From 2004 through to 2011 I was a premiere jihadi propagandist in the West. Having studied under, and preached on behalf of the most prominent radical clerics beforehand, I started my own organization – Revolution Muslim (RM) - in 2007. RM launched from New York City at a time when most imagined American Muslims were exceptional, as though a higher level of education, income and assimilation distinguished them form their European counterparts. That sentiment would prove inaccurate. Soon the number of terror-related incidents increased, and the majority of them were regrettably connected to RM.
RM represented a key hub in a budding extremist network. It set a template for the metastasized and expanding online jihadi network that currently puzzles professionals, policymakers and practitioners, and that has entered the consciousness of the general public. RevolutionMuslim.com connected its audience to the propaganda and personalities of jihadi groups over the world. However, RM differed in that we unabashedly supported groups like Al-Qaeda both on the streets and in the media. These efforts raised a type of recognition and controversy that manipulated a symbiotic relationship between terrorism and the media, and helped further polarize society. We filmed out presentations and recorded debates and lectures. We uploaded that content to nascent hosting sites like YouTube, where they attracted tenths of thousands of views. New instant messaging and communication platforms made RM interactive. We established virtual madrassas that bypassed spatial and temporal constrictions, and the counterterrorism community’s concentration on radical mosques and gateway organizations. We penned original articled that eventually spurred Jihadi Recollection, the first pro-Al-Qaeda magazine in English and predecessor of Inspire, Dabiq, and others. We expanded our influence through social media sites like MySpace and Facebook. Regrettably, we planted a seed that sprouted and grew like a virulent weed in a largely unkempt garden.
Today I have altered my perspectives and denounce violent extremism. Parallel Networks is an attempt at amends and an effort to apply lessons learned from those experiences. The philosophy at Parallel Networks turns many conceptions of countering violent extremism (CVE) on their head.
An age of extremisms
We live in an Age of Extremisms (in the plural). Extremists feed off each other and thereby have helped to create perhaps the most polarized period of the modern era. Hence, addressing the issues surrounding extremism remains imperative. Current and past initiatives have fallen flat, and much of the field is threatened by sociopolitical development.
In 2011, the Obama administration inaugurated a formal plan for instituting CVE initiatives in the United States, and endeavor I advised on from prison. While it suffered from several flaws and proved more a rhetorical device than a practical plan of action, it did include the necessity of promoting democratic and liberal values and refuting the narrative of extremists as a primary pillar. However, “counter-messaging”, the term utilized to explain such efforts, is problematic; envisioning a parallel network necessitates the rejection of the word. Counter-messaging implies that it is a reaction to extremist propaganda. This only makes external sympathizers and supporters tout the power of their networks. Additionally, because counter-messaging initiatives have been minuscule in scale compared to the extremist propaganda, and their efforts are seen as weak and desperate.
The U.S. State Department’s “Think Again Turn Away” campaign offers an example. It sought to delegitimize claims of extremist movements. Shortly after the Arab Spring, it refuted Ayman al-Zawahiri’s statement that only violence could induce change in Egypt. Showing pro-democracy activists on the street sought to enforce belief on the power of peaceful protests. However, as Egypt’s transition to democracy fell backwards, al-Zawahiri issued a powerful and lengthy explanation, mocking the campaign’s propaganda. A few years later, “Think Again Turn Away” sought to delegitimize ISIS on Twitter. However, it only empowered extremists because it was conducted a by a U.S. administration that had very little support among Muslims. My old associate, Musa Cerantonio, an Australian preacher, recorded an instant messaging conversation held with the campaign’s chief organizer and then utilized it to counter the U.S.’s own counter-narrative.
Research has called for limited government involvement (see RAND's CVE report). Yet, efforts from the private sector have suffered from similar (conceptual) flaws. A popular platform unveiled recently spent two years developing an algorithm that could measure alterations in behavior after an online audience viewed its counter-propaganda. Program evaluation documented some success in dissuading fence-sitters, but a simultaneous and haphazard evaluation by DARPA found that content actually generated a heightened extremisms in those already supportive. Because a very low base rate of radicals go on to committing violence, this outcome should have been recognized as dangerous. Instead, the program was applauded as progress. Few recognized that the campaign focused on a single platform (YouTube) mostly no longer utilized by jihadists, or that the content suffered from serious flaws, in many places feeding into the jihadi narrative. These outcomes are to be expected where direct intervention and interaction within the jihadi network is viewed as the focal point of CVE.
The importance of parallel networks
Only once a parallel and similar-sized network is established can programs specifically designed to intervene in extremist networks prove effective. Once parallel networks effectively bloom, new nodes and applications that force contact and intervention can be introduced. Initiatives such as peer-to-peer intervention, counter-narratives, refutation, sending former extremists into the network, and other innovative endeavors can only work when there is a ‘safe space’ to relocate and continue communication with an ample amount of antithetical information, a story and coherent message, as well as effective media and communication that challenges both the hubs and the nodes of extremist networks.
An apt analogy for this reality lies in the parallel network Target, implemented after the private and financial information of millions of the company’s customers was hacked. The hackers found it relatively easy to obtain and manipulate the data. Target was using a single network that housed its WiFi, Direct Orders and Client Information. So, once the hackers cracked a fragile and poorly designed network by braking through the WiFi, they were able to steal all the information, including client data. I imagined that CVE initiatives might work the same way. Interventions can creep into the network, work their way to its core, and help break down the entire operation. CVE initiatives can enter the matrix, but are not able to place orders and certainly cannot gain any sort if identity because extremist networks have evolved to understand the concept of parallel networks all too well.
Target fixed their issue with a parallel network, which could be understood as an additional layer of security. They kept the WiFi system and the direct orders on the old system, but then developed a more secure, separate network that ran parallel to the orders and client information. Once orders were legitimized they were passed on to the parallel network, where they could be fulfilled.
Developing a parallel network to challenge extremism will require the same realizations. It will take the creative design of new hubs and ports that will effectively encourage the development of new applications and thereby induce the expansion of an antithetical network. However, it is important to recognize that, in the same way that Apple’s innovation did not occur overnight, and like it took years for the jihadi network on the West to increase exponentially, the development of a parallel anti-extremist network will prove a process. Parallel Networks united people dedicated to this vision and applies lessons learned from the networks that surround us, while offering a willingness to collaborate and a unique blend of creativity, innovation and delivery.
Extremists have developed their system over time, and they protect their most valuable assets. Few can access the information and individuals at the core of their networks. It requires a rare set of gifts and a particular expertise. Developing a parallel anti-extremist network would necessitate the same design. It allows to control the flow of information and force intruders to a reactive position. It´s also why counter-messaging initially fails. One cannot expect to waltz in and import individuals or groups. First, one has to compete with a large amount of noise. Thousands and thousands of nodes have to be navigated through and targeted. This is no more difficult than a Target hack that entered the system and could see orders placed and information passed; however, in order to obtain anything valuable, one must hop from one network to a more secure and protected parallel universe.
A holistic approach
Finally, an anti-extremist network must function as a social movement. It must be bottom up, holistic and organic in its development. Parallel networks are in and of themselves bottom-up and develop organically. They exist all around us. The concept has provided solutions for a host of issues. Take, for example, the revolutionary transformation in technology over the past generation. When Jobs returned to Apple in 2000, he envisioned a world where the PC remained a key “digital hub”, but not the source of internet and digital access. Thanks to the company’s developments, entire industries, platforms and programs were birthed. We now live in a world of tailor-made apps and instantaneous connectivity. Each of Jobs’ products established new hubs and ultimately parallel networks.
We live in one of the most polarized periods of the modern era. Hate speech needs challenging with more antithetical speech, not suppression. There are many fascinating individuals and groups doing things that implicitly and explicitly challenge the fundamental axioms that drive extremisms and hatred. They must be connected. That can only be achieved when people are encouraged to express what they feel, whatever they believe. Good ideas drown out bad ideas.
It is important to recognize that Western civilization could not have advanced without “radical” cognitions. The Declaration of Independence, for example, is, by all proposed definitions, one of the most radical documents that ever existed. One of its chief proponents, Thomas Paine, explained upon its issuance that mankind “had the power to begin our world over again… the beginning of a new world is at hand”. That was so radical that the British Empire wanted him hanged. In the contemporary period, we might think of the countercultural movement that marked the late 60’s. The violent extremist movements of the period were drowned out by a principled and peaceful parallel network, a diverse network where fundamentally radical ideas about culture and society flourished. Vantage points competed with one another in a way that dynamic and creative. The outcome produced a paradigm shift in science, a wave of independence and democratization, the end of at least one war, a revolution in social services and an advancement in views of civil and human rights, and liberalism in general.
The field of CVE must be careful not to derail human development. Building up a network dedicated to elevating consciousness will require a better understanding of the distinctions between radical and extremist cognition and behavior. At Parallel Networks we mostly reject a concentration on cognitive, as opposed to behavioral, radicalization. We also distinguish between the terms ‘radicalization’ and ‘extremism’ altogether. This approach is designed to produce data for research that addresses a broad phenomenon but zeros in on the intricacies of shaping beliefs and ideological conviction. Constructing a parallel network will permit opportunities for all types of investigation. Networks are perfect for directing human abilities and behaviors, outside the reductionist confines of ivory-tower laboratories.
In 1968 we landed on the moon. For the first time, humankind viewed the planet from the outside, looking down. It is akin to the way scientist, the academy and the decision-making institutions study and produce results, from the outside in. Since then, science has made leaps and bounds of progress. In this day and age we are learning more about ourselves because we recognize our development and progress is actually humbling. Today we view the universe outside ourselves and recognize, through technology like the Hubble telescope, that we are only a small piece of a fascinating and ever-expanding universe. We also realize that the whole universe is one interconnected and multidimensional network. However, as we learn more, we recognize that human beings are hardly “rational actors”, they are quite distinct from Skinnerian lab rats or Pavlovian dogs. Today, psychological fields explore such new terrains as ‘adaptive consciousness’, thus turning our understanding of decision-making and adoption of beliefs upside down. There is no such thing as “homo economicus”. We have Nobel Prize winners in Economics that have dedicated their lives to psychology and who never touched an economics textbook.
Whole fields are being revolutionized, inside out. At Parallel Networks we incorporate both perspectives. We analyze the multidimensional issues that drive extremisms from without, from the outside, looking down. However, we also incorporate an experiential expertise that assists in true understanding. Such perspective makes an anti-extremist network horizontal. It grounds efforts to counter extremisms on principles that are opposed to narrow-minded and unidimensional positions. It makes it so that every individual can help address an Age of Extremisms, a key struggle in our era.
Current efforts fall flat because they offer quick fixes. Like a mistaken war against a mythological hydra, they tend to concentrate on the legs (nodes) rather than the heads (hubs) of extremist networks. In the same way the hydra regenerates its legs, nodes are easily replaceable.
We believe that only the establishment of networks can address the core of the problem, and that the best way to challenge extremist collectives is to establish a parallel system based on antithetical principles and practices. To achieve this, a seed must be planted and cultivated. It will take time, like a Chinese bamboo tree, which grows only inches in its initial period, and then shoots tenths of feet almost immediately. Through consultancy and cooperation, public writing and speaking, event planning, and the development of our own initiatives, Parallel Networks seeks to serves as a hub in an alternative network opposed to everything polarizing, extremist and hateful.