Understanding Violent Extremism, 'Blockships,' VMT Fee: RAND Weekly Recap

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April 2, 2021

We discuss firsthand accounts of violent extremism; the Suez Canal grounding; why it may be time to consider a Vehicle Miles Traveled fee; tools to fight foreign election interference; Colombia's trailblazing model for refugees; and retaliation against military sexual assault victims.

Light catches the security fence around the U.S. Capitol, erected in the wake of the January 6th attack but now scheduled to be removed, in Washington, D.C., March 15, 2021, photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Learning from Firsthand Accounts of Violent Extremism

Terrorism and ideologically inspired violence represent a persistent, serious threat to national security. On January 6, Americans watched this threat become a reality in the deadly attacks on the U.S. Capitol.

Why do individuals join extremist organizations? How do they become radicalized? And what could lead them to eventually leave such groups?

To help answer these questions, RAND researchers interviewed former extremists and their family members, representing 32 unique stories of 24 white supremacists and eight Islamic extremists. Here are just a few of the key takeaways:

  • Negative life events—abuse or trauma, family problems, bullying—may be part of radicalization. But they are never the sole cause.
  • When recruiting new members, radical groups leverage psychological vulnerabilities—for example, by using cognitive strategies to reinforce hatred toward people outside the group.
  • Media literacy and access to diverse sources of information appear to be critical for deradicalization. And experiences with diversity could help, too: Exposing radicalized individuals to people outside the group who exhibit kindness and generosity have shown positive effects.

The insights gleaned from these interviews helped RAND researchers develop recommendations to prevent radicalization and promote deradicalization. The findings also emphasize the importance of incorporating the voices of individuals who have personal experience with radical ideology into U.S. efforts to counter violent extremism.

Stranded ship Ever Given, one of the world's largest container ships, after it ran aground, in the Suez Canal, March 28, 2021, photo by Suez Canal Authority/Handout via Reuters

The Ever Given, one of the world's largest container ships, after it ran aground in the Suez Canal, March 28, 2021

Photo by Suez Canal Authority/Handout via Reuters

The Suez Grounding Was an Accident. The Next Blockage Might Not Be

A massive container ship blocked the Suez Canal for six days before finally being dislodged on Monday. The incident is a reminder of the “fragility of maritime lifelines,” says RAND's Scott Savitz. And although it was an accident, there is a long history of intentionally grounding vessels, a tactic known as “blockships.” With new technologies, such as unmanned ships and cyber warfare, blockship strategies have become even more effective—and potentially more dangerous, says Savitz.

A traffic jam on the 5 freeway heading south in Orange County, California, photo by MCCAIG/Getty Images

Photo by MCCAIG/Getty Images

Time for a Vehicle Miles Traveled Fee?

The gas tax no longer suffices to pay for America's roads and bridges; it hasn't kept up with inflation, and cars are becoming more and more fuel-efficient. What if the gas tax was replaced by a federal vehicle miles traveled fee, or VMT, that charges motorists based on how far they drive? Like any new tax, a VMT fee would be unpopular. But according to RAND's Liisa Ecola and Laura Patton, the main obstacles—privacy concerns, fear of double taxation, and political will—can be overcome.

People are silhouetted as they hold mobile devices in front of a screen projected with a binary code and a Russian flag, in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, October 29, 2014, photo by Dado Ruvic/Reuters

People holding mobile devices in front of a screen projected with a binary code and a Russian flag, in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, October 29, 2014

Photo by Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Can PSAs Help Fight Foreign Election Interference?

During future U.S. elections, Russia may try again to manipulate and divide voters using social media. In a new study, RAND researchers conducted focus groups to find out whether public service announcements could prevent foreign disinformation from taking hold. Participants were first shown Russian-made memes designed to breed conflict; most mistakenly assumed that this content came from Americans. Then, they were shown a PSA about foreign election interference. Most participants responded positively, especially after learning that the memes they viewed came from Russia.

A Venezuelan refugee with his daughter on his shoulders asks for help at a traffic light in Medellin, Colombia, February 11, 2019, photo by David Himbert/Hans Lucas via Reuters Connect

A Venezuelan refugee with his daughter on his shoulders asks for help at a traffic light in Medellin, Colombia, February 11, 2019

Photo by David Himbert/Hans Lucas via Reuters Connect

Colombia's Trailblazing Model for Refugees

Colombia recently announced it will give temporary protection status to a million undocumented Venezuelan refugees. Refugees will be permitted to work legally for 10 years while contributing to the tax base that funds social services. RAND experts say this approach benefits both the refugees and the host country. And by giving refugees a reprieve to earn a living, “Colombia is promoting economic inclusion in the face of a persistent global problem.”

One soldier comforts a depressed soldier, photo by A1C Kathryn R.C. Reaves/U.S. Air Force

Photo by A1C Kathryn R.C. Reaves/U.S. Air Force

Retaliation Against Military Sexual Assault Victims

Fear of retaliation is often identified as a barrier to reporting sexual assault in the U.S. military. But little is known about the predictors of such retaliation. A new RAND report helps to fill this gap, documenting factors that may increase the risk for perceived professional and social retaliation against U.S. service women who have been sexually assaulted. Among the key findings: Perceived professional retaliation was a higher risk when the perpetrator had authority over the assault survivor via the chain of command.

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