Countering Terrorism through Research
May 20, 2021
An incitement to research
In fall 2015, Meili Criezis ’17 was happily studying abroad in Paris. The history and French double major was having “an amazing experience,” she says, because she was researching and talking with experts about the 1954–1962 Algerian War of Independence from France, a revolution that, she says, “drew me in where I learned about the devastating effects of colonialism but also the long and complex struggle for independence.”
But then came the coordinated terrorist attacks carried out by the Islamic State (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) on Friday, November 13, 2015, in the French capital. At approximately 9:20 p.m., suicide bombers detonated their packs during a football (soccer) match outside the Stade de France, in Saint-Denis. Minutes later, mass shootings and suicide bombings spread panic at several cafés, bars, and restaurants in central Paris. Nearly simultaneously, a massacre began during a sold-out Eagles of Death Metal concert at the 1,500-seat Bataclan theater and ended just after midnight, with 90 people dead. In a matter of hours, the terrorists had killed 130 people and injured 416—the deadliest attacks in the country since World War II. Emotions were running especially high considering that France was still reeling from the two al-Qaeda attacks that had taken place a mere 10 months earlier: a mass shooting in the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a siege at Hypercacher Kosher supermarket that had left 17 (including a gunman) dead.
“My friends and I were safe in the dorm but were listening to the news,” Criezis recalls. “It was wild.”
Following the attacks, the Police Nationale warned that people should avoid gathering in large crowds. Still, hundreds of mourners congregated on the evening of November 15 to attend a candlelight vigil in the Place de la République. Criezis and a couple of her friends were among those who attended the event, where people were quietly praying, crying, and holding hands. Suddenly, a loud series of popping noises could be heard, and the crowd abruptly fled in fear, shattering glass candleholders and trampling shrines made of flowers and photos. “C’est un attentat!” (It’s an attack!) Criezis remembers hearing, followed by “somebody is firing from over there!” and “I saw a suitcase blow up!” One of her companions dashed off and could not be found in the chaos. The Southwestern junior started running but then doubled back when she realized her other friend was standing eerily still in the middle of the crowd, paralyzed by terror.
“It was really hard to keep my head straight because I wanted to panic, too.”
“I grabbed her hand and said, ‘We need to get out of here because if it’s an attack, there could be bullets flying!’” Criezis recalls. Coming back to herself, her friend suggested that they seek refuge in a store, but Criezis did not want to chance a hostage-taking situation, as had occurred at the Bataclan massacre two days before; instead, she knew they needed to find a cab. “It was really hard to keep my head straight because I wanted to panic, too,” she remembers. “It felt like pushing through mud to keep my head clear.” But she managed to flag down a taxi. The confused driver, unsure of what was happening, initially took his time maneuvering out of the area, even stopping to ask a police officer what was going on. But as soon as the officer directed him to evacuate the area immediately, Criezis says, “He peeled out of there crazy fast!”
Hours later, safely back in their dorm, Criezis and her friends learned that the popping noise they’d heard had been firecrackers. But, echoing the other mourners who had also fled the vigil, she says, “I thought it was a real attack! I thought we were going to die.” Criezis later discovered that even though it had all been a false alarm, footage of the panic at the vigil made it into an official ISIS propaganda video—a testament to the commonly understood notion that whether or not they are directly responsible for specific events, terrorist organizations achieve their goals when they spread fear and chaos, manipulate the actions of governments, and disrupt the behaviors of individuals.
As frightening as those moments in the square were, they inspired a new intellectual passion for Criezis. “I was already interested in political violence and international politics, but after that experience, I began to wonder, Why do people want to commit acts of terrorism? Why are there mass shootings, and how do individuals coordinate plans? What are the wider implications of a seemingly selective empathy depending on where in the world a terrorist attack occurs? How can counterterrorism measures contribute to further marginalizing already marginalized communities?” she explains. “That’s how I got obsessed with terrorism.”
The anxiety and excitement of research
After returning to Southwestern after her semester in France, Criezis continued researching the Algerian Revolution for her history capstone as well as North African immigration and Islamophobia in France for her French capstone. But she was also starting to learn more about terrorism and political violence, from the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda to white supremacists and militias. “I was actually kind of terrified even typing Islamic State or neo-Nazis into the search bar,” she recalls. “It’d be worse for people of color who are Brown and Black specifically, but even being Muslim, I thought, If I type this in, what if intelligence thinks I’m trying to join the Islamic State? So I tried to stick to academic articles, not [those groups’] actual propaganda, until I graduated.”
After college, Criezis landed an internship in her hometown of Houston at the local chapter of the World Affairs Council, an organization that hosts international speakers focusing on government and politics. She then interned for the city of Houston at the Office of Trade and International Affairs, where she got to meet diplomats and delegates from across the globe. There, a colleague who knew she was fascinated by political violence encouraged her to apply for a research job at the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security. Criezis was hired, to her surprise; she didn’t expect to land such a coveted position so soon after college. But, she explains, having “the background from Southwestern in terms of academic credentials really played into it”; her employers, for example, were impressed that she had collaborated with one of her SU mentors, Associate Professor of History Melissa Byrnes, on research in the Paris police archives about the Algerian Revolution and North African immigration while she was only an undergraduate.
Having a job funded by a government grant gave Criezis free rein to dig deep into the research she had felt anxious about conducting before. Now, using her proficiency in several of the seven different languages she knows (English, Arabic, French, Mandarin, modern Greek, Haitian Creole, and Spanish), she could safely observe the online chatter on encrypted apps and websites by white-supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, members of the Islamic State, and Al-Qaeda supporters without fear of triggering an investigation. “It was incredibly fascinating to see this stuff,” she says, and the scholars she interviewed “were so generous with their time.” She spent two years building up a knowledge base and developing advice for Houston’s community resiliency program, such as recommending greater attention to the mental health issues that sometimes lead vulnerable individuals to seek solace in extremist organizations instead of stigmatizing Muslims or focusing solely on Salafi-jihadist extremism. But the SU alum knew that graduate school was in her future, so she also spent her off-hours revising her history capstone research and the archival work she had completed with Byrnes for submission to a scholarly journal.
After successfully publishing “Islam, Gender, and the Algerian Revolution for Independence” in the peer-reviewed Visions and Revisions: New Scholars, New Interpretations as well as a research note about the Islamic State in another academic journal, Criezis was hired in 2020 as a program associate at the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University. Working remotely in Houston during the pandemic, she has spent the last year researching and publishing pieces on political polarization, white supremacy, and violent extremism. She describes her job as “look[ing] at the various extremist narratives in online spaces, collaborating on projects with the wider research team, and researching other topics related to violent extremism.” She also writes articles for the Global Network on Extremism and Technology (GNET), where her focus is more on the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and Salafi jihadism and how terrorists use digital tools and other technology to further their aims. It’s the kind of work Criezis finds fascinating and deeply satisfying.
In some of her most recent articles, the SU alum examines the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. She has also analyzed the anti-East Asian rhetoric of extremists in response to the shootings that took place on March 16, 2021, at three massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia. She found the latter incident compelling because it highlighted the importance of not prematurely labeling violence racially motivated because such messages can cause trauma and throw entire communities of color into panic. She also found the online chatter interesting because it began to reveal how some white supremacists consider Asians “honorary Aryans” in part because of the Japan–Germany alliance in World War II whereas others hate Asians as they do any other nonwhite race. The attacks were also of personal interest to Criezis, who is of Chinese descent. “We’ve faced discrimination, but it’s somewhat different from what other minorities experience. Unfortunately, the Asian model minority myth”—in which Asian Americans are erroneously homogenized and heralded as exemplars of overcoming racial inequity—“is often used as a tool against other races, especially to promote anti-Blackness,” she remarks. That myth is often deployed as a way to “divide and conquer” people of color. “I wish more people, specifically Asian communities, understood that so we could unite and support one another as minorities and realize how much of a shared struggle we have and not let the white-supremacist system manipulate us,” she says ardently.
How to market terrorism
Through ethnographic research and her in-depth coverage of political and extremist violence, Criezis has seen some differences between domestic terrorists and groups such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. “Networks of white-supremacist supporters and groups are very decentralized,” she says. “They’re not like ISIS, where you have a primary entity with a more centralized structure at its core.” For example, whereas the Islamic State adheres to a doctrinal canon of knowledge, white supremacists often fight about religion, with Christians, pagans, and atheists battling one another. “They also disagree a lot about the best way to recruit other white supremacists: ‘Do we just come out and say, White is right, heil Hitler, and if you are about this, then you need to join us? Or do we disguise our message and have that more covert, silent, creeping-into-the-mainstream tactic?’” she ventriloquizes. While interviewing former white supremacists who have only recently left their organizations, Criezis learned that such coded messages include rhetoric we often encounter on social media and political commentary, such as “it’s OK to be white; you’re victimized by a PC culture that doesn’t allow freedom of speech. So why don’t you come listen to us and hear what we have to say?” She adds that this strategy has insidious implications for university campuses: some white supremacists have described how they “targeted colleges and made connections with certain Republican clubs specifically to see whether they were receptive. Some were; some were not. But if the clubs were receptive, the white supremacists encouraged [the student organizations] to bring speakers to campus because they knew the next generation would carry the ideology,” she shares. “It’s a problem, and it’s important for people as a whole to be more aware of the various recruitment tactics these individuals may employ.”
While interviewing former white supremacists who have only recently left their organizations, Criezis learned that such coded messages include rhetoric we often encounter on social media and political commentary.
Criezis’s research has also revealed similarities in how groups like neo-Nazi groups and the Islamic State operate: by implementing strategies used by nonterrorist organizations. For example, like any corporation or nonprofit, domestic and international terrorist groups alike seek to address what are called pain points, a problem or gap that the organization can solve with a service or product. Terrorist groups specifically “hope to exploit individual grievances and feelings of inadequacy and lack of power,” she describes, “and to give people a social network. They want to fill that void for people through psychological and social manipulation and if possible. They want to draw on any anger people have.” She has further discovered that extremists deploy strategic thinking and planning just as any successful organization does. For example, the Islamic State has encouraged its members in their official propaganda to take advantage of flaccid U.S. gun laws to easily obtain firearms and assault weapons, a strategy used as well by white supremacists. Surprisingly, Criezis has also witnessed the “cross-pollination of instructional materials” online, such as when “white supremacists have taken bomb instructions from the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda and then passed them around to their supporters. They’ve said, ‘This isn’t our ideology, but these are the best instructions out there, so use them!’” And like the best practices wielded by the marketing and communications departments of any company, terrorist groups, too, are concerned with the image they want to portray to supporters, sharing lessons on how to create engaging videos and enlisting top-notch graphic designers, editors, and social media managers. “Millennial ISIS and white nationalist propagandists understand what does and does not appeal to a fellow millennial target audience. They know you can’t just get up and lecture for two hours,” Criezis says. “What is digestible for a younger crowd? Who is the target audience? It’s all about image, marketing, and branding as well as how to capture attention.”
Uncovering how terrorist organizations recruit individuals, maintain membership, and operate more generally has been “so fascinating” for Criezis. She admits that there were times when she has worried about her own safety as a person of color interviewing current members of white supremacist groups. However, she says, she is comforted by knowing that the actual likelihood of being a fatality of a terrorist attack is quite low. Moreover, “the important takeaway is we may think there must be something intrinsic in these neo-Nazi and other terrorist groups that is so horrible that the normal human being just can’t understand them when it’s the reverse: unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, these people aren’t monsters; they’re just like us because they are human,” she explains. “This is not at all to say that they shouldn’t be held accountable for the horrible acts they’ve done or that they should be excused and not face consequences for their actions. But we need to understand that they have grievances, loneliness, [and] anger, or maybe they’ve had a tragic life event where they feel lost and want to fill that void. They are human beings with faults and even personal positive traits.” Knowing that, she shares, makes research interviews more productive—and will ultimately help clarify how to dismantle such dangerous organizations.
The power of knowledge
Not everyone would expect college to prepare them for a career interviewing terrorists and researching extremist violence. But Criezis says that her academic experiences at Southwestern laid the foundations for her work—“especially the research skills that they encourage in terms of how do you cite things and how do you look for academic literature to have a knowledge base so you can build your own original argument,” she comments. She credits especially Byrnes’s history courses for sharpening her writing skills, and she is grateful that Associate Professor of French Francis Mathieu convinced her to major in the language because “there’s a ton of ISIS and Al-Qaeda content in French, so I read the chatter and the official propaganda in French.” She appreciates having learned outside the classroom, too, such as about the complexities of cross-cultural conversation through mentorship by Assistant Dean of Multicultural Affairs Terri Johnson, leadership in the Asian Student Association, and membership in Muslims and Allies and the Coalition for Diversity and Social Justice. “I love Southwestern and all the professors I had at SU—even the faculty I didn’t have for classes in my majors, like Dr. Eric Selbin and Dr. Melissa Johnson. It was such a positive, supportive environment, and I learned a lot from the realness of it—the good, bad, and just overall different experiences,” she shares. “I am so grateful for the mentorship and kindness from colleagues and friends throughout both college and post-college life!”
She could never have imagined that she’d end up where she is today, especially considering that as a first-year student, she thought she’d pursue a career in international relations or even politics, the latter being a field she has no love for now (except, of course, as it relates to extremist ideologies). Later this summer, she will be moving to Washington, DC, where she will begin pursuing her Ph.D. in justice, law, and criminology at the School of Public Affairs at American University. “I’m a person that enjoys sitting at the desk and doing the research and then writing a report,” she says. “I love the aspect, too, of talking one on one with people, such as talking with extremists and former extremists.” She jokes with friends that if anyone were to ever attempt to commit a hate crime against her on the street, she would likely scare them away with overly enthusiastic questions: “I’d be like, ‘Wait, do you have time for an IRB-approved interview? If you’re into white nationalism, please talk to me!’” she laughs.
Jokes aside, Criezis has not forgotten the panic of the false alarm at the Place de la République in Paris nearly six years ago; she still experiences residual anxiety at times. But that’s the intended result of terrorism, she says: it’s not just about taking lives; it’s about having a lasting “psychological impact” on individuals and communities and “getting governments to pour tons of money and resources into antiterrorism measures.” And the way she shares such explanations—with rapidity and a twinkle in her eye—demonstrates that the devoted researcher is absolutely passionate about what she does. She might identify as a cynic and is aware that many people question the relevance of academic scholarship, but she does believe that talking with former and current members of extremist groups and publishing findings about terrorism have practical value in the long run. “We can learn a lot,” she says. “And the more we understand these groups’ recruitment strategies and human nature on an individual level, the better we can prevent others from getting sucked in.” It’s that enthusiastic commitment to building knowledge that assures we’ll continue seeing significant contributions in the field of counterterrorism from Criezis in the years to come.