Thursday, May 31, 2007

Disrupting Terrorist Recruitment

The U.S. State Department recently published an e-journal titled Countering the Terrorist Mentality.

A couple of the articles in there dealt with one of my particular interests, countering terrorist recruiting. Some highlights follow.

First, in its article entitled "A Strategic Assessment of Progress Against the Terrorist Threat,"
the State Department's Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism pointed out, as others have before, that al Qaeda's current focus is on using propaganda to develop a worldwide "franchise" organization:

Overall, however, al-Qaida's current approach focuses on propaganda warfare—using a combination of terrorist attacks, insurgency, media broadcasts, Internet-based propaganda, and subversion to undermine confidence and unity in Western populations and generate the false perception of a powerful worldwide movement.

[In 2006] Radicalization of immigrant populations, youth, and alienated minorities in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa continued. It became increasingly clear, however, that such radicalization does not occur by accident, or because such populations are innately prone to extremism. Rather, there was increasing evidence of terrorists and extremists manipulating the grievances of alienated youth or immigrant populations and then cynically exploiting those grievances to subvert legitimate authority and create unrest.
The process of indoctrination is slow and gradual:
Terrorists seek to manipulate grievances in order to radicalize others by pulling them further and further into illegal activities. This is best represented as a "conveyor belt" through which terrorists seek to convert alienated or aggrieved populations, convert them to extremist viewpoints, and turn them, by stages, into sympathizers, supporters, and, ultimately, members of terrorist networks. ...

Countering such efforts demands that we treat immigrant and youth populations not as a source of threat to be defended against, but as a target of enemy subversion to be protected and supported. It also requires community leaders to take responsibility for the actions of members within their communities and act to counteract extremist subversion.
As I've argued before, terrorist organizations and sympathizers are highly vulnerable when they recruit. They must expose their violent desires, and they must work carefully to ensure that their audience is receptive, without being detected by anyone who might compromise their security.

To counter these recruitment and radicalization activities, the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism argues that:
[W]e must seek to build trusted networks of governments, private citizens and organizations, multilateral institutions, and business organizations that work collaboratively to defeat the threat from violent extremism.

Such networks, over time, help wean at-risk populations away from subversive manipulation by terrorists and create mechanisms to address people's needs and grievances, thus marginalizing terrorists.

Youth organizations, educational networks, business partnerships, women's empowerment, and local development initiatives can all play a role, with government as a supportive partner.
Note that these types of networks are best suited to the local level, as are two of the three strategic components to the terrorist threat:
To make such active measures effective, the three strategic components of the terrorist threat that must be neutralized are leaders, safe havens, and underlying conditions.

Leaders provide a motivating, mobilizing, and organizing function and act as symbolic figureheads.

Safe havens, which are often in ungoverned or undergoverned spaces, provide a secure environment for training, planning, financial, and operational support, and a base for mounting attacks. They may be physical or virtual in nature.

In addition, underlying conditions provide the fuel, in the form of grievances and conflicts that power the processes of radicalization.
Safe havens, assuming they are not virtual, will always be best detected on the local level. Underlying conditions are also best detected and countered at the local level.

Finally, the article argues that collaborative counterterrorist efforts should include the entire community:
Because the enemy is a nonstate actor who thrives among disaffected populations, private-sector efforts are at least as important as government activity. Citizen diplomacy, cultural activity, person-to-person contact, economic cooperation and development, and the application of media and academic resources are key components of our response to the threat. Motivating, mobilizing, and supporting such privately led activities are key leadership tasks in the new environment.
Another article that focuses on terrorist recruitment is "From Profiles to Pathways: The Road to Recruitment" by John Horgan, PhD, senior research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence.

Horgan focuses on the individuals who perpetrate and support terrorist acts.
Although terrorism can bring about significant and large-scale consequences, it remains, in essence, low-level, low-volume, and disproportionate activity perpetrated by individuals.
He is clear to point out, as others have before, that profiling is not useful when trying to identify terrorists:
Psychologist and terrorism expert Ariel Merari has correctly argued that it is more precise to state that "no terrorist profile has been found" rather than that "there is no terrorist profile."

I would strongly argue that there are several real dangers associated with the continued effort to construct such profiles, particularly as far as understanding recruitment to terrorism is concerned.
I'd be inclined to say it a bit differently: There's no useful terrorist profile. People who join terrorist organizations, especially young people, are generally interested in finding a cause that gives meaning to their lives, joining a supportive social group, and establishing an identity for themselves. This is certainly a "profile," though not a useful one, as it generally describes almost every young person in the world.

Horgan argues that in developing counterterrorist strategies, it's not the psychological profile of the terrorist that's important, but the process by which that terrorist is radicalized:
In assuming the existence of a profile, we tend to miss several critical features associated with the development of the terrorist. These include, but are not limited to:
  • The gradual nature of the relevant socialization processes into terrorism
  • A sense of the supportive qualities associated with that reruitment (e.g., the "pull" factors, or lures, that attract people to either involvement in terrorism in a broad sense, or those positive lures that are used to groom potential recruits)
  • The sense of migration between roles (e.g., moving from fringe activity such as public protest to illegal, focused behavior—in other words, moving from one role to another)
  • A sense of the importance of role qualities (e.g., what attractions does being a sniper hold as opposed to becoming a suicide bomber, and how do these "role qualities" become apparent to the onlooker or potential recruit?)
When we assume static qualities of the terrorist (a feature of profiles), we become blind to the factors and dynamics that shape and support the development of the terrorist. One further consequence is that we also obscure the basis from which a more practical counterterrorism strategy might develop to prevent or control the extent of those who initially become involved in terrorism.
Using the process of "creating" a terrorist as his guide, Horgan identifies risk factors that shape the development of a terrorist:
I have identified a series of what I have termed predisposing risk factors for involvement in terrorism. In no particular order, these include:
  • Personal experiences of victimization (which can be real or imagined)
  • Expectations about involvement (e.g., the lures—such as excitement, mission, sense of purpose—associated with being involved in any "insider" group and its various roles)
  • Identification with a cause, frequently associated with some victimized community
  • Socialization through friends or family, or being raised in a particular environment
  • Opportunity for expression of interest and steps toward involvement
  • Access to the relevant group
So, instead of looking for formulations such as, "terrorists tend to come from low- to middle-class families, have an interest in politics, etc. etc" we would be better off focusing on what it means to be and become a "terrorist":
In order to move beyond rather sterile and unhelpful debates about profiling, it might be useful to consider what involvement in terrorism implies ...

While many of the activities that terrorist movements engage in are not actually illegal per se (and cannot be meaningfully encompassed under the label "terrorism," but perhaps instead "subversion"), without them actual terrorist operations could not exist.

For the most part, engagement in violent activity is that which we most commonly associate with terrorism. However, the reality of terrorist movements today is that this most public of roles and functions tends to merely represent the tip of an iceberg of activity. Supporting the execution of a violent attack are those directly aiding and abetting the event, those who house the terrorist or provide other kinds of support, those who raise funds, generate publicity, provide intelligence, and so forth.

The person we think of as "the terrorist" is therefore fulfilling only one, albeit the most dramatic in terms of direct consequences, of multiple functions in the movement.
Along the process of radicalization, an individual can fill any of these roles and functions:
Overall, we can say that involvement in terrorism is a complex process, comprising discrete phases that could be encapsulated as an individual terrorist engages in a gradual process of accommodation and assimilation across incrementally experienced stages. There is a sense of ongoing movement into, through, and, sometimes, out of different roles and functions.
In short, a terrorist is not what someone is, but rather what someone becomes.
And as long as commitment and dedication to one's socialization further and further into the movement remains positive for the follower, this eventually results in the formation of a new—or at least effectively consolidated—identity.

If we want to appreciate what, if anything, is the "terrorist mind," it is probably best thought of as the product of:

  • Increased socialization into a terrorist movement and its associated engagement in illegal activity
  • Focused behavior, more generally, that is increasingly relevant to the context of a terrorist movement
From a personal and social perspective, this often means that a socialization into terrorism, and those associated with it, sees a socialization away from nonrelevant friends, family, and the person's former life.
The key, then, is to interrupt this process.
One of several consequences that would seem to emerge from making distinctions between these phases is that we might begin to develop phase-specific counterterrorism initiatives, depending on what it is we can ascertain is the most effective intervention point; that is, whether it be initial prevention of involvement, subsequent disruption of engagement, or eventual facilitation of disengagement.
I found Horgan's analysis to be similar to this one by RAND analysts
Scott Gerwehr and Sara Daly. (My post here.)

Cross-posted in IPS Blogs at the Institute for Preventive Strategies.

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