Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Radicalization in America Requires A New Plan: Biden Has A Good One 

| June 21, 2021

On June 14, the FBI announced that QAnon, a conspiracy movement fueled primarily through the internet, may inspire more violence in the months ahead. QAnon adherents played a central role in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, the first time since the War of 1812 that the heart of the American government been breached; now, it seems, America could see even more violence unless a deeper, more collective plan to stop it is unleashed.  

After months of review, analysis, and listening, the White House released its much anticipated National Strategy to Counter Domestic Terrorism on June 15. Having promised to use the administration’s first 100 days to conduct a “comprehensive threat assessment,” the White House has been clear that dealing with this new hate reality is a priority. America has a perhaps unprecedented radicalization problem and the new, forward-leaning approach based on two decades of studying radicalization in the era of the Internet is now essential.  

The new strategy rests on four key pillars: it promises to create a better understanding of the domestic terrorism threat, using data to inform threat assessments and enhanced sharing across the inter-agency; it calls for a ramping up of so-called “prevention,” seeking to challenge extremism’s enduring ability to poison vulnerable minds and communities; it emphasizes the central role played by law enforcement, seeking recommendations from the Department of Justice on areas to be improved and built; and it promises to tackle long-term contributors to escalating domestic extremism—not least longstanding racism and conspiracy theories demonizing “others.” The strategy also considers the transnational component, as the U.S. seeks to mobilize allies in the fight. 

The strategy represents a welcome and refreshing change, after several years in which counterterrorism experts have desperately called for authorities to more seriously adapt to the changing, increasingly domestic terrorism landscape. Counterterrorism begins at the very top, and just as President Trump’s infamous remark after a terrorist murder at Charlottesville that there had been “very fine people on both sides” emboldened an extremist movement that would eventually storm the U.S. Capitol, the new strategy sends an important message: domestic terrorism is now seen as a paramount threat, and the U.S. government has the desire, flexibility, and resources to extinguish the flame. 

In addition to that attitude shift, there are two other notable alterations that should strengthen our efforts in the domestic campaign. 

Firstly, the strategy indicates that government bureaucracy can, in fact, be nimble, adapting to threats as they emerge. The culmination of a reflective process, the new strategy aims not to dwell on past fights, but to learn from mistakes and setbacks and plot a path forward. Such forward-thinking has been elusive in a government that has largely continued to focus on 9/11-type foreign threats, rather than dangers emerging from home. That longer-term strategic emphasis will provide for better intelligence analysis and deterrence from a multitude of hostile actors. 

And secondly, new stakeholders are being mobilized. The strategy welcomes new constituencies into the fight, calling “Domestic terrorism and the factors that contribute to it […] a challenge best tackled by a set of interlocking communities that can contribute information, expertise, analysis, and more to addressing this multifaceted threat.” The administration’s efforts to care for all Americans—making “better citizens” to deal with this new world of online harms—marks a pivotal moment in American counterterrorism, and a shift towards a whole-of-society, rather than whole-of-government, approach. What the Biden administration is calling for is a sustainable, cohesive way forward that will change the very ecosystem that allows hate to thrive. It calls on all of us to work together (public sector, private sector and uncommon actors) to defeat the conditions that foment new extremist ideological adherents.  

Perhaps most importantly, the strategy seeks to embed measures into the very fabric of American society to ensure its long-term inoculation from hate—it promises investment in “cyber citizenship,” for instance, an initiative that aims to help Americans survive and thrive online, including by teaching them to spot disinformation and overtures from nefarious state and non-state actors alike. 

The challenge, now, is twofold. Firstly, any strategy has weaknesses, and even the best-laid plans are often inadequately implemented. The administration, from the very top, must remain energetic and vigilant, following through on its plans and devoting its power to building the personnel and financial resources needed to make real impact. Steady but encouraging steps have already been showcased both in President Biden’s rhetoric on domestic terrorism—“And now, a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat,” he declared in his inaugural address—as well as in certain grants handed out by DHS to countering violent extremism (CVE) nonprofits. 

Secondly, America must ensure other threats do not go ignored. The so-called Islamic State remains a dangerous, if diffuse, threat; the Afghanistan withdrawal is likely to reignite the specter of a terrorist safe haven; and the far left continues to practice more militant tactics across American cities. Several extremist movements, meanwhile, are actively targeting women and children, a recruitment strategy likely to prove particularly fruitful during and after the pandemic. The challenge, now, is not just to adequately address far-right terrorism to ensure the danger abates, but to create a sustainable human infrastructure that effectively and sustainably rejects the “us vs them” thinking that causes terrorism, regardless of the attached ideology. In other words, our measure of “good” counterterrorism should not just be how well we manage far-right terrorism, but whether we deter the next wave of international or domestic terrorist violence.  

The new strategy represents an encouraging and long-overdue step forward. Let us ensure it is implemented, and then that further steps follow. The cavalry is coming, and it is has the benefit of experience, leadership, and funding. If it works, it may change the way the United States attacks extremist movements forever. 

Farah Pandith is a former senior US diplomat and author of "How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat." She is a senior fellow with the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

 Jacob Ware is a research associate for counterterrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Pandith, Farah and Jacob Ware.“Radicalization in America Requires A New Plan: Biden Has A Good One .” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, June 21, 2021.

The Authors

Headshot of Jacob Ware