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Expert J.M. Berger shares his thoughts on extremist online recruitment

Inkblot gained an exclusive interview with J.M. Berger, noted expert on jihadist and far-right extremism and online propaganda. Berger is the author of Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, and co-author along with Jessica Stern on ISIS: The State of Terror. He pioneered social media analytical techniques to track the rise of online extremist recruitment, and shared some of his thoughts with Inkblot.

Inkblot: In your opinion, what is the nature of the extremist threat facing the US?

Berger: The extremist threat in America is multifaceted. We will see more types of threats from more and different groups over the next decade. In addition to the next generation of jihadism, which is currently very vulnerable and unpredictable, we are certain to see a growing threat level from both right-wing and left-wing extremists due to the current political environment.

Inkblot: As someone who's written extensively on extremism and pioneered social media techniques to track radicals online, which groups are most effective in recruiting online? Are there any "up-and-coming" groups that you see becoming more active on social media?

Berger: While ISIS is currently under severe pressure from suspensions and suppression online, other jihadist groups are not, and they are likely to benefit from the lack of competition. The most pressing concern is likely Hayat Tahrir al Sham, the former al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Because of its break with al Qaeda and broad links to Syrian rebel movements, it is unlikely to face the same kind of pressure as ISIS in the short to medium term. Right-wing movements are also benefiting from a more permissive operating environment, with a boost from organized social media campaigns and some amplification by Russian influence operations online. However, the scene is still very diffuse and fragmented, and it's not clear when or whether a coherent organization will emerge. I suspect something will cohere in that arena, sooner than later, but I don't yet know what.

Inkblot: What are the best ways to combat online recruitment? Can CVE methods be effective online?

Berger: Regarding ISIS, online recruitment, in the sense of overt appeals on open social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, has been severely curtailed, and at this point, it can be handled by individual investigation. For other groups, such as HTS or the far-right, we can use social media to test messaging themes to see what works. What has been missing until now is a methodology for evaluation. I have proposed using disengagement as the metric, because we can measure that on social media. The lessons we learn on social media can then be applied in other settings.

Inkblot: What will the impact be of targeting Muslim communities specifically with CVE efforts, as the current administration has indicated it plans to do?

Berger: It's important to note that while the Obama administration talked a good game about not wanting to exclusively target Muslim communities, that was in fact what they did, except for a few token efforts. So that in itself would not change. The current administration is most likely to end most or all federal funding of CVE programs. The current political climate makes it likely that Muslim communities would have serious concerns about taking part in government-sponsored or government-run efforts. I can't say I would blame them.