A local strategy for countering violent extremism

A local strategy for countering violent extremism
© Getty Images

Just 19 minutes before a gunman shot and killed 20 people at an El Paso Walmart on Friday, he posted a personal manifesto called “The Inconvenient Truth,” on 8chan. In it, he references the familiar nationalist “Great Replacement Theory” that inspired Brenton Tarrant, the Australian man who killed 51 people at a Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. A day later, America woke up to the news of yet another shooting in Dayton, Ohio that left nine people dead and 27 others injured.

Once again, we sit in the aftermath of an ideologically motivated act of violence and ask ourselves the same questions, “When will it stop? Why is this happening? And most importantly, how can we stop it?”

After the El Paso shooting, Texas now lays claim to four out of the top 10 deadliest shootings in United States history. While Texas may be a hotbed of mass shootings, it may also hold the answer.

ADVERTISEMENT

Harris County in Texas is the third largest county in the country, and at 4.6 million people, it is larger than 25 states. The county includes Houston, which is considered a microcosm of the diversity of the United States. This diversity means that what is successful in Houston can be successful anywhere. And through our work in the most diverse city in the United States, we’ve found that while political fixes can bring temporary relief, we need to implement structural societal programming that addresses the most nebulous piece of violent extremism — online radicalization to violence.

The first step is to change our perspective on radicalization. Far too often we silo the conversation about violent extremism in a political or law enforcement bucket focused on extremist groups and their ideologies. Instead, we should look at radicalization to violence not from the lens of the recruiter, or hate groups, but through the lens of communities looking to protect vulnerable people in their midst. Local communities are our best defense against radicalization.

By shifting to a protection and prevention paradigm, we can bring in broader sectors of the community to the fight against violent extremism. When we view this issue through the lens of protection, we start to notice some trends. The individuals who gravitate toward violent extremist ideologies tend to have similar emotional vulnerabilities.

Whether they are white nationalists, violent Islamist extremists, or even gang members, young, mostly male, individuals begin searching for ways to address an emotional need.

If the communities they live in do not offer solutions, they will seek them out online. Often, these emotional vulnerabilities stem from a need for community, a search for identity, or ways to deal with an emotional crisis or trauma.

ADVERTISEMENT

Second, we need to make sure that individuals who have those emotional vulnerabilities and are seeking out ways to cope find content that provides help when they’re emotionally vulnerable.

What we’ve found through our work in Houston, is that any long-term solution cannot be isolated to law enforcement alone. Law enforcement does a tremendous job at dealing with issues after we fail to solve them. But we must find a way to fix these problems before it gets to this point.

Solutions must be firmly grounded in a framework that involves addressing the link between emotional health and vulnerability. Specifically, we need to focus programming on building emotional health resilience for the vulnerable in our communities.

In Houston, we have implemented this. Houston Building Resilience is a training program funded by a Department of Homeland Security grant for mental health professionals and community leaders on how to talk about extremism in their own communities. By tackling extremism from a modular approach, and showing the parallels between far-right extremism, violent Islamist extremism and gang recruitment, Houston has been able to begin to develop an effective way of bringing awareness of this issue. Recognizing the need for emotional health resources, Houston has a dedicated crisis hotline with trained counselors to talk to individuals who are going through an emotional crisis.

Protecting people from extremist recruitment is completely dependent maintaining the emotional health and resiliency of our local communities. The conversations around extremism should be happening locally and often. What we fail to understand is that if we aren’t the ones talking about violent extremism and the underlying issues driving it, we are allowing hate groups to set the agenda.

Mustafa Tameez is a former Department of Homeland Security adviser and an expert on countering violent extremism.