Roughly speaking, three explanations for islamist violent extremism have been put forward:
- It’s motivated by a religious ideology (perhaps a perversion of true Islam, but sincerely held by its adherents);
- It’s motivated by political or insurgent ends, and so the violence is instrumental;
- It’s the result of psychological disturbance in its adherents.
In the months after the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, Marc Sageman argued vigorously for the first explanation, pointing out that those involved in al Qaeda at the time were well-educated and at least middle class, were religious, and showed no signs of psychological disturbances. There was considerable push back to his arguments, mostly promoting Explanation 3 but, in the end, most Western governments came around to his view.
In the decade since, most Western countries have slipped into Explanation 2. I have argued that this is largely because these countries are post-Christian, and so most of those in the political establishment have post-modern ideas about religion as a facade for power. They project this world view onto the Middle Eastern world, and so cannot see that Explanation 1 is even possible — to be religious is to be naive at best and stupid at worst. This leads to perennial underestimation of islamist violent extremist goals and willingness to work towards them.
It’s widely agreed that the motivation for Daesh is a combination of Explanations 1 and 2, strategically Explanation 1, but tactically Explanation 2.
The new feature, however, is that Daesh’s high-volume propaganda is reaching many psychologically troubled individuals in Western countries who find its message to be an organising principle and a pseudo-community.
“Lone wolf” attacks can therefore be divided into two categories: those motivated by Explanation 1, and those motivated by Explanation 3, and the latter are on the rise. Marc Sageman has written about the extent to which foiled “plots” in the U.S. come very close to entrapment of vulnerable individuals who imagine that they would like to be terrorists, and take some tiny initial step, only to find an FBI agent alongside them, urging them to take it further. (M. Sageman, The Stagnation in Terrorism Research, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 26, No. 4, 2014, 565-580)
Understanding these explanations is critical to efforts at de-radicalization. Despite extensive efforts, I have seen very little evidence that de-radicalization actually works. But it make a difference what you think you’re de-radicalizing from. Addressing Explanation 1 seems to be the most common strategy (“your view of Islam is wrong, see the views of respected mainstream Imams, jihad means personal struggle”).
Addressing Explanation 2 isn’t usually framed as de-radicalization but, if the violence is instrumental, then instrumental arguments would help (“it will never work, the consequences are too severe to be worth it”).
Addressing Explanation 3 is something we know how to do, but this explanation isn’t the popular one at present, and there are many pragmatic issues about getting psychological help to people who don’t acknowledge that they need it.
Reading the analysis of anarchist violence in the period from about 1880 to around 1920 has eerie similarities to the analysis of islamist violence in the past 15 years, both in the popular press, and in the more serious literature. It’s clear that there were some (but only a very few) who were in love with anarchist ideology (Explanation 1); many more who saw it as a way (the only way) to change society for the better (Explanation 2) — one of the popular explanations for the fading away of anarchist attacks is that other organisations supporting change developed; but there were also large numbers of troubled individuals who attached themselves to anarchist violence for psychological reasons. It’s largely forgotten how common anarchist attacks became during these few decades. Many were extremely successful — assassinations of a French president, an American president, an Austrian Empress, an Italian king — and, of course, the Great War was inadvertently triggered by an assassination of an Archduke.
Western societies had little more success stemming anarchist violence than we are having with islamist violence. The Great War probably had as much effect as anything, wiping out the demographic most associated with the problem. We will have to come up with a better solution.
(There’s a nice recap of anarchist violence and its connections to islamist violence here.)