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The McCain Institute’s Efforts to End Targeted Violence

“The McCain Institute’s Preventing Targeted Violence program develops action-based solutions to end targeted violence nationally and internationally.”

Targeted violence and hate crimes have sadly become all too common occurrences in America. Schools, churches, government institutions, groups and individuals are often targeted by perpetrators based upon extreme and hateful racial, religious or anti-government views. Eliminating these types of attacks and the carnage they cause is exceedingly complex and difficult, but the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University’s Preventing Targeted Violence program is working diligently to assist that effort. Through its major initiatives, the McCain Institute works collaboratively with critical stakeholders to understand the nature and rising risks of targeted and hate-based violence while developing innovative methods of combating these attacks on our society.

Under the leadership of Brette Steele, the senior director for preventing targeted violence, the McCain Institute has developed initiatives that include the Peer-to-Peer program, Prevention Practitioners Network, a national policy blueprint to end white supremacist violence and Invent2Prevent. Steele’s background working with the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security in areas relating to the prevention of violent extremism provides deep insight for the organization’s efforts. During a 2019 testimony to the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties regarding the federal response to white supremacy, Steele outlined three necessary parts of prevention: investing in prevention, improving hate crime reporting and establishing parity between foreign and domestic terrorism charges.

To Steele’s point, the collection and analysis of robust and accurate information is of paramount importance, and problematically, the available data do not paint a rosy picture. In 2019 the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) reported over 8,552 known hate crimes of which 57.6% were motivated by race or ethnicity bias, 20.1% religious bias, 16.7% sexual orientation bias, 2.7% gender identity bias, 2.0% disability bias and 0.9% gender bias. Between 1994 and 2020, there were 893 terrorist attacks and plots in the United States, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that far-right terrorism exceeds the terrorist activity of any other extremist group. On May 14, 2021, The U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin, stating that the risk of violence is at a “heightened state,” and that the risk has “evolved and become increasingly complex.” The report states that effects of the pandemic could drive activity as reopening could be exploited by extremist groups. The report points to racial, ethnic and religious bias as sources for concern for future domestic terrorism.

Another troubling data point that was extracted from an NPR analysis of the January 6 attack on the Capitol showed that nearly one in five people charged due to their alleged involvement in the attack appeared to have some military background. The serious events of January 6 further exposed the growing problem of extremism in the military ranks. One of the McCain Institute’s programs, Invent2Prevent, involves teams from 25 universities in which students develop innovative approaches to preventing targeted violence. In early June, the Citadel’s Mission in Transition project won first place for its innovative methods of assisting veterans experiencing isolationism and preventing recruitment of retired military service members into targeted violence and terrorism groups. In a survey by the Citadel’s team, they found that a majority of those surveyed claimed that missing a sense of brotherhood, connection and purpose was one of the most difficult parts of their transition back to civilian life. “Sixty-eight percent of respondents indicated they knew a veteran who was having difficulty adjusting to civilian life and nearly all of the participants claimed to have been contacted by someone with extreme views.” The Citadel’s project focused on assisting veterans that are transitioning from active duty to civilian life to find purpose and resources, as well as protecting them from being targeted for recruitment.

The Homeland Security report also raises concerns regarding the risk of groups “inspired or influenced by foreign terrorists and other malign foreign influences.” To foster greater awareness of this threat, the McCain Institute hosted author and Deputy Director of the Program for Extremism at George Washington University Seamus Hughes to discuss his book, “Homegrown: ISIS in America.” Hughes stated that his interest is getting to the root of extremism. Hughes believes that terrorism is the result and by understanding what drives terrorists, there is an opportunity to prevent targeted violence. In 2010, American-born cleric and al-Qaeda member Anwar al-Awlaki stated, “Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie,” referring to the growth of homegrown jihadists within the United States. Hughes’ book explores American support of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and extensively researches the issue of recruitment and radicalization on American soil. The book often emphasizes the use of the internet stating, “it is impossible to ignore that the internet is more important to ISIS in America than in any other Western country.” The threat of terrorism and targeted violence looms large as social media has made it easier than ever to recruit and disseminate harmful materials. The necessity for awareness and prevention is higher than ever.

According to the FBI, “the first and most fundamental potential barrier to [prevention] is lack of knowledge – knowledge about threat assessment and management itself, about risk factors and warning signs. About what goes into managing potential threats. This knowledge is key to implementing viable strategies to reduce targeted violence.” Preventing targeted violence must be an active process in which we continually discuss and disseminate resources to the public. Researchers have developed several models and extensive knowledge regarding the recruitment process. An example is Taarnby’s eight-stage recruitment process which includes, “individual alienation and marginalization, a spiritual quest, a process of radicalization, meeting and associating with like-minded people, gradual seclusion and cell formation, acceptance of violence as legitimate political means, connection with a gate keeper in the know, and going operational.” Understanding the recruitment process creates opportunities to disrupt steps of extremist development, especially if the essential component of connections with others with extremist ideas can be prevented.

Targeted violence, by its very definition is not random in nature. In many cases, hate-based violence is a process and acts often culminate from long-term conflicts. These attacks are planned and predatory with ever increasing frequency and lethality. They tear at the fabric of our society with the intent of creating fear and strife. The Citadel’s project and Seamus Hughes discussion address different extremist groups; however, both pose a threat to American citizens as well as share similar recruitment methods via the internet. Prevention and education are vital to ensure the safety of both American citizens and international communities. The McCain Institute utilizes a logical, data driven approach to deeply understand the threats, identify the patterns, and to work with stakeholders to devise innovative, actionable and scalable solutions that contribute to the difficult challenge of preventing targeted violence.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Lexi Yob
Publish Date
August 4, 2021