On terrorism, stop asking why and start asking how

– Isabel Larroca

When combatting terrorists, trying to understand their motivations isn’t an effective approach.

As the Islamic State (ISIS) rages across Iraq and Syria, reports of atrocities committed by the group grow by the day. In recent months, the group has thrown gay men from buildings, executed teenagers for watching a soccer game, and killed hundreds of women and children in Palmyra, Syria.

With ISIS holding its ground in the Middle East and the threat of “lone wolf” terrorism on the rise, discussion of the terrorists’ motivations has gained attention. Analyses of ISIS’s origins and goals are copious, though some who claim to understand recruits’ rationales garner widespread derision — such was the reaction to State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf’s assertion that ISIS’s membership was spurred by a “lack of opportunity for jobs.” She is not alone. America has something of an obsession with the cottage industry of terrorism psychology — much of which takes the same posture as Harf: that terrorism is bred from economic deprivation and instability.

A recent article by Simon Cottee in the Atlantic suggests that this line of thinking is “often misplaced, given how little scholars actually know about terrorism and the people who are involved in it.” Consider the complex internal drives of individuals, as varied as “Jihadi John,” the notorious Brit-turned-ISIS member with solidly middle-class roots (origins he shares with many other ISIS recruits), and Osama bin Laden, whose millionaire father owned the largest construction company in Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, academic explanations for terrorist actions abound. Cottee notes that studies of terrorism in the late 1960s cited “psychological abnormality or affliction” as the main force compelling individuals to become terrorists. From the 1980s onward, scholarly consensus dropped the emphasis on psychological explanations, claiming instead that outside circumstances were sources of terrorist motivation. This stems from the social science community’s current thinking on violence in general: it is, writes Cottee, a product of “historical, economic, or cultural forces over and above the individual,” rather than the result of an individual psychological condition. “[Violence] requires conducive social conditions rather than monstrous people to produce atrocious deeds,” wrote social psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1990s. “Given appropriate social conditions, decent, ordinary people can be led to do extraordinarily cruel things.”

To ask “why” when discussing terrorism is to ask such a profoundly existential question that it is practically impossible to answer

Cottee concedes that this view has merit — a recent report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue says as much, suggesting that Westernized jihadists are alienated by the secularism of the Western world. But Cottee also illustrates the flaws of relying on the “social conditions” explanation — mainly that such conditions often fail to match up with terrorist activity. Many individuals or groups who have encountered the historical, economic, or cultural hardships or conditions associated with terrorism do not themselves become terrorists. And many terrorists have not experienced these theoretical motivating social conditions.

Simply put, terrorists aren’t predictable. They can have multiple motives, private motives, or motives that are expressed as moral compensation for their actions. To ask “why” when talking about terrorism is to ask such a monumentally existential question that it is practically impossible to answer.

If not “why,” then what question should we ask? Cottee’s suggestion: “how?” How do people end up joining terrorist organizations? How do networks operate? How do they induct recruits into existing cells? How were those networks accessed?

While motives are difficult to detect and prevent, a recruiting network can be disrupted by law enforcement. In 2015 alone, federal authorities have arrested a Canadian man, a high school student in northern Virginia, and six Minnesota men, all thought to be involved in different forms of recruiting for ISIS. By arresting these individuals, authorities believe others will be less likely to join the Islamic State or, at least less likely to be assisted in doing so.

Concerns over the nature of terrorism are only likely to become more relevant as the fight against terrorism continues worldwide. Acknowledging what we don’t know about terrorists is an important step. So is asking questions. But even more important — especially if the global community hopes to make substantial gains in confronting terrorist groups — is knowing to ask the right ones.

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The Source: Simon Cottee, “What Motivates Terrorists?The Atlantic June 9, 2015.

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