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Why some people become terrorists. The human factors of radicalisation

This text was once part of a research proposal. A professor, proving his proclivity for exaggeration, called it ‘a Rembrandt.’ The text was written some time after the attacks in Paris and Brussels. This is why it concentrates on Muslims. I have not the slightest inclination of single out Muslims. Personally, I am much more worried about the threats of the extreme right, neo-Nazis and white supremacists. There is no doubt that the enormous majority of Muslims living in the West are good and normal people who harbour no inclination towards violence whatsoever.

This said, there can be no question that we need to defend ourselves against terrorist violence. Security services in all countries implemented measures and use many sophisticated technical means to obtain strategic information and anticipate potential violence. However, the question remains whether these measures are really sufficient when facing highly determined, highly skilled terrorists. The call-writers of Horizon 2020, among others, share this concern, so they asked for research proposals on the human factors of radicalisation. How can radicalisation of ordinary people be explained? Are they really that ordinary or have the research communities and security agencies not fully understood the critical variables? What is the psychological profile of these perpetrators? What are the human factors that lead to radicalisation and pave the way to violent acts? And what can we do against it? These are certainly interesting questions.

How some people become terrorists

The factors involved in the early engagement of ostensibly ordinary people on the pathway to radicalization are critical to understand and remain under-researched. As a consequence, the great majority of researchers – although this field has been booming unlike any other – do not deal with the causes of terrorist actions and are unable to propose remedial strategies. How can violent radicalisation of ordinary citizens be explained? Are they really that ordinary or have the research communities and security agencies not fully understood the critical variables?

The debate about the root causes of terrorism is not about counter-terrorism. It aims to identify and fight the conditions that create dangerous radicalisation. Fertile breeding grounds for recruitment emerge when various social, cultural, economic, political and psychological factors combine. To name a few: socioeconomic conditions within deprived urban areas; lack of employment; racial and/or religious discrimination; the existence of idiosyncratic networks; migrant histories; the quest for belonging, identity and social solidarity and, last but not least, the pernicious influence of fundamentalist mosques and preachers that are being state funded from abroad.

Radicalisation and educational attainment  

Two major views on the role of socioeconomic factors exist. Many researchers strongly reject any correlation between socioeconomic deprivation and radicalisation. Most terrorists are neither poor nor uneducated. In fact, the majority seem to come from middle or upper class backgrounds. Terrorism is therefore almost exclusively perceived as a ‘security threat’ with no discernible socioeconomic roots or links with deprivation. Consequently, these researchers define the fight against Islam terrorism with a single-minded focus on state actors, jihadist ideology, counter-intelligence, surveillance, coercive action, etc.

The argument that poverty and lack of education are unrelated to radicalism is based on a series of fallacies. It narrowly focuses on ‘elite’ terrorist leaders, leaving out the question of the ‘division of labour’ between ‘elite’ and ‘foot soldiers’. While terrorist leaders tend to come from ‘professional’ classes, foot soldiers are often poor and uneducated. Second, the thesis fails to distinguish between education and indoctrination. This point corroborates the assumption that over-representation of highly educated individuals in terrorist organisations should not be construed as refuting the dampening effect education can have on radical views: over-representation is simply the result of a selection bias of terrorist groups interested in recruiting the most capable from a much larger pool of sympathisers.

The link between lack of educational opportunities and radicalism clearly reflects itself in the biography of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks of January 2015. In Germany, the likelihood of having at least some ‘sort of confidence’ in Osama Bin Laden decreased from 58.0 per cent if the respondent earns less than €500 per month to 4.6 per cent if she earns €4.000 or more.

Migrant histories

Immigrants often have a history of migration within their countries. They start their odyssey after having been uprooted from traditional rural areas and moving to major urban centres – the Taliban are a prime example. Capacity gaps within Muslim states create vacuums that are frequently filled by grassroots Islamic organisations that provide charity and relief. Islamists set up employment agencies, food banks, schools, nurseries, savings clubs and financial institutions, student and professional associations and cultural gatherings. In addition to socio-economic and ecological decay (for example Syria or Pakistan), the absence of constitutional liberties brings a political dimension to deprivation. In most authoritarian countries, the mosque is the only institution not brutally suppressed by the regime. The problem is that when the mosque is the only outlet for mass politics, the outcome is predictable: the Islamisation of dissent. As dissent turns Islamic, the result is the politicisation of Islam. Migrants not only travel to Cairo or Islamabad, they also migrate to the West. Of course, the overwhelming majority of these people have no sympathy for terrorist causes whatsoever. But this does not mean that this factor is irrelevant. It does play a role, when everything goes bad, in the formation of radicalised worldviews.

The preference of receiving countries for low skilled, semi-illiterate or illiterate migrants during the first wave of post-war immigration is also a factor. Diverging pathways explain the difference in socio-economic status of radicalised individuals in the UK compared to those in, for example, Germany, Belgium, France or Sweden and Denmark.

These policies go back to the 1960s and 1970s, but its effects are intergenerational and are still being felt even today. Germany, Belgium and France preferred uneducated immigrants, hoping that they would be less susceptible to engage with the leftism of the industrial proletariat which was, at that time, still well organised and a political force to reckon with in the Ruhr or the northeast of France.

The consequence of this short sighted “vision” was that the second generation grew up in a culture that did not recognise the importance of education. The traditionalism of the old generation kept youngsters away from schooling and from integration into wider urban networks. Research showed that, in the 1990s, these problems continued to play for the third generation: girls are being discouraged of participating in higher education; boys are being pressured to learn a trade. How many simple trades remain? In combination with many other factors, such as bad educational policies, discrimination in education, discrimination in the labour market, a receding welfare state and racism, harsh conditions originate that cannot be overcome individually. The result is a vicious inter-generational cycle of chronic unemployment, poverty, despair, resentment, frustration, aggression, acculturation and identity seeking.  All of this is takes place in deprived urban areas which lock in people. There is nowhere to go and inside these quasi-ghettos there are no chances, no work to speak of – Molenbeek in Brussels is by now an infamous example. But these deprived areas now exist practically everywhere, in every middle-sized and major city. It is also true that policy-makers gave up on these deprived areas. ‘Not one euro cent for Molenbeek,’ said right wing politicians after social workers raised the alarm clock on many occasions.

Reciprocity and ‘social’ capital

In sociology, reciprocity is almost always analysed as a benign force operating within small communities. There is no doubt that reciprocity fulfils certain integrative functions. However, reciprocity is also connected with traditionalism, power structures, unequal access, discrimination and exclusion. This has been known at least since Malinowski. The same is true for social capital. Although most of the theoretical analysis and empirical research tends to treat all associations as equivalent in their effects on, for example, democracy (Putnam) or neighbourhoods (Mingione), it is evident that social capital within one group can be positively or negatively related to other ‘capital’.

The main distinction is between groups that are tied to the wider community through associations and those that are not. Negative effects exist when there is low between-group trust and/or lack of interaction or mediating networks between groups. Cross-cutting groups traverse social boundaries, increase members’ tolerance through contact with diverse others and prevent the creation of pockets of isolated trust and idiosyncratic networks. Isolated associations intensify inward-focusing behaviour, reduce exposure to new ideas and increase social cleavages.

In themselves such prima facie distinctions are uninteresting. It is important to look at the specific power relations that structure and stratify groups and that create inward and outward looking groups. The basic insight that a better position of origin promotes access to or better use of social resources has often been confirmed. Inequality in social capital occurs when a group clusters at disadvantaged socioeconomic positions and when the general tendency is for individuals to associate with those of a similar group or similar socioeconomic characteristics. The first reflects a structural process, as social groups occupy different socioeconomic positions in society. Depending on specific historical, political and institutional processes, every society provides unequal opportunities to members of different groups defined over class, race, gender, religion, or other ascribed, construed, imagined or real characteristics.

The second principle, homophily, suggests a general tendency in networking: individuals mainly interact and share sentiments with others with similar characteristics. These two principles, socioeconomic clustering and homophily, produce differential access by social groups to the formation of social, human and identity capital and power. Members of a group that cluster to inferior socioeconomic standings and interact with others in similar social groupings are embedded in social networks that are poorer in resources, i.ethey are poorer in social capital. Cross-ties facilitate access to better resources and better outcomes for members of disadvantaged groups. However – and this is the problem – such ties are very much the exception: homophily and structural constraints reduce the likelihood of establishing such ties.

Living conditions in deprived urban areas

It has often been documented that private institutions which service deprived areas are separate from and, in the words of Wacquant, ‘massively inferior to those that provide goods and services to the rest of the metropolitan system’ (see here). Formal public and social capital in some American ghettos deteriorated to such extent that it is possible to maintain that ‘public institutions operate as negative social capital that maintain ghetto residents in a marginal and dependent position’ (see here). Unfortunately, such situations have also become a reality in many European cities. Police officers are often insufficiently present in deprived areas. Or, if they are present, they represent a culturally foreign and arbitrary authority, which, in turn, stimulates, rather than decreases the level of violence, particularly in youth gangs. Welfare provisions are turned into an apparatus of surveillance, including ‘the establishment of toll-free numbers for anonymous denunciation of ‘welfare cheats’ contributing to solidifying distrust in state bureaucracies and to intensifying the stigma of welfare receipt (see here).

Three processes in particular are relevant:

1) organisational desertification (both public and private organisations reduce activities in deprived areas or commit to the delivery of poorer goods and services, such as schools, shopping centers, health care centers, police, public maintenance of parks and streets, voluntary organisations, etc.);

2) de-pacification (crime rates rise as formal jobs disappear and clubs, community and other organisations reduce their activities or disappear altogether); and

3) economical informalisation (leading to an irregular street economy superseding the regular wage-labour economy) (see here).

These processes connect to a wide spectrum of cultural factors. Extremist ideology may appeal to young, disaffected and socially isolated people in search of a positive identity. Men assert overt masculinity as a means of combating discrimination, unemployment and exclusion. It is easy to use technology to ease contact and communication and shape identity on the internet. This, in turn, may foster a more fundamental form of Islam (just as it also radicalises white supremacists, neo-Nazis, etc.), because there is little opportunity to test radical propositions through debate or discussion. Extreme beliefs, nurtured by isolation, negate and nullify the development of social skills to overcome challenges.

The quest for social solidarity: terrorists are not rational actors who attack for political ends

The strategic model posits that terrorists are rational actors who attack civilians for political ends. Terrorists are seen as political utility maximisers. People “use” terrorism when the expected political gains minus the expected costs outweigh net expected benefits. This model has widespread currency: counter-terrorism strategies are designed to defeat terrorism by reducing its political utility. The problem is that the characteristics of terrorist organisations radically contradict it. The strategic model is incorrect (see here).

There is strong empirical evidence that people become terrorists not to achieve their organisation’s declared political agenda, but to develop affective ties (see here). The preponderance of evidence is that people participate in terrorist organizations for social solidarity, not for political return.

Victoroff concluded in a precis of the literature that ‘the claim that no individual factors identify those at risk for becoming terrorists is based on completely inadequate research,’ it is to say terrorist organizations appeal disproportionately to certain psychological types of people, first and foremost the socially alienated. Seeman defines alienation as the feeling of loneliness, rejection, or exclusion from valued relationships, groups or societies. Demographic data show that the vast majority of terrorist organisations are composed of unmarried young men or widowed women who were not gainfully employed prior to joining (see here). Studies also show that terrorist organisations are frequent repositories for people undergoing dislocation from their native homeland and who are detached from family, friends and the host society they are attempting to join. These risk factors seem particularly prevalent among Al-Qaida members, 80 percent of whom are ‘cultural outcasts’ living at the margins of society as un-assimilated first- or second-generation immigrants in non-Muslim countries. Terrorist organisations are particularly attractive outlets for those seeking solidarity: such groups are far more tight-knit than voluntary associations because of the extreme dangers and costs of participation and their tendency to violate societal expectations (see here).

This observation may account for the fact that even when terrorist organizations fail to achieve their political platforms (as they almost always do), committing acts of terrorism tends to generate new recruits, boost membership morale and strengthen their social unit. Based on interviews with terrorists, researchers likened the adventures of foreign fighters to an “Outward Bound” experience for young men seeking challenges, excitement, and above all “friendship” with fellow terrorists. When members attach utmost importance to an organization’s social benefits, the organization will seek to prolong its existence, even when doing so impedes its official goals. According to Abrahms, this is exactly the way terrorist organisations typically behave (see here).

These findings are perplexing for the strategic model, to say the least. The natural systems model predicts that terrorist organisations will routinely engage in actions to perpetuate and justify their existence, even when these undermine their official political agendas.

As Max Abrahms (Princeton), who came up with the natural systems model, writes, true to the model, terrorist organisations prolong their existence by relying on a strategy that hardens target governments from making policy concessions; they ensure their continued viability by resisting opportunities to peacefully participate in democratic processes; they avoid disbanding by rejecting negotiated settlements that offer significant policy concessions and they guarantee their survival by espousing a litany of protean political goals that can never be satisfied (see here).

None of these characteristics advances their official political agendas, but all of them help to ensure the survival of the social unit. Together, they reveal the operating decision rules of terrorist members. The relevance of this work is hard to overstate. If terrorists generally attach greater importance to social benefits than to political ones, then extant counter-terrorism strategies require fundamental changes.

A policy recommendation 

There is no single ‘terrorist personality,’ but certain communities are prone to radicalisation. The work on deprived areas and the affective model clearly explain the main causes of radicalisation. These circumstances are perfectly changeable. For example, the impact of educational achievement points to a direct way in which governments and civil society actors can address the prevailing impact of discourses that pose threats to community cohesion or national security. While the call to more education almost appears as a cure-all for social phenomena nowadays, many studies clearly show that educational achievement helps in bringing Muslim political and social attitudes in line with pluralist, liberal, democratic norms – on the condition that education leads to empowerment, participation and decent employment. Improving educational standards and opportunities without increasing prospects for employment, or providing jobs without creating outlets for political and social participation creates more resentment.

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