TERRORISM SALON: Matthew Levitt on the Social Influences of Terrorism

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(Matthew Levitt is a Senior fellow and Director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy).
Here’s my first two cents:
Poverty, in and of itself, does not lead to terrorism. But it can be part of the problem, as the case of disenfranchised Muslim communities in Europe make clear. In the words of one European official I recently interviewed on this issue, “poverty is rarely one of the key radicalizers, but unemployment can be, especially when combined with
engaging in criminal activity and being exposed to a radical narrative.”
Radical ideologies are better able to take root when discrimination and the lack of opportunity for economic growth are put in terms of a global narrative that weave personal experiences in the suburbs north of Paris together with the plight of fellow Muslims in Bosnia, Chechnya, Palestine or Iraq to personalize far away conflicts and paint a global, ideological struggle. That global narrative is where foreign policy becomes one part of this larger tapestry as well, especially when presented through a radical ideological lens. To my mind the ideological component is the most critical and overlooked component here.
As several studies have demonstrated, organized radicalization and recruitment (let alone training and the provision of funds and weapons) has long been central to the formation of a terrorist–that is, someone who is not only angry but willing to act on that anger in a violent manner. Today, that organizational function is in some cases carried out more passively via exposure to ideas and, perhaps more critically, a sense of belonging to a group of like-minded followers, on the Internet.


But even among the increasing number of “homegrown” terrorists, European officials stress the importance of pre-existing personal vulnerabilities that serve as “push factors”as well as exposure to “radicalizers” — in person or online — over a period of time.
No single psychological profile describes the wide variety of “push factors” that make individuals vulnerable to the kind of radicalization that can eventually lead them to become terrorists. One study, by Tel Aviv University researchers Shaul Kimhe and Shmuel Even, developed a series of prototypical categories that combine both clinical and social psychological causes among Palestinians who resorted to terrorism. A telling corollary to their primary findings, however, is that whatever the typology of the potential terrorist–“religious fanatic,” “nationalist fanatic,” “avenger,” or “exploited”–every type requires “a social environment that is supportive of such an attack; media that disseminates the information among the supportive population; spiritual leadership that encourages such attacks; and financial and social assistance for families of suicide terrorists after their death.” Together, these conditions create a “comprehensive social environment [that] may be referred to as the ‘culture of suicide terrorists’ that has been created within Palestinian society.”
Social preconditions by themselves do not make a suicide bomber. While poverty, humiliation, occupation, personal suffering, shame, or loss of a loved one can all be powerful radicalizing factors, they almost always require an organized element to channel that anger and frustration — actively and in person or passively on the Internet — into a desire to kill and maim random civilians (as opposed, for example, to a desire simply to kill oneself). It is for this reason that groups subscribing to a radical ideology invest so much time, effort and money in media campaigns aimed at radicalizing and directly or indirectly recruiting future members.
— Matthew Levitt
This week long terrorism salon will continue to be hosted by
The Washington Note and UN Dispatch.

Comments

11 comments on “TERRORISM SALON: Matthew Levitt on the Social Influences of Terrorism

  1. Arun says:

    Talk to Muslims or read around. It is likely fundamentalism entered their society with Wahabbi Islam sponsored by the Saudis.
    But of course that can’t be discussed here.

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  2. JohnH says:

    I love it!! “but what led to the israeli occupation in the first place?”
    Answer: Zionism, the desire for lebenraum, water and the dream of a Greater Israel.
    By 1967, Israel’s Arab neighbors, having been defeated in 1948 and 1956, had largely been convinced not to mess with prickly, powerful neighbor. Occuption of the West Bank was a matter of choice, and created more long-term security problems than solutions.

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  3. Carroll says:

    “Today, that organizational function is in some cases carried out more passively via exposure to ideas and, perhaps more critically, a sense of belonging to a group of like-minded followers, on the Internet.”
    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    Here’s a little educational example for our friends at WINEP. Not of the internet forming opinions necessarily, but of the internet letting people know that they do indeed belong to a group of like minded followers. I think the desire of citizens for their country to act fairly springs naturally from decent people. But the power of the internet to inform and get at the truth can’t be underestimated. Eventually the frustration level of the informed public will change this government.
    “Rendering Public Opinion Irrelevant”
    Glen Greenwald
    One of the most striking aspects of our political discourse, particularly during election time, is how efficiently certain views that deviate from the elite consensus are banished from sight — simply prohibited — even when those views are held by the vast majority of citizens. The University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes — the premiere organization for surveying international public opinion — released a new survey a couple of weeks ago regarding public opinion on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, including opinion among American citizens, and this is what it found:
    A new WorldPublicOpinion.org poll of 18 countries finds that in 14 of them people mostly say their government should not take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Three countries favor taking the Palestinian side (Egypt, Iran, and Turkey) and one is divided (India). No country favors taking Israel’s side, including the United States, where 71 percent favor taking neither side.
    The worldwide consensus is crystal clear — citizens want their Governments to be neutral and even-handed in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, not tilted towards either side. And that consensus is shared not just by a majority of American citizens, but by the overwhelming majority.
    Few political views, particularly on controversial issues, attract more than 70% support among American citizens. But the proposition that the U.S. Government should be even-handed — rather than tilting towards Israel — attracts that much support.
    Similarly, when asked “How well do you think Israel is doing its part in the effort to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” citizens around the world, by a large margin, believe that Israel is doing either “not very well” or “not well at all” (54% — compared to 23% that say it’s doing “very well” or “somewhat well”). And there, too, that worldwide view corresponds to American public opinion as well. 59% of Americans say Israel is doing either “not very well” or “not well at all” — compared to only 30% that say it’s doing “very well” or “somewhat well.” And Palestinians don’t fare much better worldwide (38-49%) and fare worse in the U.S. (15-75%).
    Yet not only is the view of “even-handedness” completely unrepresented among mainstream political figures in the U.S., it’s deemed political death to go anywhere near expressing that view. Back in 2003, then-presidential-candidate Howard Dean expressed the exact position favored by an overwhelming majority of Americans, yet triggered an intense and even ugly controversy by doing so:
    Dean’s Israel troubles began at a Sept. 3 campaign event in Santa Fe, N.M. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said that day, “It’s not our place to take sides.” Then, on Sept. 9, he told the Washington Post that America should be “evenhanded” in its approach to the region.
    That’s all Dean said. It’s a view held by more than 70% of Americans. It ought to be completely uncontroversial — if anything, it ought to be that view that is deemed a political piety. But what happened? This, according to an excellent account of that “controversy” in Salon by Michelle Goldberg:
    The media and the Democratic establishment reacted as if Dean had called Yasser Arafat a man of peace. On Sept. 10, 34 Democratic members of Congress, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, wrote Dean an open letter. “American foreign policy has been — and must continue to be — based on unequivocal support for Israel’s right to exist and to be free from terror . . .” they wrote. “It is unacceptable for the U.S. to be ‘evenhanded’ on these fundamental issues . . . This is not a time to be sending mixed messages; on the contrary, in these difficult times we must reaffirm our unyielding commitment to Israel’s survival and raise our voices against all forms of terrorism and incitement.”
    The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that Dean had badly damaged his own campaign. “Sources in the Jewish community say that Dean has wrecked his chances of getting significant contributions from Jews . . .” the paper wrote. “Many believe Dean’s statement will drive more Jews toward Lieberman and Kerry, enabling Kerry to take the lead again.”
    Dean was roundly attacked by the political elite for uttering “anti-Israel” comments, notwithstanding the fact that Dean is married to a Jewish woman, raised his children as Jews, and, most amazingly of all, had a campaign that was managed by Steve Grossman, a former President of AIPAC. But no matter: Dean had uttered a Forbidden Thought — forbidden even though it is embraced by the vast majority of Americans.
    If Dean’s Israel position really puts him far out on the left, it proves that not showing unequivocal support for the Jewish state remains a political poison pill — for members of either political party. . . .
    More troubling is the condemnation by Pelosi and other party leaders of even a hint of “evenhandedness.”
    It’s pretty extraordinary that in a democracy, the political elite is able to render completely off-limits a view that the vast majority of Americans support.
    They actually render majority-held views unspeakable and then remove the issue entirely from what is debated. No matter what one’s views are, there is no denying that our policy towards Israel is immensely consequential for our country.
    Yet, by virtue of the fact that presidential candidates are required to affirm essentially the same orthodoxies, there’s very little difference in their positions towards Israel and therefore our current policy approach towards Israel will simply not be part of anything that is debated, even though most Americans overwhelmingly oppose that course.
    Again, the point has nothing to do with one’s views of the best policy towards Israel. The point is that a position which the vast majority of Americans embrace is one that, simultaneously, is forbidden to be expressed, and the election consequently will involve no debate over that issue.
    That profoundly anti-democratic dynamic is by no means confined to Israel. That’s just an example.
    Remarkably, this desire for cooperation rather than confrontation is the view of most Americans despite the Iraq-level misinformation and propaganda which our political elite has disseminated about Iran:
    While Iranian President Ahmadinejad is depicted by our political class as the Equivalent of Adolf Hitler, savagely oppressing Iranians as some sort of insane, vicious tyrant, that isn’t how they see it:
    Iranian public opinion distinguishes between the U.S. Government and the American people — holding favorable views towards the latter and unfavorable views towards the former (“some portrayed the American people, like the Muslim people, as victims of the American government”) — and to the extent there is “anti-Americanism” in Iran, it is based on this widespread assessment.
    That, too, is a belief widely held in many places in the world, yet is one that no mainstream politician in the U.S. could express.
    There are all sorts of reasons why our presidential elections center on personality-based sideshows.
    But one principal reason is that so many of the Government’s most consequential actions are concealed behind a wall of secrecy and thus not subject to public debate.
    Meanwhile, those policies which are publicly disclosed are kept off-limits from any real debate and, even when they are debated, public opinion is almost completely marginalized in favor of the minority elite consensus (see, for instance, the endless Iraq war even in the face of long-standing, overwhelming support for its end).
    That remarkable dynamic of debate-suppression is most conspicuous — and most urgent — when the policies favored by the political establishment are ones that are vigorously rejected by the citizenry.
    Thus we have the extraordinary fact that a policy that has long been favored by the vast majority of Americans — even-handedness in the Israel-Palestinian conflict — is one that no mainstream American politician of any national significance can espouse without triggering an immediate end to their political career. That discrepancy is a rather potent commentary on how our democracy functions.
    — Glenn Greenwald
    >>>>>>>>>>>>>
    There you have it..71% of Americans (which is 2, 310,000,000 ) vr. 500 politicans in the house and senate and the Israeli lobby. I say we internet terriers take them down.

    Reply

  4. varanassi says:

    johnh – but what led to the israeli occupation in the first place?
    israel was threatened by jordan, egypt and syria.
    i agree with you that israel’s continuing occupation is leading to continuing threats, but i don’t necessarily think that a unilateral withdrawal by israel from the occupied territories will lead to increased israeli security.
    but, i obviously have a different perspective from you and others in this forum.
    although, i must say that i totally agree with the point you make in your last paragraph about sharon. he was a political opportunist of the worst kind.
    and remember, sharon did not ignite the second intifada when he went to the Western Wall – there was and is nothing wrong with any israeli going to the wall. sharon marched, with an armed police escort, to the temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. there is a HUGE difference between the two.
    i’m sure that most readers would be dumbfounded to walk the alleys of the old city in jerusalem to see what a tiny piece of real estate it really is.
    p.s. i never claimed that palestinian or arab terrorists are any longer threatening israel’s “existence,” but i do believe that they continue to *threaten* israelis.

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  5. JohnH says:

    varnassi–who exactly is threatening Israel’s existence? Palestinian terrorists? You have to be kidding.
    Israel could significantly reduce Palestinian terrorism by lifting the Occupation. In essence, Israeli behavior is creating many of the threats against it (as in any occupation.) Palestianian threats serve mostly the purpose of giving the Israeli government a reason to continue its massive defense spending and to satisfy its most important constituency (IDF).
    Look what happened in Lebanon after the IDF ended its occupation. Attacks against Israel declined. To compensate, Sharon apparently had to show up at the Wailing Wall, knowing that it would kill the peace talks, trigger a second intifada, an Israeli crackdown, and an increase in Palestinian resistance.

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  6. Tom says:

    WINEP is an AIPAC sponsored think tank. nuff said.

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  7. varanassi says:

    johnh,
    but by the same token, the israelis are a *threatened* people.
    it’s intellectually dishonest to focus on the fact that the Palestinian territories are occupied, without also acknowledging that israel is, and always has been, threatened.
    any solution there will have to address both of these realities.
    and, i’m sorry, but to minimize the predicament of either the palestinians or the israelis is to sow seeds of greater and continuing conflict.

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  8. varanassi says:

    “The “radicalization’ of Muslims is not half as interesting as studying the rise of the Israelis as the 21th century’s new nazis.
    And even more interesting is the study of how and why the US came to be their financiers and enablers.”
    the comment above by carrol is extremely offensive and down-right ignorant.
    the israelis are the “21st century’s new nazis?!”
    sheesh.
    and now cue POA to call me every name in the book.
    any minute now…

    Reply

  9. Carroll says:

    I edited this for you Levitt..
    No single psychological profile describes the wide variety of “push factors” that make individuals vulnerable to the kind of radicalization that can eventually lead them to become terrorists. One study developed a series of prototypical categories that combine both clinical and social psychological causes to explain why the Israeli population is able to use terrorism to aquire land. A telling corollary to their primary findings, however, is that whatever the typology of the potential terrorist–“religious fanatic,” “nationalist fanatic,” “avenger,” or “exploited”–every type requires “a social environment that is supportive of such an attack; media that disseminates the information among the supportive population; spiritual leadership that encourages such attacks; and financial assistance from Jews abroad and the countries they live in. Together, these conditions create a “comprehensive social environment [that] may be referred to as the ‘culture of nazis’ that has been created within Israeli society.”
    Social preconditions by themselves do not make a terrorist or IDF child sniper. While feelings of humiliation as a jew because of prior historical powerlessness and personal and shared ethnic shame over their ancestor’s past or victimzation can all be powerful radicalizing factors, they almost always require an organized element to channel that anger and frustration — actively and in person or passively on the Internet — into a desire to kill and maim random civilians who stand in the way of these terrorist reclaiming their ethnic pride or religious or nationalistic group goals.
    It is for this reason that groups subscribing to a radical ideology invest so much time, effort and money in media campaigns, lobbies like AIPAC, and summer military camps for jewish teenagers aimed at radicalizing and directly or indirectly recruiting future members.”
    >>>>>>>>>>>
    The “radicalization’ of Muslims is not half as interesting as studying the rise of the Israelis as the 21th century’s new nazis.
    And even more interesting is the study of how and why the US came to be their financiers and enablers.

    Reply

  10. JohnH says:

    I’m surprised that neither Rosand nor Levitt mention Robert Pape, who has studied the individual cases of hundreds of suicide bombers.
    One key message–occupation breeds terrorism. End occupation, end terrorism.
    Why don’t Rosand and Levitt discuss this? Is it because it is poltiically incorrect to state the obvious in a country that is actively prosecuting one occupation and actively supporting another country engaged in occupation for 60 years?

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  11. Mr.Murder says:

    The latest efforts by groups that mirror AQ, or by the group itself, show a very nuanced understanding of perception.
    A group with some legitmate political representation, such as Hamas, has even done some relief efforts to swell support for it in the Palestine/Lebanon reference.
    The FARC’s prisoner exchanges appear to have understood that health concerns for some captives long kept could have far greater impact in casting their issues in negative light.
    These aren’t cave men with clubs and jawbones tossing stones and wielding blunt force.
    Warlord rule is not uncommon outside the middle east. Interior African countries still adhere to this in worst case scenarios. Trade agreements and joint training seem to best shape those concerns as well. A complex courting ritual of exiled, colonial, and new global interest press forward.
    All of these groups have some grasp of political consequence far beyond their acts. Terror motivated as a genocide instrument is entirely different, and must be dealt with in entirely different ways.

    Reply

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