Google Ideas think tank gathering former extremists to battle radicalization

June 24, 2011

Technology giant Google, having conquered the Internet and the world around it, is taking on a new challenge: violent extremism.

The company, through its eight-month-old think tank, Google Ideas, is paying for 80 former Muslim extremists, neo-Nazis, U.S. gang members and other former radicals to gather in Dublin this weekend to explore how technology can play a role in de-radicalization efforts around the globe.

The “formers,” as they have been dubbed by Google, will be surrounded by 120 thinkers, activists, philanthropists and business leaders. The goal is to dissect the question of what draws some people, especially young people, to extremist movements and why some of them leave.

“We are trying to reframe issues like radicalization and see how we can apply technology to it,” said Jared Cohen, the 29-year-old former State Department official who agreed to head Google Ideas with the understanding he would host such a conference. “Technology is part of every challenge in the world and a part of every solution.”

In forming Google Ideas, company officials said, they were eager to move beyond the traditional think tank model of conducting studies and publishing books, saying their “think/do tank” would make action a central part of its mission.

But in its first venture, the decision to enter the space between thinking and doing is also drawing some criticism as Google steps enthusiastically into what many view as an in­trac­table, enduring problem — and one that has traditionally been left to governments.

Google Ideas may be setting its sights too high, said Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and getting terrorists to give up violence may be a more attainable goal than getting them to change their sympathies.

“You’ll never make a hard-core jihadi into a Jeffersonian democrat — it’s just not going to happen,” he said. He also noted that while there may be common threads to why people join extremists groups, the remedies to that problem are more likely to be “culturally, and even country, specific.”

Harvard University professor Joseph S. Nye Jr., who specializes in theories and application of power, agreed that the endeavor “could be problematic — especially if it is perceived to be in conflict with the foreign policy of the United States.” He added that the ambition could “complicate things further since profit is ostensibly involved.”

Officials at Google express little concern that their efforts are overly ambitious or will tread in others’ territory.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, said the company decided to get in the think tank business with the goal of tackling “some of the most intractable problems facing mankind by combining a new generation of leaders with technology. . . . We’re not looking for silver bullets but new approaches.”

Up to now, efforts to reform extremists have largely been government-run and focused on distinct groups. Many of the programs have operated in Muslim countries, and their sponsors have struggled with whether it was enough to get radicals to disengage from extremist movements or whether they must reject extremism and embrace mainstream values.

Cohen said the approach at the conference will be to treat extremism as a universal problem that cuts across cultural, ideological, political, religious and geographic boundaries. Bringing together former extremists from a variety of backgrounds, he theorizes, could point to common factors that pull people into violence.

“If we compartmentalize different radicalization challenges, that also means we compartmentalize the de-radicalization solutions,” and that could be a lost opportunity, he said.

Although he didn’t want to prescribe an answer, he said a campaign in the coming months could harness the power of YouTube, employ advanced mapping techniques or create alternative Web spaces to compete with radicalizing voices.

Cohen, a former aide to Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Rodham Clinton who had focused at the State Department on counterterrorism and radicalism, said he joined Google to escape some of the limitations on what can be done within a government agency to address extremism.

“You can’t build things,” said Cohen, noting that government often lacks the resources to create technologies aimed at complex social and political problems.

In his new job, heading a think tank supported by a company that earned $30 billion in sales last year, the limitations are quite different.

“There’s no sense in bothering with some of these challenges at a place like Google if we can’t take risks,” he said.

In the future, Cohen predicted, the think tank will take on the challenges of fragile states, democracy building, and questions about the Internet and society.

Google Ideas, with six full-time employees working out of the company’s New York offices, is somewhat removed from the Washington environs where Cohen had operated for the past several years. He had become known at the State Department for bringing together unlikely participants, often in gatherings with a strong technology component.

In 2009, Cohen drew attention when he asked a friend, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, to delay a scheduled maintenance shutdown so protesters in Iran could coordinate during an uprising and reach international media.

The White House had wanted to fire Cohen after the incident, out of concern the United States would be seen as meddling in Iranian affairs, according to a report in the New Yorker, but he stayed in his job.

This weekend’s conference, formally known as the Summit Against Violent Extremism, or SAVE, will run Sunday through Tuesday.

Among the speakers will be T.J. Leyden, a former skinhead leader from California and now executive director of Hate2Hope. Leyden has said he began to turn away from the white supremacist movement as he watched his young children take on his anger and bigotry.

Another participant, Maajid Nawaz, is a British citizen of Pakistani descent who resigned from Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamist group whose goal is to establish a global Islamic state, and now leads an organization that counters Islamic extremism.

The conference will also include Carie Lemack, whose mother was killed in one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center. Lemack co-founded Global Survivors Network, an organization for victims of terrorism and produced the documentary “Killing in the Name.”

“The hope from the conference is that we will figure out some of the ‘best practices’ of how you can break youth radicalization,” said James M. Lindsay, a senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations, which is helping organize the summit.

Cohen also turned to the Tribeca Film Festival, which was founded to help bring people back to the lower Manhattan neighborhood after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Jane Rosenthal, co-founder of the festival, is making a film about de-radicalization that will draw on the work coming out of the conference. “You have to create deeper opportunities for involvement,” she said.

Follow Allen McDuffee’s reporting from the Google Ideas conference at Think Tanked and live updates on Twitter.

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