At what point does an extremist become a violent extremist? As the world—wakened by the recent terrorist attacks in Baghdad, Beirut, Paris, and now in California and London, too—struggles to defeat the Islamic State (also called ISIS), the answer is more important than ever.
For his part, U.S. President Barack Obama has tried to solve the puzzle by introducing a new ingredient to the counterterrorism recipe. In February 2015, he gathered the world’s top experts for a summit on countering violent extremism, a new strategy designed to address the process of radicalization—in particular, ISIS’ apparently unmatched ability to recruit across linguistic, cultural, and geographic boundaries through social media.
Countering violent extremism is different in approach from the one that analysts and policymakers took with al Qaeda. Where they once hunted down operatives and leaders in the top echelons of terrorist organizations, they now also look for so-called influencers and study how, precisely, they incite individuals to violence. Consequently, U.S. counterterrorism has moved from a purely operations-centered strategy—for example, assassinating al Qaeda leaders or what the media calls “cutting off the snake’s head”—to analyzing what the Department of Homeland Security describes as “the dynamics of radicalization to violence” or the reasons why some individuals associated with violent extremism commit violence and others do not. This new perspective has roped in government bodies, activists, and data scientists who not only analyze terrorist social networks and messaging patterns, but also transmit counter-extremist narratives.
As a result, Washington certainly has an abundance of information about ISIS’ ideology, targets, messages, and media campaigns. But the challenge, it seems, is figuring out what to do with all the data. The Washington Post recently revealed that the U.S. State Department’s Center for Strategic
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