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Illustration by Sara Gironi Carnevale

The Art of Radicalization Resistance

Staying at home, as the coronavirus pandemic has compelled many to do, does not ipso facto mean staying safe. More time at home may mean more time online, and for some, that means the risk of exposure to bad actors trying to spread radical and extremist views.

“This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing most Americans to remain at home for months on end amid great social, political, and economic uncertainty, the threat of online radicalization is bigger than ever,” wrote the authors of a new report, Building Resilience & Confronting Risk in the COVID-19 Era: A Parents & Caregivers Guide to Online Radicalization.

“We’ve known for years that it can be all too easy for people to become radicalized without even leaving home,” the authors wrote. “The proliferation of extremist spaces and content online has created new and powerful avenues for radicalization, especially for young people.”

Issued in June 2020, the report is the product of a partnership between American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). It includes guidance for caregivers and educators on how to counter the threat of online radicalization, including tips on how to recognize warning signs and how to get help for a radicalizing child or young adult.

The COVID-19 crisis has created opportunities in this area, such as the sheer number of potential targets: more than 70 million U.S. children and young adults are now learning primarily at home, online. Many have caregivers who cannot maintain continuous supervision due to commitments of their own, like work.

Without the usual social support systems found in schools, camps, and normal summer recreational activities, youths can be more vulnerable targets for radical groups, who may exploit the fears, disorientation, and sense of powerlessness that come from living through a pandemic.

Various bad actors have seized on this unsettled situation to circulate new content promoting a range of conspiracy theories, as well as racist and xenophobic arguments about the origins of the novel coronavirus, its impact on minority communities, and the government’s response, the report found.

“The tremendous insecurity brought on by crises can make the kinds of simplistic solutions offered by far-right extremists more appealing,” wrote PERIL Director and Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss in the introduction.

The report found that there are several possible online pathways that host risks of radicalization. One is getting sucked into content rabbit holes, in which impressionable young people can be exposed to progressively more extreme content. Another is through direct online contact with extremists, who sometimes reach out and attempt to indoctrinate people via social media channels. In addition, the social isolation that many experience due to COVID-19 can lead to a filter bubble in which extreme views expressed online go unchallenged and have more space to take root in an anxious mind.


The various bad actors that are using the pandemic environment for radicalization purposes include well-established militant groups such as Islamic State (ISIS) and al Qaeda, experts say, and security officials in different regions of the world are grappling with this problem in different ways.

Radical ideologies, such as the ones espoused by ISIS, and COVID-related conspiracy theories share two major similarities, explains Jocelyn J. Bélanger, an assistant professor at New York University Abu Dhabi who studies deradicalization and the motivations behind political violence.

First, both communicate the idea of an existential threat to someone’s community. Second, they provide a simple explanation to a complex reality, and in doing so often divide the social world with an us vs. them dynamic, he says.

Bélanger and five other scholars conducted a recent study in which they tested if various counter-narratives were effective in preventing radicalization efforts. Released in June 2020, Do Counter-Narratives Reduce Support for ISIS? showed an overall small positive effect of certain counter-narratives. But it also found that some types of counter-narratives had the unintended effect of hardening radicalizing beliefs.

“Our findings indicate that challenging people’s beliefs is a bad strategy—it often backfires and leads to attitude polarization,” Bélanger tells Security Management. “Paradoxically, fighting conspiracy theories, especially on social media, might increase people’s adherence to such beliefs.”

The study tested different types of counter-narratives, delivered by different types of sources, in the context of their effect on people’s support for and willingness to join ISIS. Across all experimental conditions, the most successful message was a political counter-narrative, as told by a disillusioned former ISIS member.

“An ISIS defector delivering a political counter-narrative asserting that ISIS manipulates others in the pursuit of their political or financial goals seems to be the most promising strategy,” Bélanger says.

“Other messages, especially those with a religious or social narrative, tend to backfire and increase people’s support for ISIS,” he adds. For example, a religious counter-narrative arguing that violence by ISIS is unacceptable because the Quran clearly states that killing is wrong had the unintended effect of increasing support for ISIS.

“All counter-narratives with a religious argument backfired regardless of the source of the message,” the study found. “This is an important finding given the widespread assumption that a moderate, mainstream understanding of Islam, especially when articulated by an authoritative religious leader, attenuates the allure of violent extremism.”

And these findings also suggest that counter-narratives should be scientifically examined before being put into use, Bélanger says.

“People are rolling out counter-narratives without knowing if they work or even backfire,” he says. “This is akin to a doctor giving you a pill without knowing whether the medicine will either save or kill you. Would you swallow that pill?”

Another report, which examined strategies to prevent online radicalization in India, suggested that a “binary choice” counter-narrative pitting the radical group against the subject’s family can be effective. This report, Deradicalisation as Counterterrorism Strategy: The Experience of Indian States, was released in August 2020 and written by Kabir Taneja, a strategic studies scholar at the Observer Research Foundation, an India-based policy think tank.

In his report, Taneja examined current deradicalization programs in India, including those in the states of Kerala and Maharashtra. The Kerala program, Operation Pigeon, saved approximately 350 youths from potential radicalization by approaching them and intervening before they could become radicalized, according to Indian state officials.

“How it works is that the state says they get to potential radicalization cases before the radicalization takes place,” Taneja tells Security Management. “This is done via social media monitoring of both individuals and groups that may be seen as high-risk. The intervention happens at an early stage, so it’s more prevention than countering.”

One key to the Kerala program’s success seems to be the generally positive relationship that law enforcement officers have as trusted members of the community, Taneja explains. “India has a very robust system of ‘beat cop’ local policing, and I think using that ecosystem also helps in creating a digital/physical bridge in these efforts,” he says.

In Maharashtra, the deradicalization program is conducted under the umbrella of the state’s Anti-Terrorism Squad, which in turn is part of the state police organization in Mumbai. Here, a key success factor involves the subject’s loved ones, who when intervening present a counter-narrative that can be described as binary choice between the radical group and the survival of the family that the subject might leave behind.

The report quoted an account published in the Indian Express newspaper of a successful incident of deradicalization in which the subject’s wife says: “I just told him we won’t be able to live without him.” The account also portrays the dismay and disappointment of the subject’s parents, “which resonates heavily with most Indians,” the report found.

Another common feature of these counter-narratives is that a female family protagonist—such as a mother, wife, or sister—provides “emotional leverage” in the fight against radicalization.

Finally, another report has found that that online radicalization during the pandemic is also a growing concern in Britain. In July 2020, the United Kingdom’s Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE) issued COVID-19: How Hateful Extremists Are Exploiting the Pandemic.

“Since the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, [the CCE] has heard increasing reports of extremists exploiting the crisis,” the report found. One example among many in the report is the Islamist extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which during the pandemic increased its calls for a caliphate and its recruitment of those willing to sacrifice for its establishment.

And since the socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will be long-term, the report found that the UK government needs to be ready for a long fight against radicalization. Given this, the report authors were critical of the UK government’s recent funding cuts to social service programs for the country’s young people, and they recommended the funding be restored.

“A crucial element to building resilience to extremism in young people is the provision of youth services,” the report found. “The degradation of social support may result in younger people becoming more vulnerable to extremist narratives.”