By Dr. Erroll G. Southers
The so-called “caliph” of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is dead. On Saturday night in northwest Syria, U.S. special forces assaulted a compound holding ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. According to statements after the raid, Baghdadi was cornered in a tunnel when he detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and three children. At the end, Baghdadi’s actions were as repulsive and inhuman as all he inspired and did in life.
World leaders, politicians and counterterrorism experts offered kudos for eliminating Baghdadi but most also cautioned that the death of ISIS’ leader is not the de facto end of the terrorist group. Indeed, while his death is significant in the long fight against ISIS, the group is not gone, the hundreds of fighters in Syria and Iraq have not set down their weapons, and most critically, the ISIS ideology is alive and well. And in counterterrorism, the most dangerous and enduring factor is the extremist narrative.
In the United States, we are facing a rapidly escalating threat from homegrown violent extremism (HVE), primarily from right-wing and white supremacist terrorists. Attacks on houses of worship, public venues, and other “soft targets” are increasing in frequency and targeting groups for their faith and ethnicity. While these threats grow, we could now also see a resurgence in violence inspired by Muslim Identity extremist ideologies. One of the core elements in ISIS’ strategy has been encouraging adherents to attack where they live (rather than travel to Syria). The death of Baghdadi does not change that strategy. In fact, it could encourage ISIS supporters to take violent action.
The difficult truth of counterterrorism is that there is no terrorist profile. It is often impossible to know who will cross the line from holding extremist views (which is protected by the Constitution) to seeking to advance an ideology through violence. As has been said since even before al Qaeda attacked in 2001, we will not arrest or kill our way out of terrorism. We can remove bad actors, but the ideology remains, and this is where strong communities are needed.
HVE occurs at the nexus of an alienated individual holding a legitimizing ideology within an enabling community. Of these, the community factors that facilitate HVE are most susceptible to positive influence. While there are many theories, initiatives, and organizations focused on addressing community challenges, every American has a stake in remaining vigilant and actively participating when an individual in their community appears to be heading down a violent path.
To help empower communities, the Sol Price School of Public Policy and the Annenberg School for Communication are presenting the USC Homegrown Violent Extremism Digital Summit on November 8, 2019. Offered exclusively online and at no cost, the event will present panels covering surviving extremist violence, terrorist uses of digital media, and the pathways out of extremist groups. Featuring counterterrorism, public safety and public health experts, researchers, and victims, the summit will help inform viewers on the many factors in extremism and their role in forging safe, resilient communities.
The HVE threat in the United States is as significant as it has ever been. Even as we continue to fight adversaries abroad and take steps to secure the homeland, all of us must continue working together to dispel extremist narratives, guide our fellow citizens away from violence and hate, and speak up when we see someone on a path to terrorism. Join us on November 8 at 9 AM PT/12 PM ET to learn more about how we can work together to address and overcome violent extremism.
Professor of the Practice in National and Homeland Security
Director, Safe Communities Institute
Director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies