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What Causes Regular People to Become Terrorists?

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AP Photo/Sidali Djarboub

Susan E. Wills - published on 01/22/15 - updated on 06/07/17

Most of the "experts" have it all wrong

The January 7 terrorist attack on the offices of the satirical newspaper “Charlie Hebdo” and the subsequent hostage-takings and murders stunned Europe and prompted the swift arrests of over two dozen suspected Muslim terrorists in Belgium, France, Germany and Greece. Two ISIS-affiliated terrorists were killed in Verviers, Belgium in a raid that thwarted an attack authorities deemed “hours away.” These events prompted media to raise questions you may have asked yourself:  

Why would anyone commit such acts? Could the French government have prevented these 20 deaths by profiling and tracking the Kouachi brothers, Amedy Coulibaly and their accomplices? How do Muslim extremists become radicalized, i.e., how do they go from living normal lives to murdering innocent people in a manner calculated to evoke widespread terror? Why haven’t decades of counterterrorism efforts stopped the escalation and brutality of terrorist attacks, like the one in Paris and the January 3-7 Boko Haram massacre of possibly 2,000 Nigerian men, women and children?

And why, in light of these concerns, would the Obama Administration release five more terrorist detainees from Guantánamo Bay — Yemeni nationals who’d been captured in a raid on an Al Qaeda hideout in Pakistan — claiming that they no longer pose a threat to the West? Is it even possible to take the radical out of the terrorist (or the terrorist out of the radical) through “de-radicalization programs?”

Questions like these have been explored in tens of thousands of articles and books: Amazon lists 34,990 books on terrorism as of January 18. British terrorism expert Andrew Silke, PhD, estimates that a new book on terrorism is being published every six hours, and that’s just the books in English.

So you’d think we’d know everything there is to know about the “typical” terrorist profile, their motivations, their transformation into radicals, their entry into terror groups and the group’s dynamics, and, if they leave terrorism behind, their reasons for disengaging from the group. But unfortunately, most of the “answers” and explanations are either wrong or irrelevant (not “actionable,” i.e., useful for counterterrorism efforts) according to experts like Silke (“Research on Terrorism: Trends, Achievements and Failures”) and John Horgan, PhD (“The Psychology of Terrorism”), a University of Massachusetts (Lowell) professor and director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies.

How can that be? A 1988 assessment of terrorism research by Alex Schmid and Albert Jongman explains:

Much of the writing in the crucial areas of terrorism research … is impressionistic, superficial, and at the same time often also pretentious, venturing far-reaching generalizations on the basis of episodal evidence.

They added: “there are probably few areas in the social science literature on which so much is written on the basis of so little research.” [They estimated that] “as much as 80 percent of the literature is not research-based in any rigorous sense; instead it is too often narrative, condemnatory, and prescriptive” (quoted in Chapter Two of “
Terrorism Informatics: Knowledge Management and Data Mining for Homeland Security,” authored by Dr. Silke).

Silke’s more recent literature review found that 68 percent of the books and articles published in the 1990s were speculative and still not grounded in primary research.



Dr. Horgan agrees that the field of terrorism and radicalization is “still quite haphazard.”


We try to explain things before we understand what we’re looking at. … There are gaps in the field. We have little data but millions of theories. Metaphors abound.



Horgan maintains that counterterrorism efforts have been hampered by the lack of rigorous, quality research, as well as by the tendency of political leaders to act based on a political calculus rather than listening to experts who have produced solid research. Dr. Horgan is on a mission to deepen our understanding of and response to terrorism by improving the quality of the literature through empirical research using primary sources (e.g., interviews with former terrorists), arriving at conclusions based on the evidentiary data, and applying statistical tools to analyze data.

Based on his extensive interviews of 160 to 180 former terrorists, Horgan suggests these answers to the questions posed above:

Why would anyone commit such acts?We don’t know why. Even the terrorists don’t really know what their motivations are. To be honest, we usually don’t know why we do things either. Human decisionmaking is enormously complex. In addition, asking “why” is not helpful because often the terrorists’ reasons can change over time and the interviewer is likely to hear the propaganda version that terrorists learn to parrot from other members of their group. Dr. Horgan believes that the more important question to explore is how they became involved, how they joined up or were recruited by a terrorist group.

Could the French government have prevented 20 deaths by profiling and tracking the Kouachi brothers, Amedy Coulibaly and their accomplices? An NYPD report after 9/11 (“Radicalization in the West”) simplistically characterized radicalization as a straight-line trajectory from being a “normal” adherent of Islam, to becoming a religious radical to joining a terrorist group to engaging in terrorist violence. The FBI and other counterterrorism experts have come to realize that there is no useful “profile” for accurately identifying people who may one day be open to committing acts of terrorism. The factors are too numerous and complex. Looking at the common attitudes and circumstances among terrorists who were open to recruitment,
identified by Horgan, shows why infiltrating mosques and hanging out in hookah bars is a waste of time and resources. These folks tend to —

(a) Feel angry, alienated or disenfranchised.
(b) Believe that their current political involvement does not give them the power to effect real change.
(c) Identify with perceived victims of the social injustice they are fighting.
(d) Feel the need to take action rather than just talking about the problem.
(e) Believe that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral.
(f) Have friends or family sympathetic to the cause.
(g) Believe that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards such as adventure, camaraderie and a heightened sense of identity.


How do Islamic extremists become radicalized
, i.e., how do they go from living normal lives to murdering innocent people in a manner calculated to evoke widespread terror? 
A May 2013 article in “Rolling Stone” quotes
Horgan as saying —

The idea that radicalization causes terrorism is perhaps the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research. [First], the overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in violence. And second, there is increasing evidence that people who engage in terrorism don’t necessarily hold radical beliefs.
Jamie Bartlett, Director of Demos’ Centre for the Analysis of Social Media,
concurs that holding radical beliefs does not predict who will engage in terrorist acts:



I have found that many home-grown al-Qaeda terrorists are not attracted by religion or ideology alone — often their knowledge of Islamist theology is wafer-thin and superficial — but [they are] also [attracted by] the glamour and excitement that al-Qaeda type groups purport to offer.



Horgan believes it is important to recognize that behind the big “social, political and religious reasons people give for becoming involved” — for example, occupation by a foreign nation, drone strikes that kill innocent wedding guests and limit day-to-day activities, the sense that their culture is being annihilated — “there are also hosts of littler reasons — personal fantasy, seeking adventure, camaraderie, purpose, identity” and these “lures can be very powerful, especially when you don’t necessarily have a lot else going on in your life. …”

In the second edition of his book “The Psychology of Terrorism,” Horgan cites a 2013 study by Dyer and Simcox based on interviews of 171 Al Qaeda members. They found five different categories of reasons why people got involved in terrorism. 

But the elusive profile and search for root causes,
Horgan contends, are far less useful to research than looking at the pathways and “routes” to terrorism — how individuals are recruited or join a group, how they are trained, how they tackle the logistical problems of finding a “safe house,” getting cash, weapons and supplies for bombs, how and where they learn to shoot automatic weapons, how they obtain vehicles and how they transition from peripheral roles into directly committing acts of violence. In short, he believes counterterrorism efforts can be better informed and devised if researchers study terrorism as something one does rather than what one is.

Why haven’t decades of counterterrorism efforts stopped the escalation and brutality of terrorist attacks, such as the January 3-7 Boko Haram massacre of possibly 2,000 Nigerian men, women and children?

I can suggest a number of reasons. Political and military leaders have been forced to learn what they can about asymmetrical warfare on the fly, hence, as many commentators have noted, the West seems always to be fighting the “last battle,” not the next. That’s why we’re subjected to intrusive TSA screening at airports
— to regularly test the hands of middle-aged Anglo-Saxon grandmothers for bomb residue, to ferret out shoe bombs, flammable liquids (I hope your girlfriend enjoyed my nearly new bottle of Chanel No. 5, Mr. TSA agent in Hartford, Connecticut), pistols, knives and boxcutters, along with embroidery scissors and crochet hooks.
Historically, state warfare has involved the movements of large armies made up of individuals who value their own lives and the lives of their comrades. Rarely has the West encountered combatants who prefer martyrdom. Only the kamikaze pilots at Pearl Harbor come to mind. And, frankly, we haven’t figured out how to deter such suicide-minded people except by killing them first, not an entirely humane solution.

It’s not easy for Western nations targeted by terrorists to know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Who can know whether an intervention to prevent the slaughter of innocent people will work or backfire? Our intervention in Syria, for example, likely ended up supplying ISIS with U.S. material. 

Some political leaders prefer dialogue and appeasement to taking unpopular military action, while at the same time supporting terrorists by paying millions of dollars in ransom for the return of kidnap victims. Other leaders pursue military action and effectively defeat one group, but the defeat may then serve as a recruitment tool to bring many more aggrieved persons into terrorist groups.

There are countries outside the Middle East and North Africa that support Middle Eastern terrorists by supplying them with weapons and financial aid to gain oil and/or strategic advantage over the West. 

And why, in light of these concerns, would the Obama Administration release five more detainees from Guantánamo Bay — Yemeni nationals who’d been captured in a raid on an Al Qaeda hideout in Pakistan — claiming that they no longer pose a threat to the West?

Is it even possible to take the radical out of the terrorist (or the terrorist out of the radical) through “de-radicalization programs”?

Those related questions will be the subject of the next article: How to Tame the Terrorist Within.



Susan Wills is a senior writer for Aleteia’s English-language edition
Tags:
Islamist MilitantsSyriaTerrorism
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