The Cable

CFR and Google team up to battle violent extremism

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.

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The Cable

Rules of engagement are murky in Libya air war

The head of U.S. Africa Command, charged with running the operation in Libya, said that the international coalition in Libya will not help the rebels' military units, only civilians targeted by Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces -- assuming they can tell the difference between the two.

"We do not provide close air support for the opposition forces. We protect civilians," Gen. Carter Ham, the top military official in charge of the operation, told reporters in a conference call on Monday. The problem is, there is no official communication with the rebel forces on the ground and there is no good way to distinguish the rebel fighters engaged against the government forces from civilians fighting to protect themselves, he said.

"Many in the opposition truly are civilians...trying to protect their civilian business, lives, and families," said Ham. "There are also those in the opposition that have armored vehicles and heavy weapons. Those parts of the opposition are no longer covered under that ‘protect civilians' clause" of the U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized military intervention.

"It's a very problematic situation," Ham admitted. "Sometimes these are situations that brief better at the headquarters than in the cockpit of an aircraft."

So how are pilots in the air supposed to tell the difference? If the opposition groups seem to be organized and fighting, the airplanes imposing the no-fly zone are instructed not to help them.

"Where they see a clear situation where civilians are threatened, they have... intervened," said Ham. "When it's unclear that it's civilians that are being attacked, the air crews are instructed to be very cautious."

"We have no authority and no mission to support the opposition forces in what they might do," he added.

What's more, the coalition forces won't attack Qaddafi's forces if they are battling rebel groups, only if they are attacking "civilians," Ham explained. If the Qaddafi forces seem to be preparing to attack civilians, they can be attacked; but if they seem to be backing away, they won't be targeted.

"What we look for, to the degree that we can, is to discern intent," said Ham. "There's no simple answer."

One thing that the coalition is clear about is that there is no mission to find or kill Qaddafi himself.

"I have no mission to attack that person, and we are not doing so. We are not seeking his whereabouts or anything like that," Ham said.

He acknowledged that the limited scope of the mission in Libya could result in a stalemate, which would achieve the objective of protecting civilians but allow Qaddafi to remain in power.

"I have a very discreet military mission, so I could see accomplishing the military mission and the current leader would remain the current leader," Ham said. "I don't think anyone would say that is ideal."

He said the United States was looking to transfer leadership of the mission to an international organization or structure within a few days. U.S. planes flew about half of the 60 sorties above Libyan airspace on Sunday and are expected to fly less than half of the sorties Monday.

The attack on one of Qaddafi's compounds over the weekend targeted a command and control building inside the compound, and did not represent a widening of the mission to attack Qaddafi's core military infrastructure, Ham said.