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Former diplomat Farah Pandith on how to combat extremism

Foreign policy strategist Farah Pandith is a former diplomat and expert on countering violent extremism. In March 2019, she published a book on the topic entitled “How We Win: How Cutting-Edge Entrepreneurs, Political Visionaries, Enlightened Business Leaders, and Social Media Mavens Can Defeat the Extremist Threat.” Prior to her talk on Wednesday, the 18th memorial of 9/11, Pandith sat down with The Chronicle to discuss the history of terrorism and extremism in the United States and what action should be taken now. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Chronicle: How did you first become interested in this field?

Farah Pandith: When I was in graduate school, I did my master's thesis on the insurgency in Kashmir. I had the opportunity to do firsthand field research in the summer of 1994 on the ground. I talked to militants in Kashmir, Indian government officials and others to learn about what was taking place. It was the first time that I was really exposed to radicalizing ideologies, how they can be weaponized and how young people think about themselves and identity. But I did that work decades ago not thinking that that was going to be my career. 

If you fast forward to 9/11, when I came back into government because I wanted to serve after our nation had been attacked, it was really the commitment to try to do what I can as an American. The opportunities that were given to me in the post-9/11 world meant that I was really looking at the ideology of extremism.

TC: From your extensive experience and work under three presidential administrations, how has terrorism and extremism changed throughout the years?

FP: My experience with terrorism has been confined to a very particular kind of terrorism and a particular moment in time. Terrorism as a field has had its roots going back to the French Revolution, and there have been different chapters in discussing whom a terrorist is, how we perceive terrorists. But in the context of 9/11, the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda took responsibility and unleashed a very different kind of era for all of us, which means that the kind of work that we're doing today is very different from years past. 

The world has changed in the ability to connect ideas in a second because people are connected online. And because we have algorithms that are able to both do good and do bad, it has changed the battlefield. The weaponization of ideas has changed, and its implementation has changed. It isn't just a terrorist organization that en masse has to do something: they can inspire activities in other parts of the world by groups of people or one person. 

The threat is not just a massive amount of people organized for one event. It's the threat of one person deciding to do something in the name of that larger ideology. It's the ability for people to watch in real-time the horrific event that takes place as somebody posts it on Facebook. It's the change in demographic of young people who are able to think differently about how they want to explore the themes and join the so-called armies of bad actors. But it's important to understand that while the battlefield has grown bigger and more complex, governments haven't responded to the changing battlefield at the rate and at a pace that they should.

TC: Why are young people a particularly vulnerable community, and how do we best engage them in a positive way?

FP: The work that we have been able to pilot in the nearly 20 years since 9/11 tells us that, because young people are in fact the targeted demographic by extremist groups that I've been working on. Let me be clear, extremists come in all forms. We're not just fighting Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State, and other groups like it. We're also looking at groups like white supremacists, identitarians, sovereign citizens—all kinds of extremists along the spectrum. 

But they need to have armies in order to do their job, and for the kind of extremists that I've been looking at, they're looking at Millennials and Generation Z. This is the generation of Millennials at the top end of it now. But [with] Generation Z, you're navigating through who you are—you're navigating through your identity at this time. They know that, so they use narratives to appeal to young people in a very particular way. 

The human brain is not formed until the age of 24. And when we think about how we form our analysis, how we think about things, what we're attracted to, how we understand things, all of that is happening at the same time. Extremists are trying to get the space in your mind for them. So a lot of things are happening at once, and that's the crisis that we're facing here.

TC: What do you suggest [presidential] candidates do or propose?

FP: I want the candidates to get real about soft power. I want them to talk about fighting the ideology of us-vs.-them, de-linking it from anything else and not making it a political issue. I want them to look at what we've learned as a country from the Bush and Obama administrations in the last 18 years and design a plan of countering violent extremism that is robust, that is scaled at the level that we need it, that is integrated into a comprehension of how extremists work and thrive and why the U.S. government must go all in. 

No candidate today has a plan that is going all in. The money doesn't match their rhetoric. They have to have not just a number, but a percentage of the effort that they're putting in to fight extremism. The two candidates that have put out plans that are somewhat related to what they call countering violent extremism, they're connecting it to the issue of guns. As important as the issue of guns in America is, this issue of fighting the ideology should not be an appendage to that. It should sit by itself. 

The candidates should do three things. They should tell us how they're going to organize their government to fight extremists using soft power. What is the percentage of their budget they're going to spend on soft power? And how are they going to build a 50-state plan across America to fight hate? 

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