Panelists discuss the film Stranger at the Gate and the threat of U.S. domestic terrorism, polarization, and political violence.
Stranger at the Gate is an Oscar-nominated short film produced by Malala Yousafzai. The film tells the story of an Afghan refugee family and their local mosque in Muncie, Indiana, who encounter a U.S. Marine with plans to bomb their community center.
PLEASE NOTE: CFR members are encouraged to watch Stranger at the Gate here.
AMOS: Thank you. Thank you, and welcome, everybody. This is a Council on Foreign Relations meeting. It’s entitled “The Threat of Domestic Terrorism in the U.S.: A Discussion of Stranger at the Gate.”
I’m Deborah Amos. I’m a professor of journalism at Princeton University, a member of the Council, and I’m your presider.
Let me tell you who we are talking to today: Colin Clarke, senior research fellow at the Soufan Center; Farah Pandith, adjunct senior fellow Council on Foreign Relations; Joshua Seftel, he’s the film director, maker of Stranger at the Gate; and George Selim, senior vice president, Anti-Defamation League.
I want to start with you, Joshua. I hope everybody’s had a chance to see this film. It’s really quite extraordinary. I wanted to ask how you met the major character, and how ordinary is he? How often do people like him change their mind?
SEFTEL: Thank you. And thanks for having me, Deborah. And I’ll start by saying that I first came across this story in a newspaper article. It was actually USA Today University Edition, which is somewhat obscure. And it’s articles that are written by college students. So the story wasn’t well known or widespread at the time. And I read about Mac McKinney and his transformation. I reached out to him and got to know him. And we were working on a project at the time called Secret Life of Muslims, where we were telling stories of American Muslim people and trying to share this stories in order to educate people. And Mac—we flew Mac to New York.
And I remember the first time I met him when were in this room together, I felt very uncomfortable initially. You know, you’re in a room with someone who was, you know, intending to commit mass murder. And the feeling—the feeling that one gets when you’re in a room with someone, initially at least, can be awkward. After a few minutes of talking, you know, I found that he was actually pretty normal, in many ways, and even was a warm person. And we got comfortable with each other.
But in terms of how common he is, I do know that—and I think others can speak to this better than I can—but I do—I have met a number of formers, is what they call themselves. Former skinheads. Some of them had committed murder, I think, in their times. But they’ve changed their ways and have become activists for peace. And there are several of them that—I’ve met a few of them and worked with one of them on a project a few years ago. So change does happen. I don’t know—I don’t have numbers on it. I think the other folks on the panel could speak to that better than I could.
AMOS: Yeah. Farah, you have been watching extremism for a long time. It’s a funny power that this film has to make the argument backwards. You know, usually when we’re talking about this we see a skinhead, we watch him, or her, do what they do. This is in the reverse. So you’re probably the better person to ask, how common is this? How common is it to become a former?
PANDITH: Well, I think the question about how common it is, is connected to what our perceptions are, you know, and who we think an enemy is, and who we think—what we think an extremist looks like. And I think we run into a lot of problems in America in terms of the stereotypes that we have. I mean, on the political side, you always hear people talking about how people are in their mothers’ basements doing something. And it’s, like, they’re at the Starbucks swishing their finger on a phone, right? It’s really this very strange thing that we’ve gotten—this pattern we’ve come into in America. Where, first of all, an extremist must be somebody who is not Christian, and must be somebody who is not white. It must be somebody—we have all these expectations.
And so what we’re seeing today, I think, Deb, is that what we—the uncommonness of this is uncommon for our own perceptions, not how—and I know Colin and George have stats that can sort of back up what we’re seeing with American extremist movements, who’s joining them, what age they are, what gender they are, how they’re formed. But I will tell you, over the trajectory of the years since 9/11, you know, we aren’t—our finger is not on the pulse of what it could be, what somebody might look like.
AMOS: Colin, that’s a very interesting point to make. We don’t know what somebody might look like. My career has been focused on Islamist terror, and this is very different. And I wonder if you thought Americans understood that there was now an internal domestic threat in this country from extremism.
CLARKE: Well, I think we’re still grappling with that as a nation as a whole. I think frankly, you know, after watching this film, which was excellent, and then taking notes, I think it’s clear we’re still dealing with the fallout from September 11, 2001, over twenty years ago. And we’re still really trying to come to terms with a lot of what happened there—you know, the poorly named global war on terrorism, some of the wrongs—the many wrongs perpetrated against Muslim communities in the United States and the West more broadly. And then we have this other really big inflection point, which is January 6.
And so we’re only, you know, several years removed from that, still, with the scholars, practitioners on this call, you know, coming to an understanding of exactly what happened, who was involved, you know, separating rhetoric from action, all the different levers there. Who’s being held accountable? And I think, you know, we’ve seen that with over a thousand people charged. However, none of the politicians that were providing some of the rhetorical support were. So, you know, this is very much a topic that’s in flux. And then, to boot, we’re grappling with how this impacts local communities, and then also some of our most venerable institutions, including the U.S. military.
AMOS: George, you work for an organization, Anti-Defamation. Are you taking this on? Do you have policies? Are you—do you find that you’ve figured out, you know, what the action is?
SELIM: Thank you, Deborah, for that question. And I would just kind of start by saying, you know, how important this artistic contribution is from Joshua. Like, the medium of short film is how, you know, different generations of young people today are consuming information. So this medium is so important, and the information packaged in it is so great. So thank you, Joshua, for that.
And Deborah, to your question, I would say that, you know, the ADL has been monitoring and tracking all forms of extremism for several decades. For more than forty years, ADL has collected and curated the most sophisticated and proprietary dataset on antisemitism in the United States which, to echo Farah and Colin’s point, is often referred to as the canary in the coal mine for all forms of extremism, right? Where there is an antisemitic incident—insert name of state, city, or geographic area, somewhere in the globe—there probably is some other form of bias and bigotry that’s a precursor to some larger kind of bubble happening.
And in summary, calendar year 2022, last year, was the highest year on record in more than forty years that ADL had recorded antisemitic incidents across the United States, all fifty states. So what we have here has been a slow burn over the past several decades, especially as Colin has referred to, going back to, you know, 9/11 and beyond. And as Farah has written about, and studied, and spoken about extensively—(off mic)—still catching up with the diagnosis of the problem. And I think Joshua’s film really helps put a narrow lens on at least one scope of the problem.
AMOS: Joshua, let me be then specific about your major character. There are a lot of Americans who served, went to Afghanistan, went to Iraq. You know, in the military, you—there are times when you have to shoot people, which he had to. Why was he radicalized? Was it simply his time in Afghanistan, or did something happen to him when he came home?
SEFTEL: Well, when I spoke to him he told me the story, which is in the film, about how he was struggling with the violence and the death around him. And he had to—he had to kill people in combat. And when he went to a superior and explained to them that he was struggling, they suggested that he try to think of his opponents on the battlefield as paper targets, and that that would make it easier for him to cope. And I think the intention there was to try to help him. But I think in the long run, that way of thinking generated a sort of dehumanization and a sort of level of hatred that grew.
And when he came back from combat I think in this case, and I don’t think this is true with every soldier. But in his case, he had trouble turning that switch off and, you know, he was watching a lot of Fox News. He told me he was watching things on YouTube. And that he was hardening his views during that time.
AMOS: What’s so interesting about his path is he clearly is a curious man. The fact that he was, you know, watching YouTube, the fact that he walked into a mosque and eventually was able, somehow, to accept a faith that wasn’t his own, it felt like it was an atonement. Was it?
SEFTEL: I think he was searching for something. I think he was searching for meaning. I think he was trying to find a way to ease the pain he felt. And when he was confronted by his eight-year-old daughter, who said to him—you know, essentially said to him: You’re crazy. What’s wrong with you? Why do you have so much hate in you? I think that was a little bit of a—made a little bit of a crack in his armor. And that’s when he went to the mosque. He said he went to find proof, to prove that what he was going to do, what he was planning to do—which was to blow up the mosque and commit mass murder—that he would be able to find proof that what he was planning to do was correct.
And in the process of doing that, he discovered these lovely people, who were the congregants of the mosque, who welcomed him in, and showed him kindness. And that over time would change him, because he was so surprised by it. But I believe that he was a little bit open to thinking differently. That he said he was looking for proof, but I think he was also looking for a reason not to do it.
AMOS: Farah, we’ve had this discussion—not lately, but we’ve had it—with Timothy McVeigh blowing up the Murrah building. And then our attention shifted overseas. Is it hard for us, as Americans, to look at ourselves as extremists? I mean, it’s time to have this discussion again but, you know, you’ve all said it’s been difficult. Why do you think that is?
PANDITH: Well, so can I make a point about what Josh just said and then answer?
PANDITH: One thing that I think is very important when we think about the journey that this gentleman took is that things did not just happen online or offline. There was a combination of both. And I think that’s extremely important because we’re humans. Things are complex. Our issues around identity and belonging, who we are. Josh talked about he was searching for something. Well, if you look at any former extremist and you go within this, they’re always talking about this search that they have. They want to belong. They want to feel kinship to something. They want to understand their identity.
And, you know, when George was talking about sort of what we’ve seen—and Colin too—like, post-9/11, and how we’ve tried to understand, we want to put the blame on a religion. We want to put the blame on something else that is really the spark that set this all off. So when you ask this question about us, Americans, the most diverse group of humans on planet Earth, with every religion represented, every heritage represented. And you’re asking us to look within and say: What is this ideology of us versus them? How is hate growing in our country? What is taking place in our nation that is so dissimilar at the scale that it is? It’s not that these things didn’t exist before, but the scale is unprecedented.
We’re having a hard time because we don’t—we haven’t been honest about the changes that have happened in our country, but online and offline. We haven’t listened to what younger generations are saying about what they see and how they perceive themselves. And really, to put a very clear message out there in terms of how we think about the other, there is so much anger and misinformation about what different faiths and different heritages mean and what they are, there’s a toxic mix in America right now.
So for me, when you ask this question it’s, like, what have we been paying attention to? We paid attention to the really horrific events, like the 9/11 and other things that are happening over there, because we think that we can evaluate things in a different kind of way, as opposed to taking that same analysis over the course of many decades and say, when you see—as George said—the indications, the canary in the coal mine, that the rise of antisemitism in our country, the rise of increased anti-Black hatred that is happening, can we put this together and understand that something very serious has taken shape? And it’s allowed the antibodies that we used to think we have, to actually deflate, so we see what we see today.
AMOS: Well, and it took a while, certainly in my case, to figure out who those people were on—you know, in January, attacking Congress. And as many of them have been arrested, it’s clear, boy, there was a lot of them from the military, from police departments, from the FBI, from the president’s security detail. I mean, it was astonishing to find, good God, there is a lot of extremism in institutions, people who have joined institutions that we usually trust. Should that have been more of a wakeup call than it has been?
CLARKE: Well, I think within certain sectors it has been a wakeup call. I think the DOD has actually done a really good job at recognizing that. Bishop Garrison and others, that put together that Counter Extremism Working Group in the aftermath of January 6, and really started to get into some of the factors and variables that lead folks down this road. But even that’s experienced tremendous pushback within our own political bureaucracy. They’ve now become targeted by folks in the GOP of saying, you know, you’re focusing on “wokeism” instead of, you know, the military. Even many of these same senators, frankly, were drooling over the Russian military’s recruitment videos saying, look, this is how we need to be. Well, how does that translate to battlefield cohesion? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
I will say, you know, I had the honor of being one of the outside reviewers of a recently published RAND study on extremism in the military by Todd Helmus and some others. And, like the individual that’s the focus of this film, veterans of the Marine Corps tended to express the highest support for extremist groups and beliefs among the different branches of the military service. And that’s not just far-right groups. It also includes antifa, Black nationalist groups, but then your typical far-right groups, including the Proud Boys. Also express the highest levels of support for political violence and the great replacement theory. You know, I’m a lifelong civilian, but I’m from a Marine Corps family. I say that with no judgement. It’s really, you know, kind of reporting on data from this study, and I urge folks to go and read it.
But I want to speak to something that Farah mentioned earlier, which is I, in some sense, feel some responsibility as an analyst and a researcher. Because I think back to late October 2018, when I was in my study in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania writing about Yemen and Somalia—you know, the bad things that happen out there—when literally down the street from my house at the Tree of Life Synagogue there was, you know, a far-right white supremacist who went to commit one of the most heinous acts of domestic terrorism in our history. And it was really only then that forced me to open my eyes to what was happening. So if folks that do this for a living, you know, have been kind of blinded by trends and different kind of topics, well, then of course the general public and even folks in Congress are.
You know, we’ve spent the last, you know, several years really sounding the alarms. And folks like George and Farah, even long before that, and you as well, Deb. So I think now there’s no excuse to say, well, we didn’t know that this was happening. It was really kind of percolating to the top. No. It’s here. It’s apparent. The question becomes how do we—how do we deal with it? And do we have the political will to marshal the resources necessary to bring in the expertise?
AMOS: So, George, that’s a question for you. Do we have the political will? Can we get rid of this notion that addressing extremism is wokeness?
SELIM: So that is an important question. But I want to actually split that question. I think political will suggests that there is a significant public sector governmental aspect to the solutions that the two previous comments, from Farah and Colin, suggested we are going down the path on. I want to introduce the fact that the phenomenon of radicalization to extremism to commit an act of violence, irrespective of the ideological origin—whether that’s Islamist in nature, or whether that’s white nationalist, white supremist, or of the left-wing variety that’s ecoterrorism or some other ideological basis for it—I would offer that the—irrespective of the ideological genesis of the ideology that promotes individuals or groups to commit acts of violence, what we need to be thinking about is not necessarily is there the political will, is Congress going to act, is now the time.
But rather, how do we create whole of community, whole of society, as well as public-private incentives, and structures, and ecosystems, to build this in place, right? When we talk about preventing something—whether it’s preventing obesity, or smoking, or the second-hand smoke phenomenon, or insert name of an issue that has plagued peoples, and society, and communities, it’s not just governments that take the action. Governments can convene, governments can call to action. But governments aren’t always the solution. And so I think, to Colin’s point on the DOD, the DOD has a very firsthand, front-row role in kind of vetting and evaluating the caliber of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.
However, when we think about Squirrel Hill, when we think about Tree of Life, when we think about the Boston Marathon bombing, when we think about—and I could insert name of a hundred other incidents here—it’s not just the public sector that has a role to play. It’s the private sector as well. And starting these conversations, convening them, and orienting them to a path to action, that’s where I think we are still in a very immature phase collectively as a nation, and where we need to further the conversation.
AMOS: Joshua, I was struck by the randomness of his visit. I mean, he could have gone up to a lot of mosques. He met two extraordinary people who welcomed him, who made him dinner. Who—you know, it was extraordinary how open they were to a guy, in my—I mean, you were scared of him a teeny bit when you first met him. I would have been. You know, he’s pretty gruff. And he’s a big guy. Is there something so random about—I mean, that’s why you make films when you find these events. But could he have walked into any mosque and had that happen? Or is this one of those extraordinary moments of coincidence?
SEFTEL: It’s hard to answer that question. I mean, I can tell you what Bibi Bahrami and Saber Bahrami and Jomo Williams told me when he walked into the mosque. Because, you know, he walked in and he was—he was scary looking. You know, he had—he was big, he had tattoos with a skull on his hand, and U.S. Marine Corps. And he didn’t look like he belonged there. And Bibi told me that her first reaction was fear. But she also told me that she looked to her faith. And her faith said, welcome the stranger and show them kindness. And that’s what all of them did. I don’t—I think—I think Saber was a little bit scared too. Mac’s a much bigger guy than he is. You know, but he—Saber’s the one that got down on his knees and hugs Richard’s legs.
And I think in a way he did that to signal you’re not in danger here. We are welcoming you. You’re welcome here. And, you know, that completely confused Richard, but in a good way, I think. The only one that was—said he wasn’t scared was Jomo Williams. He said—he was like—kind of like, eh, I could have handled it. (Laughs.) So, you know, everyone has a different reaction. But they all still showed him this kindness that I think stems from the roots of—and the core beliefs of Islam, which is, you know, welcoming a stranger and, you know, welcome people into the mosque. And—
AMOS: And most—I mean, you know, Christianity has that same sentence.
AMOS: That’s why most people who are working with refugees have that in their text.
Farah, can I ask you one question before we go to the audience? And that is, how important are formers as, I don’t know, part of the solution? Are they—first of all, you know, how do you know that they stay formers? But, B, do they have a message that’s important and needs to be integrated into what solution that there is to this?
PANDITH: Deb, you know, George and I go back a really long way. And in the Bush administration when we were trying to figure out how do we—how do we sort of develop a strategy on fighting the ideology of al-Qaida, at the time, right? How do we get narratives into the system, what George talked about in terms of the whole of society, the question that you asked about is this too political to get into? I mean, we were asking these questions on September 12, 2001. Like, how do we do this? We don’t have any road—you know, map. We don’t know what we’re doing. How do we stand up an effort? We knew how to do this during the Cold War. We don’t know what we’re doing now.
So the pieces of authenticity we understood as government, oh my gosh, the U.S. government has no legitimacy for jumping into this ideological fight. How are we going to do this? So what George said is really important. It’s a whole of society. Government has, of course, a role to play, but the public—the private sector, excuse me, and nonprofits, and philanthropists have a really important role to play, because they can scale up the things that we know need to be done with credibility and with authenticity. So this comes to the question of why what Josh did was so important in making this film. It was authentic. It was real. It was about narrative change—all the things we’ve been talking about since September 11.
So to your question about formers, what we understood in the Bush administration and was carried through to the Obama administration was that the most credible voices on planet Earth are not government and they’re not private sector. They’re former extremists, who can speak to you as real humans and say: Not only this is how I got recruited, why I got recruited, what sparked my interest, but this is why I left. This is what did it for me, and this is what—we have failed in taking the roles and the voices of former extremists and scaling them globally. Not just in our country, but around the world.
And in the Bush administration, when we developed this network called Against Violent Extremism, it wasn’t just former al-Qaida. It was former Shaabab. It was former neo-Nazis. It was former FARC. It was everybody that had walked away from that anger, and that hate, and that ideology of extremism. So my question to everyone, not just, you know, to all of us as we’re having this really important conversation, is what do we need to do to do more to scale these voices? Because now, all these two decades later, we understand how powerful it is to use a former extremist.
We don’t see the kind of money that should come forward to the NGOs that can do this kind of scaling. And how can we support filmmakers like Josh to do this kind of work? Because it’s so important to hear it not from government, and not from somebody who’s paid to do this, but somebody who is telling a story in a way that has an emotional reaction to the person who’s listening?
AMOS: Oh, Colin, I know we have one more minute, so—before we go to the audience—I bet you have something to say about this.
CLARKE: Well, you know, one of the things in the course of my career and research is I think we need to get—we’re exactly right to be talking about whole of community and whole of society, but they’ve almost become buzz-phrases. How do you actually implement that, right? It’s digging kind of beyond that surface-level understanding and getting into communities to talk about that. How do you build resilience? It’s not an immediate—it doesn’t come to mind immediately, but for me there’s a lot of connections here between this film and what I witnessed during the pandemic. And I’ll go into a little bit more detail, very briefly.
It talks to the importance of the role of community, of fellowship, of neighborhood connections and helping to kind of draw people out of extremism and radicalization. And for this individual, for Mac, it served as a healing mechanism. And I see this a lot with my work on conspiracy theories and QAnon. And I think in the United States we’re really missing those local connections. People often feel they have more in common with communities online than they do with their own neighbors, in some cases, you know, where they’re in these online communities focused on certain hobbies or interests. During the pandemic, I went back and I really revisited the work of Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone, right? Getting back to kind of those local roots, because that really resonated.
And to me, that’s what this is a story about, in many ways, is here’s this mosque in his own community, people that he thought that he would, you know, be justified in harming, who totally transformed his life and helped him heal. So where are those other opportunities that we’re missing where we’re not able to kind of connect people that are in this position with those types of opportunities. And I think, to me, that’s what was really eye-opening about this film, amongst several other things.
AMOS: OK. I’m going to turn it over to the audience. So at this time I’d like to invite CFR members and guests to join our conversations with their questions. This is on the record. I am told I must remind you of that again. The operator will remind participants how to join the queue—the question queue. You have to hit the question—the raised hand part. And when you do, we will take your questions.
OPERATOR: Excellent. Thank you so much.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
We will take our first question from Maryum Saifee.
Q: Hi. Thank you so much. Maryum Saifee. I’m a CFR life member and I also work at the State Department.
And I absolutely loved the film. I thought it was incredible, and so nuanced. And really appreciate this discussion.
My question is on the federal government and ways in which—you know, I work at the State Department, and you know, we’re—I think we’re struggling. The military is struggling with issues around extremism, even within our own ranks. And so, you know, we had an incident—there’s public reporting of incidents of swastikas etched in our elevators and a colleague who, you know, was proudly making antisemitic and other sort of racist remarks, like—and he’s a colleague, employed at the State Department.
So what can we do to sort of address some of these issues around extremisms within our own ranks, whether it’s State Department or elsewhere, because if we’re going to lead by example I think it destroys our credibility if we can’t sort of address these issues internally. So are there partnerships that we can build with others? And what can we do? To the group.
SELIM: So, Maryum, thank you for your question. And to the—to the point of the incident you mentioned of the swastika in the elevator at the State Department, as well as a number of other instances at State and across the executive branch, including at the DOD, ADL has been closely monitoring those incidents and has engaged with a number of senior officials.
I would just say that as we think about the catalogue of things that federal employees and service members have to get trained and accredited on, on a year-on-year basis, is your cybersecurity certification, if you’re a uniformed service member, SAPR or sexual assault training, sexual harassment training, federal civil servants, EEO, you know, there’s a whole catalogue of things you got to go through. Understanding the indicators and what to do about any form of kind of extremism needs to be part and parcel of what we do. Like, that’s how we normalize addressing this phenomenon. Both in government and the executive branch, as well as in the private sector. And this needs to be part and parcel of what we train employees to do.
I mean, keep in mind, it was—it was within recent memory, you know, the shooter at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. was a disgruntled, apparently, if I recall the details correctly, former federal contractor. So, you know, there is—there is ample reasons and evidence to show that within federal spaces, reasons to be more forward leaning than just active shooter training needs to be part of the toolbox of solutions that we have. Not just kind of shelter in place, or run, hide, fight. But also, how to see something and say something when it comes to extremism. That’s how we get ahead of the phenomenon.
PANDITH: Can I say one other thing? And nice to see you, Maryum. One of the things is how we think about who should join the public sector, or who should join a company. When you’re going through interviews and you’re learning about who people are, there’s nothing at all—either for political appointees, or for civil servants, or foreign service officers—on the character of the person. Who are they? How do they think about others? How does diversity hit you? What is important to you? And I’m not—I am simply saying that the training piece of critical, what George is saying. But that training also must happen as we are designing the kinds of employees that enter into our organizations.
CLARKE: Yeah, if I could just add briefly, I think we also need to update these training models and screening practices for modern times, right? It’s easy to come and see somebody with a swastika tattoo and say, oh, there could be a problem here. But I think with the kind of emergence of the alt-right and some of these kind of more tongue-in-cheek or meme-based types of extremism, it’s not always apparent to somebody that’s looking for these things what somebody means, or what these symbols could construe. And so I think having an understanding—and ADL does a great job of this, with this kind of glossary of hate terms and symbols. So they have their finger on the pulse. But does that kind of extend throughout the bureaucracy country-wide through the local, state, federal level? I think we kind of need to be a bit more creative in envisioning that, right? And that doesn’t even get into all the things that the military should and could be screening for.
SEFTEL: Well, I can sort of speak to the film specifically and what’s been happening with it. For us, some of the more exciting things that have been happening is that the film is now being distributed by a group called Facing History and Ourselves, which reaches—more than a hundred thousand teachers use—will use the film as curriculum in middle schools and high schools across the United States. And so the idea that we can educate younger people with these stories gives me some hope.
The other thing that was perhaps the most exciting—one of the most exciting things that happened—probably the most exciting was getting nominated for an Academy Award. But up there was the—was the discovery that Joe Rogan was speaking about our film on his podcast. And he wasn’t just speaking about the film, he was speaking about Bibi Bahrami, and her heroism. And he was talking about a woman in hijab who was a hero to him. And for us to hear Joe Rogan speaking that way was a win. You know, he has a huge audience. He’s reaching the kinds of people that we hoped to reach with this film. And so little things like that give me hope that change is possible.
PANDITH: Deb, can I make a comment about that? One of the things—first of all, Facing History and Ourselves is a phenomenal NGO. And I’m so glad that they’re using your film as a tool—an education tool, Josh. But one of the pieces that was so profoundly important to me as I watched this is that it was an insight to what an American mosque looks like. It was diverse. You had people from all heritages and walks of life in that—in that mosque. And I think that for a lot of—a lot of people, they don’t know the diversity of Islam, and they don’t know American practitioners of Islam. So it was really—the levels of education in that film are quite deep, actually, and very important for us to understand, because we aren’t teaching each other about each other in ways that are nuanced or compassionate, frankly.
AMOS: OK. Operator, next question.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Sareer Fazili.
Q: Good afternoon. And thank you very much for allowing me to participate. My name is Sareer Fazili. I have been honored to sit in on some CFR meetings as a part of a couple of nonprofits I’ve been on.
In discussing your engagement with the formers, as you call them, and trying to bring them what sounds like more mainstream, and to show them the way, is any thought given or any study given towards the reason or reasons behind their turn to extremism, in however that term is being defined? Does any of their potential political ideology, whether it’s about matters concerning international politics—Palestine, Kashmir—does that give them any basis from which to move forward if anybody thinks that their political ideology needs to be addressed in a fair and efficient manner?
AMOS: Any of you?
CLARKE: I think I’m not sure I understand the question, frankly.
AMOS: I think what he’s asking is, you know, do we—do we get people before they become extremists? How do we do that? I’m not sure how we do that. But is that—am I characterizing that question correctly?
Q: Yeah. What I’m trying to understand is, is there any study or is there any conclusions that you all have drawn that have shown that with any kind of a reasonable addressing of the underlying grievance or grievances that may push people to these extremist behaviors and actions, do you feel that they have had either reason for being extreme or if they were more politically engaged from the beginning would we have avoided creating and seeing these extreme positions that they take?
SELIM: Deborah, if I may—and Colin and Farah, please weigh in if you feel otherwise—while I don’t have a study to quote you offhand at this moment, I’ll refer back to, you know, part of the study that Colin mentioned earlier and just the body of work from Todd Helmus at the RAND corporation, that’s, you know, one of the best bodies—in fact, the best body of work and scholarship that I’ve seen on any of these topics in North America. He’s a great researcher, and he’s done a ton of great studies on this work.
But I would just say anecdotally, as someone who’s interviewed incarcerated terrorists both in the U.S. and abroad, if it’s not—if Israel and Palestine made peace tomorrow, there’s going to be a new grievance that someone says, well, look at the way that North African Muslim migrants in Europe are being treated, and the lack of citizenship attainment that they have. Or, what about the Uighurs. Or what about some other issue? Or, if you’re a white nationalist in the United States, well, OK, we’ve put in place, you know, a wall across the southern border, but there’s still, you know, migrants that are working in different parts of my state, my city, my country.
So my sense is that there’s always going to be something. Addressing the substantive policy issue is not a solution. It’s a cover for a warped ideology to begin with. So I put less stock in that the policy solution will lead to substantive reduction of political violence, and that there is always something that’s going to replace that. But, Colin and Farah, tell me if you disagree.
CLARKE: No, I wholeheartedly agree. And, I mean, you can look at the case of Dylann Roof, for example, right? This is somebody that was consuming vast amounts of mis- and disinformation online. I think, you know, starting with digital literacy. How do we know if what we’re reading is actually real, getting into, you know, the educational deficiencies in this country. We’ve seen it with Holocaust education mainly, that people aren’t learning about it till much later. They’re spending far less time than I spent on, you know, learning about the Holocaust when I was young. And kids are learning history through memes today. And that’s why they find things funny that we would find egregious. And they’re then passing that on.
The other piece I would say, where I think we’re particular deficient, and I spent—you know, for transparency, I was at RAND myself for ten years. And I think the areas in P/CVE where we fall short are—and, you know, it’s for good reason. These are really hard nuts to crack. It’s measurement, it’s assessment, and it’s evaluation, right? How do we force ourselves to be more rigorous in understanding the data and the outcomes that those data are tied to, to get a sense of what’s working and what’s not, right? Again, we talk about best practices and lessons learned all the time. But unless those are tied to, you know, outcomes that are measured properly within a rigorous analytic framework, they become anecdotes. They become one-offs. And it’s much difficult to convince people that this is a program that we should follow, right? Or this is an area that needs more funding and more resources.
PANDITH: Can I just jump in? I obviously agree with both George and Colin, but, Sareer, I want to say a couple of things about the work that we all have to do on solving global problems, right? We obviously have to be talking about challenging foreign policy situations. But what we—what we have seen, as George articulated very well, is that even if it went away tomorrow, the thing that you’re fighting about—Kashmir, the Uighurs, Israel-Pal, whatever the issue happens to be—there will always be another dimension of this. But one thing that we haven’t yet talked about is who’s instigating the—who’s stirring the pot to say that you need to be looking at this particular issue in a particular way? Who is spoon-feeding potential recruits to teach them how to think in that way?
And I think it is extremely important the connection between what you’re talking about in terms of foreign policy excuses, if I can use that word—and you know I don’t mean it that way; I care about some of the issues that I’ve just raised—but it’s that there are—there’s funding, there’s organization, and there’s an incentive of people and groups to actually recruit, build ideological soldiers. And so you are going to use whatever you can available to you to get people to come see things your way. And I think when we talk about how we deal with these ideologies and how people get recruited, it has to be included in that how we’re going after the sparks of how people do learn about particular issues in a particular way.
AMOS: I wanted to ask all of you, you know, we have in America a long history of extremism. I grew up, you know, with these groups—Posse Comitatus in Oregon, black helicopters. And it is—somehow, it is part of us. But now it is turbocharged. And is it, Farah, because there are people who want to recruit and there’s social media? Or is it something else?
PANDITH: It doesn’t have to be one or the other. I would say that it’s a lot of things happening all at once. When we were looking at, you know, where terrorist groups—to use very definite organizations, as opposed to sort of the larger sort of bleed that’s out there now—we were going after, where are they raising their money? How are they getting their money? How are they sending their messages out? That’s a very traditional way of looking at things. When you’re looking at the emotional pull that’s happening around the world, and in our country, where everything online and offline are all activated at once, where ideologies in one part of the world are connected to how somebody acts in another part of the world, it’s multifaceted, right?
So I think that what we have to be looking at is a solution set that includes all the things all of us have been talking about. And Colin said, I mean, it is hard. Of course it’s hard. It’s complex and it’s difficult. But I want to go back to the thing that you said and ask us, which is: You know—you didn’t say it this way—but why are we still failing the way we’re failing? Why are things so bad? And it isn’t just because it is politically dangerous for certain people to get out there and talk about it. But it’s because we’ve been, A, lazy on hate and, B, there hasn’t been the kind of will from actual people who are not in government to say: This isn’t us. We don’t want to be dealing with this today.
Because if we got that change, you would see changes in the way people fund NGOs, how we think about things, how we educate. I’m not Pollyanna here. I don’t think that there’s a switch that we can turn. But I think generationally, Deb, that Gen Z and Gen Alpha have an opportunity to grow up differently than all of the generations that are after them.
CLARKE: I totally agree with that. And I think, you know, to add a layer to that, right, it’s extremely complex. And then in some cases, it’s very straightforward. And I’ll give you one data point. Sometimes the answer is we still live in a very racist country. And after Barack Obama was elected president, we had a fourfold increase, according to Bruce Hoffman’s research, in people joining militia groups, because there was a Black president who people feared was going to come and take away their guns, right? So there you go. I mean, at the heart of this are these kind of undercurrents—these very ugly undercurrents. We want to look for all of these other things. Why could this be happening?
Well, we really have done a poor job at addressing some of the root causes that lead to people wanting to join a militia group in the first place. So I think, you know, we have to sometimes take a step back and look at those. But, as Farah mentioned, Gen Z, Gen Alpha, you know, I was a college professor at Carnegie Mellon for a number of years. And I think, you know, Gen Z takes a lot of heat, right? They’re soft. They’re snowflakes. They’re fragile. And, you know, what about the empathy that this generation puts forward? I mentioned this in a commencement address. I’ve never seen a more empathetic generation, right? And we can pick apart everybody’s, you know, generation of what they did right and wrong. But I mean, really I think they see the world in a much different way. And there’s a lot of promise there, if we can kind of harness that.
SEFTEL: Can I just add? There was a book that one of my friends wrote, John Della Volpe. It’s called Fight: How Gen Z is Channeling their Fear and Passion to Save America. And it’s—he’s a pollster at the Kennedy School. And much of what he wrote about in that book is stat—is based on statistics. But it’s a really interesting take on Gen Z. And hearing about the message of the book really actually gave me hope about the future, because of what he’s discovered through the polling stats he’s gathered.
AMOS: Can we have the next question, operator?
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Rachel Robbins.
Q: Thank you. This has been a great discussion and a great film.
A number of you talked about the important role for local communities and for former extremists, who can be much more effective than governmental efforts. And I’m familiar with the work of ADL and Facing History. And it’s great to hear that they’re using this film. But can you talk about examples of either local communities or other NGOs that have made headway in this area? A number of years ago I hear about a Minneapolis effort to deradicalize youth. I don’t know how successful that has been. I haven’t followed that. But, you know, is that a good example? What are some other examples of things that have been working that can be scaled? Thank you.
AMOS: Any of you?
SELIM: I’ll kick off and ask my colleagues to weigh in. So, Rachel, thank you for your question. In the Obama administration, prior to my role at ADL, at the White House and at Homeland Security in previous roles that I held there, we initiated pilot programs in Boston, in Minneapolis, and in Los Angeles, to really address the core local level of this work, to put in place comprehensive prevention structures. Those had varying degrees of success, which were largely either slowed or completely distracted during the Trump administration.
And during the Biden administration there’s been a varying degree of resurgence in focusing on local efforts. I know there’s the National Conference of Mayors, which ADL works very closely with, has prioritized prevention within the office of a mayor or within mayoral structures across the country. And there’s a better partnership between resources available at the federal level and policy strategies and priorities that mayors across the country are given.
And so I think in many ways Minneapolis has varying degrees of success. I don’t think you can look at it as one program and measure ins and outs. But there are various aspects of Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Boston, and a whole host of other cities—Fairfax County, Virginia, different parts of Texas and Florida—that I could kind of name anecdotal pieces and parts. But the problem is, no one city has this all, you know, knitted together very neatly. There are different aspects of a job, a description, a person, a grant, an NGO, a couple NGOs that work together with a person that’s in a mayor’s office or in a governor’s office. So it’s really a very kind of spread out collection of successes. And I think part of the evolution in this space is being able to tell the story comprehensively.
PANDITH: Can I just jump in for a second? And, Rachel, I’m so glad you asked that question. George was very diplomatic in answering that. I want to be not as diplomat. When you’re asking a former extremist to come forward and share their very personal narrative, they’re exposed in a way that is obviously public, but also scary. And you’ve got to have the kind of infrastructure in place to allow these people to do what it is we want them to do. They’re not robots. We can’t—and I’m not suggesting you’re saying that that’s—but think about the actuality of asking these people to tell their story, to use their narrative, to go into classrooms, to go into community centers, to all the things that we want them to do. So that there’s a wide breadth of ways in which they can distribute their experience.
And we have not seen the kind of money to come towards the NGOs that do this kind of work and use former extremists to help. And these people have to think about their families as well. I mean, if they’re going to do this during the day, they need to get paid for it. They need to be able to make a living. And I think we had this very cute idea in the beginning that, you know, people are just going to do it because it’s important. Well, you got to pay the bills. (Laughs.) You got to feel safe. So how do we do this in a way—we know that that is the best possible tool in our toolbox. But we have nothing to give these former extremists to protect them, to make them feel like they can do this, and to scale their work in the way that I’ve just described.
So we’re facing a very difficult challenge in this. And it’s not just a government problem, frankly. It’s also, I mentioned philanthropists earlier, where are the philanthropists? Why are they not spending money on NGOs that are doing this important work, or going to filmmakers like Josh. And he hasn’t paid me to say this to you, but I’m being really practical in terms of the things that we run into when we know that we have a solution here but we can’t deploy it, because of what I’ve just described.
AMOS: So, Joshua, you’re the best to speak to this on a personal level. How does McKinney do it? And does he get paid in any way?
SEFTEL: Yeah. I think a number of these guys, of the formers, are working in this way, as speakers. And in McKinney’s case, he’s—I would say he’s—I think he’s doing one or two talks a week. Largely, he’s speaking to mosques, which maybe isn’t—I think that can do some good, but I don’t think maybe that’s the really tip of the spear. I think he is getting his message out. Obviously, like, the film in some ways is more effective, because it’s been seen by two million people. And so I think, you know, films like this could have maybe a broader impact. And, you know, like, even our—one of our producers on the film, his stepfather was a—hated Muslims. And when he saw the film, he changed his mind. And now he’s showing the film to all his friends, who have—who were likeminded with him. And he’s trying to change their minds. But, yeah, I think—I think these guys are out there. Maybe there just needs to be a more coordinated effort to get these kinds of messages from formers out into the world.
AMOS: And, Colin, why do you think that there is not more philanthropy backing this, government programs backing this? Are we just late in addressing it?
CLARKE: Sad to say, I think it’s become politicized in many ways, right? It’s become synonymous with being woke, and that’s seen to be unappealing in certain sectors. Much in the way, you know, the pandemic was politicized in a way that it never should have been. And, you know, wearing a mask became, to some people, virtue signaling, versus not wearing it. So, you know, we’re in such a highly partisan, polarized state that all of these things now become political issues, when they really should be American issues, right, or human issues. And I’m not trying to be too, you know, corny here, but these really are at their core human issues.
And in particular in this country, the legacy of 9/11, now the legacy of 1/6, we have to look beyond these labels that everyone puts on each other. And I think there’s a lot of people that could do a lot of good with their money if they were able to kind of view it through similar terms, and not this is trying to, you know, make anybody woke or—just the whole concept around it. It’s really become almost—it’s just a cliché, right? We kind of throw it out there without defining it. So, sadly, it’s fallen victim to a lot of other serious public policy issues and gone down into that kind of hyper-partisan realm.
AMOS: OK. We’re going to do a lightning round here. We’re going to squeeze in one more question. Everybody has to be quick. So, question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Chip Pitts.
Q: Well, it’s great to hear this. Congratulations on the film, Joshua. It’s great to hear the scale you’re having, with a hundred thousand teachers, 2 million views. I’ve already shared it widely with just about everybody I know.
My question relates to this, you know, how-to-scale issue that’s come up and some of the wise comments that everyone has made that I heartily agree with. But I do think we need to figure out ways—you know, I’m working with the OICD, for example, Organization for Identity and Cultural Development. Bottom-up in various countries, including the U.S., to try to overcome those political issues that you just mentioned, Colin. But I think it’s clear that we need institutional-level leadership, systemic change, including legal and normative reforms.
So my question is, any final ideas on scaling? Can the Council, in collaboration with others, for example, host something on this? Can we have an administration summit on this, where we get the unlikely suspects—you know, those who consider these efforts woke—to come together and have a real face-to-face dialogue with them, so they can have the transformation of consciousness that Mac had this wonderful film?
AMOS: OK, everybody, but quickly.
CLARKE: I’ll leave the how-to to the others. But I would just, you know, reiterate your point and say that I think this is something that is completely necessary. We need to scale it up. And it’s got to be beyond preaching to the choir, right? We all agree with various elements of this. How about the people who we disagree with? How do we bring them into the fold?
AMOS: Anybody else?
PANDITH: Chip, I wrote a whole book on this. It’s called How We Win. So I’ll leave it there, OK?
AMOS: (Laughs.) All right. And Josh and George, one last comment.
SELIM: Josh, I’ll leave the last comment to you. I’ll just say that in the same way that corporate structures today have ESG and various DEI elements, part of this conversation needs to be part of what corporate America is thinking about and implementing on a day-in and day-out basis.
AMOS: Josh, last word.
SEFTEL: Sure. I think, to start, we can share the film. It’s on YouTube. And it does seem to change people’s minds. So that’s a place to start.
AMOS: Thank you, everybody, for joining today’s virtual meeting. Thanks to our speakers. It was a great conversation. Please note that the audio and the transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on the Council on Foreign Relations website. Thank you, everybody.