Norwich University has long been known for preparing future military leaders to take on America's enemies, both on the physical battlefield and in cyberspace. Now, a team of students from the private military college in Northfield has created a potent new weapon for disarming 21st-century enemy combatants — a tool that intercepts would-be violent extremists before they get radicalized and want to kill people.
The five Norwich students are finalists in P2P (Peer to Peer): Challenging Extremism, a national collegiate competition aimed at countering domestic and foreign terrorism. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and Facebook and facilitated by EdVenture Partners, an Orinda, Calif.-based consulting firm, P2P invited college teams from around the country to create social media tools that counter the online propaganda campaigns of terrorist organizations. Each team had a $2,000 budget and advertising credits on Facebook to help spread its message.
Of the 44 teams that submitted entries on December 7, Norwich's team was chosen as one of four finalists that will compete next week for the competition's top prize: a $5,000 grant to continue its efforts. On February 1, the Norwich students will travel to Washington, D.C. There they'll present their project to officials from the State Department and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who will ultimately choose the winner.
The Norwich students saw their counterterrorism campaign as more than a mere academic exercise. The team members come from four countries and collectively speak 14 languages. Four of them have firsthand experience with violent extremism in their home communities; some have lost friends to terrorist groups.
Emran Babak, a freshman majoring in international studies and international security, grew up in a military family in Kabul, Afghanistan. More than a dozen terrorist organizations, including the Taliban and the Islamic State, actively recruit and carry out attacks in his home country.
Akshay Awasthi is a senior in computer security and information assurance — his teammates describe him as their "tech genius." Awasthi hails from New Delhi, India, where radical Islamic groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Indian Mujahideen have staged terrorist attacks in recent years and actively recruit economically and socially disenfranchised youth.
Yushan Xireli is an ethnic Uighur from Ürümqi, a city in northwest China. A junior in international studies, Xireli knows people who've been recruited by the Islamic State. He was in Turkey around the time of the New Year's Eve terrorist attack, in which an Uzbek national killed 39 people in an Istanbul nightclub.
The team's collective experience with violent extremists also includes groups that operate on U.S. soil. Jacob Freeman, a senior in war and peace studies, grew up in Wake Forest, N.C., a town with a long history of white nationalism and violence perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan. Freeman distinctly remembers the anxiety and fear felt by friends and neighbors when the Klan circulated recruitment fliers in his town.
Naomi Rinaldo, a sophomore from Middlefield, Conn., and a political science major, is the Norwich team's fifth and only female member.
As the team members explain in a recent interview on the Norwich campus, the social media tool they created is called EMIT, short for Extremist Mimicry Interception Tool. It differs from entries submitted in past P2P challenges, which were essentially broad campaigns to raise public awareness of violent extremism. EMIT takes a more direct approach, targeting social media users in the 18-to-35-year-old group who are most at risk for being recruited by terrorist organizations.
Here's how it works: When social media users in a specific geographic region type in search parameters that are associated with violent extremism, EMIT pushes banner ads to their social media platforms. Those ads redirect the user to an EMIT website that closely resembles sites used by extremists for recruiting new members. The Norwich team extensively researched the platforms that extremist groups populate, as well as the hashtags they often employ.
"One of the big learning curves for us was, How do you reach out to individuals who are at risk, without telling them who to join?" Freeman says.
"Or without completely shutting them down, to the point where it would drive them to further want to be part of that group?" Rinaldo adds.
To strike that balance, EMIT's banner ads use neutral words, phrases and imagery that cannot be immediately interpreted as either promoting or discouraging extremist views.
"If you're into that kind of thing and that's already your thought process, we want you to be drawn in by what our message is," Freeman explains. "And, if you're not thinking that way, it doesn't inadvertently plant that seed."
When users arrive at EMIT's mock-extremist website, they find content that the Norwich team specifically created to implant its own messages. This includes written and video testimonials by former group members who still outwardly resemble extremists in terms of their dress, religious garb, tattoos, facial hair, use of language and other identifying symbols that lend them credibility.
"So, if you're into the group, it looks like they're talking the group up," Freeman says. "And then, about halfway through the content ... the script flips, and they [say], 'This is why it's bad, and this is why I got out and why you shouldn't join.'"
The Norwich team partnered with de-radicalization organizations that have expertise in providing the psychological and logistical support it takes to get people out of these groups, even those who are already "deep in the pipeline" to becoming extremists.
"It's almost like a cult," Freeman explains. The experts "help people physically remove themselves. But they also get [people] out of the group's circular logic and reconcile all that time they've spent thinking a certain way."
For obvious security reasons, the Norwich students won't publicly reveal which terrorist or extremist group(s) they've targeted or in which countries they operate. Nothing in the EMIT tool links it back to Norwich University, Vermont or any of the five students who created it, nor are EMIT websites hosted on Norwich servers. In fact, the team received a security briefing from the Federal Bureau of Investigation on how to maintain anonymity online.
"It was a little intimidating at first," Rinaldo recalls. "They were super supportive and thought it was a great idea. But then they had to take us back for a second and [say], 'You have to make sure that this can't be tied back to you, because you're going to put a huge target on your back.'"
The first hint of EMIT's effectiveness arrived almost immediately. The morning the tool went live, EMIT had two cyber attacks. In the month since its launch, Awasthi reports, EMIT has been attacked more than 4,800 times by agents in countries around the world.
"We knew that once this content was out there, we were going to get hit," Awasthi adds. "We didn't realize we were going to get hit this hard."
Though the DDoS, or distributed denial-of-service, attacks flooding the website didn't manage to shut it down, Rinaldo says the team took it as a "measurement of success" that extremists had taken notice.
Says Freeman, "We got in the arena with some really bad people and pushed them around. And they've been pushing back."
The team's academic adviser, Travis Morris, is director of Norwich's Peace and War Center and an expert on the propaganda of violent extremism. His recent book, Dark Ideas: How Neo-Nazi and Violent Jihadi Ideologues Shaped Modern Terrorism, analyzes the ideological roots of domestic and foreign terrorists.
Morris, who handpicked these five students from more than 40 who initially applied, says the team's accomplishments have been impressive, especially given that it had less than four months to complete the project. Morris provided a basic framework for the team to function, he says, but otherwise "the work and execution was all on their shoulders."
Unlike competitors at other colleges and universities, Morris adds, the Norwich team did its work entirely as an extracurricular project, not as a class assignment. Since two team members play varsity sports at Norwich — basketball for Rinaldo and rugby for Babak — the rest of the EMIT team often had to wait until their practices were over before getting to work. They frequently stayed up until 3 a.m. studying terrorist recruitment videos.
"It was hard to watch sometimes," Rinaldo admits. Especially in light of the current political climate in the United States, she adds, "my opinion on things has changed a little bit because of this project. I definitely think about [extremism] a lot differently than I did before."
Babak came to the U.S. to attend school in 2013. When he first heard about the P2P: Countering Extremism challenge, he recalls, he knew immediately that it would benefit him when he returned to Afghanistan. As he puts it, "It wasn't something out of the blue sky. It was something I was already looking for."
Babak says the team crafted EMIT to be easily adaptable to different extremist groups regardless of differences in geography, language and ideology. Most of these groups use similar recruitment techniques to target young people who are financially or socially "damaged," he explains. They apply "emotional triggers" that pump up new recruits, provide a sense of camaraderie and honor, and make them feel as though they're part of a larger religious or historic movement.
Xireli comes to the interview with Seven Days in a Corps of Cadets military uniform; he will eventually serve in the U.S. Army. He is acutely aware, he says, that EMIT could prevent the radicalization of someone whom he might otherwise face on a battlefield. Xireli cites the example of a man he knew in China whom the Islamic State recruited, exploiting his financial difficulties to lure him in.
"He was arrested two days ago with his son in front of him," Xireli says. "ISIS had promised to give him $180,000."
"People are realizing that you've got to get on the front end of this [extremism] rather than the back end," Freeman adds, "[when] the violence has been committed and people are dead."