‘Average Mohamed,’ a Grassroots Effort to Counter Foreign Fighters

After a series of terror attacks, the most recent being the attack in Paris on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine, law enforcement and military personnel are tracking down terrorist cells. But in Minneapolis, one man is fighting extremist groups with cartoons.

Groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are using extremist narratives to lure young, impressionable people to join their causes and engage in violence. Countering their messages requires simple, direct ways of offering alternative narratives. Average Mohamed is a grassroots effort founded and driven by Minneapolis resident Mohamed Ahmed.

“It takes an idea to defeat an idea," said Ahmed. “Extremist ideology must be competed against. It only takes an average man to radicalize and recruit vulnerable young people, and it only takes an average man to offer a different, peaceful narrative. Average Mohamed is the answer to the ongoing efforts to mislead our children."

Ahmed’s target audience is young people, eight to 16 years old. For a generation raised on the likes of South Park and Sponge BobAverage Mohamed approaches vulnerable youth in a media format with which they are familiar and interested.

Ahmed’s innovative approach to counter recruitment and radicalization is groundbreaking, and it is one reason why USC’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) is working with him to better understand the terrorist threat to the Minneapolis Somali community and what CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) strategies are having an impact. Dr. Erroll Southers, the Director of Transition and Research Deployment and CVE Theme Leader at CREATE, is heading a team that is conducting on-the-ground fieldwork in Minneapolis, speaking with residents, community leaders, law enforcement, elected officials and others to better understand the landscape of community challenges that may make a young person susceptible to radical messaging.

“Our focus here is transferring knowledge to practice," said Dr. Southers. “Working with local grassroots efforts, such as Average Mohamed, gives us an opportunity to understand the kinds of initiatives that are moving the needle on countering radicalization and recruitment and why they are successful. This kind of applied research could help the country – and the world – improve their efforts to prevent young people from walking the radicalization pathway."

The preliminary findings from this study will be presented on March 4 at a DHS CVE workshop in Washington, D.C. The Minneapolis project is one of several funded by the DHS Science & Technology Directorate, which is working with its Centers of Excellence (of which CREATE is the oldest) to support the Obama Administration’s goal of “degrading and ultimately destroying" ISIL. CVE is a priority for the Administration, and with a seemingly endless series of small-scale terror attacks across the world, it has taken on global urgency as well. An unconfirmed number of Americans have journeyed to join ISIL and other terror groups, and these so-called “foreign fighters" present a significant threat to safety and security. Not only could they conduct heinous attacks abroad; they could also use the operational experience gained by fighting alongside extremists to plot and launch an attack within their mother countries.

“The global security community has little hope of pushing back extremist groups unless we can stem the flow of new followers," said Justin Hienz, a counterterrorism analyst and scholar of religion, working with CREATE. “Efforts like Average Mohamed take a thoughtful, strategic approach to disrupting radicalization, and they are particularly effective because they are highly credible, led as they are by members of the community."

The rise of ISIL, the continued efforts from battle-tested core al Qaeda, the violence conducted by al Shabaab and other al Qaeda affiliates — these challenges and more make CVE a 21st century imperative. It is why Average Mohamed is such a compelling and important project.

“What is required is outreach on social media, websites and through live events," Ahmed said. “Not only can we compete with the extremists for the hearts and minds of our communities. We can win."