‘We Have Been Lazy on Hate’

Farah Pandith wants the U.S. government and corporations to do more to combat radical extremists as they recruit Millennials.

Graffiti that reads "I love ISIS" is seen in a damaged building in Marawi City, Philippines.
Romeo Ranoco / Reuters

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Farah Pandith worked in the Bush and Obama administrations as they tried to combat violent Islamist extremism. Starting in 2009, as the State Department’s special representative to Muslim communities, she began meeting with Muslim youths in almost 100 countries.

In her estimation, the United States is not doing enough to prevent Millennials and members of Generation Z from being recruited by extremist groups.

Yes, ISIS lost the territory it held in Iraq and Syria. According to her research, however, the percentage of the roughly 1 billion Muslims under the age of 30 who find appeal in extremist ideology has not been similarly diminished. Even a very tiny sliver of a group that big can cause a lot of death globally—as can the tiny, radicalized sliver of white-supremacist extremists who’ve killed more people on American soil since 9/11 than Islamist extremists.

A lot of that death could be avoided, Pandith argued this week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, if the need to counter extremist recruiters was treated as a bigger, more urgent priority, and if those working on the problem better understood how to succeed.

Right after 9/11, the United States was focused, she said, on questions such as: Why do they hate us? What about the West is not making them welcome? Is showing that we love and respect Islam the solution?

“It was much later that we began asking, What’s going on emotionally with these young people that is moving them to a place where they find this appealing?” she said.

In her telling, groups such as ISIS exploited the fact that the Muslims who grew up after 9/11 had to grapple with what it meant to be Muslim in the modern world, and that many experienced a sort of identity crisis. “We all know every adolescent growing up deals with this question of identity. This is not unique to Muslims. We all ask these questions,” she acknowledged. “But when you have a dedicated force of people that understands that these kids are going through an identity crisis and they provide answers that are peer-friendly and make sense, we have a problem.”

She asked the audience to reflect on how common it is for people to be influenced by emotional appeals to buy something. “Behavioral and social listening can be deployed to make you buy something to eat or to wear,” she pointed out. “It can also be deployed to make you want to join a particular group.”

ISIS had success with that tactic.

“The human brain does not fully develop until the age of 24,” she said. “There are a lot of questions happening to these young kids about what they do with their time, how they belong, what tribe they want to be part of. The whole online space is around tribes and networks, finding the people who are just like you or who you want to be like. There’s something to the kind of one-to-one interaction that the bad guys use to be able to recruit. They’ve been able to curate a way to connect with that person emotionally. Not intellectually, but emotionally.” That’s why she believes that taking down extremist propaganda is not enough.

What’s needed, she said, is to identify the online spaces where young people are being reached by extremists with the most effective emotional appeals, and to understand their methods well enough to produce effective counter-messages.

“We now know, 20 years after 9/11, that we can actually scale the kind of content that would get in front of these young people so that they’re not only seeing the content from the bad guys,” she said. But in her view, more needs to be done by corporations with resources that NGOs and even governments often lack.

“Corporations need to use their behavioral data, their experience and understanding, their swift responses, the way in which they use anthropologists and behavioral scientists,” she insisted, “to help the NGOs that are building the countermeasures to persuade young kids not to find this appealing.” It is rare, however, for frontline workers at NGOs to get that kind of assistance.

“We have been lazy on hate,” she said.