Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Power of the Group

Tonight's Horizon was an investigation into the psychology of the London suicide bombers. From the summary:
It's no surprise that virtually all suicide attacks in modern times have relied on group psychology. From the squadrons of Kamikaze pilots in Japan to the highly trained suicide units of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. But new evidence from Marc Sageman shows that extremist cells can form spontaneously, without any connections to established organisations. His analysis of al-Qaeda has shown that most people who join the organisation join when they are already radicalised, and crucially this radicalisation process has happened among a group of friends. He calls it his 'bunch of guys' theory.

The 'bunch of guys' theory is a vital breakthrough in understanding the mind of suicide bombers. The willingness to carry out attacks very often pre-dates any contact with an organisation. There is no need for a mastermind figure. Recognising the importance of this and of these group dynamics, it is hoped, will help spot future cells before it is too late and, ultimately, prevent further attacks.
The idea of recruiters, people who work to persuade others to join terrorist groups, does not appear to apply to these types of suicide attacks. In effect, the "recruiter" is not an individual terrorist mastermind. The recruiter is, instead, the dynamic created by small, often insular groups of Muslims who are motivated by a sense of injustice towards Western society. In fact, according to one of the experts on the broadcast, the Al Queda organisation only accepts around 15% of those who attempt to join. They are not recruiting, they are merely selecting the "best" volunteers.

If this research is accurate then it is indeed significant. On the down side, it means that small terrorist groups can spontaneously occur without any outside influence. At the extreme, this means that even if it were possible to kill every single active or sleeper terrorist currently alive (and it obviously isn't) then there is still the risk that new groups would continue to spring up spontaneously. That is a serious concern.

On the up side though, again assuming this research is borne out, it means that we are better able to understand and prevent the radicalisation process. It means that a proper sensible strategy can be designed to combat the (quite legitimate IMHO) sense of injustice felt by many Muslims. This would almost certainly reduce the risk of future terrorist attacks. And it wouldn't be giving in to the demands of terrorists. What it would be is the opening of a dialogue with the type of people who have the potential to become terrorist at some future point.

And that's always been basically what I've been in favour of. I had previously thought that this would have to be carried out in direct opposition to the rhetoric of the terrorist recruiters. It now seems that recruiters of this type are of no great significance to the process of radicalisation. As such, this sort of reasoned approach would appear to have a very real chance of success.

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