The Null Device

Terrorism as social club?

In his WIRED column, Bruce Schneier puts forward a new model for understanding why people become terrorists. The conventional model, that they do it to achieve political aims or address grievances, doesn't adequately describe the real world, in which terrorist groups have vague or changing goals and eschew actions more likely to actually achieve those goals, and the actual terrorists often adopt and change ideologies and targets at the drop of a hat. Instead, being a terrorist is not about changing the world, but rather about being part of a community:
The evidence supports this. Individual terrorists often have no prior involvement with a group's political agenda, and often join multiple terrorist groups with incompatible platforms. Individuals who join terrorist groups are frequently not oppressed in any way, and often can't describe the political goals of their organizations. People who join terrorist groups most often have friends or relatives who are members of the group, and the great majority of terrorist are socially isolated: unmarried young men or widowed women who weren't working prior to joining. These things are true for members of terrorist groups as diverse as the IRA and al-Qaida.
For example, several of the 9/11 hijackers planned to fight in Chechnya, but they didn't have the right paperwork so they attacked America instead. The mujahedeen had no idea whom they would attack after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, so they sat around until they came up with a new enemy: America. Pakistani terrorists regularly defect to another terrorist group with a totally different political platform. Many new al-Qaida members say, unconvincingly, that they decided to become a jihadist after reading an extreme, anti-American blog, or after converting to Islam, sometimes just a few weeks before. These people know little about politics or Islam, and they frankly don't even seem to care much about learning more. The blogs they turn to don't have a lot of substance in these areas, even though more informative blogs do exist.
All of this explains the seven habits. It's not that they're ineffective; it's that they have a different goal. They might not be effective politically, but they are effective socially: They all help preserve the group's existence and cohesion.
The implications of this theory are that terrorist groups are the emergent product of mass social alienation; which suggests a solution to terrorism: give everyone internet access and multiplayer online games. Which would mean that those drawn to malignant, tightly-knit social groups would merely become trolls and griefers rather than actual real-world terrorists.

There are 2 comments on "Terrorism as social club?":

Posted by: ianw Wed Oct 8 04:55:50 2008

how depressing that one must come up with arguments in order to state the obvious. Perhaps it is only obvious in hindsight? on a lighter note, it's fun to read this and substitute "terrorist" with occupations (which also do not have a set study/career path perhaps) such as "musician" or "politician"

Posted by: Greg Wed Oct 8 22:45:11 2008

To be fair to the original author Ian, this isn't as obvious as you think. Most analyses, formal or otherwise, assume that terrorists choose their path because of ideology or some kind of reasoned argument, even if it's "my situation is so bad I have no better options". (Hey isn't this fun - even while I"m o/s we can argue, thanks to Andre's blog.) So if it turns out that peer pressure or "fitting in" is a major motivation for some, that's pretty interesting. (Though I agree, it does seem obvious in hindsight after it's spelled out.)

I'm struck by the parallel with how their principal foes are recruiting. A lot of my high-school peers joined the army, and I remember at the time thinking that it seemed like when one or two went, several others followed, to be with friends. I'd bet plenty of military recruits do this.

Andrew's comparison with MMORPGs adds an extra twist, since the US army is using war-themed computer games to recruit and train young people.