Posts Tagged 'ISIS'

Islamist violent extremism and anarchist violent extremism

Roughly speaking, three explanations for islamist violent extremism have been put forward:

  1. It’s motivated by a religious ideology (perhaps a perversion of true Islam, but sincerely held by its adherents);
  2. It’s motivated by political or insurgent ends, and so the violence is instrumental;
  3. 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.)

Religious does not equal stupid

A range of people, from David Brooks to Peter Bergen, have responded to the rhetoric associated with the Countering Violent Extremism Summit held in Washington this week. They point out that the motivation for Daish (aka ISIL [nobody knows why the U.S. White House, alone in the world, insists on this acronym] or ISIS) cannot be understood in terms of the American middle class and its aspirations: jobs, relationships, family, economic prosperity. Islam did not come boiling out of the deserts of Arabia in the 7th century because of the lack of economic opportunity in the sphere of camel raising.

But behind these misunderstanding lies a deeper one. Many of the elites in government and industry in Western countries think that people who have religious beliefs are either: stupid for believing something so self-evidently wrong; or devious and cunning in pretending to have religious beliefs as a tool for exerting power (in the best traditions of post-modernism). Now of course they don’t necessarily think this explicitly, but the language being used in much of the discussion of radicalization and its causes makes it fairly obvious that they do think this implicitly. In other words, one or other of these two views informs the way they frame the problem of islamist radicalism to themselves.

Why do sane young men (and women) give up a lifestyle in the West that, while often not perfect, is much better than third-world conditions and the prospect of death in Syria? Holding either of these misconceptions distorts the view of the problem, and of the West’s opponents, to the point of delusion. If you think your opponents must somehow be intellectually stunted to believe what they do, you are never going to understand why other people find these beliefs attractive, and so will never be able to craft a strategy to defend against islamist propaganda that has any chance of working. If you think your opponents are hypocritical and opportunistic (not believing their own message) then you will equally never be able to craft a working defence. The temptation is to think (again implicitly) that radicalization must somehow be a kind of mental illness; perhaps we’ll begin to see “solutions” with that flavour rather than the current socio-economic flavour, coming into vogue soon.

I don’t have a solution. But the evidence so far (and I’ve done some empirical work in this area) is that socio-economic explanations for radicalization do not go very far; and that de-radicalization programs (or early-stage counter-radicalization strategies) that start with this assumption are even less useful. A more nuanced, and more realistic, view of our opponents and their motivations is desperately needed.

[Added later: The weekend news programs, which were filled with post mortems on the Countering Violent Extremism meeting, were great examples of the misconceptions I suggested in this post. Farid Zakaria actually made the claim that ISIS were faking their apparent beliefs to gain power. For a IMHO more realistic view, this article from the Atlantic: What ISIS Really Wants.]

Empirical Assessment of Al Qaeda, Isis, and Taliban Propaganda

I’ve just been working on assessing the potential impact of the three major magazines: Inspire (AQAP), Azan (Taliban), and Dabiq (ISIS), competing for the market in lone wolf jihadists in the West.

I compare these magazines using models for the intensity of informative, imaginative, deceptive, jihadist, and gamification language, and build an empirical model for propaganda which combines these into a single scale.

Unsurprisingly, Dabiq ranks highest in propaganda intensity.

The details can be found in the full draft paper, posted to SSRN:

Skillicorn, David, Empirical Assessment of Al Qaeda, Isis, and Taliban Propaganda (January 7, 2015). Available at SSRN:

Radicalization as an infection

There are many ways to think about radicalization, but there’s one that fits the data fairly well, and has actionable consequences, but is being almost entirely ignored — modelling radicalization as an infection.

The research work didn’t model radicalization directly (how could you?) but rather how postings on particular jihadist topics spread in web forums. The relevant paper is:

Jiyoung Woo; Hsinchun Chen, An event-driven SIR model for topic diffusion in web forums, Intelligence and Security Informatics (ISI), 2012 IEEE International Conference on , vol., no., pp.108,113, 11-14 June 2012.

They showed that the data fit well with a standard model called the SIR model (Susceptible-Infected-Recover) and they computed the parameters for the infection rate and the recovery rate. In other words, they showed that it made sense to consider some of the participants to be susceptible to infection by radical ideology, some fraction of these were then infected and espoused this ideology and then some fraction of these recovered and no longer held radical ideas. These fractions could be estimated empirically from the data.

But the important thing that’s being ignored in the current world situation is that there is a recovery rate! People do become radicalized, yes, but not all of them, and the vast majority of them move from being radicalized to no longer being radicalized.

We don’t notice many of these people. They move to a mental place where they would be willing to carry out some kind of jihadist action, but they don’t actually do it before the spell wears off and they are no longer radicalized. Only a few become radicalized and act on it.

Even people who go quite far down the road towards action, perhaps travelling to Syria and participating in violence, may still become disillusioned. Not everyone who returns to the West from the Middle East does so to try and carry out an attack. Many, perhaps most, have had a disease, have recovered from it, and want to get on with their lives.

The risk of a draconian response to returnees is that we may push them back into violence (“If I’m going to be treated as a violent extremist, I might as well act like one”).

Of course, this doesn’t make the job of the intelligence services any easier, at least in the short term. But emergencies tend to create blinkered views of the problem, and I think that this might be happening.

Inspire and Azan paper is out

The paper Edna Reid and I wrote about the language patterns in Inspire and Azan magazines has now appeared (at least online) in Springer’s Security Informatics journal. Here’s the citation:

“Language Use in the Jihadist Magazines Inspire and Azan”
David B Skillicorn and Edna F Reid
Springer Security Informatics.2014, 3:9
Security Informatics

The paper examines the intensity of various kinds of language in these jihadist magazines. The main conclusions are:

  • These magazines use language as academic models of propaganda would predict, something that has not been empirically verified at this scale AFAIK.
  • The intellectual level of these magazines is comparable to other mass market magazines — they aren’t particularly simplistic, and they assume a reasonably well-educated readership.
  • The change in editorship/authorship after the deaths of Al-Awlaki and Samir Khan are clearly visible in Inspire. The new authors have changed for each issue, but there is an overarching similarity. Azan has articles claiming many different authors, but the writing style is similar across all articles and issues; so it’s either written by a single person or by a tightly knit group.
  • Jihadist language intensity has been steadily increasing over the past few issues of Inspire, after being much more stable during the Al-Awlaki years (this is worrying).
  • Inspire is experimenting with using gamification strategies to increase motivation for lone-wolf attacks and/or to decrease the reality of causing deaths and casualties. It’s hard to judge whether this is being done deliberately, or by osmosis — the levels of gamification language waver from issue to issue.

ISIS is putting out its own magazine. Its name, “Islamic State News”, and the fact that it is entirely pictorial (comic or graphic novel depending on your point of view) says something about their view of the target audience.