Testimony: A Rights-Centered Approach To Violent Extremism

WASHINGTON– Countering far-right violent extremism has become a priority for those working to prevent and counter domestic terrorism, especially after the events of January 6, 2021. Today, Human Rights First President and CEO Michael Breen testified at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships (CP3) 8th Digital Forum, “Moving Past the CVE Era: The New National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism.”

“The greatest threat to our democracy is violent white nationalist groups and networks, and organizations like Human Rights First can partner with rights-respecting initiatives to help combat the threat,” said Breen. “Their most dangerous digital activity no longer takes place on conventional social media but rather across rapidly growing far-right social media platforms and encrypted chat tools such as Telegram, Gab, Gettr, and others.”

After 9/11, the U.S. government’s response to terrorism was community-focused programs known as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). The approach targeted and stigmatized Muslim, Arab, South Asian and other minority communities and proved counterproductive as it damaged the United States’ image overseas and at home.

Human Rights First commends DHS’ move to a public health-based approach to combating domestic violent extremism (DVE) and anti-government violent extremism (AGVE). The organization is launching its program to leverage its global network of NGOs, researchers, and human rights experts to address violent extremism, which targets minority communities and violates human rights.

“We have seen how hateful, racist narratives in other parts of the world have led to violence against the ‘other’ and unfortunately, we have seen it in our nation; we are offering our experience and expertise to help do what often government may not be able to do; to root out these human rights violators at home as we have helped do so overseas,” said Breen.

In his testimony at the hearing, Breen also shared some insight from Human Rights First’s research into how domestic violent extremism grows in the veterans’ community.

  • DVE and AGVE recruitment is situationally specific, multi-platformed, and focuses on vulnerable veterans’ grievances. At the same time, extremists use rhetoric, aesthetics, issues, and formats standard in specific communities to disguise their recruitment efforts and mask their content.
  • Recruitment messages prioritize action and a sense of community; manipulate concepts of civic nationalism; create an “other;” provide justification for extrajudicial violence; and celebrate the skills and experiences of veterans, current or former law enforcement, and military members.
  • Extremists use popular social media platforms — like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – to provide people they are looking to recruit with content that speaks to their experiences and frustrations with the government and society.
  • DVE/AGVE actors push recruits deeper into their groups’ online ecosystem by providing streams of content that isolate their targets from social ties and reputable sources of information. Core group members allude to and share illegal or violent activities and offer recruits the opportunity to get involved in them.
  • Most extremists’ engagement moves offline with involvement in real-world activity or violence (in coordination with a group or alone). From here, tracking and interdiction become much more difficult and may signal a significant increase in their threat to our community. It also signals a total immersion into a DVE/AGVE network and/or ideology.

Published on October 27, 2021


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