Preventing violent extremism

There is no single, or simple, demographic or psychological profile of those likely to be recruited

We now have a new record: last month Britain’s youngest terrorist was convicted. Hammaad Munshi was only 15 when he was recruited by the then 20 year-old Aabid Khan. Khan, according to the Guardian, had “links to proscribed terrorist groups” including al-Qaeda, and is believed to have visited a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.

A recent MI5 report confirmed what many scholars of terrorist and cultic groups have long known: there is no single, or simple, demographic or psychological profile of those likely to be recruited. Social psychologists such as Philip Zimbardo have for years argued that it is the strong situation of increasing isolation within closed, coercive groups that creates these dangerous behaviors. This is what is critical, not the particular psychology or disposition of the individual.

Further, and contrary to Mark Sageman, a former CIA agent, these are not simply “bunches of guys” who organise themselves into suicidal acts of terror. What we are seeing is the deliberate targeting and recruitment of youth by well-organized internationally-linked extremist groups, as, for instance described by Ed Husain in his book The Islamist, or by Masoud Banisadr in his account of the Iranian Mojahedin.

How then do we protect both the potential victims of these acts, and the young people who are recruited into these extremist groups? We know young people are being recruited in further education colleges and now, like Munshi, at even younger ages. How are we preparing these young people for these assaults on their autonomy and, eventually, on their lives?

Social psychologists, such as Zimbardo, who study extremist groups, cults and coercive persuasion understand that the key to prevention is education. This is education about the structures and processes of totalitarian, ideologically extremist groups.

I recently taught a course on Cults and Totalitarianism to two groups of students at the University of Minnesota in the midwestern US. We covered the social psychology, structures and processes of groups as varied as Lyndon LaRouche’s right-wing political cult, the sexually abusive Children of God, and Pol Pot’s totalitarian and murderous regime in 1970s Cambodia. Several students stated that during the term of the course itself they had cause to use this new information to help either themselves or friends and family to stay away from dangerous groups. Other students asked me why this sort of information hadn't been made available at an earlier stage in their education.

We must teach young people how to recognize totalitarian groups. Drawing on work from Hannah Arendt, Robert Jay Lifton and others, we can start with this five point definition:

  • The group is led by a charismatic and authoritarian leader
  • It is isolating and has a closed, steeply hierarchical inner structure
  • The group adheres to an absolute and exclusive belief system (a total ideology)
  • Processes of coercive persuasion are used to isolate followers and control them through a combined dynamic of “love” and fear
  • Followers are exploited

These groups succeed because they operate based on universal human (and usually adaptive) responses of people seeking comfort and connection when afraid. The process unfolds by isolating recruits from prior sources of comfort, establishing the group as the new safe haven, and then instilling fear to create what is known as a trauma bond. This is now well-understood by social psychologists. It can be taught in interesting and understandable ways to young people.

We must take a strategic view to introduce this into the curriculum. Educators must collaborate with experts in this field to train teachers in both the classic social-psychological studies as well as the most up-to-date research available and work to develop materials and curricula for classrooms at various age levels.

For over 60 years social scientists have been developing a broad knowledge base about these fundamental human vulnerabilities and the groups and situations that exploit them. In her 1987 volume, Prisons we choose to live inside, nobel laureate Doris Lessing argued for disseminating this knowledge to our children in order to challenge our “most primitive and instinctive reactions” -- those reactions which so often have led us to act against our own interests and our own survival. We cannot wait any longer to take this on.

Perhaps then a future 15-year-old – one who has had some basic education in the structures, processes and dangers of totalitarian groups – will be able to recognize and turn away from a recruiter who promises liberation and glory but who will deliver only suicidal sacrifice.

Alexandra Stein is visiting lecturer, Birkbeck, Faculty of Lifelong Learning