The rise of Da’esh and Al-Qaida came as a surprise to most people. Twenty years ago nobody foresaw that clandestine religious organisations would regularly inflict significant civilian casualties around the world, or that national intelligence services would be redirected to counter this new threat. Who would have imagined that substantial new resources would be needed to catch people planning religiously motivated terrorist acts? Who would have foreseen that new preventative programmes to address the motives, thoughts and feelings of potential terrorists would, in addition, have to be devised and implemented?
The rise of religious terrorism was itself, in part, an answer to a question. To what story do I belong? To an Islam preaching a merciful and compassionate God in the modern world? Or to a beleaguered seventh century Medina community and to a militarised expansionist Caliphate?
Al-Qaida modernised and re-interpreted jihad, abandoning the original concept of a defensive war and a community obligation authorised by a Caliph, fard kifayah, in favour of an individual obligation, fard ayn. Taking a different line, Da’esh made waging war to revive the Caliphate the touchstone and supreme test of obedience to Allah.
Al-Qaida and Da’esh disagreed about whether to found a Caliphate. From its beginning Al-Qaida decided that the creation of a Caliphate would be premature and that any attempt to found one would bring down the wrath of the ‘kafir’ superpowers. Al-Qaida was both right and wrong. Da’esh did establish at Raqaa in Syria the capital of a functioning, geographical political entity. It provided several aspects of a militarised State or Caliphate, and proved attractive to those who sought belonging in something with purported Islamic legitimacy. And as Al-Qaida had predicted, Da’esh did provoke a powerful military response ( as did Al-Qaida’s attack on the Twin Towers after 9/11).
The difference between Al-Qaida and Da’esh recruiting techniques may seem small but they are significant. The neurosciences are opening up our understanding of cognition, emotions and personality as triggers for action. Insights into the workings of the extremist mind help explain the brief success of Da’esh relative to Al-Qaida, between 2014 and 2018. Al-Qaida’s propaganda is wordy, textual and maps on to the logical, linear reasoning processes of the brain’s left hemisphere. It proposes a sharply binary world of right and wrong, no grey areas, and the dominance of a single value, jihad, in the face of the clashing values of a multicultural, multi-religious modern world.
Da’esh, on the other hand, is adept at the visual and its appeal has greater reach. Its simple, powerful messages, spread through social media, map onto the right hemisphere and limbic system where the brain’s core emotional and motivational centres are located. Da’esh ideology’s binary structure also creates an emotional counterpoint between reward and shock. The Caliphate is presented as an end-times utopia. In it recruits find redemption from a sinful past and initial safety from the hostile world of infidels, a place where desires are fulfilled. Da’esh recruits discover identity, solidarity, the camaraderie of a closely knit in-group.
The extreme brutality of Da’esh provides a counterpoint to these warm feelings. Da’esh’s violence is shockingly portrayed in video clips alongside films about Western killing of innocents. The Muslim viewer is doubly assaulted: by moral shock and a sense of victimhood. The brain’s emotional centres are directly stimulated arousing the well-known fear, fight, flight, freeze response. The overall effect is to short-circuit moral thought by generating a state of anxiety, fear and anger.
Da’esh conflates an ideal past and a blissful future with their actual brutal militarist, patriarchal rule. The Da’esh recruit is literally living out of time. The concept of the Caliphate provides the cognitive framework for a collapse of linear time which triggers the brain’s emergency fast system thinking system in which time stands still. The shock of watching videos of decapitations and torture is countered in a dialectical pattern by the promised rewards of an idealised family life – even fluffy kittens have been shown – and a desired just society. The visual impact of this propaganda is to eliminate and displace moral reflection and thought. The particular horror of this for Muslims is the way elements of Sunni - Salafi – discourse are used and twisted to legitimate a descent into barbarism.
It is no accident that those most affected by this propaganda are 16-25 year olds, the age group in which neural networks are still developing and the group which is most likely to suffer from mental illness. We have to assume that that the violent behaviour of Da’esh jihadis, and their misreading of social and political reality, is linked to something grievously awry in the structure of their thinking and their emotions. If this analysis is not fanciful, then prevention of violent action must include re-establishing, or establishing, a pattern of thoughts and feelings different from the one cultivated by extremist recruiters.
A common feature of young people to whom Da’esh propaganda appeals seems to be their need for simple binary explanations of, and solutions to, problems of identity and belonging. Sometimes, of course, Da’esh merely provides religious legitimation for violence and anger. This explains the number of petty criminals who become jihadis. The high level of cultural dissonance and social mixing resulting from the last communications-led wave of globalisation, calling identities in question, contributes to radicalisation. Interestingly, recruiters use tricks which manipulate both cognition and the emotions to isolate their converts, to distance them from their own families and to build them into a new ‘purified family’.
Extremist thinking tending towards violence can be changed by sensitive group programmes which respect the individual, acknowledge their deepest values, and engage each person in the process of growing away from violent action. One such programme, called IC, Integrative Complexity, aims to prevent recruitment to terrorist groups by strengthening participants’ ability to handle the complexity of life in multicultural societies. IC’s methodology can measurably reduce a propensity for violence.
Modifying extremist perceptions of social and political reality requires group work together with a trusted facilitator. Acknowledgement of the reality of multiple causality by participants is a key step. IC methods are adapted culturally to each group, with the aim of generating new and spontaneously embodied, emotional and interpersonal knowledge, and to stimulate empathy for others by recognition of different values. Sometimes this will not be possible and recourse is made to stimulating empathy for the participant’s younger self, in other words, bringing time back “on-line”.
Youthful idealism is admirable and can be part of the reasons for a descent into terrorism. Radicalised youth need to discover that their ideals can be lived out without violence and without the tragic loss of family, friends, and life. Everyone needs to have their identity and deepest values respected. Coercion does not work. It is vital that changes in thinking develop spontaneously as the consequence of a new set of interactions and without invalidating the needs and core values that drew the would-be, or actual, extremist into a Da’esh or Al-Qaida cell.
The approach I have so briefly outlined is not primarily concerned with the ideological content of extremism, rather with the extremist mind itself. It has application to Neo-Nazis and their violence as well as to jihadis. It gets behind all the variable risk factors that pre-dispose people to move into extremist violence and engages with basic motivating structures of thinking and feeling. And it does so while respecting the integrity of the human person, the deepest values of participants and their capacity to find new ways of seeing and living with religious commitment in the world.
For more details see Savage, S, Khan, A & Liht, J (2014). “Preventing Violent Extremism through Value Complexity: Being Kenyan Being Muslim,” Journal of Strategic Security Vol 7 (3) 2.
See also Roger Trigg Killing in the Name of God: Addressing Religiously Inspired Violence to be published by THEOS early July 2018