Africa, and the Indian Subcontinent. The affiliates increasingly cater to local concerns and local politics. Even before the break, al Nusra cited instructions from Zawahiri to cease any efforts to attack the West.

Of all the affiliates, al Nusra is best positioned to enjoy the benefits of independence.

Whatever skepticism and suspicions Western analysts and Syrian rebels rightly harbour about the split, some in the Middle East will be happy to take it at face value. Al Nusra functions within a highly diverse coalition fighting the Assad regime, and the separation from al Qaeda will enhance its ability to form alliances, despite lingering suspicions about its ultimate agenda. The break will also legitimise fundraising by Gulf donors and the states that regulate them, to a greater or lesser extent.

More broadly, this marks the beginning of the end for the global al Qaeda brand.

Read the full analysis at The International Centre for Counter Terrorism -- The Hague, web site
J.M. Berger is a fellow with George Washington University's Program on Extremism and an associate fellow with the International Centre for Counter Terrorism -- The Hague. 
Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger. 
Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam

Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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Friday, July 8, 2016

Making CVE Work

I published a major paper on countering violent extremism, including a critique of current policy assumptions and a proposal for a plan of action. 

New ICCT Paper Tackles Major CVE Challenges

One of the biggest barriers to designing a comprehensive Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program is defining its scope. This paper argues for a narrow approach, focusing on disengagement and the disruption of recruitment, a simplified model of radicalization, and concrete themes for disruptive intervention and messaging. After analyzing case studies of disengagement, a specific program of action is recommended. | Read the full paper (PDF) 

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam

Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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The Dystopian Spectacle

My most recent article, published Sunday, looks at the violent spectacle in dystopian fiction, and how it does and does not reflect the new realities of shared violence online, in the context of ISIS but also the next wave of participatory violence:
One of the most popular tropes in dystopian fiction is the “violent spectacle.” Immortalized in recent years by The Hunger Gamesseries, the concept is simple: A corrupt society uses some public display or broadcast of violence to manipulate the masses.
But it’s never been purely fiction. The concept of providing the masses with an experience of intentionally shared violence has, from time to time, also surfaced in the real world. In its heyday, the Roman Colosseum hosted mock battles and public executions that drew massive crowds. And during France’s Reign of Terror, tens of thousands were executed, many in public, with the clear intent to intimidate.
The full article is here.

I have launched a new blog, World Gone Wrong, to explore the intersection of radical politics and dystopian fiction, a topic that has long fascinated me. Here are some of my earlier writings on dystopia and radicalism:

And the latest post on World Gone Wrong: 

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger. 

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam

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Thursday, June 2, 2016

Without Prejudice: What Sovereign Citizens Believe

If you've ever read a sovereign citizen court filing, you may be understandably confused about the ideology behind the movement. Members of the sovereign citizen movement are increasingly in the news for their violent confrontations with law enforcement, but their confusing ideology can be difficult to understand. My newest paper for GWU's Program on Extremism explains in simple language what sovereigns believe, and where those beliefs originated. 

Read the full paper (PDF) 

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam

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Thursday, May 26, 2016

New Paper: Making CVE Work Through a Focused Approach

My latest paper, Making CVE Work: A Focused Approach Based on Process Disruption, has been published by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, The Hague. As long-time readers will know, I have long been a critic of the broad spectrum of CVE programs, based on a number of different objections. This paper is the summation of some years spent in the CVE trenches, working on programs and sitting through an endless series of planning meetings that I have come to think of as "CVE Groundhog Day." I have also done something here that I have not done in my previous writings on this subject -- offer a specific proposal for how I believe CVE can be accomplished most effectively.

The paper addresses:

  • A survey of the many flawed but seemingly unkillable assumptions about what constitutes CVE efforts, based in large part on my CVE Groundhog Day experiences. 
  • Case studies in how and why people actually disengage from violent armed movements, as opposed to theories based on the aforementioned assumptions. 
  • Based on those case studies, an updated version of my "Five Ds of CVE," in which I advocate for using negative inputs to promote disengagement from violent extremism and VE recruiting networks, as opposed to feel-good efforts to transform people vulnerable to radicalization into upstanding citizens of a pluralistic global society.  
  • A radicalization model that is practical enough to use for CVE purposes, but not wedded to any specific ideology. 
  • A proposal for how to integrate all of the above into a specific program that includes something many CVE programs lack -- a credible evaluation of the program's results.  

I still believe that CVE is a concept with some merit, if it can be stripped of its overweening ambition and factually flawed premises (prominently on display this week, unfortunately). This paper represents my best effort to contribute to a more effective model that can be evaluated on its actual merits.

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam

Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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Monday, February 15, 2016

INTELWIRE Weekly Brief, 2/15/16


ISIS: The State of Terror, by Jessica Stern and INTELWIRE's J.M. Berger, is nowavailable in paperback, with a new afterword on its strategy and global terrorist attacks. The book was also selected as a February book of the month by WSJ+, as part of a special package deal which includes a 35 percent discount.


With Friends Like These … Why Terrorist Organizations Ally
Why do terrorist organizations ally with one another? Overall, terrorist organizations tend to prefer network structures that are organized into cliques or subgroups, though with some outreach to clusters beyond their primary partners. By Victor H. Asal, Hyun Hee Park, R. Karl Rethemeyer & Gary Ackerman.


Experts weigh in (part 3): Is ISIS good at governing?
Aaron Zelin, the Richard Borow Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, to weigh in with a historical perspective on ISIS governance.

Top intelligence official: ISIS to attempt U.S. attacks this year
Top U.S. intelligence officials said Tuesday that ISIS was likely to attempt direct attacks on the U.S. in the coming year and that the group was infiltrating refugees escaping from Iraq and Syria to move across borders.

Wife of ISIS Figure Charged in American Woman Kayla Mueller's Death
The U.S. Department of Justice today charge the wife of a top ISIS leader today for her alleged role in a “conspiracy” that led to the death of American aid worker Kayla Mueller, who was reported killed in Syria a year ago.

ISIS Used Predatory Tools And Tactics To Convince U.S. Teens To Join
It began with messages sent through an anonymous app. Slowly, the Denver-area girls were lured in, until one day they weren't at school. One girl's dad quickly realized why: They were flying to Syria.

Syrian Opposition Groups Sense U.S. Support Fading
The United States and its allies have spent many millions of dollars backing Syrian opposition fighters they deem relatively moderate and secular, and civilian groups whose work on small businesses and local councils they billed as the cornerstone of Syria’s future.


Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Occupation Ends
After 41 days, an armed occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge came to a conclusion Thursday morning. The four remaining militants at the refuge surrendered to federal authorities.

Cliven Bundy Arrested, Charged in 2014 Nevada Standoff Case
The father of the jailed leader of a group that occupied an Oregon federal wildlife refuge was charged Thursday by federal authorities with leading a tense April 2014 armed standoff with Bureau of Land Management agents near his ranch in Nevada. A federal magistrate judge ordered Cliven Bundy to remain in custody at least until next Tuesday, and said she'll consider his request for a court-appointed attorney.

FBI Steps Up Pursuit of Terror Threats on Social Media
As the U.S. government tries to root out homegrown jihadists, the FBI’s campaign to identify budding terrorists via the Internet before they can carry out violence is playing an increasingly prominent role.

Russian Intervention in Syrian War Has Sharply Reduced U.S. Options
For months now the United States has insisted there can be no military solution to the Syrian civil war. But after days of intense bombing that could soon put the critical city of Aleppo back into the hands of Mr. Assad’s forces, the Russians may be proving the United States wrong.

Mali Islamist group Ansar Dine claims attack on U.N. base
Malian Islamist militant group Ansar Dine said it carried out a suicide and rocket attack on a U.N. base in Kidal, north Mali on Friday that killed six peacekeepers, the SITE Intelligence Group said.

Mother of Columbine Shooter Speaks Out Nearly 17 Years After Massacre
For nearly two decades, Sue Klebold has tried to wrap her head around why her son 17-year-old Dylan, along with Eric Harris, 18, killed 13 people in a mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999.


Iraqi Military: Challenges & Opportunities
Nate Rabkin comes back on the show to discuss the Iraqi Security Forces and their ongoing efforts to retake territory that is controlled by the Islamic State. Some of the topics covered include effects of coalition efforts on the situation and places where Iraqi forces have made substantial progress. By Karl Morand with Nate Rabkin.

Buy the new book ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger.

Buy J.M. Berger's seminal book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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ISIS: The State of Terror
"Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger's new book, "ISIS," should be required reading for every politician and policymaker... Their smart, granular analysis is a bracing antidote to both facile dismissals and wild exaggerations... a nuanced and readable account of the ideological and organizational origins of the group." -- Washington Post

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Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam:
"At a time when some politicians and pundits blur the line between Islam and terrorism, Berger, who knows this subject far better than the demagogues, sharply cautions against vilifying Muslim Americans. ... It is a timely warning from an expert who has not lost his perspective." -- New York Times

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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