The world's leading Internet giant and a leading foreign policy think tank are convening a major conference this summer in Ireland that will bring together former violent extremists to discuss how to prevent homegrown terrorism.
Google Ideas, the new "think/do tank" led by former State Department official Jared Cohen, is organizing a 3-day event in Dublin in late June in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Relations, where Cohen is also a fellow. The event will bring together about 50 former extremists who used to be members of inner city street gangs, white power groups, Muslim fundamentalist groups, and other violent youth organizations. Over 200 experts from academia, civil society groups, tech companies, victims' groups, and private corporations will also join.
Homeland Security chairman Peter King's (R-NY) controversial congressional hearings last week were criticized for their focus on Muslim extremism. The CFR/Google conference seeks to reframe the debate over homegrown extremism as a problem that cuts across political, geographic, and religious lines.
"We've seen anecdotal evidence of similarities across different types of violent organizations, from gangs to right wing extremists to religious extremists," Cohen told The Cable in an interview. "We know they target young people, we know they are comprised largely of young people, and we know they use similar tactics. But there's a lot of exploring left to be done."
This new project, Cohen's first major endeavor as head of Google Ideas, will focus on "formers" -- troubled youth who have not only left their violent organizations but also speak out against them publicly. The idea is to link them up with professionals, victims' advocates, and even technology firms to help them coordinate their efforts.
The conference will feature "formers" from urban African American gangs, rural white power gangs, neo Nazis gangs, Latin American gangs, Asian gangs, and former nationalist extremists from Ireland, Europe, and Asia, as well as Islamist extremists from the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia.
"We have a hypothesis that we are exploring," said Cohen. "When you remove the masks of religion or ideology or anything else, what are the root causes? If we accept that nobody is born wanting to be a terrorist, then what happens between the time when they're young and the time when they join these groups?"
This is the first major conference for Google Ideas, and their first major collaboration with CFR. Cohen said the project fits well into Google's efforts to look at the way technology and information can be used to push forward constructive solutions to global problems.
"Counter radicalization is a big challenge for American foreign policy. It's imperative for us to acknowledge the problem and then to ask the question, how do you move against it," said CFR Vice President James Lindsay in an interview.
CFR has been steadily ramping up its activity on this front. The think tank recently brought on Ed Husain, the founding director of the Quilliam Foundation, a British counter-extremism think tank, as a senior fellow in their Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative. It also started a cooperative program on examining violent extremism with Georgetown University.
So is the Google/CFR project meant to make the point that religion is not a driver of radicalization?
"What we're trying to do is create space for cross-context discussions that haven't taken place before," said Cohen. "Maybe religion doesn't feature at all into the conversations, maybe it features a fair amount. We don't know yet."
For those who can't make it to Dublin but want a taste of the discussion, CFR and Google Ideas are holding a panel discussion April 29 in New York on the topic in conjunction with the Tribeca Film Festival, where six of the "formers" will speak.