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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Why Do Some People Become Terrorists?

Is there any messier topic than the one that poses the question, "Why to people decide to become terrorists?"

As set out in the Foreign Affairs article, "The Game Theory Behind Terrorism", the answer to that question is of vital importance:
... U.S. counterterrorism has moved from a purely operations-centered strategy—for example, assassinating al Qaeda leaders or what the media calls “cutting off the snake’s head”—to analyzing what the Department of Homeland Security describes as “the dynamics of radicalization to violence” or the reasons why some individuals associated with violent extremism commit violence and others do not. This new perspective has roped in government bodies, activists, and data scientists who not only analyze terrorist social networks and messaging patterns, but also transmit counter-extremist narratives.
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In 1960, at the height of the Cold War, Nobel Prize-winning American economist Thomas Schelling introduced the world to his “theory of strategy,” an adaptation of game theory to the world of international relations. In his book, The Strategy of Conflict, Schelling coined the concept of a “focal point” (now known as a “Schelling point”) to describe how individuals and nations reach an agreement when bargaining with each other. The process involves anticipating what the other person or country might do.
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Although Schelling certainly could not have foreseen the application of this idea to defeating ISIS, it is eerily appropriate. If we apply the 16 squares scenario with radicalization, what we are trying to prevent is, in effect, this “psychic moment,” as Schelling calls it, when likeminded individuals all come to check the same box: engage in terrorism. Around 20,000 plus foreign fighters, many of whom grew up in prosperous, democratic countries, have already done so.
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In Schelling’s theory, these individuals would have made their decision through “rational behavior…based on an explicit and internally consistent value system.” For jihadists, that value system is Salafism. Given the fact that most of the world’s Salafis are not violent, however, it cannot be the Salafi ideology alone that encourages violence. Moreover, given that ISIS disseminates a good deal of nonviolent messaging—it recently released its own set of textbooks on geography, history, and Arabic poetry for a course to “educate” future jihadists—it is not violence alone that attracts individuals to its worldview.

It is, rather, ISIS’ ability to sell and validate its worldview in light of distinct circumstances that Muslim communities either experience or observe. Specifically, for both those socially and economically disenfranchised by life in the developed world, as well as for those experiencing or witnessing the violent unrest in Syria, ISIS offers the promise of a tranquil and authentic Islamic state, full of opportunity for those who accept its authority.
I don't know about the "tranquil and authentic" thing, but as I have said before, young people who perceive that things are not as they would like are a potentially potent force, as we learned from Hitler and a few hundred other men on a mission -
Inspiring young men to causes bigger than themselves is an old, old story. With lots of unhappy endings.
But why do they young people get involved? I keep hearing and reading that they are disaffected by things like poverty, global warming and various prejudices. As in "Rising tension in France blamed on disaffected Arab youths" or "U.S. Is Trying to Counter ISIS’ Efforts to Lure Alienated Young Muslims"

I'm a simple minded guy, so I like fairly uncomplicated ideas about human motivation. It occurs to me that a key motivator for many young, idealistic people is the desire to "make a better world." We see it all the time in environmental activists and other people rallying around some common cause, probably even including those fighting against that part of global warming they attribute to the activities of mankind. Back in the day when I studied such behavior, I grew to really appreciate the "life positions" described in the psychological school of Transactional Analysis (TA) (yes, I know TA has lots of critics, but bear with me here). These life positions are best viewed in a simple chart:

the ok corral (franklin ernst, 1971)


Sure, you say, but so what? It's my theory that many of the "disaffected" youth are not driven by poverty or the shrinking of glaciers in Greenland, but rather are acting out of a feeling superiority - they view themselves, as do many young people, as in a better position to see the bad things in the world and also believe they have the moral and spiritual superiority that allows them to take action to "improve" things (i.e. to change things to make the world as they believe it ought to be). Or, as TA would have it, they feel they are OK, but the rest of us are "Not OK" and they want to help us correct our thinking and behavior. Support for this idea can be found (somewhat tangentially, I admit) here:
. . . a distorted view of the principles of Islam and a violent and criminal interpretation of the obligation of Jihad constitute the main factor of their drive. Statements made in the course of interrogation by arrested terrorists (especially by supergrasses, referred to in Italy as ‘repenters’) as well as ideological documents disseminated internationally on the internet or items seized in the course of various judicial enquiries consistently show that the religious view of the world, obviously in the distorted perspective specific to terrorists, constitutes the main reason for their behaviour, whereas practically no importance attaches to the aspiration to liberate specific occupied territories or oppressed peoples.
There is also research that indicates that:
However, convenient ‘root causes’ like poverty, illiteracy, backwardness, fundamentalism, authoritarianism are hardly the considerations in sustaining terrorism or in winning recruits (Parashar, 2005). Claude Berrebi in a Rand Corporation study on the root causes of terrorism concluded that “If there is a link between income level, education, and participation in terrorist activities, it is either very weak or in the opposite direction of what one intuitively might have expected”
So, if not poverty, poor education or climate change, what?

Under Transactional Analysis, a person who holds the "I'm okay, you're not ok" life position:
It is a position of persons who feel victimized or persecuted, so victimize and persecute others. • They blame others for their miseries. • Delinquents and criminals often have this position and taken on paranoid behavior which in extreme cases may lead to homicide.
or as set here:
People in this position feel themselves to be superior in some way to others, who are seen as inferior and not OK. As a result, they may be contemptuous and quick to anger. Their talk about others will be smug and supercilious, contrasting their own relative perfection with the limitation of others.
Well, how does a religion that teaches that it is the only truth path, and that non-believers are less than a believer impact a personality like that?

I have an idea that with certain people, under the right conditions may see that the non-believers need to be taught a lesson - to be punished for not accepting the true path - or for their wicked ways.

Couple that with a network and ideology that reinforces that life position and you may just have a terrorist.

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