Students Win National Competition with Tool to Counter Violent Extremism

Students Win National Competition with Tool to Counter Violent Extremism

By Akshay Awasthi ’17, Computer Security and Information Assurance, School of Business and Management

 During the fall semester of 2016 five students from Norwich University participated and won the P2P (Peer to Peer): Challenging Extremism, a national collegiate competition aimed at countering domestic and foreign terrorism. The competition was sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security, Facebook and EdVenture Partners. The focus of this competition is to design and develop online strategies to counter violent extremism.

The team from Norwich operated out of its Peace and War Center and was advised by the center’s director, Dr. William “Travis” Morris, an expert in counter-terrorism and national security. Dr. Morris is also nominated this year for the prestigious “Dodge Award.” The team was made up of five students who come from different nationalities, backgrounds and are fluent in 14 languages. Each performed specific roles:

  • Jacob Freeman, of Wake Forest, N.C., a senior in studies in war and peace, was the program manager and co-lead;
  • Akshay Awasthi, of New Delhi, India, a senior in computer security and information assurance, was the cyber specialist and co-lead;
  • Naomi Rinaldo, of Middlefield, Conn., a sophomore, political science major, was the public relations supervisor;
  • Yushan Xireli, of Ürümqi, China, a junior in international studies, was the finance coordinator and offline campaign manager; and
  • Emran Babak, of Kabul, Afghanistan, a first year student majoring in international studies and international security, was the research lead.

The team from Norwich competed against 44 schools from the U.S. for the first leg of the competition and won the spot for one of the four finalists in December 2016. The team was then flown to Washington, D.C., in February for the final presentation in which the students presented to an expert panel of judges comprised of high ranking officials from DHS, Facebook and other media and terrorism specialists.

After many long nights of difficult and sometimes grueling work, the team gave an impressive presentation and earned first prize of $5,000 to continue their good work.

What really impressed the judges was that the students created a unique and multilingual tool called E.M.I.T. (Extrimist Mimicry Interception Tool) that engages individuals in cyberspace who are interested in extremist content. EMIT works in the following manner: When social media users in a specific geographic region type in search parameters that are associated with violent extremism, EMIT pushes banner ads to their social media platforms and websites. Those ads redirect the user to an EMIT website that closely resembles sites used by extremists for recruiting new members. The team extensively researched the platforms that extremist groups populate, as well as the hashtags they often use. After the individual lands on the EMIT website that resembles the look and feel of a popular extremist website but which is populated with the content with a counter narrative. The individual can watch personal testimonies of the former extremists or even media content such as music. The team partnered with de-radicalization organizations that have expertise in providing the psychological and logistical support it takes to get people out of these groups, even those who are already “deep in the pipeline” to becoming extremists.

The team’s website faced a huge retaliation in the form of cyber-attacks. The website was attacked a total of 5,526 times within the first 65 days. To put the number of attacks into perspective: A website for the U.S. government gets attacked approximately 200 times a day, and the E.M.I.T. website was receiving 110 cyber attacks a day. The team takes this as a measure of success and hopes that EMIT can be used in the real world. Perhaps most impressive: analytics of visits to the website show that approximately 50 percent of visitors click through to expert resources that support those wishing to leave a hate group.

For the students this was more than a mere academic exercise. This project played an important role and helped them in learning important lessons, which are not taught in a classroom environment. Some key learning outcomes from the project for the students were:

  • Effective presentation skills.
  • Negotiating in a corporate environment.
  • Working with different departments on a real world assignment.
  • Importance of teamwork.