A Counterextremism Handbook for Defeating the Far Right

John Kirbow
Jan 2, 2017 · 5 min read

Lessons from Science, Moral Psychology, and Warzone Counterinsurgency


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A book is in the works. Millons of sensible and decent people on the Left and the Right would benefit greatly from having these conversations. If you are among those people that beleive that such people dont exist on the ‘Other Side’, you are part of the problem. We need a new awakening in America and Europe if we are to even hope to gain serious ground against hate and extremism.

Amidst all the noise and partisan conflict, it seems like most in our media and political sphere understand how counterinsurgency works. It is about far more than force on force; its not merely kicking in doors or engaging insurgents with rifles, tanks or Striker vehicles. A crucial yet underrepresented part of counterinsurgency involves the use of nonlethal tools of face-to-face communication and cultural expertise. It is about working productively with villages, with tribal councils, or simply with the population at large. We did this amidst enormous differences in perspective, and amidst enormous cultural and religious points of moral conflict. These differences and frictions would arguably blow the hat off most people here in the Western world. Yet, we accomplished things together, across divides which most polarized Americans could not even imagine.

In this sense, counterinsurgency takes an approach grounded in credibility, respect and trust. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, this required a practical grasp of the tribal systems and cultural nuances. As well as realistic expectations about what we could accomplish, and how to accomplish it.

Here are some principles of combatting extremism and defeating radical insurgency that are more relevant to our political landscape than ever before. They are lessons that we can take from our warzones and the elite warriors who worked alongside local populations to combat pockets of extremism:

Understand the spectrum of political beliefs, motivations, and behaviors on the Other Side

Have a strategy of outreach and engagement with people who support ‘the Other Side’

Drive a wedge between the extremists and the wider population
Seek to build bridges with those who don’t share your goals. Find common ground

Engage and build bridges with diverse sections of the populace

Tailor your communication to reach people outside your inner circle of agreement

Engage with the population segments likely to be persuaded by extremist propaganda

These are lessons from Counterinsurgency and Counter-extremism that need to be carried over to how we understand the war of ideas and political battleground here at home, in America and much of Europe. In places in which the key ‘political and civil terrain’ is contested between various extremists and their echo chambers, we need to know how to respond. How to engage the different facets of the wider population with nuanced analysis and targeted messaging. And to do so with the humility to realize that many people we disagree with — which is often a rather sizable segment of the population at large — are not ‘The Enemy’. They should not be lumped into a simple category nor ‘otherized’ as an out-group.

If military leaders did this while working with Iraqis or Afghans, they would be swiftly rebuked for a failure to realistically understand the operational environment they are working in, and the complex social and human realities they are faced with. Of course (speaking as a veteran with a wide language and cultural skillset and time in both warzones), we did recognize this, and expressed a willingness to understand and engage with people who didn't always like us and whom we often didn't see eye to eye with. We worked along shades of grey, along a wide spectrum of human motivations and degrees of extremism and moderation, as opposed to seeing things in black and white.

If there is one message that our seasoned veterans and counterinsurgency experts should impart to American journalists, media figures, public intellectuals and political operators, it is this: stop seeing people outside your political community as The Enemy. Recognize a lively spectrum of motivations behind those who disagree with you. It is only in this understanding that you can even hope to meaningfully engage them, and shape the ‘human battlespace’ of ideas for the better. To drive a wedge between more and more of the wider population, and the extremists vying for their hearts and minds.

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Me wearing unauthorized sunglasses when I most probably shouldn't be.

These movements of white nationalism, supremacy and hate, in spite of being a minority among the people and even within the Right, are quite unsettling. Not to mention hurtful to a wide array of minority groups, including Muslims, blacks, Latinos, immigrants, gays, women, and others. The far Right — and even neo-Nazi type movements — are rapidly ascending across our political horizon and rising into increasing legitimacy in wider corners of America and Europe. We must isolate these pockets of tribal ignorance and defeat them. But this can only be done by working with the wider population, especially those with whom you may not agree with. Just because people are on the other side of an issue, or reside on a side of the political spectrum you don’t like, does not mean that they should be reflexively labeled as “extremists” or as bigots, racists, deplorables or xenophobes.

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The celebration of tribalism seen among people dividing themselves and our country into ‘Rural Heartland vs Cities’ is one of our defining problems. This divide — and the “otherization” of rural America into a “Deplorable Trumpland” by many of our intellectuals and elites, is cruel, hurtful and counterproductive. The need to engage more people across our rural landscape is greatly strengthened by the neglect that rural America — which is most of the country — has been facing for decades by our Establishment and media. There is an article ( ) contributed by Jon M. Bailey, former Rural Policy Program Director at the Center for Rural Affairs, that is among many writings and studies that highlight this. Our ability to engage the countryside of our own country will be a defining challenge, and our veterans can help. Our social science, moral psychology experts and alternative media can help in this “arms race of compassionate conversation”. How we meaningfully understand and engage more of our rural homeland should be far more important to any self-described ‘progressive’ than how witfully they can ridicule and berate it on social media in front of their peers.

Building bridges with those ‘on the other side’ is not only a good practice in isolating the true extremists from the wider population — it is an essential component of doing so.

This must start with a basic recognition by many on the Left and the Right. More on both sides must recognize that millions of people who are susceptible to “enemy propaganda” and partisan echo chambers from the other side are not ‘Bad People’. And in an environment ripe with extremism, otherizing them is one of the worst, most impractical and even dangerous things you can do.

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A book I am writing, with dialogues with conservatives — and liberals — across America, and across race.

Rather, they are people who we need to be talking to. They comprise the human terrain in which the contest of ideas must be fought, and we need a much better playbook for engaging it, across all sides. For in the war against extremism, be it here in America, within European cities, or across the villages, mountains and urban enclaves of our warzones, it is the local population that will allow us to win, and around which victory or defeat will be decided. This applies in Baghdad, and it applies in Kansas, in Arizona, in rural Mississippi, in Detroit, in our inner cities and our rural American countryside. It applies in London, in Paris, in Frankfurt, and all across smaller cities and town in Europe. In the fight against extremist movements and political insurgency, the population is the center of gravity. And — as a phrase echoed by many in the COIN community — “the ability to understand and engage the human terrain is at the tip of the spear”.

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Please read Parts 2, 3, 4 and 5 of this “Homeland Counterextremism” article series

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