Small Wars Journal

Brain Scans, Boycotts, and Counter-Terrorism?

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Brain Scans, Boycotts, and Counter-Terrorism?

Leanne Erdberg and Maria J. Stephan

A recent CSIS report has found that seventeen years after the U.S. declared a global war on terror, in 2018, there are nearly four times as many Salafi-jihadi militants as there were on September 11, 2001. Further, the Global Terrorism Index  found that 67 countries experienced at least one death from terrorism in 2017.  And they come from all walks of life, with backgrounds  “so diverse that they defy a single profile,” making it impossible to predict the thousands of paths that might lead to terrorism. So, what is missing from our understanding of this dynamic threat?

A better understanding of the psychosocial factors that motivate individuals to participate in terrorist activities – coincidentally, many of the same factors driving participation in nonviolent resistance movements – would help generate better policy options.

Too many international efforts to combat terrorism have oversimplified violent extremism as isolated, compartmentalized manifestations of grievance: it is about poverty, religion, or messaging. While convenient—each of these causes can be easily separated and addressed with specific, measurable efforts—sadly, this overlooks ambiguity, uncertainty, and real-life dynamic interactions, making this social challenge difficult to diagnose, let alone understand. It also misses that at its core, violent extremism is a deeply human problem and is thus in need of equally human-aware efforts to prevent and combat it.

Terrorists make the case for violent, radical change and recruit aggrieved individuals to be part of the change. But in radicalization, there is more than a political mission at play —violent extremists warped political identity includes dehumanizing others, speaking to grievance, victimhood, and local characteristics of social orientation. Further, recruiters use trust, belonging, empathy and identity to form strong group-bonds. Every one of these tactics has significant neural, emotional, and psychological components— and these deserve greater value in international strategies to prevent terrorism.

So, what should be next for the field of preventing violent extremism? If group identity and the perception of power are part of what makes terrorist groups attractive, alternatives should give young people vehicles to fill those needs positively. To put it bluntly, we cannot simply message away the attraction of belonging to a community that is on a shared mission to resist injustices. Nonviolent action, and participation in nonviolent movements with change-oriented goals, is one powerful potential response. It can give people an opportunity to be part of a larger cause, create meaningful social bonds in service of a mission, and the give dignity of ownership of their own future.

Neuroscience helps explain why. First, being part of a group that is trying to accomplish something gives people dignity in their work, a sense of purpose, and meaning as part of a group. Brain studies have found that individual and group behavior is highly influenced by group identity, and shared missions contribute to group bonding.   Young people, deeply desirous of a place in the face of rapid changes, look to find friends who believe deeply in both their identity and shared bonds, to include common grievances. The validation of shared grievance also helps young people feel less alone - and the resulting collective action allows for mutual shared experiences. Lastly, being part of a group allows us to face the unknown world with a sense of purpose and safety, critical components to feeding our brain’s core mechanisms.

Nonviolent action provides a group that addresses many of these same needs - allows participants to feel powerful, be social as part of a group, and join something they believe will have impact collectively. Participating in nonviolent campaigns and movements that use tactics like marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, and boycotts creates a positive contagion effect that can motivate youth, especially, to join the cause.

Nonviolent action also provides something that is often overlooked in policies toward violent extremism – a sense of agency. Rather than outside experts analyzing the drivers of radicalization, indigenously borne people power movements allow communities to both define the grievances that are most impacting them and chart out ways to address those challenges. These acts are empowering, and neuroscience teaches us that choice and personal control have positive emotional and physiological effects. Beyond that, nonviolent resistance has been shown empirically to be significantly more effective than violence in challenging major injustices, such as highly repressive authoritarianism. Knowing that participating in nonviolent struggle is a more effective way to get what you want offers additional motivation—everyone wants to be on a winning team.

Nonviolent action also allows for significant local ownership but goes a step further—it complements this agency with a sense of shared history, as almost every culture has a history with nonviolent action. In the Muslim world, from Tunisia to Iran to Afghanistan, nonviolent movements have challenged dictatorship and colonialism, resisted occupation, and advanced minority rights. People can believe that when they march, organize, and take action, they are operating within a context that is culturally their own. And they are disrupting the status quo for more effective and sustainable gains.

Conversely, while terrorists promise agency to recruits, they don’t deliver—instead they use violence and fear to rule over members of the group. On the other hand, nonviolent movements more often deliver on promises for ownership and tend to have flatter organizational structures. Participants can express their views on the vision, principles, and activities of the movement and further the shared bonds and shared mission. They deliver on the concept of people power—that is, sharing power among people instead of allowing a few to exert power over many others.

Nonviolent action illuminates ways to prevent unproductive behavior with positive, social efforts by applying a wider humanistic understanding of why people join violent extremist movements in the first place. It is why we are researching this intersection of terrorism and people power through the lens of neuroscience. For thousands of years, humans have derived strength from our collective ability to communicate, plan, and work together. Understanding ways to harness that productively is key to a more comprehensive approach to preventing violent extremism and promoting sustainable peace.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Maria J. Stephan directs the Program on Nonviolent Action at the U.S. Institute of Peace. She is the co-author of Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict and co-editor of Is Authoritarianism Staging a Comeback? Follow Maria on Twitter @mariajstephan

Leanne Erdberg is the Director for Countering Violent Extremism at the U.S. Institute of Peace. She is also the interim Executive Director of the RESOLVE (Researching Solutions to Violent Extremism) Network. Follow Leanne on Twitter @lerdberg