Eyes on ISIS

Eyes on ISIS
© Greg Nash

Lorenzo Vidino knows violent radicals — personally. The 38-year-old Italian academic has “longstanding” relationships with some jihadists, he said, as part of his 15 years in the study of radicalization and violent Islamism in the West.

“I think it’s crucially important,” he said in an interview with The Hill last week, which took place in his office on George Washington University’s (GWU) campus overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue. “How do you study a certain phenomenon if you don’t talk to the people inside it, whether they are former or whether they are still radicals?

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“I think it’s the right thing to do. It gives you good perspective.”

In June, Vidino opened the doors to GWU’s program on extremism, a new project that he hopes will help fill in some of the gaps about understanding why people radicalize and decide to follow a violent ideology — be it radical Islam, right-wing movements or anything else.

“To put in from a market point of view, supply and demand, there’s a lot of demand for [a program on extremism] — whether it’s government interested in having academic research done on it, whether it’s the media — there’s a lot of demand, not a lot of supply,” Vidino said in his accented baritone.

Of late, there’s been particular interest in the work of jihadist groups, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), following last month’s deadly terror attack in Paris, which killed 130 people.

More recently, last week’s terror attack in San Bernardino, Calif. — which may have been inspired by ISIS, if not directed by the group — has only further raised the alarm about the group’s ability to trigger attacks far beyond the borders of its self-proclaimed caliphate in the Middle East.

The couple allegedly responsible for killing 14 people and injuring 21 “had gone down the dark path of radicalization, embracing a perverted interpretation of Islam that calls for war against America and the West,” President Obama said in a rare address from the Oval Office on Sunday evening.

“As groups like ISIL grew stronger amidst the chaos of war in Iraq and then Syria — and as the Internet erases the distance between countries — we see growing efforts by terrorists to poison the minds of people like the Boston Marathon bombers and the San Bernardino killers,” Obama added, using an alternative acronym for ISIS.

There are “a million different reasons” why someone might one day snap and decide to take up arms against innocent people, Vidino said. “It’s a very complex and individualized process — you don’t have one cookie-cutter model.”

“To be a full expert on radicalism, one should have PhDs in psychology, sociology, theology, security studies, international relations, whatever,” he added.

“But I think, really, it’s psychology that’s extremely important,” he maintained, since the decision, often times, is so personal.

Even if the precise formula for radicalism remains unknown, certain patterns are becoming clear, he said.

Last week, Vidino’s program released an analysis of the 71 people indicted on charges related to ISIS. The report found “unprecedented” support for jihadism in the U.S. right now, compared to any time since Sept. 11, 2001.

In part, that spike has been aided by the Internet and social media streams that have allowed people from all over the globe to communicate directly with — and be indoctrinated by — radicals half a world away.

Law enforcement officials have also been quick to blame the proliferation of encryption technology in the years since government whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks, which have blocked their ability to peer into communications sent by jihadist recruiters to susceptible targets in the West.

Radical Islamism dominates most of the headlines about extremism, but Vidino insists that his program is not limited to adherents of ISIS, al Qaeda or similar groups.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is see the similarities in the radicalization process of people that become extremists on any kind of extremist ideology,” he said. “So the jihadist, the right wing.”

According to data compiled by the New America Foundation, more Americans have been killed by right-wing extremists — including white nationalists and followers of “sovereign citizen” movements who reject government control — than by Islamic extremists in the years since 9/11.

In many ways, xenophobic extremists and Islamic radicals help spur each other’s narratives, Vidino claimed.

“The extreme right, stoking fears about Muslims and so on, that creates, obviously, a chilling effect and a polarizing effect and a radicalizing effect on parts of the Muslim community,” he said. “And parts of the Muslim community being radical, that [is] being used by the right.”

“They’re the best allies,” Vidino added. “It’s a mutually reinforcing process.”

Vidino has traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Europe since he developed an interest in radical Islamism 15 years ago.

His hometown of Milan was “an interesting hub” of radicalism before 9/11, Vidino said, when hundreds of foreign Muslim fighters traveled to Bosnia following the breakup of Yugoslavia.

“Twenty years ago, if you wanted to go to Bosnia to be a foreign fighter, you went through a mosque in Milan,” he said. “The guy who was the emir of the foreign fighters in Bosnia was the imam of the mosque in my neighborhood in Milan.”

Vidino’s office at GWU reflects the transatlantic split, with alternating pictures of Milan’s famous Duomo and classic Americana.

That perspective has helped his work, he says. While the U.S. has devoted extensive resources to stopping terrorism since 9/11, some strategies are less evolved than their European counterparts.

The technique of countering violent extremism — which aims to nip radical tendencies in the bud, before people turn to violence — has been widely employed in the United Kingdom and other countries for nearly a decade. In the U.S., however, it’s only now becoming a focus of the federal government.

“Here, compared to the U.K., it’s seven, eight years behind the U.K.,” Vidino said. “Not because the Brits are smarter, they just started it earlier.

“Let’s learn form the British experience: the good, the bad.”

Some human-rights advocates worry that foreign efforts to stop radicalism have turned all Muslims into targets of government monitoring.

Vidino’s program is interested in exploring successful strategies, he said, along with continued work on right-wing extremism and constant investigation of ISIS followers in the U.S. His program is also working on an effort to compile narratives from former extremists of all types to understand the similarities in their stories.

“We just started,” Vidino said. “Everything we’ve been doing so far has been well received, but we really just started. And we’re small.

“The idea is to, ideally, grow.”