Scott Atran on Why People Become Terrorists
Scott Atran has done some really interesting research on why ordinary people become terrorists.
Academics who study warfare and terrorism typically don’t conduct research just kilometers from the front lines of battle. But taking the laboratory to the fight is crucial for figuring out what impels people to make the ultimate sacrifice to, for example, impose Islamic law on others, says Atran, who is affiliated with the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.
Atran’s war zone research over the last few years, and interviews during the last decade with members of various groups engaged in militant jihad (or holy war in the name of Islamic law), give him a gritty perspective on this issue. He rejects popular assumptions that people frequently join up, fight and die for terrorist groups due to mental problems, poverty, brainwashing or savvy recruitment efforts by jihadist organizations.
Instead, he argues, young people adrift in a globalized world find their own way to ISIS, looking to don a social identity that gives their lives significance. Groups of dissatisfied young adult friends around the world often with little knowledge of Islam but yearning for lives of profound meaning and glory typically choose to become volunteers in the Islamic State army in Syria and Iraq, Atran contends. Many of these individuals connect via the internet and social media to form a global community of alienated youth seeking heroic sacrifice, he proposes.
Preliminary experimental evidence suggests that not only global terrorism, but also festering state and ethnic conflicts, revolutions and even human rights movements—think of the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s—depend on what Atran refers to as devoted actors. These individuals, he argues, will sacrifice themselves, their families and anyone or anything else when a volatile mix of conditions are in play. First, devoted actors adopt values they regard as sacred and nonnegotiable, to be defended at all costs. Then, when they join a like-minded group of nonkin that feels like a family a band of brothers a collective sense of invincibility and special destiny overwhelms feelings of individuality. As members of a tightly bound group that perceives its sacred values under attack, devoted actors will kill and die for each other.
EDITED TO ADD (8/13): Related paper, also by Atran.