Posts Tagged ‘Centre for Resolution of Intractable Conflicts’

How to Convert Terrorists

November 16, 2017

This post is based in part on a Feature Article in the19 August 2017 issue of the New Scientist titled, “Anatomy of terror: What makes normal people extremists?” by Peter Byrne. Anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Oxford’s Centre for Resolution of Intractable Conflicts asks the question, “What makes someone prepared to die for an idea? He suggests that the answer comes in two parts. Jihadists fuse their individual identity with that of the group, and they adhere to “sacred values.” He writes that sacred values are values that cannot be abandoned or exchanged for material gain. They tend to be associated with strong emotions and are often religious in nature, but beliefs held by nationalists and secularists may earn the label too.

Atran argues that individuals in this state are best understood, not as rational actors but as “devoted actors.” “Once they’re locked in as a devoted actor, none of the classic interventions seem to work. However, there can be openings. Although a sacred value cannot be abandoned it can be reinterpreted. Atran relates the case of an imam he interviewed who had worked for ISIS as a recruiter, but had left because he disagreed with their definition of jihad. For him, but not for them, jihadism could accommodate persuasion by non-violent means. As long as alternative interpretations are seen as coming from inside the group, they can be persuasive within it. Atran is now advising the US, UK, and French governments on the dynamics of jihadist networks to help them deal with terrorism.

Atran says that the key to combating extremism lies in addressing its social roots, and intervening early before anyone becomes a “devoted actor.” Until then there are all sorts of things that can be done. He says that one of the most effective countermeasures is community engagement. High-school football and the scouts movement have been effective responses to antisocial behavior among the disenfranchised children of US immigrants, for example.

Perspectives need to be changed. Tania Singer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany thinks brain training could achieve similar effects. Neuroscientists have identified two pathways in the brain by which we relate to others. One mobilizes empathy and compassion, allowing us to share another person’s emotions. The second activates theory of mind, enabling us to see a situation from the other’s perspective. Her group recently completed a project called ReSource in which 300 volunteers spent nine months doing training first on mindfulness, and then on compassion and perspective training, and corresponding structural brain change were detectable in MRI scans.

Tania Singer notes that compassion evolved as part of an ancient nurturing instinct that is usually reserved for kin. To extend it to strangers, who may see the world differently from us, we need to add theory of mind. The full results from ReSource aren’t yet published, but Singer expects to see brain changes associated with perspective-taking training. She says that “only if you have both pathways working together in a coordinated fashion can you really move towards global cooperation.” By incorporating that training into school curricula, she suggests, we could build a more cohesive, cooperative society that is more resilient to extremism. To all of this, healthy memory say “Amen.’

Previous healthy memory posts have argued that had the prisoners held at Guantanomo been treated differently, an understanding could have been developed that would provide the basis for a new and more compelling narrative for these supposed terrorists. Once they had been converted, mindfulness training such as that in the ReSource program might have been highly effective.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.