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Al-Qaeda's Likely Strategy, and Why It May Work

Psychological research finds a clear link between terror-related fears and prejudice toward outsiders.
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(Photo: Valentina Cala/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Valentina Cala/Shutterstock)

Now that the shock over the terrorist massacre at the French satirical magazine has begun to subside, a school of thought is emerging as to the real motivations behind the brutal attack.

One of the gunmen reportedly declared they were acting on behalf of al-Qaeda in Yemen, an offshoot of the terrorist organization behind the 9/11 attacks in the United States. If indeed this was a calculated action, rather than an expression of outrage at the magazine's provocative cartoons, what was the group trying to accomplish?

Christopher Dickey of the Daily Beast,speaking on the public radio program On Point, and Juan Cole expressed similar views regarding that key question. They strongly suspect the group's goal is to drive up anti-Muslim prejudice in Europe, which will in turn isolate and ultimately radicalize European Muslims.

Cole put it this way: "Al Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination."

Humans buffer their fear of mortality by attempting to transcend death, either literally (via belief in an afterlife) or symbolically (by devoting your life to a larger cause that will live on).

Early reports of attacks against French mosques provide preliminary evidence that this dynamic has already been set in motion. What's more, two recent research reports suggest the strategy may be as viable as it is vile.

One finds that anti-Muslim prejudice is already quite strong in Europe. In a 2007 paper published in the journal Social Science Research, Norwegian researchers analyzed data from the 1999-2000 wave of the European Values Study.

They concluded that "prejudice against Muslims was more widespread than prejudice against other immigrants," adding that "Muslims in Europe were particularly prone to becoming targets of prejudice, even before the attacks of September 11." Clearly, if you're trying to provoke increased antagonism against Muslims, Europe is fertile ground.

The other helps explain the psychological mechanism that heightens the prejudices of people who are frightened of terrorism. It's known as Terror Management Theory.

According to this school of thought, which is based on the seminal ideas of anthropologist Ernest Becker, humans buffer their fear of mortality by attempting to transcend death, either literally (via belief in an afterlife) or symbolically (by devoting your life to a larger cause that will live on).

One often-problematic result is that, after being reminded of their mortality, people tend to cling more tightly to the ideas and associations that give their lives symbolic meaning. This can prompt an aversion to nuance and ambiguity in favor of unthinking allegiance to their religion or country. For many, increased prejudice against those who derive their meaning from different sources (such as another faith) follows naturally.

A team of scholars led by Emily Das happened to be doing research on this phenomenon in the Netherlands when Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam by an Islamic extremist in November 2004. This tragedy provided the researchers with a unique opportunity, as they could measure responses of non-Muslims in the Netherlands before and after the news broke.

"Consistent with Terror Management Theory, terrorism news and Van Gogh’s murder increased death-related thoughts," they reported in a 2009 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. "Death-related thoughts, in turn, led to more prejudiced attitudes towards Arabs, but only after Van Gogh’s murder. The Van Gogh murder primed unconscious death anxiety, which, in turn, became ‘attached’ to attitudes toward Arabs. Van Gogh’s murder triggered a fear-based judgment of the Arab population, with high levels of unconscious fear predicting higher prejudice against Arabs."

Das and her colleagues describe this dynamic as "inadvertent." But in the current case, it's quite possible that it was all part of the plan. And it may very well work.