In June of 2011 Google Ideas, the think/do tank of Google, Inc., brought together former terrorists and gang members from across the world as well as academics, activists, public and private sector leaders to understand the common means by which individuals join and leave violent groups. The gathering included, among others, former members of Somali terrorist group Al-Shabab, the Irish Republican Army, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the Latin Kings, the Hammerskins, and the Ansar-e-Hezbollah. Also included in this “Summit Against Violent Extremism” (SAVE) were the former president of Colombia, senior officials at the US Department of State, survivors of suicide bombings and kidnappings, and family members of those who died in extremist violence.
The “business model” of Google Ideas is to conduct original research, convene unorthodox stakeholders, and building proof-of-concept products that test the role technology plays in changing global challenges. We began this effort – Google Ideas’ first effort since its founding in late 2010 – with two hypotheses.
Our first was that individuals’ motives for joining and leaving violent groups cut across political and geographic contexts. While ideology may have played some role in their actions, equally important were the social, environmental, and personal motivations that pushed people toward violence. Our second hypothesis was that so-called “formers” – individuals once involved in violent extremism who now renounced such behavior – were under-consulted by intervention and de-radicalization practitioners. These formers could be potent tools for intervention in their communities.
The discussions from our summit largely validated these two hypotheses. From formers we heard story after story of individuals who turned to violence in an effort to find community, identity, or a sense of purpose. As one former told us, “I think all young kids, at a certain point in life—whether it’s chess club, football, gangs—they all want a sense of belonging…This gave me my identity. This gave me my purpose in life. This gave me everything I was lacking.” We also learned about the important local work that formers were already doing: a local hockey program for individuals at-risk for joining right-wing groups; a jobs program for kids in gang-afflicted neighborhoods; a women empowerment project in a conflict zone, among others.
Since our summit, we’ve conjectured that three things should be changed in governments’ counter-radicalization strategies. First, we need to change the messenger. As mentioned, most counter-radicalization projects are run through governments. While they play an important role, counter-terrorism agencies are not well placed to de-radicalize individuals at-risk for violent extremism. Though more research must be done on the subject, we’ve seen anecdotal evidence that formers can be positive role models in their local communities. That they experienced the same traumas and motivations as young people considering violent activity gives them especial credibility. They, more than anyone else, can speak to the hollowness of membership in violent groups.
Second, the medium needs to change. Because terrorism is an international problem, most counter-radicalization and intervention programs are run through national governments. However, violent extremists do not materialize without context: they too live in neighborhoods and communities. Ultimately, successful intervention projects must be local, and their messages adapted to local needs and contexts.
Third, the funding model needs to change. We found that there were numerous important projects happening at the neighborhood level run primarily by formers. However, because these projects were always intended to stay in a specific geography, they have little opportunity to see national attention or find major funding. What these projects need is a clearinghouse to connect those doing interesting work to those who wish to support it.
Following our summit, Google took a first step by funding the creation of the “Against Violent Extremism” network. The network is two things: first, it is a web platform for formers and survivors to advertise themselves and their work. Second, it is a program infrastructure, including full-time staff to help formers join the network, and to identify funders and in-kind support.
The AVE network launched in April, and the site is live at www.againstviolentextremism.org. Yet, even before the official launch we began to see organic collaborations between formers, survivors, and the private sector come together. On the final day of the SAVE conference, Christian Picciolini, Arno Michaels, Angela King, and several other former right-wing extremists together formed Life After Hate, an online news journal and intervention program for at-risk individuals. After the summit Paul Carrillo, a former gang member and leader of Southern California Crossroads, teamed up with Jane Rosenthal of Tribeca Enterprises to organize an 18-week documentary training program for at-risk students around Los Angeles. Since then their organization has grown to encompass gang as well as skinhead violence. And finally, just before the official launch of the network, Buzzmouth and eBoost Consulting, two digital marketing services, dedicated over $100,000 in in-kind marketing services to select projects from the summit to help build formers and survivors’ online brands.
We hope and expect that these organic collaborations will grow and multiply as the network expands. We’ve partnered with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think/do tank based in London, to manage the project and site for the long-term. We are excited about the commitment and experience in building these sorts of networks, and are excited to see the collection grow in the coming years.
As mentioned above, one of Google Ideas’s core outputs are proof of concept products with the capacity to scale. This network is our first proof of concept, and its success will be determined partly by its ability to grow and sustain itself. But ultimately, its success will be determined by the ability of its members, connected and funded as never before, to influence at-risk individuals and desist them from violence. It will be several years before we can understand if this approach has worked.
Brendan Ballou is an associate at Google Ideas, where he focuses on strategy and product development for fragile states. Most recently he product managed Citizen X, a software survey program for Somalia’s constitution drafting process. Prior to his current work, he led research for the team’s counter-radicalization effort and, with Jared Cohen, authored “Becoming a Former: Identity, Ideology, and Counterradicalization.”