Erin Marie Saltman : How young people join violent extremist groups — and how to stop them

So in 2011, I altered my name so that I could participate in Far Right youth camp in Hungary. I was doing a PhD looking at youth political socialization -- why young people were developing political ideologies in a post-communist setting, and I saw that a lot of young people I was talking to were joining the Far Right, and this was astounding to me. So I wanted to enroll in this youth camp to get a better understanding of why people were joining.

So a colleague enrolled me, and my last name sounds a little bit too Jewish. So Erin got turned into Iréna, and Saltman got turned into Sós, which means "salty" in Hungarian. And in Hungarian, your last name goes first, so my James Bond name turned into "Salty Irena," which is not something I would have naturally chosen for myself.

But going to this camp, I was further shocked to realize that it was actually really fun. They talked very little about politics. It was mostly learning how to ride horses, shooting a bow and arrow, live music at night, free food and alcohol, also some air-gun target practice using mainstream politicians' faces as targets. And this seemed like a very, actually, friendly, inclusive group until you started talking or mentioning anything to do with the Roma population, Jewish people or immigrants, and then the discourse would become very hate-based very quickly.

So it led me into my work now, where we pose the question, "Why do people join violent extremist movements, and how do we effectively counter these processes?" In the aftermath of horrible atrocities and attacks in places like Belgium, France, but all over the world, sometimes it's easier for us to think, "Well, these must be sociopaths, these must be naturally violent individuals. They must have something wrong with their upbringing." And what's really tragic is that oftentimes there's no one profile. Many people come from educated backgrounds, different socioeconomic backgrounds, men and women, different ages, some with families, some single. So why? What is this allure? And this is what I want to talk you through, as well as how do we challenge this in a modern era?

We do know, through research, that there are quite a number of different things that affect somebody's process of radicalization, and we categorize these into push and pull factors. And these are pretty much similar for Far Right, neo-Nazi groups all the way to Islamist extremist and terrorist groups. And push factors are basically what makes you vulnerable to a process of radicalization, to joining a violent extremist group. And these can be a lot of different things, but roughly, a sense of alienation, a sense of isolation, questioning your own identity, but also feeling that your in-group is under attack, and your in group might be based on a nationality or an ethnicity or a religion, and feeling that larger powers around you are doing nothing to help.

Now, push factors alone do not make you a violent extremist, because if that were the fact, those same factors would go towards a group like the Roma population, and they're not a violently mobilized group. So we have to look at the pull factors. What are these violent extremist organizations offering that other groups are not offering? And actually, this is usually very positive things, very seemingly empowering things, such as brotherhood and sisterhood and a sense of belonging, as well as giving somebody a spiritual purpose, a divine purpose to build a utopian society if their goals can be met, but also a sense of empowerment and adventure.

When we look at foreign terrorist fighters, we see young men with the wind in their hair out in the desert and women going to join them to have nuptials out in the sunset. It's very romantic, and you become a hero. For both men and women, that's the propaganda being given. So what extremist groups are very good at is taking a very complicated, confusing, nuanced world and simplifying that world into black and white, good and evil. And you become what is good, challenging what is evil.

So I want to talk a little bit about ISIS, Daesh, because they have been a game changer in how we look at these processes, and through a lot of the material and their tactics. They're very much a modern movement. One of the aspects is the internet and the usage of social media, as we've all seen in headlines tweeting and videos of beheadings. But the internet alone does not radicalize you. The internet is a tool. You don't go online shopping for shoes and accidentally become a jihadist. However, what the Internet does do is it is a catalyst.

It provides tools and scale and rapidity that doesn't exist elsewhere. And with ISIS, all of a sudden, this idea of a cloaked, dark figure of a jihadist changed for us. All of a sudden, we were in their kitchens. We saw what they were eating for dinner. They were tweeting. We had foreign terrorist fighters tweeting in their own languages. We had women going out there talking about their wedding day, about the births of their children. We had gaming culture, all of a sudden, and references to Grand Theft Auto being made.

So all of a sudden, they were homey. They became human. And the problem is that trying to counter it, lots of governments and social media companies just tried to censor. How do we get rid of terrorist content? And it became a cat-and-mouse game where we would see accounts taken down and they'd just come back up, and an arrogance around somebody having a 25th account and material that was disseminated everywhere.

But we also saw a dangerous trend -- violent extremists know the rules and regulations of social media, too. So we would see a banal conversation with a recruiter start on a mainstream platform, and at the point at which that conversation was going to become illegal, they would jump to a smaller, less regulated, more encrypted platform. So all of a sudden, we couldn't track where that conversation went. So this is a problem with censorship, which is why we need to develop alternatives to censorship.

ISIS is also a game-changer because it's state-building. It's not just recruiting combatants; it's trying to build a state. And what that means is all of a sudden, your recruitment model is much more broad. You're not just trying to get fighters -- now you need architects, engineers, accountants, hackers and women. We've actually seen a huge increase of women going in the last 24, but especially 12 months. Some countries, one in four of the people going over to join are now women. And so, this really changes who we're trying to counter this process with.

Now, not all doom and gloom. So the rest I'd like to talk about some of the positive things and the new innovation in trying to prevent and counter violent extremism.

Preventing is very different than countering, and actually, you can think of it in medical terms. So preventative medicine is, how do we make it so you are naturally resilient to this process of radicalization, whereas that is going to be different if somebody is already showing a symptom or a sign of belonging to a violent extremist ideology. And so in preventative measures, we're talking more about really broad groups of people and exposure to ideas to make them resilient. Whereas it's very different if somebody is starting to question and agree with certain things online, and it's also very different if somebody already has a swastika tattoo and is very much embedded within a group. How do you reach them?

So I'd like to go through three examples of each one of those levels and talk you through what some of the new ways of engaging with people are becoming.

One is "Extreme Dialogue," and it's an educational program that we helped develop. This one is from Canada, and it's meant to create dialogues within a classroom setting, using storytelling, because violent extremism can be very hard to try to explain, especially to younger individuals. So we have a network of former extremists and survivors of extremism that tell their stories through video and create question-giving to classrooms, to start a conversation about the topic.

These two examples show Christianne, who lost her son, who radicalized and died fighting for ISIS, and Daniel is a former neo-Nazi who was an extremely violent neo-Nazi, and they pose questions about their lives and where they're at and regret, and force a classroom to have a dialogue around it.

Now, looking at that middle range of individuals, actually, we need a lot of civil society voices. How do you interact with people that are looking for information online, that are starting to toy with an ideology, that are doing those searching identity questions? How do we provide alternatives for that? And that's when we combine large groups of civil society voices with creatives, techies, app developers, artists, comedians, and we can create really specified content and actually, online, disseminate it to very strategic audiences. So one example would be creating a satirical video which makes fun of Islamophobia, and targeting it to 15- to 20-year-olds online that have an interest in white power music and live specifically in Manchester.

We can use these marketing tools to be very specific, so that we know when somebody's viewing, watching and engaging with that content, it's not just the average person, it's not me or you -- it's a very specific audience that we are looking to engage with.

Even more downstream, we developed a pilot program called "One to One," where we took former extremists and we had them reach out directly to a group of labeled neofascists as well as Islamist extremists, and put direct messages through Facebook Messenger into their inbox, saying, "Hey, I see where you're going. I've been there. If you want to talk, I'm here." Now, we kind of expected death threats from this sort of interaction. It's a little alarming to have a former neo-Nazi say, "Hey, how are you?" But actually, we found that around 60 percent of the people reached out to responded, and of that, around another 60 percent had sustained engagement, meaning that they were having conversations with the hardest people to reach about what they were going through, planting seeds of doubt and giving them alternatives for talking about these subjects, and that's really important.

So what we're trying to do is actually bring unlikely sectors to the table. We have amazing activists all over the world, but oftentimes, their messages are not strategic or they don't actually reach the audiences they want to reach. So we work with networks of former extremists. We work with networks of young people in different parts of the world. And we work with them to bring the tech sector to the table with artists and creatives and marketing expertise so that we can actually have a more robust and challenging of extremism that works together.

So I would say that if you are in the audience and you happen to be a graphic designer, a poet, a marketing expert, somebody that works in PR, a comedian -- you might not think that this is your sector, but actually, the skills that you have right now might be exactly what is needed to help challenge extremism effectively.

Thank you.