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Why we need to think about extremism differently in order to reduce it

As Sri Lanka reels from a series of deadly Easter Sunday attacks, the problem of violent extremism enters the spotlight once again. How can the U.S. and the world anticipate and counter the threat of terrorism, which experts agree cannot be addressed by military means alone? Amna Nawaz talks to former diplomat Farah Pandith, whose new book “How We Win” outlines a strategy for keeping us safe.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, security officials in Sri Lanka say a local radical Islamist group appears to be behind this weekend's attacks.

    Government officials acknowledged that they were warned weeks earlier about possible violence in the country.

    The latest tragedy brings a focus once again on the question of how the U.S. and other countries can anticipate and counter global extremism over the long haul.

    Amna Nawaz has a conversation about this very subject for our latest installment of the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Despite billions of dollars spent on fighting terrorism post-9/11, the threat has evolved and shifted into something that experts agree can no longer be addressed using just military means.

    Farah Pandith was the first-ever U.S. special representative to Muslim communities. She served under both presidents George W. and H.W. Bush and Barack Obama. She also worked for Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.

    She is now out with a new book "How We Win," drawing upon her time at the National Security Council and Department of State and her experience visiting over 80 countries in those roles. In her book, she breaks down the evolution of the current threat, how our current policies further inflame it, and outlines a strategy to keep us safe.

    She joins me here in the studio now.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Farah Pandith:

    Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, I want to ask you about one of the specific strategies you address in here. There's a lot of focus on the physical battle against extremism.

    You talk a lot about the online battle, where a lot of people first come into contact with those ideologies. You talk about using former extremists in that capacity. How do we do that?

  • Farah Pandith:

    Well, let's actually remember what the threat is.

    It's young people under the age of 30 who are lured into armies, whether it's al-Qaida or the so called Islamic State, because they're having a crisis of identity. And in order for them to navigate through that identity, they're asking questions about who they are and how they express this identity.

    The bad guys are providing answers for them that tell them stories about how to be a more authentic Muslim. So how do you debunk that? How do you get and disrupt their thinking?

    One of the ways to do that is to bring people who are former extremists front and center, so that their narratives, the true story of what they experienced and how they got radicalized, become the thing that those young people see and hear.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So a lot of these conversations are happening online. And a lot of those platforms, as we know, gather data on us. You write about that in the book.

    You say the algorithms that they use to sell you jeans can actually be used to bring new ideas forward or counter some of those ideas. So what do the tech companies say about that? Do they think that's their responsibility?

  • Farah Pandith:

    We know that these companies have a lot of data on us.

    When we think about what we need to do to make sure that there are as many antibodies in the system that debunk an us vs. them, it needs to happen along the cultural listening lines. So technology companies do have a very strong role to play in what's happening in the online space.

    But nothing happens in the online space without it happening in the offline space as well.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about in the news media? You talk about comprehensive strategy. Do you think we have to change the way we cover and talk about terrorism and extremism?

  • Farah Pandith:

    I think lexicon matters.

    We know that our words matter. So I think the media does enforce a particular way of thinking about things. We have to be very specific about who is a terrorist, what is a terrorist act, how we talk about particular kinds of terrorist organizations, and how they move the mind towards radicalization.

    That takes a lot of very careful, very particular phraseology. And we should be very diligent in how we use it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You also advocate for a comprehensive strategy.

    Is there an example you can point towards, some other kind of comprehensive strategy like this, where it's worked?

  • Farah Pandith:

    When you want somebody to learn how to recycle, you cannot just have one ad on TV to say, let's recycle, and this is how you do it. You have to make sure that all day, every day they're seeing signals in a society that says, this is how you recycle, this is what recycling is all about.

    So it's in schools, it's on billboards. It is very similar when you're trying to debunk hate, when you're trying to debunk an us vs. them. The signals within a community at a local level, even a household level, really matters to what it is we're trying to enforce.

    We cannot allow the rise of hate to continue the way it has. And what we are seeing right now around the world is an increase of hate, not a decrease view.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You write — quote — "Extremism wouldn't have become the pervasive threat it has had it not had a patron awash in trillions of dollars of oil wealth."

    That is not the dominant narrative we hear about Saudi Arabia from our own government. So where's the disconnect? And how do we counter that?

  • Farah Pandith:

    Amna, I traveled to nearly 100 countries around the world. And in every single country I went to, there was a connectivity around cultural heritage, around the decimation of diversity of Islam.

    There was a very strong force in how people were learning about their religion and whether it was a diverse religion or one that was a monolith. The tactics that were used were training of imams, specific textbooks that were taking place.

    All of these things were part of the system that is underlying extremism. And if you understand that all those things are happening and you ask yourself, how did that happen and why does it happen, and you go back and you sit — and you trace where that happens, you see that Saudi Arabia has played a very specific role over decades.

    There is no need for our soldiers to go in other parts of the world and fight wars built on an us vs. them ideology that extremist groups use, built on the foundation of what they were learning from the tactics that Saudi Arabia has put in place.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    When we talk about extremism, I would be remiss if I didn't mention another growing threat we have here in the States and around the world, most recently in New Zealand, and that has been from white supremacists.

    Do the strategies you lay out in this address that?

  • Farah Pandith:

    Yes.

    Everything that we know that happens to a young person around identity and belonging starts at a very local level. Things aren't only top-down. They're bottom-up. So when we look at solutions, we have to think about what peer-friendly narratives and what peers can do to each other to make sure that that us vs. them is disrupted.

    And in that way, it is very similar. But you have to be very careful to not suggest that every kind of extremism is exactly the same. And it — and, also, we have to be very careful to understand that it's not just one silver bullet that's going to fix everything. We meet — need many different types of approaches in the offline and in the online space.

    And here's the most important part. The one thing that we can do together is to agree, as humans, that we have to decrease hate. And that requires not just citizens to say it and condemn it in any form that it takes place. It requires that governments need to put money behind this ideological war in the kind of way that we have put money behind the physical war.

    If you don't have people who are recruited to these kinds of groups, they don't have armies to fight.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The book is "How We Win." The author is Farah Pandith.

    Thanks very much for being here.

  • Farah Pandith:

    Thank you very much.

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