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How Can We Stem Extremist Violence?

We can start by trading the usual government crackdowns for a more careful look at extended social networks, researchers say.

By Elena Gooray


Iraqi men gather on July 7, 2016, at a memorial for the victims of a bombing which claimed the lives of over 200 people in Baghdad’s Karrada neighborhood. (Photo: Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images)

Terrorist attacks are becoming deadlier worldwide, and no one — including the United States — is very good at stopping them.

Including this week’s string of suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, terrorist attacks have killed more than 450 people — largely Muslims — during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, according to reports from the Associated Press and CNN. Most of these attacks have been linked to the Islamic State group. To prevent this kind of violence, recent research argues, we need to look at such groups not just through the lens of their ideology, but through the social ties they create.

U.S. counterterrorism efforts have leaned on the strategy of assassinating extremist group leaders — an approach known as “cutting off the head of the snake”—on the assumption that destroying an organization’s top leadership will bring down the whole group. But this approach has been criticized by government officials and academics alike for merely delaying, rather than preventing, terrorist attacks.

One finding is that self-sacrificial violence in particular is more powerfully motivated by tight relationships than shared ideologies on their own.

The United Kingdom has applied a similar anti-extremist strategy within its own borders when targeting one of its best-known radical Islamic groups, Al-Muhajiroun. Al-Muhajiroun, whose members famously praised the 9/11 attackers as the “magnificent 19,” has been linked to high-profile terrorist plans and acts, including the 2013 murder of British Army soldier Lee Rigby. The British government has cracked down on the group in recent years by banning suspected spin-off organizations, arresting prominent members, and issuing orders against protesters.

But a study released in March in the Journal of Conflict Resolution found that the British government’s forced exile in 2005 of the group’s founding leader — the “head of the snake,” so to speak — did little to slow Al-Muhajiroun. Rather, the researchers report,the group adapted its social structure in a way that has enabled it to survive the government crackdown.

Since the banishing of its top authority, Al-Muhajiroun has re-organized into decentralized, smaller groups, which are still able to organize in the absence of big-name members. These sub-groups have flourished on the basis of social relationships, the Journal of Conflict Resolution researchers report:

“Activists often formed intense friendship bonds with each other, developed over time through repeated face-to-face interaction. ‘You would always be together,’ explains one former activist who was deeply involved in al-Muhajiroun during these years. ‘You’d spend time together, even socially. You’d hang out together, maybe at each other’s houses, or at events, or just hanging out.’”

These kinds of “intense” bonds have been studied among other groups that have encouraged or committed political violence.One finding is that self-sacrificial violence in particular is more powerfully motivated by tight relationships than shared ideologies on their own, Oxford University anthropologist Harvey Whitehousereported for Pacific Standard in March. Whitehouse described his team’s research on “social fusion” that mobilized revolutionaries and led to violence in Libya:

“How do you get from self-defining individual experiences to the social experience of fusion? Our research suggests that, when you believe others have gone through the same self-defining experiences, it makes the boundary between you and others more porous. But we also found that only a very small proportion (less than 1 percent) of all revolutionaries were fused with those supporters of the revolution who didn’t take up arms. In other words, simply being on the same side ideologically (sharing the same beliefs and goals) doesn’t predict fusion.”

But targeting the most vocal individuals, rather than broader relationships, continues to be a popular counter-terrorism response. Last month, Britain brought to trial two preachers accused of encouraging support for the Islamic State. Responding to that case, the lead author on the Journal of Conflict Resolution paperwarned in a blog post of “unintended consequences” for that kind of response — that taking down influential individuals can simply push new leaders to emerge. A better approach, he writes, would focus on factors that build “connectivity and cohesion” — which echo the notion of social fusion — throughout activist networks.

Communication on digital social networks is already being regulated to target specific extremist groups. YouTube and Facebook quietly took steps last month to block or remove video postings from the Islamic State and other material deemed similar, Reuters reports.

We don’t yet know what impact blocking social media will have on extremist groups’ activity, but the research points to giving at least as much attention to the social networks they form offline.