Spearhead Analysis – 04.06.2018
By Fatima Ayub
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
One of the most frequently posited questions in the past decade has been on the ‘why’ of Jihadist terrorist organizations: Why? Why do terrorists do it? What is the motivation behind their choosing a perilous life of danger, violence and condemnation, each in equal measure?
Most pertinently today as security analysts predict a resurgence of Al-Qaeda when even the Mosul defeat of ISIS Caliphate seems a relatively recent incident to grapple with, in anticipation of what is to come, the searing question counter terrorist policymakers must urgently revisit is:
Why do people join terrorist groups?
To begin with, even with the advances made by counterterrorism analysts in academia, there is factually little that scholars actually know about the people behind terrorist activities. A perfunctory glance on statistics accumulated by intelligence organizations betrays how difficult it is to access the internal and subjective motivations that shape the outer world of an individual. It may be a better recourse instead to consider not the ‘whys’ of terrorist recruitment but to seek answers for the ‘how’
For decades, mainstream terrorism analysis was most commonly married with pathological science to provide the answer that terrorists or the more contemporary Western ‘lone wolf’ actors are driven by an innate psychological affliction or abnormality deep-rooted inside the individual him or herself. This line of reasoning was most famously cited in the 1960s by scholars who accepted the indications of biological science – ‘a disease of the mind’ as conclusive analysis of an individual’s inclination to commit ‘irrational’ acts of terror.
With the advent of advanced interdisciplinary methods of research and the sharp incline of crimes rates over the decades, this however appeared to be an oversimplification.
The making of a thin line that separates a person of radical beliefs and a terrorist who acts on the radical beliefs cannot solely be defined by an individual’s person peculiarities alone. Contemporary research has pointed to the dangers of isolating one factor as the primal cause or driving agent behind terrorist groups. A holistic understanding of the forces that aid the terrorist’s ability to conduct, plan or carry out attacks is necessary to develop research that caters to the external forces that surround an individual, that are very much quantitatively analyzable and hence, controllable.
The scholarly consensus now holds that the roots of terrorism lie not in the individual, but in the wider circumstances in which terrorists live and act. The impact of these external ‘forces’ differs in significance and chronology among experts, but there is unanimous belief that the main drivers appear to be ideology and terrorist theory, political and economic developments, counterterrorism efforts, technology, and in most cases In the West, media coverage.
There is now infact greater consensus in social science experts on circumstances; Violence as a socially determined, culturally created phenomena and a product of deeper historical, economic and cultural forces can be used to explain the forces in play that are above and beyond an individual. While the impact and nature of these social forces may vary, sociology gives a more multifaceted view of violence being curated in a set of social conditions so the study of an individual’s own prejudices or ideological leanings towards orchestrating terrorist activity are in comparison less influential.
Sociologists argue that terrorists view religion through sociological lens as an institution that can be used to shape how terrorist groups view their relations with others. Religion and particularly Islam, for example has been revisited and reinterpreted in a way to legitimize acts of a violent Jihad. Not only is this tactic used to cure alienation of in-group members but also provides impetus to the group’s unique identity derived from beliefs which they perceive to be morally superior than the larger world.
Even in liberal leftist thought, violence viewed as a sociological construct is reflected much in counterterrorism commentary. Modern day leftist political commentary on Jihadist terrorism often cites that roots of ultra-right terrorism lie not in Islamic ideology but in the history of the West’s long line of cruel interventions and injustices, fueled by US-driven ‘imperialism’ most notably in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This has meant that the surge of violence in the post 9/11 era shows violence to be an inevitable reaction fueled in Muslim states who with a colonial past and relatively recent catastrophic invasions of their sovereign territories see the West as the ultimate ‘axis of evil’ itself. This camp sees social and economic development of civil society instead of modern day CVE measures employed by Western states in the Middle East as the precursor of democratization.
Terrorism then takes on a compounded meaning – a premeditated act of political violence perpetrated by non-government organizations and non-state actors, bred in poverty with a desire to seek revenge by both rejecting Western ideals but more notably, re-perpetuating an alienation from the West that actively excludes, demeans and de-humanizes Muslim lives.
But if poverty or economic deterioration plays a key role in fostering frustrated groups with terror-based agendas, what then of the recent wave of right wing, ‘homegrown’ extremism in the largely developed economies of the US and Eastern European states?
This correlation between socioeconomic deprivation and terrorism is strongly rejected by a branch of analysts. . This group defines the fight against Islamist terrorism with a single-minded focus on state actors, jihadist ideology, counter-intelligence, and coercive action.
Their logic is simple: most terrorists are neither poor nor uneducated. In fact, the majority seem to come from middle class, ordinary backgrounds. Terrorism is therefore perceived almost exclusively as a ‘security threat’ with no discernible socioeconomic roots or links with deprivation
Domestic terrorist incidents are now increasingly described as “right-wing” if they were perpetrated by groups or individuals that were motivated by racist, white supremacist, antiabortion and violent, extreme antigovernment ideologies. Unlike the spontaneity of hate crimes that originate from the pretext of racial discrimination against colored people or Islamophobia or transphobic notion, these ‘lone wolf’ acts of terror are pre-meditated strategically-calculated acts, that arise from legal, nonviolent far-right political activities. Lone-actor terrorism is not a mirror image of either group-based terrorism or violent hate crimes. It shares some similarities with each but it is interesting to note that all three forms of terrorism and violence deliberately adopted the use of violence to achieve their goals, rather than nonviolent political strategies such as voting, lobbying and forming protest movements.
The propaganda of right-wing extremist groups often mentions immigration, growing ethnic diversity and the decline of white demographic dominance in the United States as motivating threats. But then this simplistic analysis is not enough to explain the recent spate of gun violence incidents in the United States aimed at terrorizing schools filled with children. Infact a recent study conducted by James Piazza on the drivers of far-right terrorism in the US, did not find actual racial and ethnic diversity on the ground to be a statistically significant driver of right-wing terrorism.
The sum of his findings is that several of the more symbolic factors, such as reaction against the empowerment of women or control over the government by an ideological “enemy,” that are significant drivers of terrorism rather than structural economic factors, demographic change or government polices enacted. It is this line of thinking employed by global groups like ISIS against the West or subgroups like Hayat Tehrir Al Sham, Al-Qaeda’s latest reincarnation in the Syrian civil war that plays to their successful recruitment drives for alienated and displaced civilians.
More interestingly in rebuke to common stereotypes perpetuated by media that attempt to pin an identity on a terrorist profile – of fundamentals and pathological murderers – sociologist Crenshaw’s influential paper “The causes of terrorism”, published in 1981, summed up decades of observations of terrorists and their organisations, ranging from 19th century Russian anarchists to Irish, Israeli, Basque and Algerian nationalists. The outstanding common characteristic of modern day individual terrorists, she concluded, is their normality. Appearances and racial profiling can deceive and there is no recorded data that has successfully aimed to single out a certain class of individuals who go on to adopt terrorism as a way of life.
Present day research on violence and terrorism thus aims to humanize individuals who commit acts of terror and aim to magnify their ordinariness to contextualize their actions. In this, we are made to reflect on our own vulnerabilities and shortcomings whilst understanding that irrational emotions and decisions – particularly those of rage or alienation – are immune to none. It compels people to recognize the social forces in play around them and to understand that humans do not exist in a social vacuum but that their thoughts, cultures and norms are shaped by a myriad of historical and political reasons. Moreover, Jihadists are infact assuredly alienated and feel they do not have a place in the secular, liberal world that often challenges and mocks their identities as Muslim. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons may serve as a good example of this.
Still, academic consensus cannot divest of the idea of pathology so modern research now offers that while pathology cannot be considered the sole psychological trigger of violence, it does operate as a powerful factor within a network of more cogent, overarching factors.
Do all terrorists have some reasons in common for committing acts of violence? A closer look at online Jihadist media, such as that of ISIS compiled by Charles Lister, or the online presence of the now rapidly resurging Al-Qaeda from 2017, offers the usual, generic insight; a self-curated definition of Jihad, characterization of the Western enemy, avenging deaths of ‘Muslim’ blood and a self-proclaimed moral duty to save the world of the evils of liberal ideology by creating a standard code of living by shadowing their own stringent interpretation of Islamic Shariah. However, the more private motivations of these individuals who are recruited often remain unheard. As law professor Stephen Holmes has observed, “private motivations cannot always be gleaned from public justifications” meaning that often personal convictions or fears of these individuals are dark, morally contentious, perverted or – even deeply personal that they take cover behind the justifications of any prevailing, established ideology.
Simon Cottee in a recent essay on terrorist leanings described motivation as a ‘complicated issue… compounded by the fact that some actions are informed by multiple motives, and even if these can be reliably identified it is often difficult to disentangle them and calculate their respective causal weight. He cites counterterrorism scholar John Horgan to make his point – “The most valuable interviews I’ve conducted [with former terrorists] have been ones in which the interviewees conceded, ‘To be honest, I don’t really know,’” he writes.
As Cottee and Horgan suggest, perhaps the more useful recourse is to consider the ‘how’ – how these individuals came to find common ground with these specific organizations? This also opens up the debate to considerations of how terrorist networks work to recruit and access potential members. Asking this question instead of relying on a qualitative measure of a terrorist’s inner workings leads to tangible and intellectually tractable answers for scholars so that if law enforcement agencies and CVE measures are unable to glean out the motive of a terrorist, they can at the least disrupt and limit the primary actors who guide these motivations to fruition. Infact recent research such as the one conducted by the National Institute of Justice in September 2017 highlights that Opportunity, access, and persuasion all play a role in the current process of jihadist recruitment, all of which can be found online.
The findings of the report argue that contemporary network configuration is best described as “glocal” – globally connected and inspired, but taking shape locally in peer groups and small cells that are easily accessible to individuals within the comfort of their own home states. The idea that radicalization to violent political extremism is more likely to occur in a group setting where the adoption of extremist ideas is reinforced by shared emotions is arguably a more potent area of research for counter terrorism academics and argues for how decisive social and kinship networks are in the radicalization process.
Viewed in the light of a politically motivated movement, one with a militarized public relations ploy and a strong tribal community of familial and friendship ties, people who commit terrorist acts should not be viewed as adhering to an ideology or a profession but should be seen for their allegiance to a group that employs a system of threat, warnings and ultimately actions to demand certain actions be taken at the behest of their violence. These could include withdrawing military occupation as with the case of Hezbollah against Israeli influence in Lebanon or a ploy to demand power and seats at the constitutional table of a state as is the case presently with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Ultimately, the root causes of terrorism and violent radicalism remain extremely complex, multifaceted, and often intertwined. They resist simplification and easy categorization. It should therefore be stated from the outset that there is no unique panacea or simple formula to ‘end’ terrorism – more significantly, radicalism.
Conclusively, fighting ‘radicalism’ rather than ‘terrorism’ provides a better paradigm and framework for a number of reasons. No matter how diverse the causes, motivations, and ideologies behind terrorism, all attempts at premeditated violence against civilians share the traits of violent radicalism.
Second as is argued by academic Omer Taspinar’s research in 2009, – while terrorism is a deadly security challenge, radicalism is primarily a political threat against which non-coercive measures should be given a chance. There is nothing preordained in the possible transition from radicalism to terrorism. All terrorists, by definition, are radicals. Yet all radicals do not end up as terrorists.
In the absence of ‘one size fits all’ measures, there is urgency for international states embroiled in counterterrorism measures ‘to drop the notion of a ‘war against terror’ in favor of a strategic campaign against radicalism. The tools with which to engage this long-term campaign can be achieved by focusing on ‘human development’—not just economic growth—in countries where political, economic, and social conditions foment radicalism. In short, ‘fighting radicalism and the ideologies promulgated by terrorist groups with human development’ should emerge as a new public narrative and long-term objective for a smarter effort at strategic counter-terrorism.