Thursday, December 03, 2015

The Science and Myths of Modern Terrorism

It's an odd subject to find its way into the prestigious scientific journal, Nature, but, sure enough, there you may find a report on a scientific exploration of modern terrorism, as experienced recently in Europe, and the myths that can mislead us in dealing with the problem.

The first myth is that these terrorist attacks are rooted in the Muslim religion. Apparently not so:

The rise of jihad in Europe has led to an assumption that there is a radicalization of Muslims more generally across the continent. Yet research suggests that most extremists are either people who returned suddenly to Islam or converts with no Islamic background, says Olivier Roy, who specializes in political Islam and the Middle East at Italy’s European University Institute near Florence — and as many as one in four French jihadists is a convert. Roy summarized the latest research at a conference organized in Mainz on 18–19 November by the German Federal Criminal Police Office.

Violent extremism emerges first, with a religious justification tagged on after, adds Rik Coolsaet, head of political science at Ghent University in Belgium, who studies jihadis and foreign policy. He notes that two young British men who were jailed last year on terrorism offences after fighting in Syria had earlier ordered online the books Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies.

Most terrorists are radicalized not by their religion but out of their resentments.

The characteristics that extremists seem to share are resentment directed at society and a narcissistic need for recognition that leaves them open to a narrative of violent glory, said Roy.

Social factors can contribute to such frustrations, according to Farhad Khosrokhavar, a CNRS researcher who works at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris. Almost all European extremists and terrorists are second- and third-generation immigrants, whom Khosrokhavar says are often “stigmatized, rejected and treated as second-class citizens”.

Terrorism Breeds in Prisons

The three terrorists involved in the January attack in Paris on the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, as well as some of the 13 November attackers, had all done time.

Many French terrorists have a history of petty crime that landed them in prison. Stays there often proved seminal experiences on their path to radicalization, says Khosrokhavar, who spent several years interviewing some 160 staff and inmates at 4 large French prisons, including 15 inmates sentenced for terrorism offences. He says that prisoners often come under the influence of — and form lasting bonds with — radical Islamists and terrorist networks.

Terrorism has its own Entrepreneurs. They Run the Show.

Most of those who get involved in jihadi terrorism in Europe are “misfits and drifters” — people who joined militant networks during life crises or through friends and relatives on the inside, saysPetter Nesser, a terrorism researcher at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment in Kjeller.

But he says that the key actors in terrorist activity are a much smaller number of “entrepreneurs”. These seasoned, ideologically driven activists are part of transnational terrorist webs linked both to extremist groups throughout Europe and to armed groups in conflict zones. They are the ones who bring structure and organization to the disaffected majority, through recruitment and indoctrination.

There is No Den of Terrorism. It's Not Confined to Ethnic Ghettoes.

Several of the terrorists involved in the latest Paris attacks, and the perpetrators of previous attacks in Europe, had lived in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, which has a large Muslim community, mostly of Moroccan descent. This has led some politicians and media outlets to label it Europe’s terrorism capital — and to blame factors such as social deprivation or an apparent lack of integration of Muslims.

“This is misleading,” says Nesser. Jihadi hot spots have emerged across Europe in environments ranging from poor suburbs, to universities and schools, to prisons. The key ingredient in the spread of jihadism in any location is a critical mass of jihadist entrepreneurs, he says.

A focus on Molenbeek obscures the fact that European jihadism is transnational, Nesser says, and that its main drivers are armed conflicts and militant groups involved in those conflicts.

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