Why don’t people become terrorists?

As I have noted in an earlier blog,  I am a Sherlock Holmes fan.  The first story published in The Strand magazine under the “Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes” beginning in December 1892 was  ‘Silver Blaze’, in which  Holmes has to solve the disappearance of a famous race horse 0n the eve of a big race and the murder of its trainer.  The part of the story that has become a noteworthy- and particularly illustrative of Holmes’ craft – occurs when the great detective and a Scotland Yard colleague have the following exchange:

Gregory: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?

“Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

In other words, the unexpected was important.  The fact that the dog did not bark was a clue.

Which brings us to terrorism.  We spend a lot of time studying and hypothesising about why people become terrorists and join violent extremist groups.  Everyone, it sometimes seems, is trying to come with THE theory to account for this, in the hope that a robust model will not only explain why but help us to predict who and thus perhaps come up with intervention strategies to prevent people from heading down that path.  All in all a good pursuit even if a “terrorism theory of everything” is in fact an impossible goal (there is way too much individual variation that stands in the way of generalisation).

But what if we are in fact asking the wrong question?  Perhaps we should ask about the dogs that do not bark, i.e. the vast majority of people who do not become terrorists.

No, the question is not a silly one. Think about it for a minute.  There have been all kinds of “root causes” proposed over the years (and still being proposed unfortunately) and yet for any given cause, most of those that exhibit the behaviour/characteristic never radicalise to violence.  For instance, it has been said ad naseum that “identity crisis” is a key driver to terrorism.  So why is it that of the gazillions of people who at some point in their lives question who they are only a minuscule fraction choose terrorism?  The same can be said for any other reason: alienation, sense of grievance, poverty…..

The point is that for 99.99 percent of humans terrorism is not an attractive career choice.  Why it is not is not so obvious.  Maybe, as Canadian linguist/psychologist Steven Pinker wrote in The better angels of our nature in 2001, it is because we are becoming less violent as a species.  Maybe most of us have an inherent aversion to killing others and bombing places.  Maybe we have to acknowledge that terrorism will remain a serious but never an existential problem.

What this says to me is that the messages propagated by terrorist groups – their so-called narratives – are failing.  Nobody (or next to nobody) is listening.  This is of course extraordinary since the language and imagery used by terrorist groups does indeed speak to real problems: invasion, occupation, the slaughter of innocents, historical inequities and so on.  Isn’t it fascinating that people affected by these tragedies and supposedly desperate for an answer have rejected the solutions offered by the terrorists? We should grab this fact and use it to our mutual advantage.

Yes we must continue to be vigilant about the tiny number that intend to do us harm.  But we also have to accept that the vast majority of those we tend to fold in to the terrorist recruitment pool are actually on our side and hate the terrorists as much as we do.  We need to reach out to the “silent majority” and make them part of the answer.  So let us celebrate the reality that terrorism remains the preferred cf choice of a very small number of people.  Exaggerating the scale of the problem is not helpful.

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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