It’s nearly unfathomable that two San Bernardino parents could nonchalantly drop off their six-month-old baby and embark on a shooting spree, murdering 14 people in the name of a terrorist organization. Yet theirs is hardly an isolated impulse. According to FBI Director James Comey, there are currently 300 American-based sympathizers online. The FBI is pursuing 900 active cases in all 50 states, and 71 individuals have been arrested on terrorism-related charges this year alone. As facts like these make clear, American youth are not immune to extremist ideology, and we should be doing far more to protect them.
The question is: How? Given the numbers, it may seem an overwhelming task to imagine a strategy that could thwart extremist ideology’s cancerous spread and appeal. Having spoken with thousands of Muslim millennials in 80 countries, I’ve seen firsthand the impact global extremism is having. But I’ve also come away convinced that viable solutions do exist.
On the one hand, a winning approach requires strong government leadership, such as that provided by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson (I serve on his Homeland Security Advisory Council and cochair the countering violent extremism subcommittee). Yet there is another side to it. Recruitment depends on one-to-one engagement. For this reason, inoculation of millennials against extremism must begin at the local level, outside of government. Each community must work to protect its kids from being targeted and seduced by online predators. This includes philanthropists and private companies.
Younger philanthropists are now embracing mission-based causes, not traditional organizations, in their giving. With more innovative investment from philanthropists, combined with know-how from academia, medical sciences, communications, and information technology, we could make progress countering extremism.
What if Boston mustered its diverse resources to build a Countering Extremism Laboratory? This laboratory would galvanize youth to speak out against extremism, allowing them access to expertise from many Boston-area individuals, educational institutions, mental health experts, and private companies. Inviting youth from public and elite universities alike, the laboratory would give them a venue for pursuing their own ideas, for reaching out and inspiring their peers. Participants would produce online campaigns, apps, online platforms, online youth conference series, and other media and content creation projects. No matter the proposed idea, the lab would bring its resources to bear, providing a guided process alongside tech assistance, entrepreneurial expertise, and design-thinking skills. Ultimately, the lab would cultivate ideas and programs that are far better suited to build resilience with their millennial peers.
Boston is especially well situated to create and support a Countering Extremism laboratory as one tool in the fight against extremism. We possess scores of institutions devoted to understanding how knowledge, millennials, and communities connect in the digital age. The Broad Institute, the MIT Media Lab, and the Harvard i-Lab are but a few examples of innovative spaces designed to bring new ideas forward using a multidisciplinary approach. Why would we not design a similar space to combat extremist ideology? Think of what might be gained if we brought together the full range of wisdom currently being developed by Boston-based adolescent-mind experts, technologists, content distributors, historians, theologians, and cultural curators. The scores of start-ups growing up in Kendall Square and along Route 128 can and should also be at the vanguard of a sustained effort to thwart extremism’s spread.
Since 9/11, Muslim millennials around the world have been thrust into an identity crisis. When these youth go in search of answers and a sense of belonging, social media platforms are their first stop. ISIS knows this and has proven patient and determined in luring kids using thousands of pieces of original content they produce each day. But what if things were different? What if instead of encountering ISIS sympathizers online, curious millennials were exposed to a digital army of peer-to-peer influencers who told the true story? What if that digital army were just as prolific and engaged as their counterparts advocating for violence in the name of Islam?
A student named Inesha conveyed this idea in a way any millennial would understand, chiming in with a reference from the Harry Potter franchise. She said, “If you want this generation to understand what you really mean, we have to build Dumbledore’s Army.”
Even with his formidable magic powers, Harry Potter still needed help from friends and peers in his battle against evil. He needed an army. And so do we. Boston has a long tradition of inspiring innovation, pioneering new approaches, collaborating across disciplines, sharing research, and thinking boldly. We’ve had the courage to face some of the world’s hardest problems—and we’ve won. We owe it to our country and to a generation of youth to apply our resources fully to the cause of countering violent extremism.
Farah Pandith is a former special representative to Muslim communities at the US Department of State, a senior fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Follow her on Twitter @Farah_Pandith.