Anyone can do it

As US officials and others struggle to understand why Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez shot and killed five Marines in Tennessee before he himself was shot to death by police, we are left with the usual potential suspects.  He had mental issues (depression).  His father was a radical (he was once on a US terrorist watch list).  He came back different from a trip to Jordan.  And so on.

The problem is that on the other hand some describe Mr. Abdulazeez as an “all-American boy”.  So what gives? These two views appear on the surface to be categorically opposed.

Remember the Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo experiments?   In the former, students were asked to administer what they erroneously thought were increasingly painful shocks to other students, while in the latter, students were divided into guards and inmates with violent results (you can see an interview with Zimbardo in this week’s New York Times Magazine here).

People took what they wanted from these experiments (which, by the way, with current ethics oversight committees would never be conducted today): evil is everywhere, people can be told to do anything, humans want to follow orders, etc.

Here’s a different take: anyone can become something else given the right circumstances.  And this applies to violent radicalisation.

We have been thus far unable to determine a single set of contributing ingredients to the radicalisation process.  It appears to depend from case to case.  And we know that the so-called “risk factors” – poor education, history of abuse (physical, emotional, psychological), sense of alienation, mental illness – are of no help as they are not useful in dividing radicalised people from the general population.

The bottom line is that anyone – and I do mean anyone – can radicalise to violence given the right set of circumstances.  Think of it as the perfect storm.  You can get the storm of the century when the conditions of humidity, wind, pressure and other atmospheric phenomena coalesce.

For radicalisation a case can go as follows (I am not serving this up as “typical” since there is no such thing): a young person (of either sex) identifies with a group of Muslims suffering somewhere, starts asking questions as to why, gets rebuffed or receives inadequate answers, finds someone (in the neighbourhood or online) who is sympathetic and helpful, gets drawn in and fed a diet of religion, politics and ideology, and ends up with the Islamic State (or Al Shabaab, or Boko Haram or….).

Change any one of these inputs (say the person is engaged by a friend right away) and you would likely get a different outcome.  They all have to work together to result in a violent radical.

Mr. Abdulazeez’s life will turn out to follow one of these hundreds (or thousands) of patterns – if we ever get the whole picture.  My guess is that we’ll never understand fully why he did what he did.

And we will see more all-American Abdulazeez’s as another person knifes/shoots/bombs another group of soldiers/civilians/tourists in Texas/London/Copenhagen/Tunis.

For truly, this is anyone’s game.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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