Can brain science contribute to our understanding of terrorism?

Despite my continuing efforts to understand why people become terrorists, I have always believed that the decision to do so is indeed a choice, and not due to some form of coercion or brainwashing.  I view the vulnerability/victim arguments (i.e. it is not the fault of the terrorist) as both largely uninformed and perhaps the result of shock and confusion on the part of family and friends close to those who embrace violent ideologies (the “my son wouldn’t do that on his own” conviction).  This view sees a shadowy world of manipulative recruiters who identify and prey on the unsuspecting and lure them into the web of extremist ideology.  To counter this nefarious intent some speak of “inoculating” people against the appeal of terrorism, as if violent radicalisation were a disease like the flu.

Again, I do not think this is how it works but I understand why this view is prevalent.  If someone in my social circles were to become a terrorist I might hold on to similar sentiments, at least at first.  It’s just that I haven’t seen a lot of data to support this theory.

Imagine, then, my surprise to read an article in the June 2015 issue of Scientific American on the biology of the teen brain suggesting that maybe terrorism should not be seen as a youngster’s fault, but rather a function of neural maturation, or lack thereof.  In a nutshell, the authors state that the immature system of connections and networking as well as a developmental imbalance between the emotional (limbic) and control (prefrontal cortex) areas lead teens to make risky and bad decisions.  Here is a quote from that article which has tremendous implications for how we treat the youth/terrorism nexus:

  • “Across all cultures, adolescents are the most vulnerable to being recruited as soldiers and terrorists…greater understanding of the teen brain could also help judges and juries reach decisions in terrorism trials.”

In an editorial blurb in the same issue the relevance of these findings is linked to the case of Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev, who many believe was unduly influenced by his older brother Tamerlan.  Does this research have any relevance for how we deal with younger terrorists?

There is little question that young people make bad decisions and at times these decisions lead to disaster (speeding, substance abuse, engaging in dangerous activities…).  But do we want to reduce the radicalisation of youth to brain chemistry?

What we have here is a potential “get of jail free” card for terrorists who happen to be young (actually, the developmental gap referred to above lasts until 25, which would encompass a lot of terrorists).  This is also known as “my brain made me do it” argument (i.e. it is not my fault).  I cannot challenge what the brain scientists found and I certainly acknowledge that we are in part the product of neural connections, but is that all there is?  Is there not more to decision making?  Are we that predictable based solely on how our neurons fire?

This is a dangerous path to venture down. It takes agency and responsibility away from the thoughts and choices made by certain youth.  More critically, it certainly does not take into account the fact that such a small number of young people embrace violent ideologies and go on to become terrorists.  If the decision to join a terrorist group were reducible to brain function, why do the vast majority not make the same disastrous choices?

Some would lump this argument with the general view that society is becoming less and less insistent on making people accept responsibility for their actions: in other words, it is always someone else’s doing.  I am not sure that this is true here as the finding remains fascinating and is one more example of the leaps and bounds in our understanding of how our brains work.  But it remains an unsatisfactory explanation for violent radicalisation.

In the months and years to come there will be other discoveries and claims from fields as diverse as psychology, sociology and the hard sciences on issues related to terrorism.  It will be interesting to learn of these findings, but we need to be careful about embracing any one theory to account for why terrorists exist.  Extremism and violent extremism is, and will remain, a complicated field of inquiry.



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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