By Ken Picard
on Thu, Feb 2, 2017 at 12:36 PM
File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
Team “Norwich EMIT” includes (L to R): Professor William “Travis” Morris, Emran Babak, Naomi Rinaldo, Jacob Freeman, Akshay Awasthi and Yushan Xireli.
Students from Norwich University have once again proven their mettle in taking the fight to America’s adversaries. On Wednesday, a team of Norwich students were awarded the nation’s top prize in “P2P (Peer-to-Peer): Challenging Extremism,” a nationwide collegiate competition aimed at countering foreign and domestic extremism through social media campaigns.
“We’re still in a little bit of shock that it’s all over,” said Jacob Freeman, a senior in war and peace studies from Wake Forest, N.C., who was reached by phone Thursday while the team was still in the nation’s capital. Freeman said that the judges, who included officials from the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, asked “very pointed questions” about their project.
Evidently, the judges were impressed by what they saw and heard. “Norwich EMIT,” as the team is called, was awarded first place: a $5,000 grant to expand its international counterterrorism campaign against other extremist groups.
EMIT — short for Extremist Mimicry Interception Tool — is a social media tool that aims to counteract the online recruitment tools used by international terrorist groups. Using search terms used by would-be violent extremists who may be trying to self-radicalize, Norwich EMIT pushes banner ads to their social media platform, such as Facebook, then redirects the user to EMIT’s own website, which closely resembles extremists’ recruitment tactics. The mock-extremist site then plants seeds of doubt using testimony from former members of the group.
How effective is Norwich EMIT? According to Akshay Awasthi — a senior in computer security and information assurance from New Delhi, India, who serves as the team’s tech guru — the EMIT site has survived more than 4,800 cyber attacks in the last two months. The online assaults presumably were launched by violent extremists angered by the tool’s methods. To ensure the students’ safety, nothing on Norwich EMIT links users back to them, Norwich University or Vermont; the team even received a briefing from FBI agents on how to ensure their anonymity online. The students also didn’t reveal publicly which group(s) they initially targeted.
The other three team members are Naomi Rinaldo, a sophomore from Middlefield, Conn., and a political science major; Emran Babak, a freshman from Kabul, Afghanistan majoring in international studies and international security; and Yushan Xireli, an ethnic Uighur from Ürümqi, China. Four of the five Norwich team members have direct, firsthand experience with violent extremist groups recruiting in their home communities.
For more on the P2P: Countering Extremism campaigns, click here.
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.