March 6, 2023

CGA Graduate Students Present In-Depth Research on Far-Right Extremists to Manhattan District Attorney’s Office

Far-right violent extremists pose an increasingly serious threat. To understand this threat, in the fall of 2022, MS students at the NYU SPS Center for Global Affairs (CGA) investigated the transatlantic linkages between violent far-right extremists in the US and Europe as part of a consulting practicum course with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. The practicum was developed and supervised by Professor Mary Beth Altier, head of the Transnational Security concentration and director of the Initiative for the Study of Emerging Threats.

The students summarized their findings in a 75-page report and presented them in a briefing to the hate crimes and counterterrorism units of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office on February 23rd.

According to Dr. Altier, the connection with the DA’s office came about through a CGA alum, a counterterrorism analyst, who contacted her about potentially running a practicum project similar to the one she ran with the US State Department in 2021. “Through the practicum, the students were able to apply what they learned to a timely real-world issue,” said Altier. “They were able to work for a high-profile client and develop not only substantive knowledge but also key professional skills and networking opportunities.”

While conducting their research, the six students—Joseph Levin, Jakob Wolk, Meera Alfalasi, Charlotte Finney (pictured left to right), Karly Timmons, and Mirko Viola—met with the DA’s office, reviewed the academic literature and policy reports, conducted primary research of web pages, social media, and court records, and met with key experts that specialize in far-right violent extremist groups.

Their research found no evidence of formal operational cooperation between far-right groups. What was more common were shared ideologies, identities, and symbols that facilitate informal collaboration, allow for the bottom-up creation of “affiliates” or chapters abroad, and help individuals traverse group boundaries online and offline.

“We discovered that there were few formal linkages between far-right groups in the US and Europe which in itself was surprising when you compared it to how organized and hierarchical jihadism is,” said student Charlotte Finney, who interns at a global risk advisory firm.

Her fellow student, Jacob Wolk, who aims to work in transnational security, added, “There are connections that exist—however, these connections were [primarily] at the individual level and were informal. They tended to be mid-to-senior-level leaders who traveled across the Atlantic in order to network and meet other far-right group members, usually at events such as far-right rock concerts or rallies.”

According to the report, the online space—including the exploitation of online gaming—has allowed for the proliferation and local adaptation of extremist ideologies. “It was very interesting to see how those groups have created these connections through simple means,” noted Meera Al Falasi, a student from Dubai interested in a career in the foreign service. “The usage of the internet and, specifically, chat rooms such as Telegram to spread those ideologies and to have that much impact through a text message, is fascinating.”

The collaboration with the DA’s office was a rewarding experience for the students. “Dr. Altier is one of the foremost experts on violent extremism, and it was an honor to work with her and my fellow colleagues on this practicum,” said Joey Levin, whose career plans include academic research on violent extremism and global governance, or risk management within the public and private sectors.

“Our report will advance the efforts of law enforcement towards better understanding these groups and individuals going forward,” Levin stated. “My hope is that professionals within both the public and private sectors will utilize it to bolster their efforts to prevent violence from these groups, as well as advance their knowledge of the internal dynamics that permeate across the entire far-right landscape.”

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