The Middle East: New Challenges

“Band of Brothers”: Civil Society and the Making of a Terrorist

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 10, Issue 4, August 2008

Scott Atran1

The only way to effectively intervene in the radicalization process to violence and terrorism in a way that is sustainable in the long term is through field-based scientific research. Approaches based on “gut feelings,” or on theories that are not systematically built or tested on data from the field, will not prevent the next and future generations of youth from taking a path to political violence, no matter how effective may be law-enforcement and military measures in the short term.

Soccer, paintball, camping, hiking, rafting, body building, martial arts training and other forms of physically stimulating and intimate group action create a bunch of buddies, which becomes a “band of brothers” in a simple heroic cause. It’s usually enough that a few of these buddies identify with a cause, and its heroic path to glory and esteem in the eyes of peers, for the rest to follow even unto death. Humans need to socially organize, to lead and be led; however, notions of “charismatic leaders” and Svengali-like “recruiters” who “brainwash” unwitting minds into joining well-structured organizations with command and control is exaggerated. Viewed from the field, notions of “cells” and “recruitment”—and to a degree even “leadership”—may reflect more the psychology and organization of those analyzing terrorist groups than terrorist groups themselves (see Marc Sageman’s Leaderless Jihad, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

Takfiris (from takfir, “excommunication”) are rejectionists who disdain other forms of Islam, including wahabism (an evangelical creed preaching Calvinist-like obedience to the state) and most fundamentalist, or salafi, creeds (which oppose fighting between co-religionists as sowing discord, or fitna, in the Muslim community). They tend to go to violence in small groups consisting mostly of friends and some kin (although friends tend to become kin as they marry one another’s sisters and cousins—there are dozens of such marriages among militant members of Southeast Asia’s Jemaah Islamiyah). These groups arise within specific “scenes”: neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and common leisure.

Consider four examples:

  1. In Al Qaeda, about 70 percent join with friends, 20 percent with kin. At a meeting organized in February by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of the Interior, counter-terrorism officials in Riyadh showed us recent data on captured terrorists that replicated these numbers. Interviews with friends of the 9/11 suicide pilots reveal they weren’t “recruited” into Qaeda. They were Middle Eastern Arabs isolated even among the Moroccan and Turkish Muslims who predominate in Germany. Seeking friendship, they began hanging out after services at the Masjad al-Quds and other nearby mosques in Hamburg, in local restaurants and in the dormitory of the Technical University in the suburb of Harburg. Three wound up living together as they self-radicalized (Mohammed Atta, Ramzi Binalshibh, Marwan al-Shehhi). Their friends told us they wanted to go to Chechnya and then Kosovo, only landing in a Qaeda camp in Afghanistan as a third choice.
  2. Five of the seven plotters in the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings who blew themselves up when cornered by police grew up in the tumble-down neighborhood of Jemaa Mezuak in Tetuan, Morocco. In 2006, at least five more young Mezuaq men went to Iraq on “martyrdom missions.” All five attended a local elementary school, the same one that Madrid’s Moroccan bombers attended. And four of the five were in the same high school class. They played soccer as friends, went to the same mosque (Masjad al-Rohban of the Dawa Tabligh), mingled in the same restaurants, barbershops and cafes. “They gave one another courage to go to Iraq,” said another friend who dropped out, not because he thought their cause wrong but because he found a different way through community work “to help Muslims.”
  3. Hamas’s most sustained suicide bombing campaign in 2003-2004 involved several buddies from Hebron’s Masjad (mosque) al-Jihad soccer team. Most lived in the Wad Abu Katila neighborhood and belonged to the al-Qawasmeh hamula (clan); several were classmates in the neighborhood’s local branch of the Palestinian Polytechnic College. Their ages ranged from 18 to 22. At least eight team members were dispatched to suicide shooting and bombing operations by the Hamas military leader in Hebron, Abdullah al-Qawasmeh. On February 4, 2008, two friends who were members of the Masjad al-Jihad soccer team staged a suicide bombing at a commercial center in Dimona, Israel. The mother of one of these young men told us that her son “loved soccer and those boys [who had died in 2003].” Although Hamas claimed responsibility for the Dimona attack, politburo leadership in Damascus and Beirut was not aware at first of who initiated and carried out the attack. At the Knesset last month, Israeli officials told us that Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, and Ahmed Al Ja’abri, the military commander of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, probably wanted to launch an operation after Zahar’s son was killed in an Israeli raid and Hamas breached the border wall between Gaza and Egypt. Al-Ja’abri, who is originally from Hebron, called upon his clan ally, Ayoub Qawasmeh, to do an operation. Ayoub Qawasmeh then tapped into the young men on the soccer team who had been earnestly waiting to do something for their comrades and their cause.
  4. The “Virginia Jihad” Network involved a diverse group of twelve mostly middle-class young men based in Washington, D.C., suburbs, affiliated with an Islamic educational center in Falls Church, Virginia. Several formed a band of paintball buddies that eventually focused on waging violent jihad in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Chechnya. Seven members of the network traveled to Pakistan in 2000 and 2001 and obtained military training from a Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), an Al-Qaeda ally that was then waging jihad against Indian forces in Kashmir. Three members subsequently assisted LET in procuring advanced electronic technology for use against India. Federal prosecution resulted in the most convictions by the United States Department of Justice in any single terrorism case to date. Nevertheless, after discussing details with a former federal prosecutor in the case, it was evident that there was little investigation into sociological factors and little, if any, institutional precedent for acquiring information into the social background and personal history of how and why these people go to violence.

Most current risk management approaches to countering terrorism often assume that adversaries model the world on the basis of rational choices that are commensurable across cultures. From interviews and psychological experiments with terrorists and those who inspire and care for them, we have learned that individuals who join the jihad, especially would-be martyrs (suicide bombers), often seem motivated by non-instrumental values and small-group dynamics that trump rational self-interest. Such “sacred” values comprise the core of cultural morality and social identity. They differ from material or instrumental values by incorporating moral beliefs that drive action in ways dissociated from prospects for success.

Field studies, including surveys designed as experiments rather than simple probes of attitudes, indicate that such values do not generate standard calculations regarding cost and benefit, sensitivity to quantity, tradeoffs across moral categories (e.g., family vs. God), or commensuration between different cultural frames. This means that traditional calculations of how to defeat or deter an enemy—for example, by providing material incentives to defect or threatening retaliation against supporting populations—may not succeed. For negotiators, policy makers and others who must interact with unfamiliar cultures, it is important to understand sacred values in order to know which social transgressions and offers for tradeoffs are likely to remain morally taboo. Planning and acting in ignorance or disregard of different value frameworks may exacerbate conflict, with grievous loss of national treasure and lives.

Our research tells us that when there is a confrontation involving sacred values, then offers to give up or exchange sacred values for material incentives is taken as a deep insult, which only increases disgust and the moral outrage that inspires violence. According to the U.S. Quadrennial Defense Review, the chief aim of counterterrorism efforts is to “minimize U.S. costs in lives and treasure, while imposing unsustainable costs on the enemy.” To a significant degree, however, terrorists do not respond to a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis. The conspirators in the summer 2006 plot to blow up airliners with liquid chemicals smuggled aboard knowingly chose the targets most watched; in fall 2007, plotters in Ulm, Germany knew they were under surveillance and flaunted this knowledge in a display of costly commitment to their cause. Committed terrorists respond to moral values, and are more than willing to die for the cause. Rather than “minimizing” the appeal and effect of Jihad by raising their costs in lives, each death inspires many more young Muslims to join the cause. Indeed, our utilitarian position actually plays into the hands of terrorists who turn it around to show that America and its allies try to reduce people to material matter rather than moral beings

Almost no prior research has been conducted investigating value judgment and decision making in the domain of political violence and terrorism that is field-based. Most speculations are extrapolated from studies of Western college students, business negotiators and politicians. Models of individual and group based choices have tended to assume that theories of bounded rationality can explain choices to commit oneself or one’s group to acts of political violence and terrorism. However, based on our research among Palestinian members of Hamas, members of radical madrassahs in Indonesia, and radical Israeli settlers, we find that decisions to commit oneself or one’s community to political violence are driven by moral intuitions rather than cost-benefit calculations of realpolitik, the marketplace or “business-like” negotiations. The implication is that in order to understand, model and predict terrorism and political violence we need to apply our emerging understanding of moral decision-making to a broader cross-cultural field investigation of the cognitive and emotional processes involved in decisions to engage in acts of political violence and terrorism.


1 Scott Atran is Presidential Scholar, Sociology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice; Visiting Professor, Psychology and Public Policy, University of Michigan; and Director of Research, Anthropology, National Center for Scientific Research, Paris. His research has been funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, in conjunction with John Jay College, and the National Science Foundation, in conjunction with the University of Michigan. This article is adapted from his testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, March 12, 2008.