Former Extremists Discuss De-Radicalization

Google has invited former extremists — gang members, religious radicals and neo-Nazis — to meet with activists, survivors, academics and public sector officials in Dublin to discuss ways of "de-radicalizing" violent extremists using modern technology. Melissa Block speaks with Allen McDuffee, a Washington Post reporter and blogger who has been covering the Google Ideas Conference this week.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Dozens of former extremists - skinheads, Latino gang members, radical Islamists, Northern Irish paramilitaries - have gathered in Dublin this week. They're taking part in a conference on de-radicalization sponsored by Google's new think tank called Google Ideas, which put together this video to introduce the people they're calling the formers.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOOGLE IDEAS VIDEO)

Unidentified Man #1: They would hold me back and force me to watch as they stabbed my white English friends before my eyes.

Unidentified Man #2: I've stabbed three kids in my life, and I'm not proud of that.

BLOCK: When 9/11 happened, I actually celebrated the attacks. The racist attacks led me to suffer an acute identity crisis.

BLOCK: Allen McDuffee is in Dublin covering the Summit Against Violent Extremism for The Washington Post.

Allen, welcome to the program.

ALLEN MCDUFFEE: Thank you.

BLOCK: And as you listen to these formers, these former extremists, are there threads that tie their experiences together?

MCDUFFEE: There do seem to be. One of the themes would be the absence of parents. Maybe parents weren't involved at all. Maybe they had passed away before any of the children had grown up. Sometimes, it was because the parents were incarcerated, sometimes because the parents were involved in extremist movements themselves.

BLOCK: Interesting that you mentioned parents because I noticed that the mother of convicted terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui spoke on a panel today there.

MCDUFFEE: That's right. And it was actually one of the more heartwrenching presentations of the day. Moussaoui's mother had to dry her own eyes. And I looked around the room, many were doing the same.

She really talked about her own struggles about growing up and having been married off at the age of 14 herself and eventually going to Paris and divorcing and trying to figure out how she was going to raise her kids herself. And it just happened. Before she knew it, all of a sudden, Moussaoui was in an Islamist movement talking in very extremist ways.

He would turn to his own mother and say, you're the one that's supposed to be wearing the hijab here, and I won't have you over to my house unless you do. And from that moment on, it was a real drift apart between the two.

BLOCK: Hmm. Let's talk about the group behind this, the think tank, Google Ideas. What's the idea of this conference? What outcomes are they hoping for?

MCDUFFEE: Well, it's very interesting. Google Ideas was founded about eight months ago. And the man that they chose to head up this think tank is Jared Cohen, a 29-year-old who had been at the State Department for the last four years under both Bush and Obama administrations.

And Jerry Cohen, having been at the State Department, is very clear on what the government role is in de-radicalization, and he also knows that there are very severe limitations to that. And what they're saying they're doing is they're acting as a convener. That doesn't seem to quite measure up to what the expectations are of the participants and some of the skepticisms as well.

BLOCK: Yeah. Let's talk about the skepticism, because Google has come in for some criticism. And I imagine some of it would be this is all touchy-feely, no substance. What is Google doing in this business to begin with?

MCDUFFEE: There absolutely are those people who are asking that question. And it, in some ways, is still a question that remains unanswered. Why is a company like Google, a clearly profit-seeking company, engaging in world politics like this?

Their answer, of course, is that, we're not engaged in politics. We are engaged in the information business. We want to get as much information in people's hands as possible. And if that promotes change, that's great.

At the same time, there seems to be some recognition that they are engaging in politics because Eric Schmidt, the Google CEO, yesterday said, look. We're encouraging people to do things that their governments don't want them to do. And so they're definitely asking people to engage against the state.

BLOCK: Allen McDuffee, thanks so much.

MCDUFFEE: Thank you.

BLOCK: Allen McDuffie is a reporter and blogger with The Washington Post. He's in Dublin covering the Summit Against Violent Extremism sponsored by Google Ideas.

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