What terrorists do when the facts tell them they are wrong

It is hard to admit when you have made a mistake. After all, we want to be right every time and when it becomes obvious that we are not it takes a special effort to pronounce a mea culpa. Me, I have tried to be gracious when obvious errors are pointed out to me: perhaps this is getting easier as I get older and no longer work in an environment where getting it wrong can have serious consequences. As I have stated on many occasions, when you are in the intelligence world you are only as good as your last failure (i.e. when you do not stop an attack from taking place, meaning you did not do your job properly). So while accepting that you blew it is important it is also difficult to align with your sense of expertise.

It appears, though, that violent extremists have a tough time owning up to their booboos in spite of the reality that as they are human like the rest of us – contrary to public conviction that they are inhuman ‘monsters’ – they do indeed fall short sometimes. What they do in the face of their lack of success is interesting and says something important about what drives them and how they think and process information.

A good friend of mine who used to work in Canadian immigration, Andrew Griffith, sends me on a daily basis fascinating material on the topics of migrants and attitudes towards newcomers. This one piece caught my eye. It turns out that one of the things white supremacists do online is share the results of DNA testing to demonstrate their ‘whiteness’. Alas, sometimes these tests show that the submitees are not quite as racially pure as they think they are. This is, of course, a problem since these groups, which are categorically against ‘inferior’ races, cannot allow those whose blood is ‘tainted’ to become members.

So what do those who receive surprises in the mail do? Obviously, they deny there is a problem and displace the blame elsewhere or seek alternative interpretations. To wit:

  • one guy found out he was ‘only’ 58% ‘European’ and was also 13% ‘Middle Eastern’. He sought assurances on the Stormfront Web page that ‘Middle Eastern’ was a form of ‘Caucasian’. One respondent told him “it looks like you won’t be a member here any time soon”.
  • DNA testers, it is said, base their results on ‘common DNA segments’ – whatever that is supposed to mean – and are hence inaccurate
  • the tests are unreliable because of ‘we all know who runs these companies’ (i.e. the Jews) so relying on what your grandfather told you about your heritage is better.

What these extremists are doing is engaging in what is known as ‘dissonance reduction’, meaning they adjust their view of reality, or simply ignore it, to accord better with their belief systems. They go to great lengths to justify why what they believe in is still true rather than drop the ideas they held in the presence of contradictory data. Of course they could change their behaviour but nah, why would they do that?

All of this reminds me of Islamic State (IS) and its views on Armageddon. In one of the hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad it is said that the town of Dabiq (located in Syria just south of that country’s border with Turkey) was to be the scene of an apocalyptic battle between Muslims and Christians. One-third of the Muslim fighters would flee the scene, one-third would die as martyrs, and the remaining third would defeat the Christian forces, opening the way for the End of Days. IS even named its primary propaganda e-zine Dabiq.

What to do then when the town where you are to attain your greatest God-ordained victory falls to the apostate enemies and you don’t even try to defend it? Dabiq was taken by the Free Syrian Army in October 2016 and it took the ‘brave’ IS heroes 17 minutes to flee without firing a single shot. IS’ reaction? They stopped publishing Dabiq and noted that “Dabiq would be the smaller battle. The big epic battle is to follow.” They could just have easily have said “oh THAT Dabiq! No, we meant the one down the road. THAT is where we will make our final stand!”


What this shows is that deep-seated ideologies are hard to uproot. Facts are not enough (just look at how the anti-vaxxing movement ignores scientific data). It takes much more to convince someone that they are wrong and should change their views. Some people claim they can do this through ‘deradicalisation’ programmes: I have serious reservations on these efforts, as well-intended as they may be.

Maybe we just have to accept that some people cling to bizarre ideas in the face of all evidence to the contrary. We have all read stories of millennarian cults that claim ‘Jesus’ is coming or that a spaceship is on its way to rescue the ‘true believers’. Maybe there is not a lot that can be done to change these minds.

Or maybe we can put all the terrorists on those soon-to-arrive spaceships and be rid of them once and for all.

Just saying.

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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