Students are the newest US weapon against terrorist recruitment

Students listen as Hillary Clinton speaks at commencement at Wellesley College on May 26, 2017 in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Students listen as Hillary Clinton speaks at commencement at Wellesley College on May 26, 2017 in Wellesley, Massachusetts.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The United States Department of Homeland Security is enlisting American college students in its efforts to stop the radicalisation and recruitment of young people, mostly immigrants, by foreign terrorist groups.

Under a programme called Peer to Peer: Challenging Extremism, students at dozens of universities are given a budget of up to US$2,000 (S$2,739) each semester to develop social media campaigns and other tools to counter the online recruiting efforts of terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Mr George Selim, director of the Office for Community Partnerships at Homeland Security, said about 50 to 75 universities voluntarily participated in the programme each year. Students enter a competition judged by Homeland Security and other national security officials, and the winning school is given US$5,000.

On Tuesday (July 18), the department awarded students at the University of Maryland first place in the competition for developing a project that helps friends and neighbours recognise signs of radicalisation in young people. It is built around a video game and a social media campaign.

"Who better to push back against the prejudice, bigotry and hate online than students?" said Mr Tony Sgro, the president of EdVenture Partners, the company that created the programme.

Countering violent extremism online has become a focus of the US government in recent years as groups like ISIS and Nigeria's Boko Haram have successfully used the Internet to market themselves and gain recruits. Dozens of young people from the US have joined groups like ISIS.

But the government has long struggled to counter the groups' use of social media.

So officials at Homeland Security and other federal agencies have turned to the very people whom terrorist groups are trying to attract: young people.

"The programme addresses two fundamental things," Mr Selim said. "It brings real-world national security problems to the classroom, and it gives young people a chance to have their voices heard."

Although most of the programme seems to focus on countering foreign terrorist groups, Mr Selim said students were also encouraged to develop campaigns to counter the violent messaging of domestic hate groups. The University of Maryland project targets white supremacist groups as well as gangs like MS-13.

Government programmes to counter violent extremism have been criticised by some civil liberties groups, which say that ideology is not a clear predictor of terrorism. Some Islamic organisations worry that the programmes are a way for intelligence and law enforcement agencies to gather information that can be used to arrest Muslims.