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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Monday, July 21, 2014

Radicalization, Informants and More Difficult Questions

Human Rights Watch issued a report today on counterterrorism prosecution and investigation, firing off some blistering criticisms of various government practices, including notably the use of informants, which I have written about repeatedly and, I think, pointedly:

A story by AFP is here.

I don't endorse the overall assessment given by the HRW report, even though I think it does raise some important issues. My reservations come in part from differences of opinion on the case-by-case assessments, but also the report's neglect of a fundamental dilemma:

How should law enforcement respond when it learns that someone is talking about violent or terrorist action, or seeking social support to commit such an action?

I don't think anyone wants the FBI to simply ignore such reports or tips, or ignore someone they see on social media who is making threats.

The question is how to sort out which cases merit investigation and which do not. Which leads me to one point in the report that I think is especially unhelpful: The report takes a derisive tone toward FBI efforts to understand radicalization.

While these efforts are far from perfect, I think it's much better to try to understand the radicalization process than to proceed without understanding. If you want to criticize the current state of scholarship on radicalization, I'm all for that. There's plenty of snake oil to be found, some of it emanating from the very highest levels of our government. But be specific, don't just put scare quotes around the word "radicalization" and pat yourself on the back for a job well done (which is essentially what HRW has done here).

Studying radicalization leads most people to understand that very few radicals become violent, and the entire point of such studies is an effort to limit law enforcement scrutiny to people who present a real threat and to eliminate people who are just angry, political or blowing off steam.

While you can argue about where to draw the lines, I think that better understanding radicalization will ultimately result in fewer problem cases and ultimately in less investigation and prosecution.

All that said, and as I've written before, there is a social cost to the tactics we are currently using to fight terrorism and radicalization, especially when those tactics disproportionately target Muslims.

At this point, I think people from around the government need to sit down and have a high-level conversation about the costs and benefits of these approaches, and figure out how to do the work of national security in a better way.

While I do basically agree with many of the report's recommendations (see page 178 of the PDF linked above), the tone of the overall report seems to point to a broader challenge to the premise of whether law enforcement should even be in the business of prevention.

I believe we can do much better than the status quo, but law enforcement needs to have some tools to respond when a person in the community is raising alarm bells. The vast majority of investigations rule out prosecutions, rather than ruling them in, as it should be. The real question here is whether more prosecutions can be ruled out, and whether they can be ruled out less intrusively. To open that debate responsibly requires discussion of what we can do, not just what we shouldn't.

Buy J.M. Berger's book, 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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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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