Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Who Wants to Be a Terrorist?

And how not to help them.

“Americans refuse to be terrorized,” declared President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings, “Ultimately, that’s what we’ll remember from this week.” Believe that, and I’ve got some great beach property in Arizona to sell you.

The Boston bombings have provoked the most intense display of law enforcement and media coverage since 9/11. Greater Boston was in full lockdown: “a ghost town,” “a city in terror,” “a war zone,” screamed the headlines. Public transit was stopped, a no-fly zone proclaimed, people told to stay indoors, schools and universities closed, and hundreds of FBI agents pulled from other pressing investigations to exclusively focus on the case — along with thousands upon thousands of other federal, state, and city agents equipped with heavy weapons and armored vehicles. It all came close to martial law, with all the tools of the security state mobilized to track down a pair of young immigrants with low-tech explosives and small arms who failed to reconcile their problems of identity and became amateur terrorists.

Not that the events weren’t shocking and brutal. But this, of course, is part of the overall U.S. reaction to terrorism since 9/11, where perhaps never in history have so few, armed with so few means, caused so much fear in so many. Indeed, as with the anarchists a century ago, it is precisely the outsized reaction that sponsors of terrorism have always counted on in order to terrorize.

There is nothing to compare to the grief of parents whose child has been murdered, like 8-year-old Martin Richard, except perhaps for the collective grief of many parents, as for the 20 children killed at Newtown. Yet, despite the fact that the probability of a child, or anyone else in our country, being killed by a terrorist bomb is vastly smaller than being killed by an unregistered handgun — or even being slain by a lawnmower or an unregulated fertilizer plant — our politicians and the public seem likely to continue uncritically to support the extravagant measures associated with an irrational policy of “zero-tolerance” for terrorism, as opposed to much more-than-zero tolerance for nearly all other threats of violence. But given the estimated $300 million that the follow-up to the Boston bombing already cost, and the trillions that the national response to terrorism has cost in little more than a decade, the public deserves a more reasoned response. We can never, ever be absolutely safe, no matter how much treasure we spend or how many civil liberties we sacrifice.

While there is always the chance that investigators will find foreign connections and broader plots beyond the doings of the two men, what we know about terrorism suggests that what we already know about the Boston bombing does not justify the disproportionate response, including the “global security alert” U.S. authorities issued through Interpol for 190 countries. Even if the Boston bombers prove to be part of a larger network of jihadi wannabes, as were the 2005 London subway suicide bombers, or had planned more operations before dying in a blaze of glory, as did the 2004 Madrid train bombers, these would-be knights under the Prophet’s banner could never alone wreak the havoc that our reaction to them does.

The brothers Tsarnaev, the self-declared Boston bombers, have been described by neighbors, friends and relatives as fairly normal young men — “regular Cambridge kinds.” They left the Chechen conflict ago years and immigrated to the United States as asylum seekers under the government’s Refugee Resettlement Program. Tamerlan, the oldest, was married with a 3-year-old daughter. A former Golden Globe heavyweight boxer who liked to dress like John Travolta once thought of competing for the United States before his citizenship request was denied. In the last few years he was increasingly drawn to radical Islam. In a photo essay about his fondness for boxing, he worried that “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.” He complained “there are no values anymore,” forswearing drinking because “God said no alcohol.”

Tamerlan’s YouTube page posts videos of radical Islamic clerics from Chechnya and elsewhere, haranguing the West as bombs explode in the background. In 2011, the FBI interviewed Tamerlan at Russia’s request about connections to Chechen extremists, but the investigation found “no derogatory information.” Although Russian forces withdrew from Chechnya in 2009, violence has persisted in neighboring Dagestan, where Tamelan visited his father last year, and perhaps linked up with jihadi instigators who motivated him to act. Like the father of 9/11 pilot bomber Mohammed Atta, Tamerlan’s dad claims his boy was framed and murdered. His last reported phone communication when the police started shooting was “Mama, I love you” (same as with the lead plotter of the 2004 Madrid bombings, Jamal Ahmidan, before he and his friends blew themselves up when they were cornered by police).

The younger brother Dzhokhar, a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, played intramural soccer. On the day after the bombing he went to the dorms, worked out at the gym, and later that night went to a party attended by some of his soccer buddies. Known to his friends as “Jahar,” he entered the university on a scholarship, but lately had been failing his classes. He hung out with other students, had an easy relationship with the other young men and women, hardly ever talked politics, and was never pegged as an Islamist activist or sympathizer or even as particularly religious. Whereas relatives, friends and teachers consistently describe Jahar as “always smiling,” “with a heart of gold,” acquaintances say Tamerlan “never smiled” and “was aggressive.” One cousin said he warned Jahar about being susceptible to “the bad influence” of the older brother he loved. In the last few months, Jahar’s tweets began turning darker: “i won’t run i’ll just gun you all out #thugliving,” “Do I look like that much of a softy? little do these dogs know they’re barking at a lion,” “I killed Abe Lincoln during my two hour nap #intensedream.” But declaring this wayward boy killer who is a naturalized citizen to be an “enemy combatant” borders on Orwellian.

Under sponsorship by the Department of Defense, our multidisciplinary, multinational research team has been conducting field studies and analyses of the mental and social processes involved in radicalization at home and abroad. Our findings indicate that terrorist plotters against Western civilian populations tend not to be parts of sophisticated, foreign-based command and control organizations. Rather, they belong to loose, homegrown networks of family and friends who die not just for a cause, but for each other. Jihadis pretty much span the population’s normal distribution: there are very few psychopaths and sociopaths, few brilliant thinkers and strategists. Jihadi wannabes today are mostly emerging adults in transitional stages of their lives — students, immigrants, in search of jobs or companions — who are especially prone to movements that promise a meaningful cause, camaraderie, adventure, and glory. Most have a secular education, becoming “born again” into the jihadi cause in their late teens or twenties. The path to radicalization can take years, months or just days, depending upon personal vulnerabilities and the influence of others. Occasionally there is a hook up with a relative, or a friend of a friend, who has some overseas connection to someone who can get them a bit of training and motivation to pack a bag of explosives or pull a trigger, but the Internet and social media are usually sufficient for radicalization and even operational preparation.

The result is not a hierarchic, centrally commanded terrorist movement but a decentralized, self-organizing, and constantly evolving complex of social networks based on contingent adaptations to changing events. These are no real “cells,” only clusters of mostly young men who motivate one another within “brotherhoods” of real and fictive kin. Often, in fact, there is an older brother figure, a dominant personality who mobilizes others in the group. But rarely is there an overriding authority or father figure. (Notably, for these transitional youth, frequently there’s an absence of a real father).

Some of the most successful plots, such as the Madrid and London bombings, are so anarchic, fluid, and improbable that they succeeded in evading detection despite the fact that intelligence and law enforcement agencies had been following some of the actors for some time. Three key elements characterize the "organized anarchy" that typifies modern violent Islamic activism: ultimate goals are vague and superficial (often no deeper than revenge against perceived injustice against Muslims around the world); modes of action are decided pragmatically on the basis of trial and error or based on the residue of learning from accidents of past experience; and those who join are not recruited but are locally linked self-seekers — often from the same family, neighborhood, or Internet chat room — whose connection to global jihad is more virtual than material. Al Qaeda and associates do not so much recruit as attract disaffected individuals who have already decided to embark on the path to violent extremism with the help of family, friends, or a few fellow travelers.

Like the young men who carried out the Madrid and London attacks, most homegrown jihadi plotters are disaffected young men from diaspora immigrant communities who first hook up with the broad protest sentiment against “the global attack on Islam” before moving into a narrower parallel universe. Often they quit the mosque or are expelled because their interruptions of Friday sermons and discussions, when they yell at the Imam and others to “put up or shut up” for jihad, are no longer tolerated. They cut ties with former companions who they feel are too timid to act, become estranged from their wives and girlfriends, and cement bonds with friends and family who are willing to strike. They emerge from their cocoon with strong commitment to kill and die if necessary, but without any clear contingency planning for what might happen after the initial attack.

For the first time in human history, a massive, media-driven political awakening has been occurring — spurred by the advent of the Internet, social media and cable television — which can on the one hand motivate universal respect for human rights but on the other enable, say, Muslims from Borneo to sacrifice themselves for Palestine, Afghanistan, or Chechnya — despite almost no contact or shared history for the last 50,000 years or so. When perceived global injustice resonates with frustrated personal aspirations, then moral outrage gives universal meaning and push to radicalization and violent action.

But the popular notion of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West is woefully misleading. Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance. This is the dark-side of globalization.

Take Faisal Shahzad, the would-be bomber of Times Square in 2010, or Maj. Nadal Hasan, who killed 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in 2009. Both were apparently inspired by the online rhetoric of Anwar al-Awlaki, a former preacher at a Northern Virginia mosque who was killed by a U.S. drone in Yemen in 2011. Although many commentators leaped to the conclusion that Awlaki and his ilk deviously “brainwashed” and “recruited” Shahzad and Hassan, in fact they sought out the popular Internet preacher because they were already radicalized to the point of wanting further guidance to act. As Defense Department terrorist consultant Marc Sageman notes: “just like you saw Major Hasan send 21 e-mails to Awlaki, who sends him back two, you have people seeking these guys and asking them for advice.” More than 80 percent of all the plots both in Europe and the United States are concocted from the bottom up, from mostly young people just hooking up with one another.

There are many pockets of displaced immigrant and refugee young people in this country, with even more than the usual struggles of personal development. Young Somalis seem to be having particular difficulty, and a small few are moving to the path to violent Jihad. This is a good time to think about how we relate to them, although there are probably more easy mistakes than easy solutions. But political attempts to relate these problems to the very different issues of illegal immigration only adds to the fear mongering.

Especially for young men, mortal combat with a “band of brothers” in the service of a great cause provides the ultimate adventure and maximum esteem in the eyes of many and, most dearly, in the hearts of their peers. For many disaffected souls in today world, jihad is a heroic cause that holds the promise that anyone from anywhere can make a mark against the most powerful country in the history of the world. But because would-be jihadis best thrive and act in mostly small, self-organizing groups within networks of family and friends — not in large movements or armies — their threat can only match their ambitions if fueled way beyond actual strength by publicity. Today, whereas most nations tend to avoid publicizing their more wanton killings — including civilian killings that might be labeled “state terrorism” (from ethnic cleansings to “collateral” deaths from drones) — publicity is the oxygen that fires modern terrorism.

It is not by arraying “every element of our national power” against would-be jihadis and those who inspire them that violent extremism will be stopped, as President Obama once declared. Although wide-ranging intelligence, good police work and security preparedness (including military and law enforcement defense) is required to track and thwart the expansion of Al Qaeda affiliates into the Arabian peninsula, Syria (and perhaps Jordan), North Africa and East Africa, this is insufficient. As Mitt Romney quipped, “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.”

Findings from research on “copycat suicide” (where the strongest indicator of the copycat effect is how much media coverage a suicide receives) clearly suggest that media restraint can reduce terrorist contagion. Indeed, as Columbia University epidemiologist Madelyn Gould noted: “We wouldn't have a billion-dollar advertising market in this country (the US) if people didn't think you could influence someone else's behavior.”

The real rub stems from the broader problem of collective action: it is our common good to deny terrorists media exposure, but each media outlet in a competitive and unregulated market is tempted to break the compact by trumpeting the news. The late Nobel Prize-winning political scientist Elinor Ostrom spent the better part of her life trying to tackle the issue of how to better regulate “the commons” (“public goods” weather water and forests, or information and media space). Pouring over thousands of cases worldwide, she found local self-regulation to be the most efficient and enduring way to prevent overuse and abuse the commons, and central government control to be the most problematic.

There are successful examples media self-restraint from the past. In 1982, killings from cyanide-laced Tylenol in Chicago area stores were followed by myriad tamperings that were breathlessly covered by the media until public authorities and the media realized that this coverage was spawning more tamperings. The Department of Justice, worked with the news media to tamp down the coverage and, mirabile dictu, the tamperings tapered. Of course, the news media back then was remarkably homogeneous compared to today, and it is undoubtedly easier to keep tamperings quiet compared to bombings in public places. But the principle remains the same.

We can break the real, if unplanned, alliance between terrorism and the media through better reporting for the social good, which may prove to be the best business strategy of all (people like business best that helps them and others find happiness, not fear). It’s going to be a hard slog, I know: many men and women at senior levels of the government, military, intelligence and law enforcement understand that overwrought reaction to terrorism helps terrorists radicalize and terrorize, but the powerful if maladjusted relationship between the political establishment and media business drastically subordinates reason to sensation. (As a senior FBI official once told me in a meeting at the British Parliament: “If I advocated anything less than zero tolerance for terrorism, they’d have me hanging from my balls from the dome of Congress!’).

Still, if we can learn to practice restraint and show the resilience of people just carrying on with their lives even in the face of atrocities like Boston, then terrorism will fail.

Copyright Scott Atran, author of Talking to the Enemy: Faith Brotherhood and the (un)Making of Terrorists (HarperCollins)

More from Scott Atran Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today