July 29, 2023 | The Times

Profile on Julia Ebner for The Times: “My life undercover” infiltrating extremist groups

ISD’s Senior Resident Research Fellow Julia Ebner has spent the better part of the last decade undercover, infiltrating extremist groups and movements both on- and offline. In a profile interview with The Times, she talks about her career as an extremist researcher, the threats and challenges she’s faced– especially recently investigating incel groups–, and her new book on the mainstreaming of these ideologies.

Julia began her career in London, when “Islamic State was beginning to recruit foreign fighters from Europe and launching its first terrorist attacks in the UK and in Europe. The Bataclan [theatre attack in Paris in 2015] was a turning point personally, because that’s when I decided to devote my life to studying extremism. […] It was a point where I thought it’s really important to understand better what drives people towards extremism and terrorism on a psychological level. I wanted to do something to prevent attacks.”

Extremism has morphed since then and thanks to a growing number of global-scale crises and social media and artificial intelligence technology, newer movements are growing at unprecedented levels. Many of these groups and movements are based on ideologies or concepts that move away from logical, science-accepted theory to ones of myth and conspiracy, in an attempt to understand difficult situations, she explains.

“That has really caused a lot of people to have very deep frustrations with politics and with any kind of established institutions, including the media and even the sciences.” Speaking on the involuntary celibate movement, or incels, “a lot of people came to [online] incel platforms during COVID times, during the lockdowns, when it was really hard to meet people. That was unfortunately an accelerator. We saw the volume in the content and in the accounts on incel forums go up sharply during lockdowns.”

During her online incel investigation, Julia found men who suffer from low self-esteem, depression and rage. She explains that the incel community is “divided into two parts. One is leaning towards self-harm and suicide, but the other part of it is more prone to violence against others or hatred for others who are perceived as an enemy.”

Julia’s research aims to understand what turns “self-hatred, loneliness and deep frustration” into “hatred for others.” She explains that one of the biggest challenges for security and intelligence services “is that there are so many threats, and you never know which one you have to take seriously. There are many empty threats, and that’s what I’m really interested in – what is the difference between someone trolling and someone potentially committing a terrorist act?”

In her interview, Julia also talks about the safety reason of why she might be at the end of her undercover work, as well as the personal and psychological challenges. “It is personally challenging going into the incel forums and violent misogynist channels. That touches my own identity as a woman. I think that has a really big psychological impact.”

Despite these challenges, Julia’s concern on the evolution of extremist ideologies and fear of missing the organisation against her or the planning of a terrorist attack motivates her to keep going. She says she is more concerned with the mainstreaming of these extremist ideas and the erosion of evidence-based thinking. “We could potentially see a reversal of everything we achieved in the Renaissance of going from mythos to logos — myth to logic. We are seeing a return to not using evidence-based scientific frameworks but going the other way, towards using more myth-based thinking and ideas that are no longer based on scientific evidence.”

“The most disturbing question we have to face is whether we could potentially be entering a new form of the Middle Ages — the digital Middle Ages.”

The full interview is available at The Times.

Her latest book ‘Going Mainstream. How extremists are taking over’ is available for purchase online.