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I worked in counterterrorism operations for nearly my entire career at the CIA before retiring in 2019. The battle we engaged in with international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda wasn’t just with their legions of foot soldiers but with their highly effective propaganda arms as well. The U.S. and our allies considered those propagandists fundamental cogs in a terror group’s machinery, and just as culpable as any other terrorist. So we held them accountable when innocent civilians were killed.
Why are these propagandists so dangerous? Because, while they might not supply weapons, they can effectively radicalize individuals to obtain them and put them to use — even from the comfort of their own homes via the internet. They do that by sending the message that violence is permissible, even admirable, in a process of normalization that breaks down the resistance most humans usually experience to such acts. They give them a cause to justify the need for acting out violently, which goads foot soldiers to take steps toward action. And they can provide suggested targets and detailed information on how to carry out attacks.
Inspire magazine, the media arm of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was one such insidious propaganda source. It actively promulgated the killing of Americans and motivated adherents to conduct terrorist attacks around the globe, publishing bomb-making instructions online, for example. So the U.S. tried to shut down its operations in a variety of ways, including reportedly altering the actual content of the magazine.
Terrorist propaganda is particularly dangerous because lone wolf attacks have been our greatest challenge in the international counterterrorism arena. A single individual is much harder for an intelligence service to detect and disrupt; larger terrorist cells are much easier to penetrate because of the clues they leave in travel patterns or phone records. And lone wolves are often radicalized online in the same country that they will eventually target so the threat comes from within, often from citizens of the country.
Lone wolves are a thorn for domestic U.S. law enforcement as well, as we saw last week when a man not affiliated with any known group but immersed in right-wing propaganda attacked Paul Pelosi, the husband of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. While the authorities have taken appropriate action against him, there are few signs that the government is taking the big-picture approach needed to combat the violence-inducing propaganda behind his crime.
The Constitution confers certain free-speech protections for extremist propaganda in the U.S. that prevent authorities from exactly replicating our foreign counterterrorism strategy here at home. But there are important lessons we can and should apply. For one thing, we can exercise free speech to proclaim that the normalization of violence against politicians is dangerous and unacceptable. Some violent rhetoric might not be illegal, but it is all morally repugnant.
To start with, we need to clearly identify what crosses the line into the realm of dangerous rhetoric. That means calling out those in the right-wing ecosphere who for years have demonized, and at times even promoted and encouraged, attacks on Pelosi.
The long list includes Marjorie Taylor Greene, a sitting member of Congress from Georgia who once supported the idea of Pelosi’s execution for treason. And it includes the NRA, which put a picture of Pelosi next to an article with the headline “Target Practice.” Beyond Pelosi, there are odious examples like Donald Trump Jr. holding a semiautomatic rifle with an ammunition clip that has Hillary Clinton’s face drawn on it.
It’s also important to note that there is nothing equivalent being done on the other side of the aisle. Democratic politicians and leaders may not like Trump, but they don’t call for violence against him, let alone his execution.
Using the bully pulpit if not the law to bat down these violent messages is important because if left unchecked, these intimations of violence automatically inch toward the mainstream; that increases their exposure to impressionable people. On the other hand, a reminder that not everyone agrees with this worldview can keep some who are on the fence in check.
According to recent polling, almost 1 in 3 Republicans believe that violence may be necessary to save the U.S. That is a deeply alarming poll that should shock all of us. (Democrats were better, with only 11% agreeing with the idea, but still far too high. The poll of 2,508 American adults had a 2.1% margin of error).
That’s why it’s so distressing that one of the most-accessible tools in our arsenal isn’t being deployed. While a few members of the GOP have spoken out against the attack on Pelosi, far too many are silent. History is rife with examples of extremism growing while many look the other way. It should not be courageous to simply stand up and say “violence is wrong.” Rather, it should be normal practice of any politician. As a matter of self-preservation alone, it seems like it should be happening without any prompting. Which political figure has the hubris to think the violence won’t reach them?
Politicians’ clear denunciation of violence is also important for another lesson that came from my time running counterterrorism operations in the Middle East: One of the more effective counterradicalization efforts in Arab countries was led by Muslims themselves articulating that extremism was wrong.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, government officials took the lead in identifying at-risk individuals at all stages, including those in prison who had already perpetrated terror attacks. Rehabilitation programs provided counseling, religious re-education and help reintegrating into society. They encouraged individuals to find stable support networks, family and faith-based alike, and also promoted dialogue to find out why individuals had turned to violence. Though a minority of those who have gone through the process have returned to terrorism, there have also been clear cases of success.
These efforts came from within, from Muslim communities saying “this is not us.” That is the key component of other nations’ counterradicalization programs that America should focus on, since the details of the programs themselves might not translate across the Atlantic. The Rand Corporation has been one important organization investigating more specific strategies that might work to deradicalize U.S. extremists.
So it’s not Democrats who must act. Instead, we need to find strong voices within the GOP who will denounce Marjorie Taylor Green, denounce former President Donald Trump’s calls for violence against protesters and denounce the many voices demonizing Pelosi. If the GOP leaders do this, their followers will listen. But it will only be successful if comprehensive. Republican Reps. Lynn Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois have shown great bravery in leading the way, but they paid a political price because too many of their colleagues drowned them out.
Who will step up now? As we used to say in the counterterrorism arena, the system is “blinking red.”