Jason Blazakis on MIIS campus
Professor Jason Blazakis, director of the Middlebury Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism. (Credit: Randy Tunnell )

Increased spotlight on various white supremacist movements and threats of domestic terrorism in recent months and weeks has drawn media outlets to the experts and research of the Middlebury Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC).

Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies Professor Jason Blazakis is the founding director of CTEC. He came to the Institute after serving for a decade as the director of the Office of Counterterrorism Finance at the U.S. State Department, a role he came to after several years working on various aspects of counterterrorism and intelligence within the government. Blazakis, along with his colleagues at CTEC, including Deputy Director Kris McGuffie, and Digital Research Lead Alex Newhouse and a group of graduate research assistants, have been working on extremism research projects for several notable clients - in particular studying far-right extremism messaging online, why certain messages resonate with audiences, what key phrases, words, are being used to spread that message, what messaging is effective or not effective.

This year has seen an increased media demand for CTEC experts to explain methods and motivations of various extremist groups that are in the news. Below are a few recent examples that illustrate the depth of their expertise and research:

October 23, 2020 – Blazakis was interviewed on on local Monterey CBS affiliate KION about the case of a suspected member of the extremist Boogaloo movement who was arrested in Texas as part of an investigation into the civil unrest that happened in Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd. The man has ties to the suspect in the killing Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office.

October 18, 2020 - Blazakis and Newhouse were quoted by Business Insider warning that Russian extremists could exploit their ties with white nationalist groups in the US to instigate violence during the upcoming elections. They highlighted the role these ties play in exacerbating current divisions in countries like the United States, and how it was in Russia’s interest to allow these ties to deepen. The article also referenced CTEC’s April report on the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) to highlight the use of disinformation campaigns in these efforts.

October 8, 2020 - Blazakis penned an article for Slate analyzing the steps taken by militia members who were arrested for plotting to kidnap and assassinate Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. He was interviewed by CBS News on the same subject, describing the motivations of and steps taken by the arrested members.

October 6, 2020 - Blazakis was quoted by HuffPost in an article on the proposed Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act and the opposition it has faced by some in the Senate and the Department of Justice. He stated that this pushback on legislation combatting domestic terrorism should be evaluated “through the lens of the cult of personality driving executive branch decision-making.”

October 6, 2020 - Newhouse was featured in a Yahoo News article describing the way QAnon followers have leveraged social media recommendation algorithms to spread their conspiracies to other users. He explained how they exploit these algorithms by linking their ideas to other popular conspiracies, such as those surrounding vaccines and 5G, in order to “drive engagement to their videos or posts”.

September 30, 2020 - McGuffie was interviewed by Insider on the Proud Boys, a right-wing extremist group known for its violent tactics that President Trump told to “stand back and stand by” during the first presidential debate.

September 26, 2020 - Blazakis was quoted by The Washington Post on a newly launched terrorism review of Yemen’s Houthi rebel group by the Trump administration.

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Eva Gudbergsdottir