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Opinion Rethinking the war on terrorism, with the help of science

Iraqi rapid response forces ride on an armored vehicle during a battle with Islamic State militants east of Mosul, Iraq, in January. (Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters)

We generally don’t think of fighting terror as an academic exercise. But for Scott Atran, an author and anthropologist who conducts field research on extremist groups on the front lines of battle, science is a crucial element in our ability to stem violent extremism.

Atran, who has academic positions at a number of institutions, including Oxford University, the University of Michigan and France’s National Center for Scientific Research, published an essay last week in the journal Science advocating for a more scientific and research-based approach to preventing terrorism across the globe.

Atran has argued that the intelligence community and the national security apparatus are not designed to carry out long-term policies that would prevent violent extremism. He stresses that without field research in conflict zones geared toward understanding how and why people become radicalized, we’ll never have a coherent strategy to prevent attacks.

Below is a transcript of an interview with Atran, edited for clarity and brevity.

In Theory: Many people in the U.S. are attracted to campaign-style promises to, as Sen. Ted Cruz said, “carpet bomb” the Islamic State until we find out whether “sand can glow.” How do we convince people that a measured, evidence-based approach is the right way to address violent extremism?

Scott Atran: It’s very hard to do with just evidence. Never in history have so few people with so few means caused so much fear. I mean, the Belgian army could defeat the Islamic State if it was simply a matter of material firepower and manpower. There’s no attempt to really take what is involved seriously: Who are these people? Why do they do what they do? Why now?

The policies currently being used seem beside the point. For example, counter-radicalization is mostly focused on individuals. Just calling [the Islamic State] terrorism and linking it to criminality masks the fact that it is a mass movement with mass appeal — however few people there are in the United States that are drawn into it. It’s a little bit like the national socialist movement or the communist movement. Siphoning off individuals is not going to stop it.

IT: So what will stop people from joining the Islamic State?

SA: Well, first we need to understand who’s getting involved, and they’re not generally psychopaths. There are some — what are called lone wolves — especially in the United States. But in general [the people who join terrorist organizations] span the normal distribution. They cluster in particular towns, in particular neighborhoods, in particular chat rooms. We have to try to figure out, why there? What’s going on?

I don’t think there’s this ideology out there — like disembodied ideas free floating that catch onto minds like viruses. [And I don’t think] floating counter-narratives instead of trying to engage them will do the trick. I had a conversation with an imam who was a recruiter for the Islamic State on the Syria-Jordan border. He said, “Look: The people who come to us, come to us with passion and compassion. They’re looking for adventure.” We’ve got to give them some kind of positive way of discovering that they’ve been misguided.

George Orwell once wrote a review of “Mein Kampf” in 1940, and I think it has some of the most profound insights of any commentator of the modern political world. He asks, how come [modern societies] offer their citizens ease, avoidance of risk and pain, hygiene, birth control — in short the good life — and no one is willing to fight for their ideals? And how is it that Hitler offers his people revolution, danger, death and glory, and a whole nation of 80 million people fall down at his feet? It’s because Hitler understood something profound about human nature: that human beings need at least intermittently a sense of self-sacrifice and transcendence. Under threat of death and extinction, they’ll find it. But if that can’t be given to people, their way of life just can’t compete [with the lure of extremism].

I think it’s important to understand that process of why people become radicalized instead of just trying to bomb the ultimate consequences of it. Although, of course, I do agree that the Islamic State must be militarily defeated.

IT: So we can’t simply defeat groups like the Islamic State through military might. What’s the alternative approach?

SA: It needs to be concentrated on youth. Young people form the bulk of today’s terrorist recruiters. If you look over all the data, the average age is about 26, but in some place it’s much younger. Now we’re finding 14- or 15-year-olds in Palestine trying to join the Islamic State.

The problem is that governments look at young men, especially, as a problem. Their policies are basically to subdue you or to preach moderation, which is laughable. Anyone who has teenage children knows that that’s not going to work. But young people engaging with young people is an amazing thing to behold. There are local success stories all over the world.

You know, people think that ISIS and al-Qaeda are just cruel and barbarous, which they are. But they don’t understand that they’re festive and joyous movements, like the national socialist movement was. And if you look at just their Twitter feeds, for example in Yemen, 57 percent of them are social development projects mostly engaging youth. Only 3 percent of them are about punishments. About 18 percent are religious explanations for what they’re doing. But it isn’t just about torture and beheadings and killings. What I don’t see is any attempt to take them seriously.

IT: Of course, one of the biggest obstacles to amping up the research capabilities of the federal government is making sure that the results of that research are heard and translated into policy. How do we make sure that happens?

SA: This is a really difficult thing for a number of reasons. First of all, academics don’t really know how to engage policymakers. When academics come to talk to policymakers, they often tell them what to do. The policymaker’s reaction often is, “Well who the hell elected you to make decisions?”

The political world and the academic world are completely different. The academic world, at least in principle, is a quest for knowledge, evidence, facts and truth. In the political world, reason — as David Hume once said — is only to be a slave of the passions. Information and evidence are used for victory and persuasion. You need to figure out how to navigate between those two spheres in order to get policies going forward. When it’s a question of existential survival or of great national interest — like World War II — you can adjoin the quests for truth, evidence and victory. But that’s not the case with terrorism and violent extremism.

IT: What’s your take on the possibility of a greater focus on research under this new administration?

SA: There are some serious people in this new administration, and that gives me a little bit of hope. But then I look at the ideological pronouncements, and they thoroughly depress me.

In a publication in Dabiq [the Islamic State’s magazine] last year, we see that the idea is to eliminate the “gray zone” — the area between infidels and true believers, in which most of humanity lives, including most of Muslims. The strategy for terrorist attacks, especially attacks against indefensible civilian places — like cafes, sports events or theaters — is not just to undermine people’s faith in their own government, which it’s doing successfully. Even more so, it’s to create suspicion and hatred against people with the same background of those who committed the attack. It shows Muslims that no matter how peaceful you are, there’s really no place for you.

Research shows what’s really going on. Whether politicians will take it up or not is a totally different issue. But we should at least have evidence-based information at hand so that informed decisions can be made.

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