Editor’s Note: Farah Pandith is an expert and pioneer in countering violent extremism, former senior US diplomat (most recently Special Representative to Muslim Communities), an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and sits on the board of scholars of Facing History Ourselves and on the US board of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. She is the author of “How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat.” Jacob Ware is the research associate for counterterrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion at CNN.
As another anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks approaches, we are reminded of how far we’ve come in the fight against global terrorism. Al Qaeda’s devastating blows 19 years ago targeting America’s political, economic, and military summits turned us into a more vigilant nation, determined to prevent any future attacks against the homeland.
In these intervening years, we have largely kept our communities secure against the threat of mass violence from afar, in part by killing terrorist leaders like 9/11’s mastermind Osama bin Laden and the so-called Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
But the anniversary also reminds us that the threat against America today is no less serious than it was in 2001. A steady drumbeat of violence continues – just enough to ensure that our society never quite feels completely safe. Now, it has metastasized to include an alarming amount of evil actors within.
While the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations has expanded to 69, from the 29 listed two decades ago, we are facing additional threats from a fast-growing list of domestic groups, posing an extremist danger that has already left a trail of victims, from El Paso to Pittsburgh.
Looking forward, demographic and societal trends are not in our favor. Political divisions have hardened both here and abroad, giving extremists new ground for recruiting from among millions of Gen Z and Gen Alpha youth who spend unprecedented amounts of time online and alone – one recently identified neo-Nazi leader was just 13. And such trends are only exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Yes, we have largely managed threats against the nation and minority groups within, including Blacks, Jews and Muslims. But we have not vanquished them. Understanding why and how extremist ideologies attract so many is essential to stopping them, and it requires leadership, a focused approach, adequate resources and political will. Before the next threat turns lethal, America must commit to a coordinated multi-sector effort with the goal of dramatically reducing the number of those who are joining the ranks of extremists. With no “hate soldiers,” extremism can’t thrive.
So, what can be done?
An all-hands approach to develop anti-hate strategies: Leading from the front, the federal government should develop a comprehensive strategy to fight hate, with the effort focusing on countering Us vs. Them ideologies. The US government must work on marginalizing those who engage in hate speech, with better intervention efforts to protect young internet users and people with mental disorders, common in terrorist incidents that are perpetrated by, for example, White supremacists and “incels,” who are vulnerable to extremist recruitment online. This would include rethinking how we teach history, civility and religion through organizations like Facing History and Ourselves, where one of us sits on its board of scholars, which promotes education efforts that examine bigotries of the past to deny them a future. A whole-of-society approach – an Anti-Hate Marshall Plan – is critical to changing the cultural ecosystem from which identity and belonging stem.
Sweeten the deal for tech companies to join the fight: The frontline of the war against terrorism is now Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, TikTok, WhatsApp, and other private sites. Tech companies have largely failed to effectively fight extremism, and recruiters continue to use them to radicalize vulnerable young Americans. Ad boycotts targeting Facebook for its lax speech moderation in the wake of the George Floyd protests forced the issue, but insufficiently. Congress needs to develop more carrots, like tax incentives, to drive hate speech off social media platforms, or conversely, institute penalties for complacency. Either way, invitations to extremist activity need to be shut down.
Criminalize “domestic terrorism”: America’s largest domestic counterterrorism weakness, the lack of legislation to prosecute domestic terrorists, is a twofold nightmare: Optically, it reinforces the message to Black, Muslim and other minority communities that violence perpetrated by them is prosecuted more vigorously than violence perpetrated by White assailants – even though Whites are responsible for the greater number of domestic lone offender terrorist incidents. Legally, far-right extremists, who tend to be White, typically receive shorter sentences for similar crimes, according to a study by George Washington University and the Anti-Defamation League. It’s time for new tools to equalize prosecution and punishment with no regard for ethnic status.
Restore alliances and cooperation: Our counterterrorism efforts since 9/11 have succeeded because of international partners who share intelligence, coordinate operations, and provide military support for costly overseas wars. Successful counterterrorism requires truly global partnerships, involving countries as small as Trinidad and Tobago and as large as India. It also requires new partnerships with allies similarly fighting the rising transnational far-right, like Germany.
Scaling, coordinating and reinforcing best practices: The Western counterterrorism bureaucracy post-9/11 has been built upon the parallel tracks of US government organizations, including the Department of Homeland Security and National Counterterrorism Center, and less-heralded nonprofits that are tackling hate and extremism, like EXIT Germany, an organization running interventions among the far-right, and the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, of which one of us sits on the US board, an international NGO using data-driven solutions to fight radical polarization. Government needs to scale up both tracks with financial support and expertise so they work in concert to minimize gaps in vigilance and ensure we are ahead of threats, whether they are White supremacist groups, the next generation of so-called Islamist terrorism — or even a resurgence of left-wing radicals or all-women armies.
The global spread of the coronavirus has provided one important, traumatic reminder of 9/11: It showed once again the tragedy of ignoring the warning signs. When it comes to the terrorism landscape, alarm bells are still ringing, warning of far-right and anti-government extremism at home as well as extremist activities abroad. As Elizabeth Neumann, assistant secretary for threat prevention and security policy at the Department of Homeland Security, recently testified in Congress, “It feels like we are at the doorstep of another 9/11 – maybe not something that catastrophic in terms of the visual or the numbers – but that we can see it building, and we don’t quite know how to stop it.”
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Terrorism has become an intractable part of our lives and an ever-present threat. Meeting it will require bolder and braver leadership and ambitious new cooperation strategies. We owe nothing less to those we’ve lost over the last 19 years.