Can we really predict who will become a terrorist? Nope!

Developing a model to foresee who eventually engages in terrorism would be great, save for the fact it is not possible!

One of my favourite authors is the late Stephen Jay Gould.

The American palaeontologist and science historian wrote many, many books as well as essays in Natural History magazine and his works take up a whole shelf on one of my bookstands.

His 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man was a classic tome that picked apart the old theory that we could determine human temperament and behavior from physiognomy, the structure of the face.

Under this way of thinking, some men are born criminals, evolutionary throwbacks, “savages” with apish, “atavistic” features, including big jaws, prominent brows and “handle-shaped ears”.

Mr. Gould tore this paradigm apart. Or so we thought.

Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham is now putting out the notion that “men with broad faces are evolutionary throwbacks prone to aggression”. Among the other ideas he has are that there are two types of male aggression, reactive and proactive, and that “males evolved to become less compulsively violent, although still all too prone to calculated group aggression”.

Males evolved to become less compulsively violent, although still all too prone to calculated group aggression.

Men with broad faces should apparently be seen as more violent in theory. Mr. Wrangham even published a study on “aggressive behaviour” among hockey players and facial features to prove his point. As a goalie I could care less, but as a Canadian I am offended!

A 1909 image of what we thought Neanderthal man looked like

Stephen Jay Gould, where are you now that we need you?

He died tragically at the age of 60 of cancer. These new ‘theories’ strike me as empty as those of the 19th century and I am pretty sure he would agree with me.

So, what is the link to terrorism?

Simple. There is no way to predict who becomes a terrorist anymore than we can ‘predict’ who engages in violence. There are far too many variables and uncertainties to allow for anyone to construct a model with any validity. I have heard all the ‘precursors’: poverty, marginalisation, mental illness, exclusion, etc. They all fail miserably at providing any early warning system.

Several risk assessment models are out there and my first book, The Threat From Within, based on fifteen years of investigative research at CSIS on Islamist extremism.

This is not to say that we cannot create templates of useful behaviours and attitudes that are consistent with terrorism. Several risk assessment models are out there and my first book, The Threat From Within, based on fifteen years of investigative research at CSIS on Islamist extremism, demonstrated that there are things to look for. None of this is ‘predictive’ however.

I fully understand the desire to come up with ways to identify violence, whether terrorist or not, as soon as possible in order to prevent it from happening. I just wish that people would not promote half-baked theories in this regard.

Stopping terrorism is hard enough. We don’t need ideas that are unhelpful.


The Threat From Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-Inspired Radicalization and Terrorism in the West (2015)

This textbook examines what drives Al Qaeda-inspired radicalization to violence, how to detect it, and how to confront it. The chapters discuss behaviors and ideologies that are observable and tangible in radicalized individuals or those on the path to violent radicalization. These behaviors are drawn from a variety of cases, such as planning acts of terrorism, traveling to join terrorist groups, or participating in violent jihadi conflict outside the country.