Category Archives: Terrorism


2016-01-27

Who Joins Cults — and How and Why?

by Neil Godfrey
We must remember an old adage: no one joins a “dangerous cult” or a “terrorist cell.” Converts invariably see the act of joining in positive terms, as beneficial for both themselves, their society, and the cosmos (literally), and the process is far more gradual than it appears. — (Dawson 2010, p. 7)
Lorne Dawson, whose article is the basis of this post.

I am drawing heavily on a 2010 article by Lorne L. Dawson, “The Study of New Religious Movements and the Radicalization of Home-Grown Terrorists: Opening a Dialogue“, published in Terrorism and Political Violence, 22:1-21, 2010, for this post. The research findings point to other factors associated with those who do join religious cults (and Dawson suggests it might be worthwhile examining to see if they are also applicable to those who join terrorist groups.)

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Christian sects like the Mormons, Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses were known to draw most of their followers from poor or underprivileged sectors of society. So it was easy to explain their attraction as offering converts a reversal of their fortunes: from being nobodies to being “the elect”. In the apocalyptic scenarios they all preached, those who were the least in this world would become the first in the next. The meek were to inherit the earth. The rich and powerful of this world would be brought down and the poor exalted.

(Similarly with Palestinian terrorist groups: the most obvious explanation appeared for many to be that they preferred a rich symbolic life, a reward of honour in the memory of their people, to continuing to be subject to extreme economic hardships and political and personal humiliation.)

The above explanation for why Christian cults exercised such a strong pull on the “lower classes” was overturned in the 1960s and 70s with the emergence of a plethora of New Religious Movements (NRMs) — or cults — that attracted youth from well-to-do families, highly educated, with excellent career prospects, and generally of secular upbringings. Even established Christian cults like the Mormons were also found to be becoming increasingly populated by members belonging to the higher socio-economic rungs of society.

So what was going on?

New theories of “relative deprivation” emerged in the literature. Perhaps people were attracted not because of the objective fact of their lower economic and social status, but because they perceived that they were disadvantaged in some way, whatever their real status. And maybe the perceived lack was not only economic, but also moral, social opportunities, psychological . . . .

The idea of relative deprivation seems very plausible; in many ways it conforms to our personal experience. But in the end it allows for too much interpretive flexibility. Almost any action could be explained by reference to some hypothesized sense of lack of respect, inadequate love, or ethical frustration. The theory explains everything and yet nothing because it cannot discriminate effectively between those who think this way and those who choose to act on their perception in some radical way, especially becoming violent. (Dawson 2010, p. 5)

Compare those joining new cults in the 60s and 70s with the 9/11 hijackers. The latter were also from well-adjusted middle class families. They were not oppressed or impoverished in any conventional sense. They had not been particularly religious. They had good opportunities to do well in careers in many countries.

An NYPD report Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat concluded that most individuals who had been involved in terrorist plots had had quite unremarkable backgrounds, no criminal history, ordinary jobs and lived ordinary lives. They were fluent in English, were Western educated and familiar with the Western lifestyle. They had opportunities to do well in both their countries of origin and in the USA.

There is no clear profile of a potential terrorist and they are, like those who come to join religious cults, largely indistinguishable from anyone else.

“Converts to NRMs are more likely to have fewer and weaker social ties.”

Since cults are in conflict in significant ways with society, it stands to reason that they are more likely to draw their recruits from those who have “fewer social attachments” and consequently “lower stakes in conformity”.

This datum explains why it is so often the young (and students) who are attracted. “They can afford to experiment with alternative ways of living.”

“Converts also tend to have fewer and weaker ideological alignments”

As I have noted in recent posts, research shows that people with strong attachments to their mainstream faith (whether Christianity or Islam) are not likely to join cults or terror cells. It is the “unchurched”, those with weak, non-existent or troubled religious backgrounds, or the rootless “seekers”, who are the more likely to join cults.

But there is a balance. Complete loners or those with no interest at all in spiritual and religious questions are not likely to join.

That’s the “who”. What about the “how”? read more »


2016-01-24

Violent Islamism: Many are Called, Few are “Chosen”, Fewer Defect

by Neil Godfrey

A new online article on the role of religious belief among Islamists supporting violence (an overlapping theme of these posts). The article by specialists in the field draws the some of the same comparisons I have been making between the appeal of religious cults and political extremist movements:

The Cult of Jihad: A Practical Theology Perspective on ISIS, a scholarly guest post by Joel Day and Scott Kleinmann in Political Violence @ a Glance (Expert Analysis on Violence and Its Alternatives).

Of particular interest to me is another article cited in “The Cult of Jihad”, and that is “The Study of New Religious Movements and the Radicalization of Home-Grown Terrorists: Opening a Dialogue” by Lorne L. Dawson in Terrorism and Political Violence, 22:1, 2009. From the abstract:

This article examines:

(1) the obvious reasons for, and curious absence of, a dialogue between scholars studying new religious movements (NRMs), particularly those responsible for acts of mass violence, and those studying processes of radicalization in home-grown terrorist groups;

(2) the substantial parallels between established understandings of who joins NRMs, how, and why and recent findings about who joins terrorist groups in a Western context, how, and why; and

(3) the ways in which explanations of the causes of violent behaviour in NRMs are pertinent to securing a more systematic and complete grasp of the process of radicalization in terrorist cells.

The latter discussion focuses on the role of apocalyptic belief systems and charis- matic forms of authority, highlighting the behavioural consequences of this danger- ous combination and their possible strategic significance. . . . 

Another new article of related interest is What Does It Mean If An Attack Is ‘ISIS-Inspired’?

H/T http://intelwire.egoplex.com/ (J. M. Berger, co-author of ISIS: the State of Terror)

We have seen the process by which some people are attracted to extremist groups and have reached the point of examining how a subset of those individuals are drawn to cross the line from intellectual sympathy to committing themselves to the high risks of active support for violence. (The argument that we have been presenting is from Quintan Wiktorowicz’s Radical Islam Rising. Wiktorowicz takes the now-banned jihadist group in Great Britain, al-Muhajiroun, as a case-study.)

To recap:

  • Many people at some time face a crisis that leads them to question their life-long assumptions and beliefs and opens them to a willingness to seriously consider radically new world-view perspectives. Crises can vary from death in a family to a feeling of not belonging in one’s “homeland”, a result of the combination of experiencing racial discrimination and alienation from the foreign culture of one’s migrant parents.
  • Seekers are more likely to respond to groups with the following factors:
    • the trained representatives of the group are able to discuss questions of interest to the seekers (not only political questions; literature of the group covers a wide range of topics);
    • the extremist group conveys a sense of credibility and spiritual authority by means of
      • the charismatic personality of the leader
      • its ability to convey a depth and breadth of knowledge and understanding of questions of interest to the seeker and of the alternative answers (Wiktorowicz’s notes that the more devout Muslims have a deeper knowledge of how their religion relates to such questions and are not attracted to the simplistic idiosyncratic interpretations of the extremists; those who are most often attracted have had very little prior religious interest.)
      • the rationality of its arguments
      • the tactic of giving the seeker a sense of being in control of his journey towards the extremist’s point of view (e.g. the seeker will be encouraged to investigate rival groups)
    • the extremist group hides its extremist views through front organisations and strategically planned discussions/messages

The relative few who are led to intellectual agreement with extremist views through this process are still a long way from turning their backs on society to the extent that they are potential suicidal mass murderers.

That’s where “culturing” enters the picture.

Through regular classes “seekers” are socialized into the movements ideology. We have seen how these classes and related activities increasingly consume so much of the individual’s time that there is little room left for serious arms-length reflection on the direction into which the path is leading. And it certainly helps when the seeker has had little or no serious religious engagement prior to encountering the new movement and against which they would otherwise be more capable of assessing the new teachings.

The Islamist extremist (and the member of other religious cults as well) sees him or herself as belonging to a pioneering vanguard of a new way of life that with the authority of Heaven is destined to replace all “human systems”. In the case of the Islamist (the term refers to one who believes in politically imposing Islamic law over society) that new way of life or ideology is destined to replace Capitalism and Democracy (the two go together in Islamist thinking). Democracy is interpreted as an anti-godly effort to replace God as the law-giver and ruler of society.

The mind-set that is inculcated as part of the “culturing” into the extremist movement’s revolves around its own sectarian interpretation of tawhid, or the “oneness of God”. Since God is the only lawgiver then anyone who supports democracy or even follows the wisdom of mainstream imams is said to be worshiping authorities other than God. We saw how some of this works out in detail in the previous post. — Recall that Islamic regimes in the Middle East are judged to be apostate because they countenance some form of democracy and enforce laws that are inconsistent with pure Sharia.

Other Muslims, moreover, argue that judging others as apostate is akin to murdering them since without the utmost stringent proofs only God can know the mind of another.

We look now at the ideology into which Islamist extremists are “cultured”. The ideology into which they are ever more deeply immersed through regular meetings, classes and activities, Wiktorowicz argues, is what leads them ever closer to the point of believing that their own personal salvation depends on a willingness to lose everything in this life and even to make others pay with their own lives, too.

We begin by looking at the source of the extremist’s ideology. The Quran is not enough for their ideological needs.

Preparations for an Islamic State

The Islamists look to the life of Muhammad (not found in the Quran) for guidance in or rationalisation of their program. There is a difficulty, not insurmountable, however. The Prophet’s life spanned many years through different environments — exile and conquest, for example. Islamist leaders therefore select what they believe to be the period in Mohammed’s life that is analogous to today’s situation for the radicals and make a judgement on how to apply the analogous act today. read more »


2016-01-19

Does growing “dewy-eyed at the mere mention of Paradise” lead to suicidal terrorism?

by Neil Godfrey

What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry?Sam Harris, End of Faith, p. 129

Quintan Wiktorowicz

Quintan Wiktorowicz

Dr. Quintan Wiktorowicz takes a more nuanced view of what it takes to tip a person into a commitment to extremism. Wiktorowicz’s explanation might be worth noting as a counterbalance to Sam Harris’s fears since he is

  • one of America’s leading academics on the Muslim World,
  • an internationally recognized author and expert on national security engagement and counter-terrorism,
  • a developer of ground breaking counter-radicalization initiatives for the Intelligence Community and the Department of State,
  • a holder of two senior positions at the White House as driver of efforts to advance national security partnerships and innovation at home and abroad.

This post follows on from two earlier ones addressing Wiktorowicz’s findings:

  1. Islamic Radicals and Christian Cults: Cut from the Same Cloth
  2. How Minds Are Opened to Extremist Views

Recall that W’s case study is the now-banned British group, al-Muhajiroun. From Wikipedia:

Al-Muhajiroun (Arabic: المهاجرون‎; The Emigrants) is a banned Salafi jihadi terrorist organisation that was based in Britain and which has been linked to international terrorism, homophobia and antisemitism. The group operated in the United Kingdom from 14 January 1986 until the British Government announced an intended ban in August 2005. The group became notorious for its September 2002 conference, “The Magnificent 19”, praising the September 11, 2001 attacks. The group mutates periodically so as to evade the law; it then operates under aliases. It was proscribed under the UK Terrorism Act 2000 on 14 January 2010 together with four other organisations including Islam4UK, and again in 2014 as “Need4Khalifah”.

While reading Wiktorowicz’s study I was often struck by the similarities between such a political-religious extremist movement and what I know of cults in the “Christian world” — Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Branch Davidians, Wordwide Church of God, Moonies, and others. Of course there are many differences, too, but the patterns of what leads otherwise unsuspecting individuals to take an interest in “counter-cultural” groups and (seemingly bizarrely) leave the “normal” world to dedicate their lives to such “fanatics”.

In the previous post we saw what prompts persons to question their previously held beliefs and open themselves to radical alternatives, what factors lead some of those new inquirers take seriously and explore more deeply an extremist group and even to agree with its teachings.

We have also seen that people can take an interest in “fanatical” organisations, even sympathize with them and agree with their views, but never take the next step of actually joining them and living according to their dictates. That final step is taken by a still smaller subset. It means the person has decided to give up everything in “this life”, everything that most of us consider the fundamentals of a normal existence — possessions, family ties, perhaps even one’s own life.

“Religions may do more harm than good by telling people a life after death awaits them. In all probability, many terrorist attacks and other tragedies would not occur in the absence of that belief.”HumanismByJoe.

However, serious research into the beliefs and lives of terrorist supporters reveals that common religious belief in an afterlife is far from sufficient to lead one to terrorist sympathies. Indeed, devout religiosity among Muslims correlates with rejection of terrorism. It is for most part the non-religious who are attracted to extremist movements. Their brand of religion is part of their “culturing” within the terrorist-sympathetic group.

What trips a person over that final line and into the extremist commitment?

Notice that Wiktorowicz finds that accepting beliefs or teachings of itself does not prompt people to give up “normal life” and be prepared to sacrifice all. Recall, further, that in the previous post Wiktorowicz even finds that Muslims in Britain who view themselves as quite devout are the least likely to be attracted to terrorist groups.

That final trip-wire is what Wiktorowicz labels “culturing”.

Even if religious seekers are exposed to al-Muhajiroun and accept Omar Bakri’s right to sacred authority, this alone is not enough to overcome the free rider dilemma. Seekers could attend lessons and learn about Islam without committing themselves to risky activism. In this manner, they could free-ride and reap the benefits of an Islamic education without incurring the costs and risks of commitment.

To understand why some individuals eventually commit themselves to the costs and risks outlined in chapter 1, we must understand movement “culturing,” or what activists term tarbiya (culturing in proper religious beliefs and behaviors). Al-Muhajiroun tries to draw seekers into religious lessons, where they can be cultured in the movement ideology. The ideology, in turn, emphasizes that the only way to achieve salvation and enter Paradise on Judgment Day is to follow the movement’s prescribed strategy, which includes high-risk activism.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 167). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

So what is this “culturing” process and how does it lead people to self-sacrificing activism? read more »


2016-01-17

How Minds Are Opened to Extremist Views

by Neil Godfrey

radicalIslamRisingWhy do people join religious cults and extremist groups? What turns some people into “mindless fanatics”?

In the previous post we were introduced to Quintan Wiktorowicz’s Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (2005) that explores the reasons people in Britain joined the now banned extremist group, Al-Muhajiroun. As I read his work I was struck by the overlaps with the experiences of many who join religious cults, including my own experience with the Worldwide Church of God.

At the time of writing the above news came through of a swathe of terrorist attacks in Jakarta, Indonesia. Having visited Indonesia fairly regularly over the past seven years, including the city of Solo that is regularly associated with concentrations of jihadist extremists, I have no problem agreeing with those specialist commentators who point out that most Indonesians have no time for Islamist extremism and violence. (Keep in mind that though Indonesia contains the world’s largest Muslim population it is the world’s third largest democracy.) But that’s no defence against the tiny handful who are drawn to terrorist organisations. So why are a tiny few drawn to what most people deplore?

Here is the question Wiktorowicz asks:

So why participate in the [extremist] movement? On the surface, the choice seems irrational: the risks are high and the guarantee of spiritual salvation is intangible and nonverifiable (i.e., there is no way to know whether those who follow al-Muhajiroun’s interpretation and die actually make it to Paradise). And there are plenty of less risky alternatives that guarantee the same spiritual outcome. This includes a plethora of less risky Islamic fundamentalist groups that share many of al-Muhajiroun’s ideological precepts. Is participation in the movement, then, the choice of the irrational?

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 206). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Wiktorowicz’s answers are covered in chapters under the headings of

  • Cognitive Openings and Religious Seeking
  • Credibility and Sacred Authority
  • Culturing and Commitment

Breaking those headings down a little . . . .

  • “Cognitive Openings and Religious Seeking” addresses a range of factors that act as wedges to open people’s minds to radical alternatives to their world views. Most people say “What? Get real!” Why do a few say “Mmm… Interesting…. Let me think a moment”?
    • Most of those who go this far come to their senses and quickly realize that the message they are confronting is bizarre or “wrong” after all. Only a few of the few take the next step and embark on a journey of “religious seeking” or other form of follow-up.
  • “Credibility and Sacred Authority” digs a little deeper and explores why some alternative world views are more enticing than others.
    • What extent of knowledge is demonstrated by the radically new source? How does the “character” of the new source stack up against alternatives? How does personality tilt the scales? What of the public persona of a key channeller of the new ideas?
  • “Culturing and Commitment” looks at why certain individuals go the final step and commit to dangerous or “fanatical” groups.

Of the few persons who take an interest in what most regard as “fanatical ideas” even fewer actually take the leap from intellectual agreement to jumping in knowing the sacrifice they are making and the world they are leaving behind. That final step is of particular interest but first things first. Why do a few of us become sincerely interested in the radical fringe ideas in the first place?

I won’t address all of those in this post. Let’s focus on some of the wedges that prise “cognitive openings” for now. read more »


2016-01-13

Islamic Radicals and Christian Cults: Cut from the Same Cloth

by Neil Godfrey

radicalIslamRising
Dr. Quintan Wiktorowicz works with CEOs and senior leaders to leverage high impact outreach and engagement, partnerships, and innovation to create opportunities and manage risk. He is an internationally recognized author and expert on national security engagement and counter-terrorism and served in two senior positions at the White House, where he led efforts to advance national security partnerships and innovation at home and abroad. Prior to joining the White House, Dr. Wiktorowicz developed ground breaking counter-radicalization initiatives for the Intelligence Community and the Department of State. Before his government service, he was a social movement theorist and one of America’s leading academics on the Muslim World.
Extract from The Huffington Post biography

Over my end of year break as I was catching up with Quintan Wiktorowicz’s Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West(2005) I was somewhat amazed at the extent to which my own personal experiences as a member of a Christian cult many years ago overlapped with what I was reading about the factors that lead people into extremist Islamic movements.

Wiktorowicz’s case study was the British based and now banned Al-Muhajiroun (= “The Emigrants”). My own experience was with the Worldwide Church of God and has since been further informed through a wide reading about other religious cults, the comparable experiences of others and some of the research into why people join them, why they remain and why they leave.

Similarity #1

On page 47 Wiktoriwicz has a section headed REQUIREMENTS FOR THE COMMITTED ACTIVIST. It begins (with my own bolding):

Al-Muhajiroun activists participate in a dizzying array of required weekly activities, and the tempo of activism is fast-paced, demanding, and relentless. Activists commit to an assortment of lessons, public outreach programs, protests, and countless movement-sponsored events, all of which consume tremendous amounts of time, energy, and resources. They center their lives around the movement and in the process frequently sacrifice work, friends, family, and leisure time. To put it simply, al-Muhajiroun participation is an intense experience.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 47). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Oh yes! That is very much a mirror of what one finds among religious cults. Mid-week evening Bible Study meetings (the family, children included, generally expected to attend); all day sabbath services and related activities; day of preparations work to be sure everything is in place for the sabbath “rest”; daily minimum of half hour prayer and half hour personal bible study — but with the constant message that the servant who does only the minimum expected is an “unprofitable servant” destined to be “cast out” in the final judgment; active participation in other social events and promoting of “the work” — e.g. letter box drops, maintaining stalls, local fund-raising; volunteering to work at youth camps; setting aside (in Australia) two tenths of one’s gross income for donations to “the work” and compulsory holy day festival attendance in addition to “voluntary offerings”, and twice in seven years setting aside a third tenth of one’s gross income ostensibly for “the poor”. Two magazines and a lengthy co-worker letter were produced monthly and were required reading. Other self-improvement activities were constantly promulgated: a regular speaking club for men; fitness and diet schedules; dress codes; correct habits of speech; the requirement to keep up to date with current news.

The Church or “Work” is one’s whole life. Birthdays, Christmas holidays, Easter, — these were all shunned as “pagan” so one necessarily withdrew from family and former friends. If sabbath and holy day festivals clashed with job requirements then so much the worse for the job.

The details of what keeps members busy and committed varies from cult to cult, but the effect is the same. Such a routine functions to immerse the member in the thought-world of the organisation. There is no time for serious, independent reflection.

Religious training lies at the core of activism: committed activists must master religious doctrine and movement ideology so that they can effectively promote al-Muhajiroun’s ideological vision of an Islamic state and society. To ensure that they are intellectually equipped with “proper” (i.e., movement) religious beliefs, formal members are required to attend a two-hour study session held by the local halaqah (circle) every week. Attendance is mandatory, unless the individual cannot make it because of travel constraints, a sick family member, or an emergency. In each country where al-Muhajiroun is active, the country leader may excuse absences for additional reasons deemed acceptable under Islamic law.

Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 47). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Reminds me of our mandatory two-hour weekly Bible Study sessions. Members who regularly absented themselves from weekly Sabbath services and also failed to have a good reason for skipping mid-weekly Bible Studies were noted (a few trusted members were assigned the surreptitious maintenance of attendance sheets) — and paid a visit by the ministry. read more »


2015-12-26

The Religious Thrill and Bond of the Islamic State

by Neil Godfrey
There is a serious and intense poetry associated with the jihad. There are captivating a cappella chants, and the serious sharing of night time dreams that characterise the culture of the Islamic State. A deep part of the human experience common to premodern cultures but increasingly absent from ours (and whose power and meaning the neo atheists and neo clausewitzians just don’t get) . . . .

 

People have flocked to the Islamic State for different reasons and one of these is the religious experience it offers. That religious experience runs much deeper than its apocalyptic hopes for “the end times”.

Atheism, not anti-theism

I am an atheist and deplore the immeasurable damage “religion”, both organised and personal, has wreaked upon so many lives. At the same time I cannot deny that many people find deep spiritual meaning for their lives in religion. (I use the word “spiritual” for convenience and sometimes use “religious” as a synonym. Normally I’d prefer to speak of the rich emotional life many find through the awe of existence and experiencing the universe, and as well as through companionship and the arts, music, and so forth.) It is for this reason I cannot bring myself to be an anti-theist. If it is true that “it takes religion to make a good person evil” it is also true that “it takes religion to turn bad person good”. I personally wish people could find some other idea or experience to make them good or in which they can find personal fulfilment, but that’s how people are.

Why are people like this? To help us with answers we have our own experiences to draw upon and works like Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the spell : religion as a natural phenomenon (2006),  Scott Atran’s In gods we trust : the evolutionary landscape of religion (2002), Newberg, D’Aquili & Rause’s  Why God won’t go away : brain science and the biology of belief (2001) and especially Pascal Boyer’s  Religion explained : the evolutionary origins of religious thought (2001), along with dozens of others on fundamentalisms, new atheist critiques, and more.

Merely attacking religion’s unscientific and illogical beliefs and moral failings is entirely misdirected energy.

Merely attacking religion’s unscientific and illogical beliefs and moral failings is entirely misdirected energy. That approach only advertises the barrenness of the author’s understanding of the psychology of religious belief. Perhaps some New Atheists who are the most savage of critics of religion would modify their approach if they paused to investigate what some of the literature has to say about the origins of religion and why it is so deeply embedded in the human experience.

Thomas Hegghammer

Thomas Hegghammer

Thomas Hegghammer, a specialist in Islamist violence, wrote in an article in The New York Times (Dec 15, 2015)

When jihadis aren’t fighting — which is most of the time — they enjoy storytelling and watching films, cooking and swimming. The social atmosphere (at least for those who play by the rules) is egalitarian, affectionate and even playful. Jihadi life is emotionally intense, filled with the thrill of combat, the sorrow of loss, the joy of camaraderie and the elation of religious experience. I suspect this is a key source of its attraction. (Soft Power of Militant Jihad)

In seeking to understand the world of jihadis Hegghammer made it his business to understand everything they do, delving into “autobiographies, videos, blog posts, tweets and defector’s accounts”, and what he found he overviews in his NYT article which he titled The Soft Power of Militant Jihad.

Weeping, music, poetry

read more »


2015-12-22

Why have discussions about Islamic terrorism turned out like this?

by Neil Godfrey

I was lamenting the way so many discussions about Islamic terrorism turn out to be not really discussions at all with a friend this morning and he reminded me of a few basics that sometimes slip my mind.

I’m referring to my previous post here. Nick Cohen was not responding to the actual arguments of the other side. He was reading right past the actual words spoken and using them as signals to assess what he believed to be the values, the beliefs, the intentions of the other side of the debate.

The other side is a “regressive left”, they would have us all sympathize with the terrorists and blame the West and limit our freedoms so that no-one offends any Muslim, and anyone who dares criticise the religion of Islam is labelled an Islamophobe. It is not difficult for me to interpret some commenters on Vridar as thinking the same of me on the basis of what I write.

So why are such absurdly false charges made in the first place?

I was reminded of the answer. It is to shut debate down. If the other side is shown (it is believed) to be on the side of the enemy then that settles the matter.

That led me to thinking about my analogy with the study of the rise of Nazism in the Germany of the 1920s and 30s.  read more »


2015-12-21

Fearing to Understand Terrorism and ISIS

by Neil Godfrey

Several excellent articles have appeared recently on the nature of ISIS and terrorism, and some appalling ones have also been published. I normally prefer to share what I understand the experts themselves to be saying, but here I’m stepping back a minute to pause. Some (it sometimes seems like most) readers do not want to hear the experts, or they read into their words almost the very opposite of what they are attempting to convey. Discussions too often (not always but certainly very often) degenerate into exchanges where one or both sides are merely scanning for keywords from which to leap into their own polemic.

Jerry Coyne not so long ago wanted his readers to enjoy an article by Nick Cohen because, Coyne pointed out, Nick Cohen may be seen as an heir to George Orwell for his intellectual insights and honesty! So I read the article and had to rub my eyes into the third paragraph to grasp that Cohen set out with a complete distortion of John Kerry’s remarks about the factors underlying terrorism.

Cohen’s conclusion underscored his ability to see black where he had read white:

Every step you take explaining radical Islam away is apparently rational and liberal. Each takes you further from rationalism and liberalism. In your determination to see the other side’s point of view and to avoid making it “really angry about this or that”, you end up altering your behaviour so much that you can no longer challenge the prejudices of violent religious reactionaries. As you seek rationales for the irrational and excuses for the inexcusable, you become a propagandist for the men you once opposed.

“Explaining radical Islam away”?

“In your determination to see the other side’s point of view . . . you end up altering your behaviour so much that you can no longer challenge the prejudices of violent religious reactionaries.”??

“As you seek rationales for the irrational and excuses for the inexcusable”???

Who on earth does all of these things?

I once studied the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Germany and Italy in the 20s and 30s, and also the rise and history of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in Britain. Never once did it cross my mind that understanding how a host of international policies, economic and social turmoil, the particular psychologies of key individuals and social psychology more generally, and the history of specific ideas, — never once did it cross my mind that acquiring such an understanding, of coming to see the point of view of those who followed Hitler, Mussolini (and Mosley) so well, was an act of “explaining fascism away” or “seeking excuses for the inexcusable”.  read more »


2015-12-16

ISIS is a Revolution, born in terror (like all revolutions)

by Neil Godfrey

A long essay by Scott Atran comparing ISIS to past revolutions to find out what is new, and what likely can and cannot be done against it. . . .

ISIS is a revolution

World-altering revolutions are born in danger and death, brotherhood and joy. This one must be stopped

Excerpts follow —

Asymmetric operations involving spectacular killings to destabilise the social order is a tactic that has been around as long as recorded history

The revolution:

What the United Nations community regards as senseless acts of horrific violence are to ISIS’s acolytes part of an exalted campaign of purification through sacrificial killing and self-immolation: Know that Paradise lies under the shade of swords, says a hadith, or saying of the Prophet; this one comes from the Sahih al-Bukhari, a collection of the Prophet’s sayings considered second only to the Qu’ran in authenticity and is now a motto of ISIS fighters.

This is the purposeful plan of violence that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-anointed Caliph, outlined in his call for ‘volcanoes of jihad’: to create a globe-spanning jihadi archipelago that will eventually unite to destroy the present world and create a new-old world of universal justice and peace under the Prophet’s banner. A key tactic in this strategy is to inspire sympathisers abroad to violence: do what you can, with whatever you have, wherever you are, whenever possible.

The study:

To understand the revolution, my research team has conducted dozens of structured interviews and behavioural experiments with youth in Paris, London and Barcelona, as well as with captured ISIS fighters in Iraq and members of Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria). We also focused on youth from distressed neighbourhoods previously associated with violence or jihadi support – for example, the Paris suburbs of Clichy-sous-Bois and Épinay-sur-Seine, the Moroccan neighbourhoods of Sidi Moumen in Casablanca and Jamaa Mezuak in Tetuán.

While many in the West dismiss radical Islam as simply nihilistic, our work suggests something far more menacing: a profoundly alluring mission to change and save the world. . . . 

read more »


2015-12-12

How Terrorists Convince Themselves to Kill

by Neil Godfrey

H/t J.M. Berger‘s intelwire.com, a new article on time.com by William McCants (author of The ISIS Apocalypse),

How Terrorists Convince Themselves to Kill

McCants begins

Although I have studied jihadist culture for a decade, I am still astounded and dismayed by its ability to inspire individuals to take innocent life. The husband and wife team who slaughtered 14 and wounded 21 in San Bernardino were just the latest in a long line of killers who have embraced a violent version of ultraconservative Sunni Islam.

He notes that we can understand States killing innocents since the people at the top aren’t usually the ones doing the actual killing, and the more remote, the easier it is to do. And those who do do the executions generally undergo long-term training to overcome their natural aversion to killing.

But how did sane people like the San Bernardino assassins, independent of experience in a militia and without years of organized training, manage to overcome this natural aversion on their own? How did they convince themselves that the slaughter of innocents was necessary and right?

The answer, in brief:

Culture. Our brain may be wired to love our own group and dislike outsiders, but culture is the software that helps us determine who’s in and who’s out. The less we empathize with someone, the easier it is to kill them.

Jihadist culture is exceptionally good at decreasing empathy for outsiders, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, as the Norwegian political scientist Thomas Hegghammer shows in a forthcoming volume. Jihadists use scripture, stories, songs, art, and poetry to foster group solidarity and encourage violence against a wide circle of enemies. Individuals who adopt the culture make sense of the world through its prism and seek to convince others of its truth. Even the most isolated can connect over social media to find likeminded people who will encourage them and goad them to action.

Is it going to get any better if/when the Islamic State is destroyed? The State is “teaching its vile ideology to children on an industrial scale and ordering them to carry out attacks and execute prisoners” — and those children will be with us a long time to come.

And what of our reactions? It’s not a long article. It can be read very quickly: How Terrorists Convince Themselves to Kill

“Who is William McCants?” you ask. From the time.com site:

William McCants directs the project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, and the author of The ISIS Apocalypse. He is adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University and a former U.S. State Department senior adviser for countering violent extremism.


2015-12-10

Terrorists on Status Seeking Adventures

by Neil Godfrey

So far we have noted how one becomes a terrorist as a consequence of embracing a violent ideology and a desire to take action in response to personal or group grievances. But not all terrorists in history, or today, have been overly bothered by either of these things. For some the primary motivation has been the opportunity to break out of a hum drum existence and live a life of adventure and win high status among peers as a heroic warrior.

Look at the following description of the man who laid the foundations of Islamic State, al-Zarqawi. (After Zarqawi was killed his organization under new leadership was eventually transformed into today’s Islamic State.) Formatting and bolding are mine in all quotations….

Abu_Musab_al-Zarqawi_(1966-2006)

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

The search for status and risk taking can be unrelated to any sense of grievance or ideology. An example of how far the separation between politics and radical action can go was recounted to one of the authors in a government-sponsored meeting. A young Iraqi had been captured trying to place an improvised explosive device (IED) on a road traversed by U.S. forces. When interrogated, he showed surprisingly little animosity toward Americans. Placing IEDs was a high-status, well-paid occupation; he was saving his money to get to America.

A BAD BOY, LOOKING FOR A GOOD FIGHT

The United States placed a price of $25 million on his head—the same bounty offered for Osama bin Laden. At the onset of his criminal career, nobody would have thought that Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal al-Khalayleh, later known as Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, could gain such prominence on the international stage.

Born in 1966 he grew up in a middle-class family in a suburb of Zarqua, Jordan. His school performance was weak, and he dropped out of high school in his final year, refusing to undertake vocational training or to continue his studies. He was not interested in religious studies either and did not attend religious services. Instead, he got involved with other neighborhood troublemakers, quickly creating a reputation for himself as an aggressive and dangerous thug—not because of his extraordinary physical strength but because of his bad temper. He took one unskilled job after another, only to be fired for neglecting his duties and inciting fights. In 1986 a mandatory two-year military service took him away from the street career he was building, but he came back with the same drive for intimidation and domination.

His contemporaries recall that at this time he drank too much and earned a nickname, “the green man,” for the numerous tattoos he acquired (a practice condemned by Islam). He liked to stand out in other ways too:

  • in several cases, he became involved in altercations with local police, repeatedly causing his father the embarrassment of picking him up from the police station.
  • In 1987 he stabbed a local man, earning a two-months prison sentence, which was eventually substituted by a fine.
  • Numerous arrests followed—for shoplifting, for drug dealing, and for attempted rape.
  • Although the authorities did not approve of Ahmad’s behavior, there were plenty of admirers. Neighborhood young men feared and respected him, and he began frequenting a Palestinian enclave where he became a leader for young Palestinian refugees.

To keep him out of trouble, his mother enrolled Ahmad in a religious school at a mosque in the center of Amman. There, among Islamic radicals preparing for jihad in Afghanistan, he realized that his talents might best be applied in war. Hoping to be sent to the front of the fighting, he submitted to the most basic requirements of Islam by beginning to attend sermons and abstaining from alcohol. In 1989, with a group of peers, Ahmad finally set off on the road to Afghanistan.

To his dismay he arrived too late: the war against the Soviets was already over, and he could only join the fighters in celebration. But the region was in ruins, the situation was chaotic, and Ahmad thought he might yet find his adventure.  read more »


2015-12-08

So why did militants turn to attack the West? — The Saudi Arabia driver

by Neil Godfrey

This post follows on from The Origins of Islamic Militancy. This time I change pace and copy a small section from pages 92 to 94 of Jason Burke’s book, The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy (2015). I have a lot of time for Burke’s books on this topic. He is one of the few to get out into the field, sometimes at risk to his own life, to talk with terrorists and their associates. Formatting and bolding are mine.

So why did militants turn to attack the West? One important reason is to be found in Saudi Arabia.

Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud

Abdulaziz ibn Saud

As a state, Saudi Arabia owed its foundation to the alliance of the battle-hardened latter-day followers of Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who had preached an austere, puritanical interpretation of Islam in the Arabian peninsula since the late eighteenth century, and an ambitious, capable tribal leader called Abdulaziz ibn Saud.

In 1979 came three events that shook the Saudi monarchy:

  • the seizure of the grand mosque in Mecca by a group of local extremists,
  • the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets
  • and the Iranian revolution. 

Each involved a different enemy — violent local militants who branded their rulers apostates, atheist Communists and Shia Islamists — but each revealed a new and potentially deadly threat to the reign of the house of Saud.

One response of the kingdom’s rulers was to use a substantial amount of the vast wealth generated by their oil revenues to expand the proselytisation of the Wahhabi creed, one of the most rigorous, intolerant and conservative existing in Islam, throughout the Sunni Muslim world. This had been a policy for some time but now the effort was massively expanded in an updated though much more far-reaching version of the original strategy that had brought them to power sixty years before. The aim was to reinforce their own religious credentials at home while increasing their influence overseas, allowing them to reassert their claim to both religious and political leadership in the Islamic world.

Over the ensuing decades,

  • tens of thousands of religious schools, mosques, Islamic universities and religious centres were built worldwide. 
  • Hundreds of thousands of scholarships to Saudi universities were offered and stipends paid to preachers.
  • Tens of millions of copies of holy texts and, more importantly, deeply conservative interpretations of them, were published and distributed.

This strategic choice was to have a huge impact on the Muslim world, fundamentally altering faith, observance and religious identity for hundreds of millions of people. It also contributed, as intended, to a shift of cultural influence from Egypt, once the unchallenged intellectual centre of the Arab world, to Saudi Arabia, its religious centre.
read more »


2015-12-07

The San Bernardino Terrorists — So Very Predictable, So UNpredictable

by Neil Godfrey
farook-malik

Farook and Malik

Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farooq fit the pattern perfectly. I’ve been posting the findings of serious research into what leads someone to radicalize and kill for some time now and will continue to do so as I read and learn more. Meanwhile assertions that the Quran made them do it defy the fundamentals how the world works and ignore the realities that at least better informed security services study and follow.

My most recent post on “how radicalisation happens” was Love, Relationships and Terrorism. We saw the theme of that post played out in San Bernardino. (Other themes covered in earlier posts also surfaced and I am not yet half way through the series.)

No-one picks up and reads a copy of the Quran, and in pious isolation from the outside world comes to believe it is the word of Allah and goes out on a killing spree. No-one, except maybe some truly mentally deranged person.

Here’s the all too familiar narrative:

The settings

Scene 1: A secular democratic Western nation, one with an ongoing history of involvement and support for Western wars against Muslim countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria) and support for dictatorial regimes (Egypt, Saudi Arabia). We won’t mention Israel.

Scene 2: Pakistan, more specifically the northern regions of Pakistan (especially Multan) where there is strong support for jihadist ideology and the Taliban.

Scene 3: We can throw in Saudi Arabia here perhaps as something of a holiday resort.

Main characters

Syed Rizwan Farooq: Dysfunctional family background, devout Sunni Muslim, American citizen and son of immigrants from Pakistan. Polite and generally accepted by the community. Educated and with a middle class job. Looking for a wife.

Tashfeen Malik: Strong Islamist (anti-Western) family background in Pakistan. Well educated and upper middle class. Looking for a husband.

Props

The internet.

Plot read more »


2015-11-28

Stochastic Terrorism

by Neil Godfrey

An interesting take by Valerie Tarico:  Christianist Republicans Systematically Incited Colorado Clinic Assault . . . . Citing Stochastic Terrorism Valerie writes:

Stochastic terrorism is the use of mass communications to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable. In short, remote-control murder by lone wolf.”

And explains:

The formula is perversely brilliant:

  1. A public figure with access to the airwaves or pulpit demonizes a person or group of persons.
  2. With repetition, the targeted person or group is gradually dehumanized, depicted as loathsome and dangerous—arousing a combustible combination of fear and moral disgust.
  3. Violent images and metaphors, jokes about violence, analogies to past “purges” against reviled groups, use of righteous religious language—all of these typically stop just short of an explicit call to arms.
  4. When violence erupts, the public figure who have incited the violence condemn it—claiming no one could possibly have foreseen the “tragedy.”

Stochastic terrorism is not a fringe concept. It is a known terrorist modality that has been described at length by analysts. It produces terrorism patterns that are known to any member of Congress or any presidential candidate who has ever thought deeply about national or domestic security issues . . .