This Online Group of Former Islamic Extremists Deradicalizes Jihadists
Hannah, a British woman of Indian descent, joined a militant Muslim group when she was 18. Raised Hindu, she began studying Islam during her first year at a London university. On the suggestion of a fellow student named Rashad Ali, Hannah attended a campus meeting of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group that espouses nonviolence in establishing a unified Islamic state but has been linked to murder and praises jihad. She fell hard for the rhetoric: She converted to Islam, quit a student job at International Business Machines Corp. to become a housekeeper for a woman who belonged to Hizb ut-Tahrir, and stopped wearing Western clothes. “Basically, I was going through a brainwashing,” says Hannah, now in her 30s, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Over the next decade, she rose through the group’s ranks by recruiting others, mostly on campuses, at mosques, and later, while taking her three kids to day care. Eventually, Hannah became Hizb ut-Tahrir’s West London regional manager, overseeing 20 fellow radicals. But she grew weary of the deaths that came with jihad. She began to openly question the group’s tactics and left, a pariah. Soon after, she met Ali a second time, and again he radically changed her life.
Like Hannah, Ali had become disillusioned with extremist ideology and had left Hizb ut-Tahrir. He’d begun counseling jihadists who were questioning their paths, offering guidance both online and in person through the nonprofit Gen Next. It’s a network for those “who’ve gone through similar journeys,” says Hannah, who began volunteering with the organization in 2013. “I jumped at the opportunity.”
Gen Next says it’s worked to deprogram more than 100 European radicals since 2008, and the organization is about to start bringing its approach to bear in the U.S. Founded by Paul Makarechian, an Iranian who fled Ayatollah Khomeini to become a real estate mogul in Orange County, Calif., Gen Next is something of a cross between an advocacy group and a stop on the lecture circuit. About 200 Davos types pay $10,000 a year to attend conferences that support the organization’s agenda, which includes backing proponents of charter schools, deregulation, and, yes, counterinsurgency strategy.
That last part has come to be known as the Against Violent Extremism Network, funded by Gen Next to the tune of about $1 million a year with help from London’s Institute for Strategic Dialogue (the think tank where Ali is now a senior fellow) and Jigsaw (the think tank formerly known as Google Ideas). In Europe, Gen Next’s 20 full-time employees record antijihad videos, use ad data to target potential jihadists with their counterprogramming, and send former extremists such as Hannah to meet with radicals who have expressed an interest in leaving militancy behind.
Companies including Google and Facebook Inc. have also supplied Gen Next with funding and staff hours, trying to help counter the propaganda-spewing chat rooms, messaging services, and social networks used to encourage acts of terror around the world. But it’s the 450 former radicals, all volunteers vetted by background checks, who shoulder much of the work of deradicalizing potential terrorists, says Gen Next Chief Executive Officer Michael Davidson. Hannah has reached out to 80 people in the past four years. “Formers are the only way someone on the edge sways,” Davidson says. “We amplify that voice.”
Ali became a cyber jihadist at age 15. As an observant Muslim of Indian descent, he’d always felt isolated in Sheffield, his industrial English hometown. Following stints in Egypt, where he was trying to organize a coup, and Saudi Arabia, he returned to the U.K. to recruit students online, often by trolling digital forums and bulletin boards. By the time he became one of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s U.K. leaders, though, he’d lost his zeal for what he now sees as an ideology bereft of everything besides anger.
While Davidson won’t share many specifics of his team’s methods, he says deprogrammers typically try to meet with radicals in person after connecting with them through some combination of social media services. With help from Google, the nonprofit has rejiggered search results in Europe so people looking for one of 1,700 Islamic State-related keywords will find videos mocking jihadists.
In the U.S., Gen Next’s network aims to use a similar playbook in partnership with local law enforcement agencies. The organization has quietly finalized an agreement with the Seattle Police Department to contact suspected radicals via social media and send Gen Next volunteers to talk them down in face-to-face meetings; the police would intervene more directly if Gen Next discovers an imminent threat. U.S.-based volunteers are set to begin training Seattle police on Nov. 8.
“If Gen Next can utilize social networks, if they have investors to develop programs for detection, it’s a very good start,” says Mubin Shaikh, a Toronto-born former jihadist who worked with Canadian intelligence agents to infiltrate a terrorist cell in his hometown in 2006. Shaikh spent three years working with Gen Next following the Arab Spring and continues to advocate counseling and rehabilitation. But he says infiltrating extremist networks, rather than trying to peel off individual members, remains the best approach, given how quickly trails can go cold online.
Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who investigated several high-profile terrorism cases, says such online networks are becoming harder to infiltrate because radicals increasingly eschew YouTube and Twitter in favor of more private networks. And he questions the sway former radicals have on hardliners. “When they switch sides, they lose credibility,” he says.
For now, Davidson says, his team will work to adapt its established tactics to the U.S. “The way people get recruited in the first place is using human stories and connections,” Hannah says. “In order to get them out, we have to use those same methods.”