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What motivated the Capitol rioters
Opinion by Heather TsavarisUpdated: Tue, 19 Jan 2021 22:22:35
GMTSource: CNNEditor's Note: Heather Tsavaris served at the US
Department of State from 2002 to 2012, spending most of that time as a
senior terrorism analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
Subsequently, Heather served in a consulting capacity to the Department
of Homeland Security's Office of Community Partnerships and now
works to improve community well-being at the local level. The views
expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
As I watched the attack on our nation's Capitol, my heart broke
and I was so incredibly angry.
But this isn't about one day of events. When I watched the people
storming the Capitol, parroting talking points they have heard
ceaselessly on social media feeds for months, their words matched the
themes that I repeatedly saw during my 10 years working in
counterterrorism at the State Department's Office of
Counterterrorism and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence
I was an all-source analyst, which meant I spent my days reading
hundreds of intelligence reports trying to understand how al Qaeda, and
eventually ISIS and al-Shabab, planned their attacks and how they
recruited, radicalized and retained supporters.
Themes kept emerging. Recruitment messages were ones of strength that
landed so well for people who felt they had no power. They offered a
way to belong for people who felt like they were perennial outsiders,
and they claimed your life may have been insignificant up to this point
but, if you are willing to join the cause now, you will have meaning
beyond your wildest dreams. The culmination of a very different kind of
recruitment messaging that also played on themes of significance is
what I saw unfolding at the Capitol, and I am haunted by the images,
the words, the livestreams and interviews of people who participated in
the insurrection, and probably will be forever.
The sentiment that I heard repeated often from the rioters was that the
President invited them there and told them to storm the Capitol. I saw
videos of men who looked like the guys I grew up with in my small
mid-Western hometown, who would be far more at ease at a Friday night
high school football game than part of a group violently beating down
the doors of our nation's hallowed Capitol. I heard young adults
with wonderment in their voices, seemingly in disbelief that they made
it inside of the Capitol. There were also the people excitedly telling
one another, you have to tell your grandkids about this.
After the Capitol was secured and so many of us continued to reel in
shock, livestream footage from the lobby of the Grand Hyatt had a
There was a palpable sense of community, connection, and belonging
amongst those who had traveled to be part of a historic day. These
people had come to be together with others who were like them. They
chatted about where they had flown in from, how they were thrilled to
be meeting other "patriots," what this event meant to them --
mere hours after so much destruction and death had just occurred. One
irony for me was that the last time I was in that Grand Hyatt lobby, I
was receiving training from the US Department of Homeland Security on
countering violent extremism.
To be clear, while I noticed striking similarities between the
messaging themes like purpose, significance, and belonging that
influenced the Capitol rioters and how people are recruited to join
terrorist organizations, there were differences. One main one that I
saw: Terrorist groups aim to harm civilians, but the rioters intended
to disrupt a cornerstone of US democracy and, for a few at least, harm
elected officials because they believe unsubstantiated claims about
their votes were not being counted.
From a former terrorism analyst, who now works to improve community
well-being, I know what it looks like when those ravenous for power
manipulate people who feel they -- and their beliefs -- have been cast
aside. Until we deeply understand and address how every human needs
purpose, meaning, belonging and ways to contribute, there will always
be selfish people claiming to fulfill these most basic needs towards
their own narrow purposes, resulting in dire and sometimes deadly
As I, and so many others ponder what to do next, I can't help but
think about how the US government has tried for years to address
community awareness, deployment of credible voices pushing back against
extremist messages. All of these tactics have a place.
We are talking about a different situation here, though. A powerful
tool in this instance is deeper community engagement that seeks to
humanize, connect with, and profoundly understand the needs of our
neighbors, including those who went to the Capitol.
Some were intent to carry out violence, did so, and should be condemned
and fully prosecuted. But it would be useful to understand how, in the
propagating of violence, they found such clear purpose and meaning, and
intense belonging. Importantly, there are scores more who would never
consider violence but who feel exceedingly marginalized who also must
be heard -- frankly, on this issue and on so many more.
Although I no longer work in counterterrorism, my work is still very
much focused on promoting belonging, purpose, meaning and ways to
contribute in order to strengthen our local community.
To do this, I have led work in partnership with incarcerated men and
those recently returned home to understand and create solutions
together that improve their own sense of belonging when they are
released. In so doing, community power brokers have said to them -- we
need your help, your expertise. We can't do this without you.
I have engaged with formerly homeless young people to leverage their
expertise and ideas about how to support youth experiencing
homelessness during Covid. I have witnessed these young people step
into their power when they presented their work to city councils.
Realizing that they are making history in their community. That these
are the stories they will tell their grandkids.
The goal of this work is to listen without judgment, unearth new
insights, and create solutions together that offer true belonging and
well-being for us all. Maybe this is the kind of approach that could
provide more belonging for more people in a nation that really seems to
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