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Studying Violent Extremist Recruitment Narratives


Asma Shah

September 11 pushed the topic of terrorism to the front of minds and into the national discourse. Terrorism became something we worried about. Something we researched. Something we tried to solve. I know I’m not alone in wondering why seemingly normal or otherwise rational people might join violent causes. The wondering has motivated me to search for answers through research examining the causes of such radical beliefs and behaviors. In conducting research for the Narratives/Counter-Narratives project at START, I look at how al-Qaida and ISIS target their communication to individuals living in the United States. These narratives we review refer to not only the content of violent extremist messages, but the way in which they communicate and tailor these messages to a particular audience to convince people of the legitimacy of their beliefs and recruit them to their cause. The project goal is to create a public knowledge tool that can be used by policymakers and practitioners to combat violent extremist narratives. I have learned a lot through my internship about how violent extremists attempt to recruit people, including social, political, and historical motivations. In supplemental readings and events, I’ve learned even more.  

I recently met William Dwyer at a book launch for his novel The Killing Flower. While the novel is fictional, Dwyer said he hopes that when people see things through the eyes of a fictional U.S. soldier in the Iraq war, it will help them understand some of the systematic causes of terrorism. He said he wrote the book because he was feeling as if he was unable to make a significant difference in the fight against terrorism.

When I learned he worked with the government in the counterterrorism field, we struck up a conversation. Dwyer is an aerospace engineer turned computer programmer, more specifically a Rules Developer, working on computer systems to help find terrorists seeking to enter the United States from abroad. His work is mainly on the investigative side. Similar to a detective, Dwyer identifies potential terrorists through suspicious behavior, writing programs to recognize these activities.

While he enjoys the opportunities his position offers to work with new and developing technologies, he said more data is needed to truly gauge his effectiveness. Dwyer cites a distinct lack of data on why terrorists are committing these crimes. He’s also concerned that there is a general attitude that computers and algorithms can stop terrorism, and while they might be able to aid in the fight, humans are still needed to solve the larger problems of terrorism itself. Computer programs, and counterterrorism in general, can only go so far as to identify those who are committing these acts, but not why. The systematic reasons and root causes of violence are more relevant to fighting terrorism than simply identifying who is involved.

The research we’re conducting echoes that point: we need more data that can speak to the why of terrorism. Many people view terrorism through a primarily religious lens, while glossing over its many other potential underlying causes. Through my research, I have learned that terrorism does not have a single root cause or motivation. I'm learning that there are a number of reasons behind why one might fall victim to violent extremist reasoning. Whether its economic disparity, historical justifications, or political ambitions, violent extremists may have many motivations behind their actions. All of these—not only religious arguments—are used to influence vulnerable populations to join their cause. Rather than lumping everyone under the religious umbrella, policymakers and law enforcement officials wishing to counter extremism and violence must do so by addressing as many relevant factors as possible. Understanding these deeper incentives is key to helping counter them.

Recruiters of terrorist groups know that they have a sizable toolbox of grievances they can use to recruit people to their cause. Before someone falls prey to violent extremism, they probably had something missing in their lives which the recruiters found and filled. If we can find the ‘what's missing’ that causes them to turn to terrorism, we can help prevent them from resorting to it. Over the next few years, I look forward to discovering these techniques that will help prevent susceptible people from falling prey to these recruiters, thereby protecting victims of their actions as well.