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An Evolving Threat Landscape: Composite Violent Extremism and Prevention Efforts

An Evolving Threat Landscape: Composite Violent Extremism and Prevention Efforts
20th September 2023 Daveed Gartenstein Ross
In Insights

Introduction

A year before William Atchison carried out the 2017 Aztec High School shooting in New Mexico, killing two people before taking his own life, the FBI had investigated him for making a menacing inquiry in an online gaming forum: “If you’re going to commit a mass shooting, does anyone know about cheap assault rifles?” However, Atchison convinced investigators that he was “just trolling.” They closed the inquiry, missing their opportunity to prevent the attack.

Why was this opportunity to stop a tragic attack missed? It may have had something to do with the apparent incoherence of Atchison’s extreme views. The 21-year-old identified as a neo-Nazi but said that “Neo nazis are cancer (except me).” He endorsed white supremacy but admitted that “rednecks” and “white trash” are no better than other races. He admired mass shooters but said, “I’d kill Eric Harris so that columbine would never happen and thus i’d prevent like 3000 skol shottings [sic].”

In recent years, a rash of ideologically inchoate attackers like Atchison have struck numerous Western democracies. Their attacks have underscored the fact that the international apparatus designed to prevent terrorism and targeted violence may be challenged as it encounters more unconventional belief systems. The co-authors of this article and our colleagues (including Andrew Zammit, Emelie Chace-Donahue, and Madison Urban, who have written on this topic with us) call this phenomenon composite violent extremism (CoVE) – encompassing attackers who amalgamate disparate beliefs, grievances, and ideological fragments into their worldviews. This can create the appearance of violent extremists who hold multiple, sometimes conflicting ideologies, or even no ideology at all, standing in contrast to the more ideologically coherent outlooks that had tended to characterise terrorism or violent extremism in the past (such as jihadism, white supremacist terrorism, or far right/far left terrorism).

The increasing prominence of CoVE cannot be discussed without understanding its inextricable link to technology. Over the past decade, our collective information consumption has changed drastically: we now drink from a firehose of sound bites, images, videos, and incomplete thoughts spread via social media that trigger confusing, contradictory emotions, and influence our beliefs and behaviours. Prevention practitioners must grasp the information environment’s impact on the formation of extremist perspectives, and how the tactics, techniques and procedures of those seeking to encourage terrorism and targeted violence have evolved to exploit it.     

This Insight is intended to help practitioners think critically about the prevention toolkit in light of the challenge posed by composite violent extremists. As Americans, our understanding of the prevention toolkit is heavily influenced by the US experience, but through comparison of prevention efforts across multiple countries, we endeavoured to carefully tailor this Insight to provide key questions relevant to the evolving direction of prevention efforts across multiple Western countries. We hope that the key questions we raise will contribute to a foundation for prevention processes, strategies, and tactics that can minimise the possibility that attackers like Atchison will slip through the cracks in the future.

The Prevention Toolkits

One of the coauthors of this article previously explained that, at a general level, prevention efforts rest on the premise that Western democracies “cannot arrest and kill [their] way to victory against militant groups.” Thus, prevention “aims to intervene in the process of violent radicalization with a collection of non-coercive, non-violent, and voluntary activities.”

Strategies to prevent terrorism and targeted violence began in a different era and in the context of a different challenge than CoVE. Even a decade ago, while there were debates about how much ideology mattered to terrorists and their radicalisation, terrorism was generally associated with groups trying to advance distinct sets of ideas through violence. Our prevention toolkits were, therefore, influenced heavily by the international focus on jihadism after the 9/11 attacks. 

Prevention efforts have since matured; in the United States, in addition to moving away from the singular focus on jihadism that characterised the years following 9/11, these efforts now frequently also incorporate targeted violence within their frameworks. The current landscape is now marked by pockets of experimentation from federal, state, and local institutions. 

Overarching prevention strategies can be seen as falling into three main categories. The broadest class are those that are publicly focused. Many such efforts are educational—such as awareness campaigns and efforts to advance critical thinking—while others focus on such goals as fostering community cohesion to reduce feelings of isolation and marginalisation that can foster extremism.

At a narrower level, prevention practitioners may collaborate with leaders of specific communities to monitor potential risk factors or determine where to conduct early interventions. Messaging campaigns may engage individuals who are radicalising and provide offramps from violent ideologies through peer networks and mentorship programs. The most targeted measures address individuals who have been radicalised and are at risk of committing violent attacks. These interventions can include efforts to detect and foil plots, dismantle extremist beliefs, or reintegrate attackers into society. Some programs, such as one-on-one counselling, involve the use of former extremists whose firsthand knowledge may inform deradicalisation processes. These various practices deserve some reconsideration when dealing with CoVE. To initiate reflection about the evolving prevention landscape in light of the challenge of CoVE, we have developed several key questions to identify areas where CoVE may present challenges to existing prevention measures. 

Distinguishing Genuine Threats      

In the online space, genuine threats can often become lost in a sea of dark humour and shock value. To identify warning signs of composite violent extremism, prevention practitioners must embrace a paradox: despite the incoherence and contradictions present in composite worldviews, they are still belief systems with boundaries and contours, assembled and expressed in today’s communication environment. 

A defining feature of contemporary digital communication is short-form content, including text posts (e.g., tweets), short videos (e.g., TikToks, Instagram reels, YouTube shorts), and memes. Changes in terrorism/targeted violence reflect not only the nature of this content but also the exploitation of these media forms by a variety of malicious actors. Inflammatory content is meant to evoke strong emotional responses, and radicalised individuals may express these emotions in similarly disjointed ways. 

This entanglement of the signal within the noise calls for practitioners to undertake two layers of consideration: (1) How can we distinguish genuine threats from online bluster? and (2) How can we unite an extremist’s seemingly unrelated expressions to reveal a composite worldview? Failure to address these questions may result in the dismissal of important warning signs indicating when an extremist might be ready for action. 

Fuelling Resentment?      

Prevention measures could backfire if they trigger unexpected grievances hidden in the complex worldviews of composite violent extremists. This uncertainty makes selecting a credible intervener—someone seen as trustworthy, competent, or impartial—more complex than it is for traditional ideological terrorists. 

In an age of polarisation, institutional efforts to inoculate against extremism (e.g., messaging campaigns) could provoke anti-government or anti-authority grievances. Similarly, these programs could trigger partisan grievances if they are perceived as politically biased weapons of the party in power. Similar issues crop up in direct communication with composite violent extremists, such as one-on-one interventions. Misrepresenting a composite worldview with an imprecise blanket term like ‘white supremacism’ could potentially undermine the trust necessary for effective deradicalisation. After all, one aspect of building trust in the deradicalisation context is providing individuals with the confidence that important aspects of their formerly-extremist worldview are understood by the intervenors with whom they interact. The potential for misunderstandings in this regard is far greater in the context of CoVE.

Further, composite violent extremism presents challenges with respect to the role and value of formers. In other contexts, formers possess extensive knowledge of ideologies and may be trusted by extremists. But does this value hold true for composite violent extremists? For these individuals, formers may find it more difficult to speak to the lived experiences of sharing a particular ideology. A former jihadist, for example, may not grasp the inner workings of a composite violent extremist who blends jihadism with other beliefs, like eco-anarchism or neo-Nazism.

Converging Fringe Beliefs      

Composite beliefs will not always stay composite. Today’s composite worldviews may transform into tomorrow’s more well-defined ideologies, characterised not by a blended but rather a bounded belief system and identifiable body of followers. Knowing when composite beliefs have congealed into an ideology, and when they have not, will be critical.

New ideologies have emerged over time. One example is the incel (involuntary celibate) community. This relatively young ideology has its roots in various grievances united by a shared hatred of women. Incels possess their own terminology (e.g., Chads, Staceys, and ‘blackpilling’) and moral principles. But without the emergence of the incel label to signal the movement’s ideological nature, incel discourse might still appear to practitioners as misogynistic noise. The point is that just as it is worth understanding that incels possess a distinct and identifiable worldview, so too will it help prevention efforts to track future instances when composite worldviews congeal into distinct bodies of ideas.

Ideological labels can help to manage the complexity of composite violent extremist worldviews. They may act as signposts that lend meaning to an extremist’s expressions, enabling practitioners to assess trigger points for violence or even potential targets. However, labels will not apply in all cases. While many attackers who fall under the CoVE framework blend or mix ideologies, others appear to barely follow an ideology at all. 

Identification and Interruption      

While the work on CoVE to date has placed a spotlight on attackers and their worldviews, practitioners must also pay attention to those who produce the content that inspires composite violent extremists. Practitioners should investigate how bad actors are adapting their tactics, techniques, and procedures to incite composite violent extremism.

In the prevention space, an emphasis on lone actor terrorism may paper over a more intricate interplay between the radicalised and the radicalisers. In the past, extremist groups frequently played the role of the radicaliser, with recognisable group affiliations, speech, or symbology. But pinpointing the origin of extremist content in the context of CoVE may not be as straightforward. Practitioners, in collaboration with social media companies, must learn to identify radicalisers whose content may appear to be just as incoherent and composite as the worldviews they inspire and determine when such speech carries a high risk of encouraging violence and thus justifies efforts to disrupt it.

The four key areas we have identified in this Insight are meant to simplify CoVE’s impact on overarching prevention efforts into more easily approachable lines of analytic inquiry. The challenges we highlight show, in our view, that a complete overhaul of the prevention apparatus is unnecessary. The best approach is fine-tuning our strategies and practical approaches to minimise this dangerous threat and build a resilient society where extremism has a harder time finding fertile ground.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the founder and chief executive officer of the private firm Valens Global. He also heads a project on domestic extremism for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank. 

Thomas Plant is an analyst at Valens Global who supports the organisation’s project on domestic extremism for FDD.