Terrorism | Hidden Brain Why do young people join ISIS? Is it nihilism? Or, as social scientists suggest, a perverse idealism? Hidden Brain explores the psychology of terrorist groups, and why people join them.
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The Psychology Of Radicalization: How Terrorist Groups Attract Young Followers

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The Psychology Of Radicalization: How Terrorist Groups Attract Young Followers

The Psychology Of Radicalization: How Terrorist Groups Attract Young Followers

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Paris is in lockdown tonight after a series of bombings and gun attacks that killed more than 100 people at six separate scenes.


STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: We're learning more at this hour about a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., about an hour east of Los Angeles.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have two suspects, both dressed in black.


BARACK OBAMA: It is clear that the two of them had gone down the dark path of radicalization, embracing a perverted interpretation of Islam that calls for war against America and the West. They had stockpiled assault weapons, ammunition and pipe bombs. So this was an act of terrorism designed to kill innocent people.


Every time there's a terrorist attack, we ask ourselves, what motivates people to do this? The attacks seem barbaric, nihilistic. But is it that simple? Is that what's really going on? On this week's podcast, we explore the psychology of international terrorist organizations and why so many young people join them. Battlefield experiments conducted with fighters for ISIS and al-Qaida reveal patterns in the mental makeup of terrorists. We'll use the lens of anthropologist Scott Atran to explore the strange hold these organizations have on young minds.

SCOTT ATRAN: Once you lock into these values, they're immune to social pressures. They're not norms. That is, even if your best friends, your family, your loved ones are against you, you will not see an exit strategy.

VEDANTAM: We'll also examine the phenomenon President Obama calls radicalization. Is it driven by shadowy recruiters or by what Israeli psychologist Ariel Merari would describe as peer pressure in university cafeterias?

ARIEL MERARI: In the university's cafeteria, he says, hey, you know, I'm also willing to debate. I would also carry out the attack.

VEDANTAM: And we'll explore the psychology of violence - what happens when brutality is practiced as a form of theater.

ATRAN: The spilling of blood - the brutality - accomplishes two things. First of all, it binds people together who are doing it. And the second thing it does is it scares the hell out of enemies and fence-sitters.

VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedanta. Regularly on this podcast, we present counterintuitive thinking - researchers with analyses that challenge popular beliefs - well-held views or notions. This episode is no different. I first came by the work of Scott Atran and Ariel Merari several years ago. I found their research on terrorism counterintuitive. Where some think brainwashing is the sole cause of people being recruited to ISIS and like-minded terror organizations, Atran and Merari suggest that peer networks matter more - much more. In the popular imagination, it is religious extremism that drives terrorists. But these social scientists argue that religion is often a secondary factor. Where many of us might say that terrorists are morally warped or purely evil, Atran and Merari would point to the role of hidden psychological forces. I should say the views of these researchers are not universally shared, but especially in the aftermath of the San Bernardino shootings, I felt their views might be useful to hear.

ATRAN: I got a call from the medical school in Khartoum the other day, where a professor at the medical school said that her best students have just gone on to found a medical unit for the Islamic State. And this was completely unexpected. And what should she do about it? What should the school about it?

VEDANTAM: This is Scott Atran. He's an anthropologist who works at the University of Oxford, the University of Michigan and the French National Center For Scientific Research. He has traveled to the frontlines of war zones - to cafes in Morocco and housing projects in the Paris suburbs. He has spent many years trying to understand why people are drawn to join groups such as ISIS, which is also known as the Islamic State.

ATRAN: So I get a call saying, will you talk to us? Our students - we don't understand this. They were our best students, our brightest students. And they went off to establish a medical clinic, we found out, with the Islamic State. Their parents are hysterical. We don't know what to tell them. Can you tell us what's going on?

VEDANTAM: The students were of Sudanese ancestry and most had British passports. They came from well-to-do families. They had promising careers ahead of them. Families of the medical students were dumbstruck. The heartbroken sister of one student spoke to the Daily Mail in Britain.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: And we just want her home. We want her safe. Her family, we love her more than anybody else in this world can. Nobody in this world can love her more than we do. My little sister, she's an A star student. They're preying on young, innocent girls and it's just - it's not right.

VEDANTAM: Atran said he told the teachers of the medical school the same thing he has been preaching for years to governments and more recently at the United Nations.

ATRAN: I said, listen, I can't give you the solution. The solution has to be for you to pay attention, to listen to what they're telling you. I mean, obviously, if you had listened to them and engaged with them, you would have had indications of what was happening. And you would have been able to talk to them. But like parents, the older authorities, again, know nothing and again, are preaching nonsense things like moderation or this isn't true Islam, or whatever bologna they're giving them today. And of course, it means nothing.

VEDANTAM: Meaning it isn't effective. It's falling on deaf ears. Atran believes these messages won't be effective because they fundamentally misunderstand why the young medical students were drawn to the Islamic State. The authorities painted the recruits as drawn to nihilism. Atran thinks it has more to do with a twisted idealism.

ATRAN: The Islamic State Revolution is a revolution. There really isn't much difference I see in the impulse, or the impetus, to the Islamic State Revolution than to the French Revolution or to the Bolshevik Revolution or to the National Socialist Revolution. And it appeals to the same sorts of people.

VEDANTAM: Comparing the Islamic State to the French Revolution or the Bolshevik Revolution doesn't mean it will succeed. Lots of revolutions fail. But if Atran is right, it does mean that it would be a big mistake to underestimate the draw of the Islamic State. In one ISIS video, a young British man looks into the camera. He has a stethoscope around his neck. He leans in with an earnest expression.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All the people in England, I ask you again. All the Muslims over there, taqwallah, leave the land of England and come here to make hijra here in wilayat al-khayr and in dawlat al-Islam. And help your brothers and sisters out here. Wallahi, there is a great cause being fought here, and the caravan is leaving.

ATRAN: George Orwell, in his review of "Mein Kampf" back in 1939 - I'm not crazy about ad Hitleriums but this was a particularly insightful piece - he said, what is it about Mr. Hitler that appeals? What is the essence of the problem? Look at our societies. Capitalist societies offer their people ease, avoidance of risk and pain, security - in short, the good life. And what is the result? Well, the Oxford Student Union, the cream of our intellectuals, votes they will never fight again. And Mr. Hitler, what is he offering his people? Glory, adventure, even death and destruction, but most of all transcendence and a feeling of self-sacrifice. So Mr. Hitler has understood the essence of human beings. Human beings need not just short working hours and comfort and security and avoidance of pain. They need, at least intermittently, a feeling of transcendence and self-sacrifice. And so 80 million people now fall down at his feet. And in fact, the German soldiers in World War II outfought on any measure the Allied soldiers, be they Russian or American or Brits.

VEDANTAM: Scott Atran says he sees the same conviction among Islamic State fighters. He was recently talking with Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers a short distance from the front lines in the battle with ISIS.

ATRAN: The Islamic State came in June of 2014 in about 80 trucks of four to five people a truck, about 350 people, to free a prison, Badush prison, because freeing prisoners gains you recruits. They also massacred 600 Shia in that prison. But the Iraqi army, trained by the United States, armed by the United States to the tune of billions of dollars, simply ran away. Now there was one unit on the Machmore (ph) front in a place called Garamelli (ph), where we had a few Iraqi soldiers embedded with the Peshmerga. And the reason they stayed was because their families actually lived in villages close by. And I asked them, why is it that your fellow soldiers simply ran away or melted into the city? And one said to me, they simply didn't want their heads cut off.

VEDANTAM: When we hear reports of beheadings or prisoners being set on fire, the Islamic State's seemingly indiscriminate violence shock us. But the shock can keep us from seeing that such theatrical displays of brutality actually serve psychological goals.

ATRAN: The spilling of blood, the brutality, accomplishes two things and usually has done that throughout the human history and across cultures. First of all, it binds people together who are doing it. And the second thing it does it scares the hell out of enemies and fence-sitters.


VEDANTAM: Coming up, we'll hear about a parent of a British medical student who left a promising career to join the Islamic State. Stay with us.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Support for this podcast and the following message come from LearnVest. LearnVest is an online financial advice company focused on empowering people nationwide to make good decisions with their money. Studies show that writing down your goals makes you 49 percent more likely to achieve them. That's why when you work with LearnVest, you tell them what you want to accomplish, and they create a customized financial plan to help you get there. Plus they pair you with a financial planner to help keep you on track. To see a sample plan and get a $50 credit, go to learnvest.com/brain. Support also comes from Bulletproof, featuring Bulletproof Radio, where New York Times best-selling author Dave Asprey is dedicated to helping you get more out of life than you ever thought possible. Bulletproof Radio is committed to helping you level up your energy, sleep better, get smarter, and just maybe even live longer. Because wherever you want an edge in life, now you can change the rules. Look for Bulletproof Radio on iTunes and bulletproofexec.com.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. When British engineer Ahmed Muthana realized his medical student son had left the family home in Cardiff in the United Kingdom to join the Islamic State, he was enraged. Police came to his home and showed him a video of his son, Nasser, trying to recruit others to join ISIS. I feel sick and devastated that my son is caught up in this, he told the Daily Mail. He was brought up to love and respect my country, which is Britain. I am his father, and naturally, I am worried about his safety while he's out there, but I am also worried about the evil messages he is spreading in this video. Muthana said he rid his house of photographs of Nasser saying, it's a Muslim thing. You don't keep the devil in your house. Atran thinks it's understandable that parents would express shock, disbelief and anger. But he thinks a more productive approach is to look at the young people drawn to terrorist groups with a measure of empathy.

ATRAN: By empathizing, I mean, listening to people, trying to understand where they're coming from, why they believe what they do and act the way they do, without necessarily sympathizing in the sense that you don't have to agree with them, in fact, you may have to fight them, but it's always better to understand where they're coming from, even in order to fight them.

VEDANTAM: Atran says his approach was inspired by the great anthropologist Margaret Mead and the dictum of an ancient Roman playwright. In recent testimony that you provided at the United Nations, you talked about something that you had learned from Margaret Mead, whom you worked with in New York many years ago. What exactly did Margaret Mead teach you?

ATRAN: Well, she taught me that anthropology is basically a response, at least it was then, basically, a response to Terence's dictum, nothing human is alien to me. Violent people are - members of a militant political groups and religious groups are people just like everyone else.

VEDANTAM: I want to take you back to something you told me a second ago. I just want to go back to this issue of empathizing versus sympathizing because when I look at the behavior of the Islamic State - and you sort of see this wanton disregard for human life, the deliberate cruelty, the beheadings, the rape, the enslavements of people - it's hard to bring yourself to think about empathizing with people who do this.

ATRAN: Yes, it is. And that's why being an anthropologist often requires a special commitment to that sort of empathy.


VEDANTAM: In the conventional narrative of how young people get recruited to groups such as ISIS, shadowy recruiters go in search of vulnerable people. Atran and psychologist Ariel Merari think this isn't the way it usually happens. In a study he has conducted in Israel among captured prisoners, Merari has interviewed a number of would-be suicide bombers. For various reasons, these recruits didn't carry out their missions. Their equipment didn't work, or they were caught before they could carry out an attack. Merari finds religious extremism is rarely a central motivator for these young people. He says most are driven by the political goal of ending the Israeli occupation. Now the political goals of Palestinian recruits fighting the Israeli occupation are different than the political goals of ISIS recruits. But, Merari's research shows there are underlying similarities in the psychological appeal of these groups. As in the case of ISIS, many Palestinian recruits report they are radicalized not in mosques but in university cafeterias.

MERARI: Well, just imagine a young Palestinian, 16, 17, 18, 20 years old. He sits with his friends in the university's cafeteria. They're talking about yesterday's suicide attack that took place in Jerusalem. And everybody's saying, what a great guy that did it, how brave he was, how patriotic, a hero. And one of the guys there, or perhaps more than one, is, I'm in talking to young men, marginal in his own social circle. But he wants to be recognized as somebody. He wants to be appreciated. So he says, hey, you know, I would also carry out this suicide attack.

VEDANTAM: Someone overhears the boast, and word gets back to the commander of a group looking for recruits. The commander sends for the young man.

MERARI: He's 17, 18, 19 years old, youngster, stands in front of this elder commander, revered, famous, admired commander. And the commander asks him, I hear that you were willing to carry out a suicide attack. They don't call it suicide, of course. They call it martyrdom. Is that true? Now what would the other young guys say? No, I was just bragging. He says, oh, yes, of course. And he thinks, well, perhaps something will happen, and I won't have to carry it out eventually.

VEDANTAM: The single best predictor of whether someone gets involved in a terrorist organization is if their friends and peers are also involved. In the case of the medical students, waves of British-Sudanese students have headed out to Syria. Atran told me that ISIS has explicitly laid out a path to gaining young recruits from around the world.

ATRAN: And the strategy of the Islamic State is quite simple and very well-spelled out. And it is, first of all, take advantage wherever there is chaos in the world. Create chaos wherever the enemy allows us to do. And how do we do that? Well, in places like Europe, what we're going to do is attack tourist centers, cafes, theaters, stadiums. Why? Because these types of places cannot possibly be defended. There are just too many of them. There are too few security agencies in law enforcement, so it will terrorize the population and cause the states against us to disperse their resources in reckless ways that cannot possibly help them in the end. Second, we will appeal to the youth, the rebelliousness, the idealism, the adventure, the search for glory, the desire for change that youth have, while the fools, they say, will preach moderation, wasatiyyah, which is exactly what's been happening. We will offer them something great. And so what the Islamic State does - and this explains why many of those people in Europe, young people, are coming and from many other countries in the world, including the United States - is we will find out who in our enemy populations have grievances, have frustrated personal aspirations, have a need for something glorious, something that transcends themselves. We will draw that out, and we will whet it to the story we have of how the world should change and why.

VEDANTAM: Over and over, Atran says, he finds that foreign recruits to the Islamic State are often marginal members of their own societies, people who feel like outsiders.

ATRAN: Again, the Islamic State's message, why they are so good at it, is they take each of these personal stories, which they'll invest hundreds of hours in, and try to show why my personal frustration, your personal frustration, at this moment in your life, it's not because you couldn't get this job or that you failed in this or your team lost or whatever. The reason that happened, you see, is because of this larger set of factors, of this larger world set of forces that have been arrayed against you of which this is just a trivial part. And forget about the trivial parts that are affecting your life. Go now and deal with the real causes of the unhappiness, not only of you but of people like you around the world, the oppressed.

VEDANTAM: When families of students who join the Islamic State appeal to them to come to their senses, the pleas are often ineffective because the young people have found a cause they think is greater than their parents, greater than their families - greater, even, than themselves. You can see the same behavior among followers in other groups and not just terrorist organizations - even nonviolent groups fighting for social justice.

ATRAN: What we find - and this is not just true for the Islamic State, this is true for people who are willing to sacrifice their lives and kill others at the same time across the board. And it's also true for movements that are peaceful, but where the people who are driving these movements are willing to shed their own blood, for example, the Civil Rights Movement or movements like Gandhi's movement in India. They are committed to a set of values which are sacred. That means values which are immune to trade-offs. For example, you would not trade your children or your religion - probably - or your country for all the money in China. And when you have these kinds of values, which you will not trade off and which are not subject to the standard constraints of material life, things that occurred in the distant past or in distant places that are sacred are actually more important than things in the here and now. They're also oblivious to quantity. It doesn't matter if I kill one or I attract one or 1,000 or no one as long as my intention is good and righteous. And once you lock into these values, they're immune to social pressures. They're not norms. That is, even if your best friends, your family, your loved ones are against you, you will not see an exit strategy.

VEDANTAM: Scott Atran has conducted psychological experiments with captured Islamic State fighters on the battlefield.

ATRAN: We were in Kirkuk. So there's a front there - mud walls that extend for 1,000 kilometers. And about every kilometer there's a mud turret with about 20 fighters inside. And that's where we were working. And we got a hold of some captured Islamic State fighters, and we ran these experiments.

VEDANTAM: In one set of experiments, Atran evaluated how much a fighter had adopted the identity of the group over all the other identities the person might have. Atran and his colleagues found that when a fighter's identity fuses with the identity of the group, there is a psychological change that occurs.

ATRAN: We have many identities. We may be American or Indian or Red Sox fans or Yankee fans or lawyers or doctors or whatever we are today or tomorrow. But they have only one identity. And they will fight and die, not just for that group but for every single individual in that group. And once this happens, we also have other measures which show they develop a sense of invincibility and actually perceive themselves, their own bodies, to be much bigger than they actually are. And they perceive the other group to be much weaker.

VEDANTAM: This idea has a lot of support elsewhere in the social sciences. In some ways, being part of a group is a way of creating an immortal version of yourself. When you remind people of their mortality, for example, they express stronger support for the groups to which they belong. You may die, but your identity in the group will outlive you. I asked Atrin and Merari about how they would apply what they have learned to doing battle with the Islamic State.

MERARI: I think it's very important, if you want to fight effectively against militant Islam, you have first of all to defeat it physically despite what people say about hearts and minds. You know, in the Second World War, there was a Russian Soviet ambassador in London. His name was Maisky - Ivan Maisky. And once, somebody asked, Ambassador Maisky, what is a good psychological warfare - talking about hearts and minds - what's a good psychological warfare? And Maisky replied, a good psychological warfare is facts and figures - facts being victories and figures being dead Germans. And I think in a bit more moderate sense, this applies also to the current situation. If you want to effectively fight ISIS, first of all defeat ISIS in the territory that it has occupied successfully. That's the first thing you have to do. And I don't understand why the West hasn't done it yet.

VEDANTAM: Atran says psychological weapons might also be needed to fight ISIS. Preaching the virtues of moderation isn't going to work.

ATRAN: They think things will work out. And telling them again and again this isn't true Islam - that alone isn't going to do it. You've got to get into their networks. You've got to befriend them. You've got to get the friends - it's like smoking. It's not showing them pictures of cancerous esophagi that are going to stop people from smoking. It's young people getting other young people to stop smoking. Of course, there can be constraining laws and barriers to smoking. But what will really stop them is if their friends have stopped.


VEDANTAM: Two brothers, Ibrahim and Mohamed Ageed, are thought to be among the British medical students who left Sudan to join the Islamic State in Syria. They left right before they were supposed to take their final exams in their last year of medical school. The last post on Mohamed's Facebook page is from December 30, 2014. Most of his posts are of funny videos, pictures of his brother and friends, and soccer teams. Mohamed has 480 friends, likes Coldplay and "The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air." Ibrahim has 546 friends. He likes Manchester United, Beyonce and Eminem, and the TV shows, "The Boondocks" and "Everybody Hates Chris." News reports show that recruits are not allowed to leave the Islamic State if they dislike what they find when they get to Syria. The disloyal are often executed. The British medical students who left Sudan are in touch with their parents through social media apps. They offer few details of what they're doing except to say they're using their medical training. Sometimes they send texts with short audio messages. To their waiting families, these messages feel terse and uninformative. They don't sound like the young people they used to be. Their parents say they sound different.


VEDANTAM: HIDDEN BRAIN is produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison and Maggie Penman. Special thanks this week to Walter Ray Watson and Daniel Schuken (ph). Our news assistant is Max Nesterak. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. You can also listen to my work on your local public radio station. If you'd like to subscribe to our newsletter, send us an email at hiddenbrain@npr.org with the word SUBSCRIBE in the subject line. I'm Shankar Vedantam and this is NPR. Thanks for listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. Check out the How To Do Everything podcast with Mike and Ian. Among other things, they can help you find giant insects, serve eggnog and welcome extraterrestrials. Modern life lessons from NPR on the How To Do Everything podcast - find it at npr.org/podcast and on the NPR One app.

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