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Can cartoons win young minds and fight terrorism?

CREATE studies what’s working in the effort to counter violent extremism

After a series of terror attacks, the most recent being the attack in Paris on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, law enforcement and military personnel are tracking down terrorist cells. But in Minneapolis, one man is fighting extremist groups with cartoons.

Groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (known as ISIL or ISIS) are using extremist narratives to lure young, impressionable people to join their causes and engage in violence. Average Mohamed offers a different message. A grassroots effort founded and driven by Minneapolis resident Mohamed Ahmed, it uses animation to appeal to children and teens ages 8 to 16.

“It takes an idea to defeat an idea,” Ahmed said. “Extremist ideology must be competed against. It only takes an average man to radicalize and recruit vulnerable young people, and it only takes an average man to offer a different, peaceful narrative. Average Mohamed is the answer to the ongoing efforts to mislead our children.”

Cartoons that fight extremism

Ahmed’s innovative approach to counter recruitment and radicalization is groundbreaking, and it’s one reason why USC’s Department of Homeland Security National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) is working with him to better understand the terrorist threat to the Minneapolis Somali community — and which strategies are successfully countering violent extremism. Erroll Southers, the director of transition and research deployment and “countering violent extremism” theme leader at CREATE, heads a team in Minneapolis that’s speaking with residents, community leaders, law enforcement, elected officials and others to better understand the community challenges that may make a young person susceptible to radical messaging.

“Our focus here is transferring knowledge to practice,” Southers said. “Working with local grassroots efforts, such as Average Mohamed, gives us an opportunity to understand the kinds of initiatives that are moving the needle on countering radicalization and recruitment and why they are successful. This kind of applied research could help the country — and the world — improve their efforts to prevent young people from walking the radicalization pathway.”

Sharing knowledge on counterterrorism

The preliminary findings from this study will be presented March 4 at a Department of Homeland Security workshop in Washington, D.C. The Minneapolis project is one of several funded by the department’s Science & Technology Directorate, which is working with its Centers of Excellence (of which CREATE is the oldest) to support the Obama Administration’s goal of “degrading and ultimately destroying” ISIL.

Countering violent extremism is a priority for the presidential administration, and recent terror attacks across the world have given it global urgency. An unconfirmed number of Americans have journeyed to join ISIL and other terror groups, and these so-called foreign fighters present a significant threat to safety and security, according to government officials. Not only could they conduct attacks abroad; they could also use the operational experience gained by fighting alongside extremists to plot and launch an attack within their home countries.

“The global security community has little hope of pushing back extremist groups unless we can stem the flow of new followers,” said Justin Hienz, a counterterrorism analyst and scholar of religion working with CREATE. “Efforts like Average Mohamed take a thoughtful, strategic approach to disrupting radicalization, and they are particularly effective because they are highly credible, led as they are by members of the community.”

Ahmed called for outreach on social media and websites and through live events. “Not only can we compete with the extremists for the hearts and minds of our communities,” Ahmed said, “we can win.”

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Can cartoons win young minds and fight terrorism?

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