The ongoing recruitment of Americans and other foreigners into the Islamic State terrorist group demands a greater effort to understand the reasons individuals may be drawn to the causes of extremists. In the case of six young men from Minneapolis, who allegedly tried to join IS, none of them fit the profile of a terrorist recruit. Similarly, the trial of Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has revealed the portrait of a once good natured, nonviolent young student.
Obviously, defense attorneys use character references to make their clients appear less guilty, yet an emerging trend in violent crimes involving otherwise peaceful individuals suggests there are reasons these individuals turn violent. Looking at nearly 300 women and girls in Nigeria who were finally freed from the terrorist group Boko Haram after nearly a year of captivity, the jihadists brainwashed their victims to belief their cause was just. These women and girls were trained to see their kidnappers as “good men” to the point they even took up arms against their rescuers.
While this phenomenon is commonly referred to as Stockholm syndrome, there are many who would blame race, culture, and education for the brainwashing of these individuals. Others dismiss violence as a sign of mental illness or a character flaw. The truth is that violence is part of human nature. Still others would not connect the ordeal of these kidnapping victims with the decisions of terrorist recruits, yet it is important to recognize the same kind of psychological engagement is needed to compel all individuals to support those who commit violent acts. What terrorists do is persistently frame their violent views and actions in a similar way militaries garner public support for war.
Serving as just another example of reoccurring violent outbursts inside the US and Western world, Baltimore protests, which have turned violent over the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police, demonstrate violence is not limited by country or culture. Behind every protest, terrorist act, or other violent crime, there is usually a cause. Civil society exists to balance and address the interests of the population. When the interests of individuals are increasingly neglected, the social institutions that exist to resolve conflicts of interests start to lose their value to these individuals until violence appears to be the most effective option for pursuing their interests.
In other words, individuals are drawn to violence when they feel violence is the best means of solving the problems they face. Terrorists and other violent criminals are, in turn, able to garner support when people feel oppressed or neglected by government, police, military, the economy, community, and so on. Terrorist recruits, in particular, are drawn to the causes of terrorists, because they relate to the struggle and rationales terrorists use to justify their destructive acts. Successful recruitment, therefore, relies on the ability of recruiters to convince their targets to empathize and sympathize with their motivation instead of focusing on the harm their violence causes.
In principle, people will say the life of another person is more important than the life of a dog, yet a child will honestly say the life of their pet means more to them than the life of a human stranger. The reason is that the child has a relationship, or at least a more appetitive relationship, with the dog. Families of murderers and violent criminals will often defend their relatives who are guilty of terrible crimes, even slandering the victims, because of their relationship to the wrongdoer. With that in mind, successful terrorist recruitment efforts rely on building relationships with recruits and convincing them violence is the best means of fulfilling their shared cause.
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