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The Questionable Science Behind Government Terrorist-Prevention Efforts

Is it ethical—or even possible—to determine who's a terrorist in the making?

Muslim American Mahroh Jahangiri, left, joins a group of protestors gathered in front of the White House, in Washington, Wednesday, February 18, 2015, during a rally to bring awareness of how "Countering Violent Extremism" measures continue to erroneously single out Muslims. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

In the early hours of a Sunday morning this June, Omar Mateen walked into Latin Night at Orlando's Pulse nightclub and opened fire. This was a space that often served as a refuge for the area's LGBTQ community, but by the time daylight broke, 50 people were dead and another 53 wounded. Speaking from the White House hours later that day, President Obama told reporters that the attack appeared to be "an example of the kind of homegrown extremism that all of us have been concerned about."


The attack rightfully outraged the American public. But the bloodshed that day was just the latest example of how the war on terror has changed since 9/11, when the greatest threat was generally understood to come from outside America's borders. Like that in Orlando, the attack on the Boston Marathon, and more recently in Brussels and in Paris have highlighted the fact that acts of terrorism are often committed by people born or raised in our communities. Governments from the United Kingdom to the United States and beyond have sought to address this emerging phenomenon by establishing multiagency programs to help them identify who might be vulnerable extremism.

But is it ethical—or even possible—to determine who's a terrorist in the making?

The answer to that question is no, according to a report released last week by the controversial British advocacy group CAGE (which, full disclosure, I worked for as a researcher from 2010 to 2013). The report, called " The 'science' of pre-crime ," examines what CAGE says is the unproven and potentially flawed scholarship behind the British government's program to prevent radicalization—one that is mirrored in the United States in what critics say is a feedback loop of junk science and shoddy tactics.

Under the British counter-extremism initiative, called PREVENT, public sector employees— including teachers, doctors, university lecturers, and social workers—are mandated to report people who may be at risk of radicalization. CAGE has been critical of PREVENT for some time, but its concerns seem to be going mainstream, with the UK government's own terror watchdog calling for an independent review of the program earlier this year. Now CAGE is offering what appears to be the first detailed analysis of the scientific history behind the Extremism Risk Guidance (ERG) 22+, or the 22 factors used to evaluate who may be vulnerable to engaging with a terrorist group or causing harm.


The initial study behind the ERG22+ was conducted by two psychologists in a prison setting and remains classified by the British government, though they did publish a piece about their approach last year—setting the stage for this new critical appraisal. According to CAGE, the ERG22+ criteria was developed based on casework and interviews with a very small number of terrorism- or extremism-related offenders, but the findings have been applied across wider society, apparently without much in the way of scrutiny.

It's worth pausing to note that CAGE has come under fierce media scrutiny in the past, and some human rights organizations—including Amnesty International UK—have distanced themselves from the group. One particularly controversial moment came last year at a press conference about the group's early efforts to assist Mohammed Emwazi (a.k.a. "Jihadi John"), who allegedly faced harassment from British security services prior to joining ISIS. London's then mayor and even the British prime minister castigated CAGE for suggesting the government had played a significant role in radicalizing Emwazi. But many others—including a former police chief in charge of PREVENT—have since embraced the general concept that marginalization of Muslim youth can contribute to their subsequent violence.

A wide array of advocates have been particularly concerned with how PREVENT has been implemented in the classroom setting. In one case, staff at a nursery school threatened to refer a four-year-old to a de-radicalization program after he misidentified a drawing of his father cutting up a cucumber. In another, a 17-year-old teenager was reported to PREVENT for wearing a "Free Palestine" badge and wristband to school.


And the concerns raised in the CAGE report are not solely relevant in the British context, according to experts and advocates we canvassed. Last year, the US Justice Department announced Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) pilot programs were rolling out in Boston, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles. CVE projects are now operating on a local, state, and federal level, although government agencies have been reluctant to release information about the range and scope of these initiatives.

Michael German is a former FBI agent and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law. "[CAGE's report] is very relevant to CVE programs in the United States, primarily because we're following the British model for the most part," he said. "There is a scientific consensus that there are no indicators of who is a future criminal, particularly who is a future terrorist."

At the core of this debate is the question of how to identify factors or traits that might predict future violent activity. Some people may adopt what are perceived as extremist beliefs but never engage in criminal or violent behavior—whereas others go straight into terrorism with seemingly only the most fragile ties to "extremist" political groups or religious attachments ahead of time.

For his part, German has no doubt about why the ERG22+ has remained classified. "The government agencies can fund studies that are meant to stay secret, and the reason they're secret is because each time they leak to the public, they don't withstand scrutiny," he told me.


Of course, some in the counter-terrorism field back the Anglo-American approach. Ryan Greer is founder and CEO of Vasa Strategies, a CVE strategic advisory firm, and is also a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project. (He was* a policy advisor for the State Department's Bureau of Counterterrorism, too.) In an email, he expressed concern that CAGE's critique of the ERG 22+ study was too expansive.

"It would be a mistake to claim that one isolated report on an admittedly small and unrepresentative sample size represents an entire discipline," Greer wrote. "Moreover, in order to ensure government policies are not constructed based on a false understanding of human behavior, we must invest in more research and data for the discipline of countering radicalization to extreme violence (in all its forms), not less."

As the CAGE report was released, more than 140 academics signed a letter calling for the declassification of the ERG22+ study, as well as greater scrutiny and public critique of radicalization programs. Noam Chomsky, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and former CIA operations officer Marc Sageman were among the signatories.

Likewise, countering violent extremism initiatives have met with rising opposition in the United States. Last spring, a range of groups, including Amnesty International USA, and the ACLU, signed a letter raising concerns about the civil liberties implications of CVE, including the potential the projects could be use for intelligence gathering purposes. The FBI's "Don't Be a Puppet" website also came under criticism for potentially encouraging racial profiling and referencing constitutionally protected activities as possible signs of extremism.


The science behind radicalization remains undoubtedly controversial—as does almost everyone talking about it. But that doesn't mean it hasn't had a real impact on people's lives. Asim Qureshi, research director at CAGE, said he was aware of "dozens" of cases where Muslim children had been taken from their families because they were found to be at risk of radicalization, based on the ERG 22+. Qureshi said that "the government presents its evidence of 'extremism' and 'radicalization' in secret, so the families never really know the case against them."

Arun Kundnani, an expert on terrorism and radicalization on both sides of the Atlantic who wrote a foreword to the new report, says the stakes couldn't be higher.

"CAGE's report shows the lack of academic credibility in the UK government's claims to know who is a terrorist risk," he told me. "What is supposed to be a rigorous assessment based on genuine scholarship is actually a process of suspecting thousands of young Muslims without any reasonable basis.

"The radicalization models that US government agencies have relied upon are equally empty of substance and are also little more than covers for the organized suspicion and demonization of Muslim populations," he added.

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*Correction 10/6: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article said Greer was still employed by the US State Department.