This is not a difficult question. You start with boredom and perhaps social isolation. Then you self brainwash yourself to the point in which you finally drink the Koolaid.
The cure is even simpler. A low guilt threshold for the application of Summary Castration. This makes reading Jihadi propaganda deeply unpopular and stops self brainwashing.
Put all that in place and it is no trick to make it all go away.
None of this ever had anything to do with religion at all, except to provide useful idiots. The inclination has been a fringe phenomena for centuries and includes neo Nazis, anarchists and communists as well..
What makes someone prepared to die for an idea? This is a question that concerns anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Oxford’s Centre for Resolution of Intractable Conflicts. Research he has led in some of the most embattled regions of the world, including in Mosul, suggests the answer comes in two parts. Jihadists fuse their individual identity with that of the group, and they adhere to “sacred values”.
Sacred values are values that cannot be abandoned or exchanged for material gain. They tend to be associated with strong emotions and are often religious in nature, but beliefs held by fervent nationalists and secularists, for example, may earn the label too. Atran has found that people in fighting groups who hold sacred values are perceived by other members of their group as having a spiritual strength that counts for more than their physical strength. What’s more, sacred values trump the other main characteristic of extremists: a powerful group identity. “When push comes to shove, these fighters will desert their closest buddies for their ideals,” he says.
Atran argues that individuals in this state of mind are best understood, not as rational actors but as “devoted” actors. “Once they’re locked in as a devoted actor, none of the classic interventions seem to work,” he says. But there might be openings. While a sacred value cannot be abandoned, it can be reinterpreted. Atran cites the case of an imam he interviewed who had worked for ISIS as a recruiter, but had left because he disagreed with their definition of jihad. For him, but not for them, jihadism could accommodate persuasion by non-violent means.
As long as such alternative interpretations are seen as coming from inside the group, Atran says, they can be persuasive within it. He is now advising the US, UK and French governments on the dynamics of jihadist networks to help them tackle terrorism. Laura Spinney
Deradicalisation programmes are the bedrock of counter-terrorism strategies in many countries. They aim to combat extremism by identifying individuals who have become radicalised, or are in danger of becoming so, and reintegrating them to the mainstream using psychological and religious counselling as well as vocational training.
In the UK, some 4000 people are reported to the government’s anti-terror programme Prevent every year. The majority – 70 per cent – are suspected Islamic extremists, but about a quarter are far-right radicals, and that number is growing.
Critics fear that these programmes criminalise and stigmatise communities, families and individuals. In addition, there are questions about who governments collaborate with for information and whether public servants should be obliged to report potential radicals.
There is also very little evidence that the programmes work. Most fail to assess the progress of participants, and rates of recidivism are rarely studied. In a recent report, the UK parliament’s human rights committee warned that the government’s counter-extremism strategy is based on unproven theories and risks making the situation worse.
The key to combating extremism lies in addressing its social roots, and intervening early, before anyone becomes a “devoted actor” willing to lay down their lives for a cause, says Scott Atran at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Resolution of Intractable Conflicts (see “Devoted to the cause“). “Until then, there are all sorts of things you can do.” One of the most effective counter measures, he says, is community engagement. High-school football and the scouts movement have been effective responses to antisocial behaviour among the disenfranchised children of US immigrants, for example.
Another promising avenue is to break down stereotypes, says social psychologist Susan Fiske at Princeton University. These are not necessarily religious or racial stereotypes, but generalised stereotypes we all hold about people around us. When we categorise one another, we are particularly concerned with social status and competition, viewing people of low status as incompetent, and competitors as untrustworthy. Throughout history, violent acts and genocides have tended to be perpetrated against high-status individuals with whom we compete for resources, and who therefore elicit our envy, says Fiske.
Fiske’s group has found ways to disrupt stereotypes by making people work together to achieve a common goal, for example. Trivial contact involving “food, festivals and flags” won’t cut it, she says. It has to be a goal people care about and are prepared to invest in, such as a work project or community build. Here, success depends on understanding the minds of your collaborators – “rehumanising” them.
Changing perspectives Tania Singer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, thinks brain training could achieve similar effects. Social neuroscientists have identified two pathways in the brain by which we relate to others. One mobilises empathy and compassion, allowing us to share another person’s emotions. The second activates theory of mind, enabling us to see a situation from the other’s perspective.
Singer’s group recently completed a project called ReSource, in which 300 volunteers spent nine months doing training, first on mindfulness, and then on compassion and perspective taking. After just a week, the compassion training started to enhance prosocial behaviours, and corresponding structural brain changes were detectable in MRI scans.
Compassion evolved as part of an ancient nurturing instinct that is usually reserved for kin. To extend it to strangers, who may see the world differently from us, we need to add theory of mind. The full results from ReSource aren’t yet published, but Singer expects to see brain changes associated with perspective-taking training, too. “Only if you have both pathways working together in a coordinated fashion can you really move towards global cooperation,” she says. By incorporating that training into school curricula, she suggests, we could build a more cohesive, cooperative society that is more resilient to extremism. Laura Spinney
A key feature of jihadist groups is their use of social networks to propagate their ideas. “If you can disrupt those connections, that’s probably your best shot at stopping people from becoming terrorists,” says J. M. Berger at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague and co-author of ISIS: The state of terror.
He believes that the advent of social media has not only increased the number of people extremist groups can reach, but also the potency of their message, because it allows them to circumvent safeguards against revisionism and hate speech. Those most susceptible to the propaganda, his research suggests, are not the chronically poor or deprived, but people experiencing uncertainty in their lives – recent converts, young people who have just left the family home, those with psychiatric problems.
Extremist groups are adept at fomenting collective uncertainty, for example by provoking hostility between ethnic groups. At the same time, they present themselves as upholders of clear and unwavering values, an attractive message to individuals who are undergoing potentially destabilising transformations. Through social networks, those experiencing uncertainty can learn about and even enter into contact with extremist networks.
The G7 recognised this with its recent statement that it will “combat the misuse of the internet by terrorists”. But this is easier said than done, says Berger. “It’s easy to demand social media companies do something about extremism, but much harder to define what they should do in a way that is consistent with the values of liberal democracies.” Laura Spinney