Tuesday, April 26, 2016

How terrorists are made

In the last decade or so, social science has focused attention on the question of how terrorism arises and sustains itself. Although research ongoing, an answer is beginning to come into focus. Current understanding points to a way out. However, the road to peace is going to take time, persistence and real moral courage to face reality. That’s probably no surprise to most people.

The good news is that with persistent focus and the courage to do so, any nation including all Western countries, can remove one of the two fuels that is necessary to sustain terrorism. The two fuels that ignite and sustain terrorism are (1) primed and ready new terrorist recruits and (2) how the terrorist group’s enemies respond to the terrorist group’s threats and/or actual violence. Both fuels are necessary to light the fire and to keep it burning with fresh manpower.

Most Islamic terrorists, more than 99%, are psychologically normal and not psychopaths or sadists. Conversion to terrorism is based not on the person’s initial ideology or religion. It is based on the person’s social identity and the dynamics of the person’s social group or country. A progression from normalcy to extremism appears to result from four things. Once they have converted, the converts aren’t mindless killers. They are marked by an unstoppable willingness to enthusiastically and creatively murder innocents.

Does this sound familiar?: If reference to social identity sounds vaguely familiar to some readers, it should. The research into the fundamental basis of democracy I described also found that the dominant factor driving voter’s beliefs and behavior was their social or group identity, not their ideology or objectively rational thinking. Social identity and what happens to it is critical to understand the process.

How to make a homegrown terrorist: For the US and Western countries, the pre-terrorist identifies with and supports his home country and its authorities. The next step occurs when, on a number of occasions, society and/or the country’s authorities treat this person differently, e.g., constantly imposing extra scrutiny at airports, monitoring Islamic religious activities or being removed from an airplane for simply speaking in Arabic on a cell phone before the flight. The latter incident occurred a couple of days ago in California.

Although third step in the process doesn’t happen with everyone, some people who have experienced treatment they believe is inexplicable, humiliating and/or unwarranted respond by beginning to disengage from their identification with their home country. Their social identity begins to loosen.

At this point, the typical pre-terrorist becomes susceptible to the minority of voices who promise a new and better thing to identify with such as the utopian Caliphate that ISIS promises its recruits. In this “alienated” state of mind, the pre-terrorist can easily identify with the new message and rationalize the horrors and slaughter it will take to get to a better society. The final step in the transition from pre-terrorist to terrorist willing to murder is full loss of identification with the home country. At that point, the person’s transition to a terrorist is essentially complete. Terrorist recruiters now essentially own the new recruit if they can get to him or her.

In America with its powerful freedom of speech constitutional law, there is no significant barrier to block the recruiter. The path is clear.

The first fuel: The first fuel needed to start the fire in a new recruit is clear. In the process from normal to murderer, how the pre-terrorist’s home country treats him and his religion determines if the second step is present or absent. Everything from vilifying Islam or Islamic immigration in public to surveillance of Mosques to kicking someone off an airplane for simply speaking in Arabic can be enough to move the progression to steps 3 and 4. Two group dynamics are needed for this Tango - the first group is the home country acting badly. The second dynamic is the terrorist recruiter offering a new social identity and dynamic. If the home country doesn’t act badly, the fire never starts.
Of course, that exact scenario my not apply in all situations. Research is ongoing. Despite some uncertainty, this is what modern science, not closed-minded political ideologues and arrogant blowhards, believes constitutes the path to terrorism for nearly all new recruits. This scenario plays out in Islamic countries too. In those countries, the first fuel is the corrupt local dictator acting badly toward its own people and as we all know, there’s way more than plenty of that to go around.

And, of course, there’s The Donald: On the campaign trail, The Donald publicly suggested that all Muslim immigrants are potential enemies who need to be kept out of the US. That was a victory for ISIS. They immediately turned it into a recruiting tool and used it to smear all Americans. Talk like that fosters completing the second step in the progression -- it's the first fuel.
What we need to do as a country is obvious. The question is whether we have the intelligence and courage to do it. Do we? Or, is it best to simply ignore the science and trust the politicians?
This discussion is based on an article in my favorite unbiased source for understanding the science of politics, Scientific American. This article, “Fueling Extremes” is in the May-June 2016 issue at pages 34-39. An online version, “Fueling Terror: How Extremists Are Made”, is available for $5.99 at: http://www.scientificamerican....

No comments:

Post a Comment