Are there “risk factors” for terrorism?

It seems like a no-brainer.  If we could identify the factors that lead someone to embrace terrorism, or at the very least point to those vulnerable to terrorist messaging and recruitment, we could achieve several things.  We could identify individuals who exhibit those risk factors and get them help before it is too late.  Or we could focus our security agencies’ attention and investigative efforts at the same group to better use limited resources.  Lastly, if the time for intervention and investigation is past, we could see if we could “reverse engineer” the risk factors and bring successful terrorists back to normal behaviour.

If we could only figure out what those damn risk factors are!  Unfortunately, there is no list of risk factors for terrorism and regardless of serious and passionate pursuit to find them, we never will come up with such a list.  All efforts to date to uncover the magic bullet for stopping terrorism by focusing on the “why” have fallen woefully short (not that those efforts were dishonest).  Whether it is “quest for significance”, or “propensity for violence” or “a follower personality” or “seeking to right wrongs”, all suffer from two fundamental weaknesses.  They fail to account for false positives and false negatives.  If we take but one proposed driver, say “quest for significance”, we see immediately that while virtually everyone wants to see their lives as meaningful very few opt for a career in terrorism (those would be the false positives).  On the other hand, some who have luckily gotten to the point where they are happy with their lot in life still blow themselves up (those would be the false negatives).  The likelihood of ever coming up with a set of predictive risk factors is more or less zero, not that this will stop some for keeping the search alive.

A recent article published by the American Psychiatric Association underscores this fruitless endeavour.  A former US Air force psychiatrist who examined Major Nidal Hasan and found him fit for trial (recall that Hasan killed 13 members of the US military at Fort Hood, Texas on November 5, 2009) noted that “Hasan had no unusual risk factors or history of violence before the attack.”  The author clarifies what typical risk factors would be: “evidence of abuse, bad behavior, or special education during his childhood.”  The team that looked at Major Hasan did agree that “no matter how extreme his views of his religion may have been, then or later, they could not be considered delusional.”

Kudos to the psychiatrists for recognising the importance of religion in this case.  Although some may think otherwise, having strong religious views does not make you delusional.  In fact, a deep religious commitment is the hallmark of Islamist extremists: they see themselves as true Muslims to the exclusion of all others.   The fact that their behaviours – drinking, smoking, watching porn – may be inconsistent with mainstream Islam is irrelevant.

So while Major Hasan may not have demonstrated risk factors he certainly demonstrated risk behaviours. often very openly.  He had concluded that the US was the enemy of Islam and that the US was trying to force democracy on Muslim states. He believed that he could no longer serve in the US army as that would be fighting for the “wrong side”.  Those behaviours should have been red flags, but were ignored.  As the article says: “although he may have made verbalizations about his beliefs on Islam, he never verbalized a threat to harm others”.  This obstacle to investigation points to a serious weakness in the US intelligence community’s ability, under constitutionally protected rights, to examine threat (NB we have no such strictures here in Canada).

The point here is that risk factors failed to predict what observed behaviour did: Major Hasan was a deeply radicalised individual and while not all radicalised people commit terrorism, some do.  At a minimum he should have been watched to see if and when his clearly violent ideology translated into violent action.

If we continue down the path of trying to find risk factors that predict terrorism and ignore overt behaviours that warrant attention, we will miss more and more terrorists and we will have more and more deaths.  We need to shift our approach to what is observable, not what is theoretical.

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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