How Research Can Help Counter ISIS's Success, Part 2

My recommendations to the UN Security Council on how to deal with ISIS.

Posted Dec 17, 2015

The following are the research recommendations I submitted to the UN Security Council on how to treat ISIS. This is Part 2 in a series, and continues to outline how research can help counter ISIS's attraction and success. Part 1 is available here.

Click here for the video of my address.

UN Web TV
Source: UN Web TV

Study the general psychology of choice in the flight versus the fight response to violence.

  • Review what's known about fight versus flight from human and animal studies. For example, when do people stay home after a rise in neighborhood crime, versus when do they organize to secure the neighborhood? 
  • Review surveys of opinion (especially panel studies) on people's response to terrorism. For example, after the Paris attacks which kinds of people support military action, and which support isolationism? What beliefs under lay this choice? For example, does belief in the efficacy of force mediate the choice? Or is it mainly cue-taking from respected opinion leaders? Surveys in other enduring conflict zones can be most helpful since there are many events. Our most recent survey, taken in the days after the Paris attacks, indicates that heightened perceive threat heightens willingness to fight for “democratic values.” But can such willingness be sustained? For how long? Under what conditions?
  • Design new survey instruments to understand the determinants of the flight versus the fight response to terrorism. For example, study what evokes a desire for vengeance versus a desire to keep one's head down. (There has been a lot of inconclusive speculation on this in the interpretation of the surprising Spanish election outcome after the Madrid bombing, but surveys should be better able to study it.)

Research the will to resist and fight, and make other costly sacrifices, whether for or against ISIS. In remarks last year, President Obama endorsed the judgment of his U.S. National Intelligence Director: “We underestimated the Viet Cong… we underestimated ISIL [the Islamic State] and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army…. It boils down to predicting the will to fight, which is an imponderable.” But research suggests that predicting who is willing to fight and who isn’t, and why, is quite ponderable and amenable to scientific study. Thus, from our recent interviews and psychological experiments on the frontlines with Kurdish fighters of the Peshmerga and PKK, with captured ISIS fighters, and with Nusra fighters from Syria we have a good initial indication of willingness to fight. Two principal factors interact to predict readiness to make costly sacrifices (go to prison, lose one’s life, have one’s family suffer, etc.). The first factor is perception of relative commitment of one’s own group versus those of the enemy to a cause that defends and promotes sacred values, as when land or law become hallowed or holy. This can be measured through behavioral experiments and tracked via neural imaging to show:

  • Disregard for material incentives or disincentives; attempts to buy people off (“carrots”) from their cause or punish them for embracing it through sanctions (“sticks”) don’t work, and even tend to backfire (e.g., as would happen for most people if asked to sell off their children or sell out their religion).
  • Blindness to exit strategies: people cannot even conceive of the possibility of abandoning their sacred values or relaxing commitment, to the cause that defends them, no matter how reasonable or alluring the alternatives (i.e., they reject the “Devil’s bargain”).
  • Immunity to social pressure: sacred values are not consensual norms; it matters not how many people oppose your sacred values, or how close to you they are in other matters, their opposition counts for naught (because “what’s right is right”).
  • Insensitivity to discounting: in most everyday affairs, as in politics and economics generally, distant events and objects have less significance for people than things in the here and now (“a bird in hand is worth more than than two in the bush”); but in matters associated with sacred values, regardless of how far removed in time or space, are more important and motivating than mundane concerns however immediate.

The second factor in predicting willingness to fight is degree of identity fusion with one’s comrades, Consider, by way of illustration, a pair of circles where one circle represents “me” and a larger circle represent “the group” (tagged with a flag or some other identifying icon). In one set of experiments, we ask people to consider five possible pairings: in the first pairing, the “me” circle and “the group” circle don’t touch; in the second pairing, the circles touch; in the third they slightly overlap; in the fourth they half overlap; and in the fifth pairing, the “me” circle is entirely contained within “the group” circle. People who choose the last pairing think and behave in ways entirely different from those who choose any of the other pairings. They experience what social psychologists call “identity fusion,” wedding their personal identity of “who I am” to a unique collective identity of “who we are.” Such total fusion demonstrably leads to a sense of group invincibility and a willingness of each and every individual in the group to sacrifice for each and every other. Thus, only among the Kurds do we find commitment to the sacred cause of “Kurdeity” (their own term) and fusion with fellow Kurdish fighters comparable to perceived commitment to cause and comrade among ISIS fighters.

  • Study how willingness to fight and make costly sacrifices is related to perceptions of physical formidability on the battlefield and with perceptions of spiritual strength, but for one’s own group as well as allied an enemy groups. For example, we find that Nusra fighters consider Iran to be the most formidable foe in Syria, both in terms of physical and spiritual strength, but they consider the Islamic State “growing” to parity on both scores. These Al Qaeda combatants consider the U.S. to be of middling formidability, and the Syrian and Iraqi army to be relatively weak physically and spiritually worthless, and thus an inconsequential enemy in the long run. Understanding such perceptions could inform military and political strategy in important ways.
  • To be sure, not all who fight with the Islamic State are committed zealots, and many people under ISIS control would prefer other forms of rule. Thus, we need to understand wedge issues between the regional host populations and ISIS, and also between diaspora populations in Europe and elsewhere who do not directly support ISIS or violence but through which ISIS volunteers may move freely because the surrounding populations themselves (especially immigrant populations) do not trust government actions to be just, fair or reasonable. Not all of these wedge issues can be used as levers to separate these populations from ISIS and its volunteer networks. Accordingly, social network analyses can be used to identify direct versus indirect support networks, and experimentally designed questionnaires may be used to elicit and prioritize the issues that can be used as wedges to help pry support away from ISIS.
  • Study ways to help residents of ISIS controlled areas dodge their taxes. More generally, study how to disrupt their finances.
  • Study ways to discredit ISIS leadership: for example, by uncovering their hidden personal wealth, immoral behavior, or murders of their internal rivals.
  • It is important to look at research across various extremist networks in order to find general factors about ideologies, group dynamics, financial structures, and so forth. But in addition to distinct projects on financing, or social networks, or development of ideas, or attacks as such, a holistic approach that simultaneously traces all of these aspects over time in key sets of related cases could be even more informative for security agencies and policymakers. It could also yield scientifically interesting and novel results: For example, we know almost nothing of how such natural networks form in the abstract (there are many a priori models, few if any of which predict natural network developments over time). Graphic analyses embedded in dynamic (animated visual) timelines of developing networks could present complex datasets in readily understandable form.

Thus, one such study might involve: dissecting the financial, logistical and social networks of the Paris attacks and their relationship with other attacks. This would involve research into supporting networks in particular neighborhoods in Western Europe; their facilitating networks through the refugee pipelines in Turkey, Greece, the Balkans and Central Europe; and root networks in North Africa and the Sahel. Because law enforcement, especially in the European Union, has no legal mandate to have sustained interactions with persons having no criminal ties or record, and because social support networks consist largely of such people, researchers may be in a better position to gain a broader picture of the social, economic and ideational forces at work.

  • Researchers can also focus on key issues that law enforcement generally ignores. For example, researchers might use an epidemiological approach to track how different individuals in a network express key ideas and act on them, and how the various ideational currents help to form social and action networks and vice versa.

This type of project is very labor intensive, even for a single set of cases (prior to the modeling, research would involve interviews with friends, family, neighbors, fellow travelers, as well as police and prisoners in the field and in various milieux). Here, the best confirming evidence is court records which, because of cross-examination, comes the closest to peer review in the real world. But court records and pretrial testimony are voluminous, often hard to obtain official access to, and their careful study requires a great deal of patient labor.

  • Consider artificial intelligence analysis of texts (such as court documents) to lessen the great labor now required.
  • The UN Security Council Committee on Countering Terrorism might consider asking member governments to provide assistance to bona fide researchers in accessing field sites, prisons, and court records under appropriate arrangements for the protection of human subjects in ways compatible with national and international law.
  • Involve significant university, NGO and government research initiatives in the UN’s Global Research Network, and help coordinate their efforts by circulating research designs and results. Allow and endorse free and open criticism, however harsh (but respectful), so that truths may prevail no matter how unpleasant.
  • Continually monitor and measure the progress in research. Succeed. Fail. Learn. Innovate. Sustain the response—no matter its origin or sponsors.

In Part 3, I will go over some facts about who joins ISIS and why, and in Part 4 I discuss what we have wrong about ISIS and what to do about it.