Thwarting terrorism takes insight into recruits

(Paul Lachine)


The first image on the screen is disturbing: An emaciated Iraqi infant gazes listlessly at the camera. Cut to video clips of rulers from other Arab countries kowtowing to visiting U.S. government officials. Then come scenes of violent attacks against Muslims in the West Bank, Gaza, Kashmir and Indonesia. Images and sounds of destruction crash relentlessly, one into the other, in a steady stream of horror.

An accusing voice addresses the film’s intended audience of young, Muslim males: “How can you stand by while Muslim women and children are being attacked? Where is your sense of shame as holy places are defiled by Jews and Crusaders? Arab rulers are their puppets, while brave Muslim men who stand up to them are suffering injury and death. Won’t you join your brothers in the battle to defend Islam?”

It is an al-Qaeda recruitment tape. Such tools are produced in a variety of languages and employed by a spectrum of violent Islamist groups in their outreach to youthful male audiences. Most recruits to terrorist groups are teenage boys and men in their 20s. These tools are effective because of their appeal to certain harsh realities of daily life in countries where Islam is the dominant religion, or conversely, where adherents to Islam comprise an unwelcome and harassed minority. Many potential recruits are already disposed to believe that the umma, or worldwide community of Muslims, is victimized and persecuted by Western powers. They feel impotent to restore Islam as a respected, influential player in world affairs, or even to improve their own lives, through conventional, legal processes. Furthermore, they hunger for a sense of camaraderie, excitement and meaning.

One such young man was Yudi Zulfahri, who joined an Islamist group in Indonesia. As is typical among recruits to jihadi terrorist efforts, Zulfahri started out with only a superficial understanding of Islam, then began eagerly appropriating fundamentalist views as his involvement with the group deepened. He expressed a desire to go to Iraq or Afghanistan, and volunteered to set up a military training camp in his home country in hopes of staging attacks in its major cities.

Zulfahri’s group shared his fundamentalist views, but it was suspicious of his eagerness to resort to violence. Instead of engaging him in discussion about Islamic teachings on violence or other ways to work for change, the group isolated and rejected him, leaving him feeling angry and alienated. He sought out and joined an organization that was already pursuing terrorist activities. Assigned to procure assault rifles for use in an attack, Zulfahri was arrested before the attack could be carried out.

Like many other young Muslims seeking to defend Islamic faith and culture and to identify themselves with a meaningful pursuit, Zulfahri climbed, step by step, what Georgetown University psychologist Fathali Moghaddam calls “the staircase to terrorism.” Moghaddam explains that while most people who feel wronged and outraged generally remain on the ground floor, a few individuals will begin the climb, which starts with a belief that because their options for countering injustice are limited, resorting to violence may be inevitable.

Constrained from expressing their anger against the authoritarian regimes in their own countries, they move on to the second floor -- the displacement of their aggression to target foreign enemies such as the United States (which may be demonized, for example, as “the Great Satan”). The third floor is where “moral engagement” occurs -- the recruit is persuaded that risking martyrdom in service of a just goal constitutes a morality superior to that of the world outside the terrorist organization.

At this stage of terrorist training, recruits are persuaded with such messages as, “You are special because of your beliefs and choices, and you can become even more special with martyrdom,” or “With your death you will accomplish so much more than you ever could in your lifetime.”

Once the recruit has climbed to the fourth floor and entered the “secret world” of the organization, according to Moghaddam, “there is little or no opportunity to exit alive.” Categorical, us-versus-them thinking is reinforced. Some recruits will become relatively long-term members and assigned to operate in “cells” of four to five individuals; the rest will be briefly showered with attention and treated as celebrities, then quickly sent out to execute a suicide bombing or other planned attack. At the fifth and final floor, the recruit overcomes any of his remaining inhibitions and commits the terrorist act.

Most counterterrorism efforts are concentrated at the two highest “floors” of the staircase, to apprehend terrorists in the process of planning or carrying out an attack. But “where you have enormous borders, thousands of planes, thousands of ships, some people are bound to slip through,” insists the amiable, Iranian-born Moghaddam. In terms of resource investment and effectiveness, it makes more sense to dissuade disaffected young Muslim men from climbing the staircase at the outset. Ever more advanced and ubiquitous technologies for security screening do not address legitimate anger at injustice and lack of opportunity.

“At the moment,” Moghaddam told an interviewer for Georgetown’s Faith Complex video series, “a person could be sitting in a remote valley in a Third World country, impoverished materially relative to our standards but receiving most of the messages we receive about consumer products. ... We’re raising expectations and aspirations while at the same time raising [awareness of] relative deprivation.” Moghaddam acknowledges that adopting the perspective and seeking to understand the motivations of a terrorist may be repugnant to many, but such efforts are essential if we are to prevent individuals from taking the fateful steps toward terrorist involvement.

Insights into terrorist motivation and experience are also proving useful in initiatives being tested among terrorist detainees in a number of countries, including Colombia, Egypt, Singapore, Yemen and the United Kingdom. Such approaches as helping detainees to examine the exaggerated promises of those who recruited them, pointing out individual detainees’ unique gifts and abilities, and reminding them of a problem that human beings the world over hold in common (such as global warming) have led to both individual and group renunciations of violence -- but not necessarily of Islamic fundamentalism or extremist political attitudes.

According to psychologist John Horgan, who studied Irish Republican terrorist movements before becoming director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University, disengaging from terrorism does not necessarily result in “de-radicalization,” just as most people with “radical” political attitudes or fundamentalist religious beliefs do not become terrorists to begin with. “The notion of religious terrorism is misleading and troublesome,” says Horgan. “A lot more people are ‘radicalized’ than will ever be involved in terrorism.”

An acquaintance of Zulfahri, the young man arrested for terrorist activities in Indonesia, is a case in point. According to The Jakarta Post, the acquaintance held views similar to Zulfahri’s, but did not become a terrorist. When asked why, he said simply that his family, friends and religious teachers had talked him out of it.

[Mary Ann Cejka teaches graduate courses in multicultural psychology for the University of Phoenix Online Campus, and writes frequently on issues of peace and conflict.]

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