Jared Cohen on shattering misperceptions of violent extremists

To paraphrase Jared Cohen, a speaker at last week’s 99% conference, every idea starts with a misperception and that misperception must be shattered before real action can be taken. Cohen, who is currently the director of Google Ideas, was a member of the Secretary of State's Policy Planning Staff from 2006-2010 where his misperceptions were thrown for a loop.

He recounted that while at the State Department, he was sent to Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to document militant organizations and interview their members. He focused his efforts on learning more about how youth had become involved with these organizations. By retracing their socialization process through these interviews, he found that it was frequently by chance that young people became caught up with violent extremism – they got handed a flier on the street, dropped out of school, someone died - and in most cases they had no network to turn to for support. As Cohen described, “They were broken souls who would rather have had a pen in their hand.”

When Cohen traveled to Colombia on behalf of the State Department, he encountered a comparable situation. In conversations with ex-members of the militant FARC, the similarities were striking; it was as though he was talking to the young people he’d been interviewing in the Middle East. Frustrated by their circumstances, they got involved with radical groups by chance. Thinking he might be onto something, he traveled to Guatemala to interview former extremists and again, these stories were analogous to those Cohen had previously heard.  A pattern was emerging. It was another contingent of disenfranchised youth who had turned to radical violence.

So what could be learned from these formers - gang members, extremists, ex-members of Hamas, Hezbollah, FARC and more – if they were gathered together to share their experiences? That’s what Cohen, in his role at Google, is about to find out. From June 26-28 in Dublin, Ireland, Cohen, on behalf of Google, and in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Tribeca Film Festival, is bringing together former extremists to not only meet one another, but also to be provided with a platform to develop counter-movements dissuading young people from embracing violent practices.

“How do we overwhelm at-risk youth to distract them from getting into extremism?” Cohen believes it’s possible, but only with the participation of those who were once on the front lines of extremism. Cohen is the first to admit that this is a huge experiment but if it can alter the path towards misguided youth radicalization, it’s a chance worth taking.

On a related note: To see more examples of formers helping to curb violence, check out Gary Slutkin’s work with CeaseFire along with his PopTech talk.

Image: Jared Cohen via Stanford Alumni Magazine

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