Last Wednesday, in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks — and, coincidentally, on the same day as the horrific attack in San Bernardino, California — the British science journal Nature ran an article on what researchers are learning as they attempt to figure out how young Europeans become radicalized and decide to become terrorists.
“A mixture of sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists and psychologists, such researchers are drawing on information generated by police, judicial inquiries, and the media, and in some cases, on interviews,” writes reporter Declan Butler. “They also study factors at play in prisons and socially-deprived areas.”
The insights these researchers have uncovered pertain to the radicalization of young Europeans, but they may also be helpful in understanding why such radicalization occurs in the United States as well.
Here are some of those insights as summarized by Butler:
Religion is not the trigger. The rise of jihad in Europe has led to an assumption that there is a radicalization of Muslims more generally across the continent. Yet research suggests that most extremists are either people who returned suddenly to Islam or converts with no Islamic background. … [As] many as one in four French jihadists is a convert. … Violent extremism emerges first, with a religious justification tagged on after.
Resentment is the common ground. It is difficult to make generalizations about how people become radicalized in Europe. … [M]any extremists come from broken families or deprived areas, lack education and are unemployed. A smaller number are well educated, have held jobs and have middle-class lifestyles. Some are in stable relationships and have young children. The characteristics that extremists seem to share are resentment directed at society and a narcissistic need for recognition that leaves them open to a narrative of violent glory. … Social factors can contribute to such frustrations.
‘Entrepreneurs’ drive terrorism. Most of those who get involved in jihadi terrorism in Europe are “misfits and drifters” — people who joined militant networks during life crises or through friends and relatives on the inside. … [But] the key actors in terrorist activity are a much smaller number of “entrepreneurs”. These seasoned, ideologically driven activities are part of transnational terrorist webs linked both to extremist groups throughout Europe and to armed groups in conflict zones. They are the ones who bring structure and organization to the disaffected majority, through recruitment and indoctrination.
You can read Butler’s entire article on Nature’s website.
Friends as preventive ‘gatekeepers’
A U.S. study published last October in the journal Behavioural Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression offers some insights into another aspect of radicalization — the all-important role that friends may be able to play in preventing it.
For the study, Michael Williams, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, and his colleagues interviewed more than 150 law enforcement experts, Muslim community leaders, and members of the public of different ages and faiths in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. They asked each interviewee this question: “Who would be the first to notice, and able to intervene, with individuals considering acts of violent extremism?
As psychologist and journalist Christian Jarrett explains in his summary of the study for the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog, “a recurring point made by the interviewees was that the people best placed to notice a person sliding to extremism are his or her friends.”
Adds Jarrett (with British spelling):
A typical observation was this, from a Pakistani-American father, who said of the (in)ability of clergy and family members to spot the early signs of extremism:
“… the priest will not know [if youth are getting involved in illegal activities], because when he [the youth] goes to church, or the mosque, or the temple, he’s the finest guy. He’s on best behaviours,” and “the family is the last one to know.”
Worryingly, the interviewees also noted that there is a disconnect between these “gatekeepers” (the friends of at-risk people) and the safety networks in the community. Indeed, many of the members of the public interviewed said they would be reluctant to reach out, not just to the police, but to any of the community safety networks about their concerns. The most popular reasons given were related to fear about getting a friend or family member in trouble; concerns about getting into trouble themselves; fear that the friend would get mad at them; and concerns about being identified. Interviewees rarely said that they didn’t think it would help (to report their concerns), or that they thought they could handle the situation themselves, or that they didn’t have time.
The study also found, says Jarrett, “that the more a person feared harming their relationship with the (hypothetical) at-risk friend in question, the more they voiced reluctance about the idea of raising the alarm.”
Although Williams and his colleagues stress that their findings must be considered preliminary, the results do suggest, they add, that empowering and supporting “gatekeepers” (the friends of the people at risk of becoming radicalized) could help.
“Help-seeking is a learned behavior,” the researchers write. “Therefore, it seems that the greatest barrier to vicarious help-seeking in [countering violent extremism] contexts is not whether associate-gatekeepers can be trained to help their associates get the help they need. Instead, it suggests that among the next steps — the next challenges — are to develop the curricula and protocols for how associate-gate- keepers should respond.”
You can download and read the study in full at the Behavioural Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression’s website. You’ll find Jarrett’s summary of the study at the Research Digest website.