The Changing Landscape of Terrorism in the United States

Thursday, September 30, 2021
REUTERS / Shannon Stapleton

Professor, School of Public Affairs and School of Education, American University

Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Farah Pandith, adjunct senior fellow at CFR, and Cynthia Miller-Idriss, professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs and School of Education and director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab, discuss the post-9/11 resurgence of far-right violence, and lessons learned in the aftermath of the tragedy that can be applied in the fight against domestic terrorism.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Social Justice and Foreign Policy webinar series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s webinar is on the record, and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We are delighted to have Farah Pandith and Cynthia Miller-Idriss with us today to talk about the changing landscape of terrorism in the United States. We shared their bios, so I will just go through and give a few highlights.

Farah Pandith is an adjunct senior fellow at CFR, a foreign policy strategist, and a former diplomat. She is a pioneer in the field of countering violent extremism, or CVE, and served as a political appointee in both Bush administrations, and the Obama administration. She served on the secretary of homeland security’s Homeland Security Advisory Council, where she chaired the Subcommittee on Countering Violent Extremism. And she was the first special representative to Muslim communities, appointed in June 2009 by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. She’s the author of the book How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat.

Cynthia Miller-Idriss is a professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs and School of Education, and runs a polarization and extremism research and innovation lab in the Center for University Excellence. She has testified before Congress and regularly briefs different agencies in the U.S., the United Nations, and other countries on trends in domestic violent extremism, and strategies for prevention and disengagement. She serves on the International Advisory Board of the Center for Research on Extremism in Oslo, Norway. She’s also a member of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Tracking Hate and Extremism Advisory Committee. She is the author of several books, including Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right. She has also authored a recent piece in Foreign Affairs entitled “From 9/11 to 1/6: The War on Terror Supercharged the Far Right.”

So thank you both for being with us today. This is a huge topic to cover. A lot of years to understand the history and where we are now. Cynthia, let’s start with you to talk about the ways in which the face of terrorism in America has changed over the past twenty years.

MILLER-IDRISS: Thanks, Irina, thank you for the invitation. It’s such an honor to be here and I’m excited to hear the questions from the audience as well. And it’s a great first question. Of course, I could go on for hours to respond to that, so I’ll try to give you the Cliff Notes version of this. Which is to say that it comes as no surprise to anyone in the audience, or really anyone who’s followed the news at all, to know that after 9/11 there was a complete laser focus, I would say, pivoting of global, and national security, and intelligence attention to the threat from international or Islamist forms of extremism.

And, we had, of course, many prior waves in this country and elsewhere of what is called often—and I should say the classification terms are difficult here—but I use the term “far-right” to capture white supremacist extremism, but also some anti-government forms of extremism. And we’d had prior waves of that culminating, for example, in the Oklahoma City bombing in the U.S. in 1995, which took the lives of 168 people. But 9/11 really pivoted the attention completely—almost completely, in terms of how resources were distributed. And I should say, not that people weren’t necessarily paying attention, but the political will and the funding wasn’t always there, as I know Farah will agree on that, and we’ve just been chatting about that.

But the official attention, the resources, the political will was really dedicated here and abroad to the threat from Islamist extremism. Even around 2008/2009, just after President Obama was elected, we began to see a serious spike both in hate group membership, in the numbers of hate groups, and in the growth of new unlawful militia and anti-government extremist movements like the Oath Keepers or the Three Percenters. These are kind of revolution-oriented or even civil war-oriented unlawful militia or patriot militia movements that seek to thwart what they believe are tyrannical government actions, ultimately culminating in something like 1/6 in the long-run.

So there was a steady growth going on for well over a decade. We saw that in episodic terrorist violence, in Oslo in 2011, in places like Charleston in a church, and then at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. A lot of houses of worship, of course. And then Christchurch, New Zealand, followed rapidly by, of course, there was Pittsburgh first, then Christchurch, followed rapidly by El Paso and other places—synagogues and other attacks here and abroad on religious institutions largely, in addition to targeting ethnic groups, like in that Walmart in El Paso.

So we’ve been seeing rising terrorist violence, rising extremist violence, mainstreaming and normalization of extremist ideas, which we saw in things like the Unite the Right rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, where you had scores of young men marching across the college campus unmasked, with their faces uncovered, chanting “Jews will not replace us”—I mean, real propaganda. And then a steady growth in attitudes and plots even that were foiled, and then the spread of propaganda really well documented on any number of measures.

That eventually did lead in the fall of 2020 to the Department of Homeland Security in its annual threat assessment declaring that domestic violent extremism in general, and white supremacist extremist in particular, is the most persistent and lethal threat facing the nation, facing the homeland. Most threat assessments in Europe continue to track Islamist forms of extremism as representing the greatest threat, but are increasingly describing far-right extremism as the fastest-growing threat. So there’s some slight differences in how the threat assessments are described, which I can get into in Q&A, but there’s no question, I think, that in terms of lethality, in terms of global percentage of deaths, for example, far-right extremism represented 82 percent of terrorist deaths in 2019 globally across the West.

So we have a number of measures that pose to its serious nature, and the pivoting of the threat, and really a pretty delayed reaction to it in terms of the resources, the attention, and the willingness to address it. I think a lot of that changed on January 6. And we saw shortly after that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence sort of slightly revise the threat assessment to note that it’s not just white supremacist extremism but also anti-government extremism, as a form of anti-government extremism that poses the most persistent threat. And I think that that’s true.

But we now have quite serious attention, Pentagon issuing its first ever stand down order. We have serious attention in the form of hearings and a number of other committees going on. Sort of the springing into action around the globe, I think, to start to think about solutions. But my negative assessment, and I’ll get into that finally. I’ll just conclude to say it’s still very little very late in terms of the kind of resources that are being devoted in the U.S. I would say much better resources are being devoted overseas in terms of prevention, particularly in Germany and in New Zealand in its response to Christchurch. And I’m happy to get into that in the Q&A.

But I’ll stop there. That’s an attempt to kind of do a Cliff Notes thumbnail sketch of the past two decades in a pretty short period of time.

FASKIANOS: That was great.

Farah, let’s go to you to talk about counterterrorism strategies and practices, and how they’ve changed, and what you see that we need to be doing.

PANDITH: Well, first of all, I just wanted to say good afternoon to everybody. And I wanted to highlight the fact that there are three women taking part of this panel. And that’s a terrific thing, because usually you do not see that. So that’s one thing I just want to say.

Cynthia’s excellent synopsis of where we’ve been and where we’re going is sobering. And I agree with everything that she had to say. I want to take a step back, though, and talk about the ideology that moves people to think about the “us versus them,” which is really at the heart and the core of all of these different kinds of terrorist organizations. You may believe different things, but ultimately it is an “us versus them” scenario. And it is rooted in how you think about yourself, and identity, and belonging.

And that’s essential to say, because I think that the U.S. government—and we can talk about how international actors have responded to this differently—but our assessment of the forces that move the human emotions have been off. We have not been ahead of the game. We have been playing catch up. We have been thinking about what we think we see in front of us, and analyzing, and articulating a response that is for the very second that we’re dealing with it. There has been very little long-term forecasting of where this is going to be, which has resulted in too little, too late.

And it is dramatically shocking to me that here we are in 2021, where in the homeland we are dealing with the kinds of threats that we’re dealing with from the ideology of “us versus them,” when societal sinkholes have been exposed in our country around political lines, around other lines. The audience is American, so you all have been living it with us. These things have pulled apart societies. Communities haven’t come together. You add to that what’s been happening with the technology revolution over the last twenty years, and you see a very sobering sight. And you see an activation of hate and extremism that no one could have imagined.

And what that means is that the solutions that we were looking at, right, when we were shocked and appalled at 9/11, and we didn’t know how to handle it, and how do we prevent something like this from happening? We were looking obviously at the kinetic response. How do we make sure al Qaeda doesn’t come back to our country? But soon after that we began to think about, well, how do you build the prevention models within communities so that the people that they’re trying to recruit are not finding this ideology appealing?

And, everybody knows twenty years later that it’s a whole of society thing. We’ve been talking about this for fifteen or twenty years. Obviously, it is not just government. It is nonprofits. It is philanthropy. It is business. We know all of that. We know that solutions are local. We know that faith leaders matter. We know that community leaders—and we know all of this stuff. What’s the problem now? The problem has been that while we have piloted some exceptional programs—early days after 9/11, for example, using faith leaders to help us get into communities, for example.

Using former extremists to tell their story, whether you’re former FARC, or former al Qaeda, or former Neo-Nazi. I want to tell you how I was recruited, why it was appealing to me, how I left. Those are really important stories to be able to tell. Whether it is education programs in schools—I mean, we piloted many different kinds of things in our country. Meaning, we supported those kinds of things. But we were not looking at the homeland. Our assumption was we got it here. We don’t have the problems that other countries have. We’ll be OK. And how foolhardy is that, to look at that right now, because ideology has no borders. So something that is happening in Oslo affects the guy in New Zealand, right? We learned that the hard way.

So when I look at the response, Irina, what I see is good intentions. I see some creative thinking. But I see a very slow and unsteady response in both the scale and the understanding of the global nature of this ideology, and how it pings across the world. We aren’t talking about recruits coming from generations that are much older. We are looking at Millennials. We are looking at Gen Z. And we’re looking at Gen Alpha. We, as the United States, ought to be thinking about how to protect our communities—a fifty-state plan—that allows us to go deep on cultural intelligence so that we understand how the emotions, psychologically, and spiritually, and community-wise are shaping the way people think about their identity, because that absolutely impacts the ability for somebody who’s recruiting that person to do something.

So all of this to tell you in the good news category, it’s not like we haven’t tried anything and we don’t know what’s going to work. In the bad news category, it’s, well, what are we doing about scale? While I absolutely am delighted to see a change in the numbers of the amount of money that’s going out in terms of grants to local communities to do work, I’m distressed because I look at the landscape in the years ahead. We cannot expect to get a handle on the ability to build inoculation, and resilience, and prevention on $20 million a year. I mean, that is outrageous.

So how do we think differently about this? And then the final thing I just want to say is on the way in which we approached handling preventative strategies in the ideological space, we did it like this: This is the kind of extremism we’re talking about, so here are the kinds of programs we think are going to work for AQ or ISIS. This might work for Neo-Nazis. We have done very little analysis in terms of the nuance within those groups. I don’t see specific programs for how women are getting radicalized. I don’t see specific programs for how you look at young people who are in the Gen Alpha category, for example.

So we can do better to say how do we think about the child and adolescent mind? What do we learn from the social scientists that can apply to how we build these programs? What are community leaders saying that they need? For example, the resources on the mental health side, which we are not actually doing properly. All of these things can dramatically shift the safety structure and the safety landscape for our country if we do this right.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, both of you. Very powerful. Let’s go to all of you now for your questions and comments.

And I can’t believe we have no questions. We do. All right. Syed Sayeed. Be sure to unmute yourself.

SAYEED: OK. Good afternoon and thank you to you, first, the Council on Foreign Relations, to organize this forum. And thanks to both the speakers. They have very powerfully stated their introductory framework for all of us to think.

My point is that the religious—what shall I say—authorities from Muslims, Christians, Jews are not playing the kind of role that they need to play. Because it doesn’t matter what religion you are talking about, the philosophy of all religions is looking after the humans, and have a framework in which the human individual and human groups can grow and develop in a way that they are going to be stronger in individual roles and group roles, to contribute to the betterment of their own groups and other human groups. I mean, that’s the bottom line of Christianity, of Judaism, of Islam. The wellbeing of humanity is uppermost in all religious thinking.

So if the religious leaders around the world can spell this out very clearly for their followers, and for others, it might become a very important factor in the future. They are not playing that kind of role. And I hope and pray that they realize that they have a responsibility, not just a choice but a religious responsibility, to spell out the nature of wellbeing they’re trying to cultivate individuals and groups. And I hope and pray—and I pray that the speakers and the Council on Foreign Relations do play a role to bring about this kind of focus of the international religious authorities. Thank you for the opportunity to make my point.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Syed.

Farah and Cynthia, do you see that the faith community and faith leaders have—that there has been enough done by faith leaders? Or what more could they do? I mean, practical advice on what can be done in their communities, in their synagogues, and churches, et cetera?

MILLER-IDRISS: Well, I think that there has been—first of all, thank you to the participant for the helpful comment. And I think that we agree. I think when you have people who are adhering to the tenants of their faith communities, you typically see people who are resisting extremism and working toward a common humanity. What we often see, though, is some manipulation within communities of disinformation, or propaganda, or scapegoating that can exploit, in some cases, across any faith community, some of the tenets of those beliefs. And so I think what we have been seeing over the last few years has been what we call kind of secondary prevention resources being devoted to faith communities to better reinforce prevention of violence by equipping people—what I call equipping the people at the synagogue doors to make sure they can thwart a violent attacker effectively.

I mean, it’s important, but it’s not the kind of prevention that I really feel like we need, which is more primary prevention in terms of helping truly inoculate populations against the spread of disinformation, and propaganda, and conspiracy theories in ways that help them recognize and resist from within the mainstream the outreach that comes to them from the fringes. And so I should say, in full disclosure, my research lab is one of the teams that got DHS money that was announced just last week in partnership with the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network in Tarrant County, Texas, and Search for Common Ground, to build a toolkit for faith communities by working with and partnering with faith communities in Texas. And then hopefully we will be empirically testing it to ensure that it is effective as a primary prevention to helping people be inoculated against, recognize, and be more resilient to propaganda and disinformation and extremist ideas. And then hopefully we’ll be able to scale up. There is a plan for scaling up as well if it’s effective.

But so there is—so, I’m intimately familiar with one effort, because we’re a part of it and we launch tomorrow, October 1, that work, with our first kick-off meeting. And so we’re about to begin that. And I hope that it’s the start of—and that began because a faith community member reached out to us. So we do—asking for help and assistance. And then we went after—we decided to do it and went after funding to support it. But I absolutely agree that part of the trouble here is a tremendous lack of resources compared to what other countries have to really engage in both the kind of pilot testing we need and the scaling up, along with the evidence and the transparency about what works. We just don’t have anywhere near the kinds of resources that we need to do it. I mean, we’re just scratching the surface.

So it’s—I think if we don’t really see either private sector donors step up or the federal government step up, we’ll just be scrambling along to sort of pick up the trails of what’s—little crumbs of things, rather than really trying to build something that’s more comprehensive. That’s my disclaimer about the negative, my pessimistic side. It’s that we just don’t have enough resources. But the optimistic side is that the will is there, I think. The understanding of the need is there. And the creative energy is there. And we’re certainly seeing that from within the faith community as well.

FASKIANOS: Great. And Syed, now everybody has raised their hands, which is fantastic, with written questions. So thank you for getting us started.

So let’s go next to Tereska Lynam. And you need to unmute yourself.

LYNAM: Sorry.

FASKIANOS: There you go.

LYNAM: So mine is actually a comment that I’d like your reaction from.

FASKIANOS: Can you identify yourself, Tereska?

LYNAM: Sorry. Tereska Lynam, University of Oxford.

And I have been traveling a lot recently, both within the U.S. and internationally. And I’ve never in my life had so many—heard so many political moderates, both inside and outside of the U.S., mention, kind of apropos of nothing, that they believe that the U.S. is headed for a civil war. And I would like to hear your—if you have any reaction to that, what your—if you’ve seen maybe the same thing, or—I don’t know. Thank you. (Laughs.)

PANDITH: Tereska, it’s interesting that you’re saying that. I used the term “social sinkholes” when I was giving my overview. And I think that there is deep despair in the United States that is being felt in new ways because we’re able to access things with a swish of our finger on our phones. And so you’re getting a consistent feedback loop on a whole host of different things—both feeling optimistic, and negative, and confused, and whatever you—and fearful. And I think it’s the fear of some of these things that are driving some of those conversations, because we haven’t seen it at this level in this way.

No one has a crystal ball to be able to say we’re heading this way or that way, but we certainly know one thing. And that is if we do not talk about the changes that have happened, and why we think they are happening, and address them, we’re in a completely—to use the term “unprecedented” is ridiculous, because post-COVID no one has seen this. But there’s a movement that I concur with you that I have also seen, policymakers as well as political commentators, thought leaders, and others, who are filled with confusion and despair because they don’t know the way out, because they haven’t seen a model that looks familiar to them that they can figure out what’s the strategy to go forward.

That’s my response to it. I also just wanted to say a word about the faith leader thing, just to—I agree with what Cynthia said. And I think there is activation in a new way. There has always been, in my opinion, great desire from faith leaders of all kinds to be helpful in the fight against hate and extremism. That’s been my experience since 9/11. But I also agree with the point that there are also negative influences in the faith community that want to stoke a fire in a particular way. And I certainly have seen that, we can see that in our own country with, I mean, somebody like Terry Jones, who most people forget, but he made a huge difference to the way in which Muslims understood themselves in America, in terms from a safety point of view. But also the way Muslims around the world understood what they believed America to be, because he was going to burn the Quran.

So there are aspects to this that are really important. And one last point, when we talk about faith leaders. I just want to make the point, with the change in the kind of fear that we’re looking at right now around ideology—from the violent far-right and particularly the white supremacist movements—you haven’t seen a reaction in America that is asking Christian leaders to talk about what Christianity stands for in the way in which after 9/11 they demanded that everybody that, quote, “looked Muslim” said something about the fact that AQ did not represent Islam. And I’m not—I’m simply saying this for one reason: The universe and the expectations have shifted over twenty years. And what we see as necessary has shifted over twenty years. And I think that there is great need to reassess what we ask for from our own neighbors and from our faith leaders and our community leaders in this moment in time.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to go to a written question from Abbas Barzegar. And, Abbas, do you want to just ask it yourself? OK.

BARZEGAR: Yeah, I’m happy to do so.

FASKIANOS: Oh, great. Wonderful. And identify yourself. It’s great to hear from you.

BARZEGAR: I’m Abbas Barzegar here, now with a group called Horizon Forum. And we work on informing philanthropy and grant-making institutions about domestic hate groups and extremist groups.

So the question was around cultural intelligence. Farah, you mentioned this. And I just—it’s a friendly question, asked in good faith. But one of the direct grievances that is often mentioned by domestic extremist groups and hate groups is government surveillance, government intrusion into the community, et cetera. And so I worry about—I’d like to hear more about what you think is an effective strategy there? Because I would hate for government to play an increasing polarizing role in the field, to become a participant in the polarization rather than some—an actor that can deescalate the tension.

PANDITH: Abbas, I’m so glad you asked that question. And I take with the spirit that you intend it. And I too agree with you, we don’t want a security state upon us. However, that’s not what I meant. (Laughs.) So culture—I have a piece coming out with sparks & honey that—which is a cultural intelligence firm in New York—that will go into great detail here. But as I looked at the experimentation over the last twenty years on how we can be predictive and forecast better, the only tools in our toolbox around that was human intelligence. It was really trying to—trying to gather—the old forms of information.

And I thought to myself: If we’re able to predict years in advance that veganism is going to be on the rise, or cannabis is going to be the thing that everybody’s talking about, or that this product is what everybody’s going to be using in their households, why is it that we cannot understand through our daily lives—this is not surveillance. This is information that marketing firms have. This is not going to mosques and churches and spying behind a pew or a thing. That is not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the touchpoints that put together signals that are able to tell you: Something really interesting is happening with Generation Z. They’re moving in this direction just the same way we can tell they’re becoming more directive around what products they buy because of what the companies stand for. Just the same way we can tell that Gen Alpha, even though they’re super young, are going to be moving in a direction that’s very different from their parents, who are Millennials. And this is why, because these are the things that have been around them. This is what they’ve been exposed to.

But that requires us to be alert and on it with the signals that we see, not signals that we’re gathering in super secret, horrifying ways. And I feel very strongly that one of the missing pieces in understanding society is that we’re not looking at society. We’re not seeing things. We’re compartmentalizing  what brands people are going to buy, or what products might be interesting.

And that may be fine for the bottom line of a company, but I want to understand from an emotional and psychological thing, could we have understood twenty-five years ago, because of the signals that we were seeing within society, the way people were acting, talking, buying things, doing things—could we have built a map that said: Something really odd is happening around identity and belonging? And this fear around America not being white—a predominantly White nation is going to have an effect in a way that is really X, Y, or Z.

Could we have done that? That is the question I’m asking myself. And I look at the trajectory of the hybrid extremisms, the surge in money and organization and all of the things that we know are happening in the terrorist front, and I am really worried about the future. And so what I am asking myself is: How do we forecast better? What can we think about and do differently?

So that is what I mean by cultural intelligence. I am not talking about a police state that is—we already know that Apple and Google and whatever are taking our data, and all that. That’s not—it is understanding how to put those pieces together with social scientists and others who can say: These are indicators for societal change in this particular way. I hope that I explained that.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Simran Jeet Singh, with The Aspen Institute’s Inclusive America Project. Simran, do you want to ask your question? All right, so I’m going to ask it.

So thanks to you both for your presentation. And his question is regarding the role of race and religion in relation to how we perceive threats. To what extent do you see Christianity animating the surge of far-right white nationalism in the U.S.? And what effective responses, if any, have you seen that might serve as good models for us?

MILLER-IDRISS: Well, I can start by saying I think,  the way that I typically describe this is what—there are two major sides to the far-right extremist spectrum. One is—and they intersect and overlap with each other. But one is sort of anti-government, anti-democratic, authoritarian, refusal to protect minority rights, et cetera, et cetera. The other is based on a range of supremacisms. And the idea of supremacism, the most common expression in the United States historically, and the one that has posed and still poses the most lethal threat in terms of terrorism, is white supremacy—white supremacist extremism. But we also have Western supremacy. We have Christian supremacy. We have male supremacy.

In ways—I mean, we’ve seen rising incel—involuntary celibate—violence and terrorist actions against women. We have seen the self-described Western chauvinist Proud Boys, who are, very, and increasingly, across Europe in particular, a very strong anti-Islam and Islamophobic ideologies couched as pro-Western, right? So what you have are far-right groups, and political parties even position themselves as protecting women’s and LGBTQ rights because they argue that those are Western values that have to be protected from a threat—that supposed threat of Sharia law. And of course, we saw that here with forty-three states putting forward over the past twenty years actual legislation to anti-Sharia legislation.

So we have this real deep Christian supremacy, even—or couched sometimes as Western supremacy—that is really baked in many ways to this Islamophobic and anti-Islam thinking that also often bleeds into anti-immigrant scapegoating in general. And it’s policies even that either are explicitly kind of Muslim bans or that are using fearmongering and scapegoating against immigrants to kind of stoke that same type of fear and protectionist idea of an existential threat that’s coming.

So that’s a kind of rambling way of saying: Yes, there absolutely is. Even when it’s not explicit. I think even when we don’t hear explicit pro-Christian or sort of Christian extremist thinking—although there is, of course, Christian nationalism and Christian white nationalism going on. When we don’t hear it, it’s often coded as Western or even as anti-immigrant, where Western is framed as superior, right? And a lot of even language we’re hearing right now around immigrants at the border supposedly carrying COVID, right, that that is—that the source of—I mean, very anti-science, right? Anti—not—explaining disease in ways that are very typical for the scapegoating of immigrants historically over time, and not rooted in the science of how this disease is spreading, and why, and where.

So that’s a longwinded explanation and way of saying that I think we have to be looking at these intersections around the way that supremacism works. And that even when white supremacy isn’t explicit ideology that’s stated, or sometimes denied, right? We have groups that are denying that they’re white supremacists but positioning themselves as Western supremacists. There’s often a civilizational kind of rhetoric or language behind it that is still—and I think very much traces back also to the post-9/11 climate. I mean, we have to understand that, of the real Islamophobia industry and its efforts to stoke Islamophobia in the population, and the way that that fostered an anti-immigrant and pro-Western kind of ideology.

So and then the only thing I will say about the solutions here is that we need to involve faith communities, but we also need to help understand at a very basic level, within the education system, what does it mean to have supremacist kind of thinking across the board? How does that intersect with male supremacisms, Western supremacisms? Because it’s everywhere. It’s baked into the history of this country and it’s baked into  everything from gender pay gaps to all kinds of things, right? I mean, the fact that Farah mentioned right at the beginning that there are three women here, that is also—I am often the only woman in the room in these kinds of conversations. And I’m sure you are too, Farah.

So that is really, really notable. And just the history of how these types of assumptions get made about who has a voice and who speaks is also part of this story. So I think we need to engage faith communities. But it has to be part of a much bigger set of engagements about how to combat supremacism as a rule, even as we combat the most lethal threat from that, which is white supremacist extremism.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m now going to next to Ani Zonneveld.

ZONNEVELD: Hi. Good morning, good afternoon. Ani Zonneveld, Muslims for Progressive Values.

Thank you for pointing out the importance of culture. And there’s clearly a lot of good ideas out there. But culture is so poorly funded. And as you look at the plethora of problems that we have, the religious influence on culture, that connection is really underestimated by our policymakers. The costs of changing hearts and minds, from my experience with working with religious leaders who are human rights affirming, it just took five years to do that. And it took less than $270,000 to do that in one country, which is the cost of one bomb. Our foreign policy of bomb and rebuild, bomb and rebuild does not work. At what point are we going to wake up to a more enlightened foreign policy and the funding that goes into it? Number one.

Number two, the success of the Taliban and the response from the Muftis of the world congratulating the Taliban was shocking and appalling. And these are Muftis representing governments, right? These are—as you know, probably Farah—the Muftis are not just some ad hoc committees. They are set up by governments. What do we have and what powers do we have in our funding policies with these governments in reigning in this radical influence? Thank you.

PANDITH: Ani, it’s great to see you on this screen. I hope that you’ve been well through this pandemic.

Well, there are two things I want to say—(laughs)—about your excellent points. The first is, I look to the American public to ask their elected leaders why they are spending so little on soft power. I mean, that is fundamentally the bottom line. If we, as members of our country, don’t demand a more realistic assessment of the power of soft power, we’re going to get what we got. And we have—I did an assessment with folks around soft power. And when I asked, do you know how much money we spent on trying to stop ISIS using the ideology of ISIS compared to how much we used in the kinetic war, people would imagine it was 15 percent, 20 percent, 25 percent. And I said it was 0.0138 percent. That is how much money—because we don’t value it. We say we do, but we don’t.

So the only way to change that on the foreign policy side is to demand that Congress give more money to our instruments of soft power across government, but also demand that—and this is a really important point—I think we are one of the most generous nations in the world on the philanthropic side. And there is a lot of money that goes to incredible causes in our nation. And I’m really proud of that as an American. But I have firsthand experience over twenty years of asking foundations, family foundations, large foundations, private philanthropists, begging and pleading with them to give money towards fighting the ideology of “us versus them.”

Eyes glaze over first. Secondly, there is this problem of—and the Congress had the same problem—can you prove to us that if we give you this dollar that that person will never be radicalized? Well, no. I can’t. I mean, how can I prove? How can I promise you that? That is the metric they are expecting. And so you got very little money from NGOs going into helping—sorry, very little money from philanthropists given to NGOs which are doing the bulk of the work, and should be.

And one of the big things that I have a problem with is you’re asking NGOs to fight for money to do this really important work, which often means that they have to review really horrible videos and information that they’re getting. Beheading videos or horrible things that they’re seeing on TikTok or, pick your social media platform. And there’s no support on the mental health side or anything for these NGOs, because they’re so small. They’re not Facebook. (Laughs.) They’re not—they don’t have quiet rooms and free food, OK? These are NGOs that are fighting for every dollar. Why am I saying all this? I 100 percent agree with what you’re saying about why our value system is shifted. But it is not just government. It is also where philanthropy must put their money as well.

Then your second question on—or, comment, rather, on the Taliban and other organizations—other nation-states that have religious instruments that support what the Taliban is doing. It is outrageous that we aren’t doing more to call them out. I mean, Ani, you and I have had the conversation about Saudi Arabia. You and I have had the conversation about what I saw around the world with the billions of dollars they spent over decades to transform the way people think about what it means to be Muslim, so there’s a monolithic way that you must be. But America and other nations—it’s not just the United States—have to be clear about what they stand for in this way.

You are 100 percent right when you say we have nations like Pakistan who are openly talking about how great it is that they are—that they’re going forward doing the work of—that no one else could do. The Taliban is doing really, really well. You don’t see America following up in the way in which we would expect them to. So all of the points that you are saying are correct. But it comes down, from my perspective, to what the American citizen demands of our elected leaders, and how we articulate that.

FASKIANOS: Great. I’m going to go next to Sharon Welch who has written, I think, two questions and raised her hand. So why don’t you just ask the one that you want.

WELCH: One of the things that I’m interested in is if you’ve found anything that’s successful in countering the spread of disinformation. I’m now working for League of Women Voters. When we talk about free and fair elections, and the difficulty of misinformation, I know there was a recent study from MIT that showed that even with amplification false information spread more quickly than true information. So what projects are you seeing that’s helping counter that?

MILLER-IDRISS: I’m so glad you asked. (Laughs.) Because I run a research lab that has spent the past year pilot testing a number of things to see what works. And we’re now in the scale-up phase and expansion phase. And to our great delight, everything we tested—from an animated video about the Boogaloo, to acted videos on—inoculation videos on white supremacy, scientific racism, and male supremacist content, and anti-vax content. And then a parent’s—a series of resources for parents and caregivers—everything was effective in all of our pre and post testing and assessment of what worked. In different ways, though.

So we have some of those findings up on our website, others out in preprint. I’m happy to try to share them. We’re trying to—one of the struggles of this work is that there’s never enough public communication about what we know. Now we know a lot of things, and we’re trying to figure out what’s the best way to get it to the public. But, for example, we built every source for parents and caregivers, and a whole series of resources for teachers, coaches, mental health practitioners, others who work with youth, in partnership with the Southern Poverty Law Center. We have built out a dedicated website, which I’ll drop in the chat.

But one of the things we did was test that resource with 755 parents and caregivers to see what they learned. Did they improve their ability to recognize warning signs of extremist radicalization? And did they feel more empowered to intervene if they did see those signs in a child that they knew? And one—it was really fascinating. It moved the needle in the right direction on every single measure, except for one group with one measure. Which is that the most educated group of parents did not improve their ability to recognize disinformation as a result of our intervention.

And the reason why is because they came in so confident—so much more confident than everybody else that they already knew how to do that. And then they engage in our intervention, read our resource. And they got less confident, because they realized then how coded this stuff is, how complicated it is when kids encounter it through means and online gaming sites, in emojis, in anime, all kinds of places online that they weren’t anticipating, through coded speech, in really difficult youth cultural ways. And they got less confident.

So we saw that as a win, because we corrected what we see as overconfidence, essentially. But it also taught us that that group of parents was never going to reach out to that resource on their own, because they didn’t think they need it. And so one of the things we’re trying to do, every partnership we engage in, every research project we do, every intervention we do have evidence associated with it. So we do agree to engage with the city, for example, and mayor’s office right now, but only if we’re allowed to pilot test and do pre and post testing and evidence. Because we really want commitment to transparency on all the measures. So we have our full reports, all of the instruments up and available, for example, on that whole SPLC study.

So we have found our video-based inoculations moved the needle, helped people be less persuaded by extremist propaganda. So I’m happy to share that. You can visit our website. I’ll drop it in the site. But there is some good evidence, including from our lab, about what works. But it doesn’t always work the same way for every person, I guess is what I would sum up.

FASKIANOS: That’s fantastic. And after this webinar we’ll send out the link to this video as well as links to Cynthia’s resources. So everybody, if you don’t get it in the chat we will circulate it, and anything that Farah wants to send out as well, because we want to disseminate good information and have you share it with your networks and in your communities.

So I’m going to go next to Thomas Uthup, who has raised his hand and also written his question. Tom, over to you.

UTHUP: Hi. Thank you very much for this discussion, which has been fascinating. Yes, my—it’s actually a two-part question. But before I say that I wanted to thank CFR, and Irina, and Professor Miller-Idriss, and Farah Pandith for this fascinating discussion. Professor Idriss, please say hi to Shamil for me.

Both of you have touched on the global element of this far-right extremism, but I wonder if you could elaborate a bit on the ideological, beyond the inspirational, direct inspiring Christchurch, and online connections between far-right groups across the world. I remember twenty years ago doing some research on one of the extremist groups in India, which actually duplicated the language used by Hitler in Mein Kampf, but sort of Hitler’s language about the Jews, these people just substituted Muslims. But everything else was exactly the same.

Also, one thing that has puzzled me is how the far-right groups in the U.S. seem to attract minorities. For example, Enrique Tarrio, at least to me, seems like a Hispanic leader of the Proud Boys. And you would think that that they would not find these kinds of groups attractive. And the same thing, I think Ali Alexander is African-American but born a Muslim. Thank you.

MILLER-IDRISS: Well, thank you, Mr. Uthup. I’ll try to answer these quickly. I’d love to hear Farah’s answer to these as well.

But on the second question, that gets to that issue of supremacisms and the intersecting supremacisms that I talked about, because one of the things we see is that we do have members of ethnic minorities joining groups across the far-right spectrum that are, in this case, ostensibly and officially not white supremacists, but are Western supremacists and misogynistic. And so you have groups that are attracting people based on the idea of anti-immigrant, or anti-Islam, or a Western civilizational rhetoric that  obviously is linked to white supremacy and white supremacist thinking, but is not officially—is a related form of extremism. And I think when you see that people are attracted to this supremacist kind of thinking in different expressions—and the far-right is a—includes a spectrum of those expressions that intersect and mutually reinforce each other, but don’t always come out in the same exact way—then I think it makes a bit more sense.

On the global question, I’ll just say that  there are a lot of things to say about that, about the global interconnectedness. But one of the things that’s happened over the last ten years or so that is really important at mobilizing white supremacist extremisms, is the emergence of a consolidated conspiracy theory called the great replacement, which united what had been an American-based conspiracy theory called white genocide with a European conspiracy theory called Arabia. This idea that different groups were responsible for it but that through demographic change and immigration there was the eradication of white civilizations or of European ones. That came together for complicated reasons that I’ve written about and can explain in depth another time, in something called the great replacement.

And that now has mobilized. And it enables basically—we’ve seen Jews be attacked for it, we’ve seen Muslims be attacked for it, we’ve seen Latinos be attacked for it. It enables the target groups to be diverse. Anyone who threatens white or Western civilizations is a target because through demographic change and immigration they’re seen as an existential threat. And then people are called upon to act heroically to thwart it. And I think that that’s really important, this idea that people are drawn for kind of positive reasons. And it sounds twisted. They believe they are engaged in a quest to make a real difference that is, even if they see themselves as martyrs, to inspire others.

And so that’s global, because it’s seen as a threat—at least, it’s global across Western civilizations—seen as a threat from immigration demographic change, this idea of a genocide or a replacement. They even will compare that, and have compared the experience of white civilizations, to Native Americans. That’s a frequent trope. I’ve heard it for twenty-five years, this idea that white civilizations are going to be forced onto reservations because immigrants will eradicate them, just as they did the Native American tribes. So we saw that in a recent manifesto of the terrorist in El Paso, for example. So those kinds of—that level of existential threat and fear is what’s at the root. But it’s global now, and in ways that have made it much more powerfully shared across online spaces.

I could go on, but I have to stop, I think, to—I really want to hear what Farah has to say about this as well.

PANDITH: I just want to add one small thread to the question about sort of—you’ve talked about your experience in India and taking Hitler and making it fit for what they want to do. And obviously—I just want to remind people that what we’re seeing right now in terms of the sophistication, if we can use that word, and savviness from these groups is really quite dramatic. It’s almost like a uniform that people use to sort of build that spirit. There is a—they share memes, they adopt memes. They’re looking at successful models to see what worked. As evil and horrible as ISIS was, they were really successful. (Laughs.) I mean, they were very successful. They got people from all over the world to come to the so-called caliphate. There was a look, there was a feel, there was an image, there was a whole thing all set up.

So even though you may not buy into the ISIS ideology, boy, you want to do what they did so that you can get their money, their organization, their look, their power. So you do see other kinds of groups going, OK, if they were doing it this way, or this was the way they recruited, this is the way they raised money. We’re going to do it too. So I think we—this goes back to my theme of understanding the complexity of the moment we are in today, alongside the most obvious things which are obviously the technology landscape has completely shifted everything. But there’s a financial piece also that I just want to highlight, because that is making it possible for this global movement—whatever it is—to be activated. They are not going to be able to do the work that they’re doing if they weren’t funded, and they were not organized in this way.

So I think that there are aspects to this that when people are looking at what the threat is and what’s coming, there are places to plug. And we could cut things off, if we were only to do it in a more strategic way, as opposed to sort of just analyzing it.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. We are at the end of our time. And I would ask each of you just to leave us with—and somebody put this in the chat, Zarrir Bhandara, that obviously religious leaders and clergy have a great responsibility. So what would you leave this group with as the top two things that they should be doing, or could be doing in their communities to help?

MILLER-IDRISS: Oh, hard question in thirty seconds or so. But I would say helping people to understand how they’re being manipulated by the persuasive extremist tactics, propaganda, and rhetoric—whether that’s the weaponization of youth culture, the positioning of the far-right as the counterculture to a triggered mainstream that can’t take a joke—as we often see happening online—or the scapegoating of immigrants, or the ways in which in every—we’re seeing the mainstreaming of extremist ideas and the normalization of some of those ideas come across in many more spheres of life. So there’s no longer just a destination. And I think it’s on the obligation—it’s the obligation of everyone in the mainstream to build resilience to it.

And that’s part of what it means to recognize that democracies are fragile, and that for a country that likes to think of itself as a beacon of democracy, it maybe is more of a shock to realize how fragile it is. But it’s all the more incumbent on all of us, I think, to understand that you can’t just defend democracy with force, but you have to do it with education. And that education starts in every community, including faith communities. So I think it’s on all of us to take this up in whatever small way we can. And it can feel overwhelming, and that you can’t do anything about it. But that’s the beauty of community-based resilience, is that every community can. So I think it’s actually an empowering moment for local communities to step up and really engage.


PANDITH: So I would just say that—yeah—there are three things I would say. The first is solutions are available and affordable right now. And you cannot feel like putting your hands up in the air, like what are we doing to do? I realize you can’t boil the ocean, but to Cynthia’s point you need to start small in your local community, this is how it matters. Two, you must—must, must, must—put the pressure on elected leaders to put this into their framework as a priority. We have an obligation as members of a society to be able to build the kind of societies that we want. There are more of us than there are of the extremists. So let’s use that power and do more.

And the third is, coalitions are our friend. And I think America has a great legacy of building coalitions to move things. And I think we are late to the game on hate and extremism. Everybody is fearful. We are a country that is a gun culture, so that—there’s an aspect of that as well, that if I go too far, I’ll be killed. There are requirements in terms of our own individual response to being an active actor in our community not to look away, and to do what we can do. So what Cynthia says about it takes all of us, that is my mantra. And I completely agree. Let us ask all of the members of community to put the red lines down on hate and extremism and build the communities that we want.

FASKIANOS: Well, thank you both. We could go on for hours but, unfortunately, we can’t because of time. And we appreciate the time that you’ve given us today and the work that you’re doing in this space, and to all of you for your questions and comments. As I said, we will send out a link to the video, to the resources that Cynthia and Farah have mentioned. You can follow Farah on Twitter at @farah_pandith and Cynthia at @milleridriss. So I encourage you to sign up for their tweets. And I also hope you will follow us at Twitter at @CFR_Religion. And please reach out to us at [email protected] with any suggestions of topics that you would like us to cover going forward.

We appreciate you both and all of you. So thank you very much.

PANDITH: Thank you.


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