The announcement by Jacinda Ardern of a royal commission to investigate the horrific attack in New Zealand must be informed by why terrorists act.
In the last two and half years I’ve studied the motivations of terrorists so that I can better contribute to the debate about how to prevent future attacks. I’ve interviewed psychologists, former extremists, people who work with convicted terrorists in prison, senior police officers and victims.
The depressing conclusion is that, even looking at all the evidence, it’s incredibly hard to predict who will become a terrorist. That’s partly for good reasons – the cohort is so small that meaningful patterns are hard to observe. It’s also because the routes to terrorism can differ hugely. You might be an alcoholic, a career criminal with learning disabilities – or you might be a devout believer, unknown to the police and at the top of your class.
The better news is that there are models we can use to predict what makes terrorists act. The best model is based on the theory of reasoned action proposed by Fishbein and Ajzen in the 1970s. This approach – developed initially from looking at how consumers make decisions – suggests three beliefs need to be in place for action to result.
The first is the individual’s “behavioural belief”. In the context of terrorism that is their belief that terrorism is the right thing to do and will have the impact they want. That might be based on political, religious or ideological underpinnings – or it might be a much more personal motivation tied into wider dissatisfaction and anger.
The second is their “control belief”. This is whether they believe that they can successfully do it. In the past, the bar for this was high. Extremists who had the capacity to learn how to fly planes, build a detonator or get military training were few and far between. But as terror tactics have changed in the last few years, the bar has been massively lowered, thus enhancing extremists’ control belief.
The third is their “normative belief”. That’s essentially their faith in the idea that the people who they value will support their action. The importance of this normative belief is why marketers say things like “tickets are selling fast”, designed to convey that others are doing what you are considering. It’s why we crave likes and retweets on our social media, the modern stamp of social approval.
In the context of terror, this consists of a cohort of people (often online or in extremist groups) who will actually approve of the attack you might be considering; the advent of the internet has made finding these people much easier. But perhaps even more important are people in mainstream society who might not defend the actual act, but will justify it more subtly. The types of people who say “well of course I deplore the attack, but politicians have to know that immigration etc, etc...”, or “well of course I deplore the attacks but the war in Iraq etc, etc…”
So what does this model mean for our understanding of how we prevent terrorism?
Firstly, to shape people’s behavioural beliefs, we need to keep making arguments against violence and for tolerance. This sounds generic and it is. It’s the societal-wide battle of ideas that has to be won.
More specifically, we have to work harder to humanise groups who might be perceived as “other”. Dehumanisation is a necessary precondition for terror attacks and we can make that harder by talking about “the other” in more human terms. Even better, we can break down boundaries so that we meet “the other” in our normal lives. A proper integration and cohesion strategy is so important and so desperately missing in society.
The other factor is addressing the personal motivations. Lots of these have nothing to do with ideology and are a reflection of drug and alcohol problems, low-level mental health issues, the desire for status.
That’s why an effective counterterror policy will consider how to help address the personal motivations – perhaps with drug and alcohol services – to ensure that terrorists don’t get the kind of notoriety that might encourage others. What the New Zealand PM did this week in refusing to name the attacker was so important.
Secondly, we should work to attack extremists’ control beliefs. We can do that by funding the police adequately, protecting likely targets and making it even harder to get guns or explosives.
But both of these strands, while important, are difficult to substantially change. That’s because motivations are often much more personal than ideological, and because the bar of what constitutes a terror attack has been lowered so that almost anyone could be confident in their capacity to carry out a “successful” attack.
So that leaves the third and most important factor: extremists’ normative beliefs. This is what we as a society can have most impact on because it’s not about their beliefs, it’s about ours. That’s why social media companies have to change their approach to profiling hatred and channelling people towards it, it’s why the rhetoric of politicians like Donald Trump matters so much and it’s why societal-wide condemnation of attacks and hostile rhetoric is so important. But it’s not just companies and institutions that shape the environment, we all do.
That’s why Survivors Against Terror, a group of UK survivors of terror attacks, has encouraged everyone to play their part. Of course very few of us will ever meet a declared terrorist, but we will all meet or know people espousing hate against certain groups. Sometimes it’s tempting to ignore them, or pretend we didn’t see the post, or even nod along to avoid a row. But each time we do, we inadvertently create an environment more conducive to extremism.
On the other hand, when we challenge that hatred, we are part of building a normative environment that makes future attacks less likely.
Brendan Cox is a co-founder of Survivors Against Terror