What drives thousands of civilians, most of whom had never even held a gun before, to take up arms as part of a popular uprising in which death was far likelier than victory? New work in the field of anthropology says violent extremism isn't really motivated by religion—but, as Harvey Whitehouse writes, by fusion with the group.
Misrata, Libya, 2011. I am ushered into the boardroom of what was once an oil investment corporation. I am surrounded by youths with Kalashnikovs. On the other side of the table are several of Libya's most respected rebel leaders, foremost among them Salim Jawha, a former colonel in Muammar Gaddafi's army who defected on the first day of the revolution.
In the preceding months, over 1,000 rebels have been killed and many thousands more horrifically injured. Stories of heroism are commonplace. For example, on March 6, Gaddafi's forces—supported by seven tanks and some 25 or so vehicles with mounted machine guns—attempted to re-take the city but were ambushed and overcome by rebels. Despite the imbalance of military hardware and heavy loss of life, the rebels prevailed through astonishing courage and determination.
I'm here because I want to know what motivated thousands of civilians, most of whom had never even held a gun before, to take up arms as part of a popular uprising in which death was far likelier than victory. A more general version of this question has been guiding my research for some years, in my work with a wide variety of military groups ranging from tribal warriors in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea to highly trained soldiers in the British special forces and Royal Marines. One of the themes that continually surfaces in these conversations is that fighters don't put their lives on the line for abstract values like "king and country" or "God, freedom, and democracy." They do it for each other.
At the University of Oxford, I lead an international network of researchers dedicated to understanding what makes bonds so strong that people will fight and die for the group when it is threatened. Our research suggests that one of the most powerful causes of extreme pro-group action is the sharing of self-defining experiences. If so, this has profound implications for the way we should approach conflict resolution and counter-terrorism. Public debate and policymaking has been dominated for years by the view that extreme beliefs are what motivate extreme behaviors. I disagree—but with such a tide of popular opinion against me, I need evidence not only from the laboratory or even from the assault course and training camp, but also from the frontlines. This has brought me to Libya.
Seated beside me is Brian McQuinn, my doctoral student, whose shared interest in the cohesion of armed groups led him to enter the country via Malta on a converted fishing trawler several months earlier. Through his earlier work for the United Nations and the Carter Center, McQuinn acquired formidable skills for establishing rapport with fighters and ex-combatants in troubled regions. I am nevertheless dazzled by his ability not only to spirit me into Libya at this difficult time but then also through the heavily armed fortifications of this rebel stronghold for an audience with Misrata's revolutionary leaders.
Jawha lights a cigarette, then exhales slowly: "When the revolution began, there was no compulsion to join. We just called our friends and asked them: Do you want to die or not? If you want to die, come with us. If not, go home and stay out of harm's way. This is not a time for reflection and discussion. He who wishes to die can accomplish anything. He who does not may go in peace."
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