EVENT TRANSCRIPT: The Post-ISIS Landscape: The new threat
Date: 13:00-14:00, Wednesday 16th May 2018
Location: Committee Room 4, House of Lords,
Palace of Westminster, London, SW1A 0PW
Dr Scott Atran
Director of Research in Anthropology at the Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique
BARONESS FALKNER OF MARGRAVINE: Good afternoon and welcome to the Henry Jackson Society’s lunchtime talk, we have a great speaker today, Dr Scott Atran who has traversed the landscape in terms of the most prestigious academic institutions and has undertaken a lot of work on the post-ISIS landscape, the new threat. This threat of course remains incredibly topical, not least we’re reminded of the events of Paris days ago and it is incumbent on all of us as policy makers and members of the public to bear in mind that removing the idea of the state of Isis did not mean that Isis went away. Anyway, before Dr Atran goes into his talk, I just want to tell you a thing or two about him. He’s a leading anthropologist, he’s briefed NATO, the US Senate and House, National Security Council, staff at the White House, the UN Security Council, EU governments, WEF and others on the problems of youth and violent extremism. He’s got a particular take on violent extremism and youth, which I think is not just extremely interesting but having served more than ten years ago today on the Prime Minister’s task force on Muslim terrorism after our own London bombings in 2007, we found that one of the connections that we needed to be most aware of was the transmission of violent and extremist ideology amongst young people. And that is the case I’m afraid across the world although jihadi terrorism takes very different forms, again recalling what happened in Indonesia this week as well. Dr Atran is currently research director of anthropology at the scientific research centre at the Ecole Normal Superior in Paris. He’s also founding fellow of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at the Harris Manchester College at the University of Oxford. And he’s director of research at Artis International and research follow at psychology and public policy at the University of Michigan. The way we’re going to conduct this is that Dr Atrun is going to speak for about 20 mins and we’ll take questions after that. We’ll have to be out of this quite promptly just before 2pm because select committees have the right to use these rooms as a priority and Wednesday afternoon is a slightly busy for select committees. But anyway, I think I’d like to hand over to you Dr Atran, tell us what your research has found.
DR ATRAN: So, this the front line with ISIS where our research team was headed for two years. This is the foremost, front-most Kurdish Pashmerga line, from this was launched the initial attack.
BARONESS FALKNER OF MARGRAVINE: Doctor, I wonder whether you might be able to stand on that side of the screen, thank you, that might help the line of vision.
DR ATRAN: The initial attack against Mosul, we were there at the initial attack, so most of our research there followed the front lines. Who are we? We a team of academics and policy makers and military and artists, who explore why people refuse political compromise, go to war, attempt a revolution or resort to terrorism. And the focus is on, what Darwin called ‘those virtues highly esteemed and even sacred, that give a mass advantage to any group inspired by a group of individuals willing to sacrifice for them. And it’s sort of in opposition to standard radical choice and utilitarian models that pretty much dominate our political and military landscape. So, we use a theoretical framework, called devoted actor as opposed to the rational actor and it’s based on two parallel research paradigms. One is research on sacred values which I’ll talk about and these can be values whether secular or religious as one land or law becomes holy or hallowed. And group fusion, this is a particular form of visceral feeling of oneness which your group which takes precedence over everything including your own identity. And we’ll actually find these two things interact then we have devoted actors willing to sacrifice almost anything risking their lives and that of their families. This is some of the people on our team that includes former generals and former deputy commander of the multi-national forces in Iraq, the deputy assistant to the President of the United States and a bunch of academics like Robert Axelrod who wrote Tit for Tat, the evolution of cooperation. This is where we were with the PKK when we started our research, they were the only ones who helped frontline against ISIS in its initial push in August 2014 and they pretty much fought to the death, so we were very much interested in talking to the PKK, doing scientific experiments with the PKK, as well as with ISIS, those captured fighters who we were able to get.
So for me, the Islamic State is a classic revolution. The difference between revolution and a terrorist group of that scope is whether or not they succeed in the end or not. But their view of how the world works is more of a mission to save the world and it’s predicated on something very similar, the notion of terror that Maximillian Robespierre advocated in his Principles of Political Morality. Virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. ‘Terror is only justice, prompt, severe and flexible. It is them, an emanation of virtue’. Terror is used by almost all revolutionary groups, the French revolution, and in general both the use of terror and commitment to ideals have let revolutionary insurgent groups defeat standard police and army, just since WWII, who have on average ten times more firepower and manpower, because standard police and army are usually based on material incentives like pay, motion and punishment, while insurgent and revolutionary groups are to a great extent are based on commitment. I just want to give you a sense of what it’s like working in the field, but I see that’s not working. This was supposed to be… This was a film, action. We’re about one kilometre from ISIS frontlines. We’re running the experiment.
So what is fusion? Well we have very simple measures. This is on the iPad, you can just slide the self towards the group circle, or you can have a static man as you pick the relationship of yourself to the group. Those who pick the last one think and behave differently to those who pick any other of these options. That is their fused with one and only one group, we all have multiple identities, devoted actors have only group and only one identity. And they’re willing to sacrifice for every member of that group. So what are sacred values? Well much more is known about economic decision making than value driven decision making, but here’s some features of sacred values that we’ve discovered in work across the world. Immunity to material trade-offs: most people wouldn’t sell their children or their country for all the money in China. It’s insensitive to spatial and temporal discounting, in economic and political theory things are closer to you in the here and now things are more important than the far away. With sacred values the opposite is often the case. Resistance to social pressure: doesn’t matter what your peers think or what the society around you think, once you internalise these values you’re willing to die for them and they generate actions independent of risks and rewards, costs and consequences, you do it because it’s the right thing to do. And if you offer material trade offs or if you offer on exit out of a conflict based on material values you find it backfires. People get insulted and they become more violent. We found this in the Palestinian dispute, in the question and answer period we can talk about this, we went to Mr Netanyahu, Mr Mashal, both of whom asked us to do some sort of negotiation over sacred values and the results are quite interesting. So what do we find about devoted actors on the battle field? So we were motivated by a statement President Obama made in 2014 supporting his national intelligence director James Clapper. He said ‘The greatest mistake the United States was underestimating the will to fight of ISIL and overestimating that of the United Iraqi Army’. Because ISIS’s, he said, will to fight is simply imponderable. We went to the battle field because we thought it was ponderable, and the reason to think it’s imponderable is if you were to fight almost exclusive on material values and utilitarian considerations then indeed it is imponderable. Why the 4-600 ISIS fighters came in 17 pick up trucks to Mosul in June 2014, caused the collapse of an 18,000 man Iraqi army in a matter of two days, who were well trained to the tune of billions of dollars. So one of the things we find is we’re able to separate groups and their willingness to fight, here the Peshmerga are better than the Iraqi army, at least at the time and the Sunni militia, ISIS and the PKK, they were willing to give up their families for their ideals. And they also considered spiritual force much more important than material force. Very simple cartoons, this is on an iPad, body gets bigger and bigger and stronger and stronger and we said, push on the iPad what you think is the physical force of yourself and your enemies or your allies. Both the PKK and the ISIS fighters threw our cards away and one even through the iPad down and said ‘Material force is irrelevant. The only thing that matters to us is what you believe in your heart, in the values you fight for’. So, we simply matched physical against spiritual force and this is average we found for all the combatants. That the Unites States had tremendous material force, but very little spiritual force, and the ISIS was the opposite. This is a film, I just wanted to show you how simple it is for these people to judge what’s important. We’re able to do brain scans of Al Qaeda affiliates and found that people who fight for sacred values inhibit utilitarian parts of their brain and calculations in favour of rapid, duty-bound responses and one of the reasons we do, of course, brain scans is to show that posturing is not an option. That what they do and what they say corresponds to what’s going on in their brain. We also found a very interesting fact that centres for revenge and happiness are the same centres of the brain. That’s just a bit of serendipity.
After ISIS was defeated we went to various people including the US department of defence and members of congress, certain members of the white house, the German minister of defence and various other groups and we asked them ‘what do you wanna know?’. And these are the questions that came up with. What do people think of ISIS just coming up from out of their rule? What do they think of the unified Iraq? What political future do they want? What would they tolerate? These are the people we interviewed, mostly IUP camps, many of them detained because at the time most of the Iraqi army, the Iranians, the Shia militia and the KDP were vetting everyone and these were the guys we talked to. And we used psychological experiments with. First of all, everybody, or almost everybody supported ISIS at the beginning. It was ‘the revolution’, the glorious revolution. And for the first few months there was freedom to move anywhere. No cars or checkpoints. ‘the Iraqi army used to humiliate us at checkpoints and take money. ISIS made people feel freedom. They rebuilt bridges and schools. The standard of living actually went up in Mosul under ISIS rule. But then ISIS lied and they started killing people as you can read here. But our informants divided into two groups: those who that the reason ISIS started their brutal and cruel regime was because that’s how they inherently were. But there was a whole bunch, almost half, who thought that the reason they did that was because they were forced by the coalition pressure against them. Very much the view of the Jacobins during the French revolution for example. The reason why the resorted to terror after Robespierre himself was explicitly against war and the use of such methods was because of coalition pressure. Paradoxically, most young people think that the United States and Iran have help ISIS turn ISIS around, made them cruel in order to destroy the sunni people and the reputation of the Sunni people. Almost all believe in the power of sharia and none believe in power of democracy. It’s very interesting. We published, last week, no April 26th in WestPoint’s combatting terrorism centre the results of our studies and the same day the New America Foundation published results with the opposite conclusions. How the people in Iraq love democracy, how they were willing to support the United States? We found exactly the opposite, I don’t know what they were smoking. But centcom, which is the military command central for the middle east, they’re not allowed to send American researchers there or well-trained researchers there. They hired out to locals and we found that we met many of them that simply filled out the questionnaire themselves and give what people want to hear. So here we see that people are willing to sacrifice their place for Sharia and not for democracy. People fall into two different groups, those who supported unified Iraq and those who supported Sunni homeland and sharia. The latter are much more willing to sacrifice for their cause than those who support a unified Iraq. This is about group cohesion and measures group division and ISIS is the least divided in people’s minds. So ISIS might have lost the caliphate but not necessarily the allegiance of supporters of Sunni sharia and its core values. They don’t believe in democracy, they believe in the rule of sharia and they want it back and they’re not very interested in what the coalition appears to offer now. And the conditions around there have not changed at all, we’ve found many groups of ISIS supporters reforming in groups like the Jaysh Rijāl Sunni or the Army of the Sunni Freemen.
We find that many of the young people in Mosul admire the foreign fighters. They said the reason ISIS was destroyed other than all the shenanigans of Iran and Israel and America was that local people destroyed ISIS because they weren’t committed. And this is local people saying this. But the foreign fighters were, they would walk down the streets with suicide belts and they fought to the death. Strange how widely leaders from China or Germans come to fight on the battlefield and die. Why would they be so committed? Why would people from 110 countries come? So ISIS, although we believe it’s a cruel and barbarous movement, if you look at their twitter feeds and social media feeds, you find that only 3% of their feeds are devoted to punishment. 18% is religion, including that 3%. 57% to social development programmes especially among youth. Of course none of this is reported because it doesn’t fit our image of what ISIS is. It is a joyous and festive movement, very much like the National Socialist movement was in the beginning especially among the Hitler Youth. And again we find that devotion to sacred values and fusion, that is the ability to put these two together, that is the devotion to the notion of the Caliphate and Sharia and the fusion with group unity is what makes people fight and die to give their last measure of devotion, to much more effective fighters on average than their opposition.
The last part is to discuss European jihadi framework. So Al Qaeda was very much like the European Research Council, and the National Science Foundation: they had no recruiters. They would accept propositions from all over the world including from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who had a failed plot, they had a vote and split and then they found these guys in Hamburg who had visas who could get into the United States. They didn’t know what they were doing. They wanted to go to Bosnia, they wanted to go to Chechnya so wound up in Karachi and then Kandahar where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed said to his boss, well look what I got. I got these guys ready to go. And that’s pretty much how Al Qaeda worked. But ISIS is very different. They defended a 3000 kilometre front against the coalition of 60-70 nations and they needed bodies on the battle field so they were active in recruitment in a way that Al Qaeda never was. So they used religious preachers, they used social media in novel ways. But still, they greatest predictor of who joins any of these groups is if your friends do. 3 out of every few who join these groups join it with a social circle. And if you look at plots, for example we’ve worked with the Belgian police and the Spanish police and the French Police and we’ve chased most of the people involved in these plots just for the Paris Brussels plots, we find that when ISIS was sending people back and doing sort of lone attacks, they always fail. When they started plugging into local networks that had been there before in places like [inaudible], then they became successful. And then when we started looking into these networks, that is these local networks, we were able to trace back connections, mainly through the women by the way who are off the radar and therefore off the police landscape, way back to before 2001. In fact, for Tima Amrakhan, which is one of the principle loci of support for Zurkhani, who was one of the principle recruiters in Molenbeek. Her brother was the one who gave the passports to the false journalists who blew up Ahmed Sheikh Masood in Afghanistan two days before Bin Laden struck. That had given Bin Laden permission, he believed to be from this neighbourhood. And we find that the small indication of who’s involved in this neighbourhood going back to 1995, we’ve done a network analysis of almost all the people living in the neighbourhood, we find that the redder they get the more radical they are, the bluer they are, the less radical they are. We sort of traced out all the of the connections in the neighbourhood there We find that the smaller the social circle the more susceptible they are to radicalisation, from recruiters and from criminal elements. But this just shows you that once family influence gets very strong, that things level off. But also the family is a ball work against these kind of things. If ideas from recruiters or criminals get into these small circles, then very fast they start ratcheting up. If they already aren’t part of the circle and most of the family is against it of course they’re not. That’s fairly obvious. This gives you an idea of the things we do and we trace, by the way, the attacks in Paris and Brussels connections even into Spain. And one of the interesting things of the attack in Spain in Barcelona was the principle architect who blew himself up with a bunch of gas canisters in a little place called Ripoll in Catalonia, he was cellmates with a guy called Aglif. And who was Aglif? Aglif who was friends with a weightlifter bouncer jewellery guy who was set up by the Spanish police to make liaison between the guys who blew up the Madrid trains and Spanish suppliers of dynamite, that was actually set up by the Spanish police and became involved in the plot itself. And so these two were the middle-men in the plot between the different groups in the Spanish Madrid train bombings. So they were put together in the same cell and for years they talked to one another and when I heard about the Barcelona attacks, the way it was set up, the safe houses that were set up, the kinds of bombs that were set up the first thing I did was wrote to the people I know about this and say this really reminds me of the Madrid train bombing and lo and behold actually there is a direct connection. The connections are much more extensive than people think, in fact I found Khartakhena, who was the principle informant for the police, he winds up in police reports funnelling people back and forth to Syria. He had been a police informant during the Madrid bombing and he’s funnelling people back and forth in Syria in Brussels, for the Paris Brussels attacks. So again, these networks are far more extensive and loose than people think, and let me just end up here. People talk about counter-narratives and how we’re going to fight this. You know, ideologies, ideas out in the abstract, have no impact whatsoever. It’s how they are embedded in particular social networks. We have to study and work with the sort of epidemiology of idea and ideas in specific populations. And what we need much more than counter-narratives which are worthless is counter-engagement, that is, getting into the communities especially with young people. These are the kids from the Abdul Kharim Khatabi school in the Jenamez Wham neighbourhood of Tetwhan where five of the seven Madrid bombers who blew themselves up after the police came for them. And I went into this school and in this school you have Donald duck, and Mickey Mouse and Goofy and you have no Koranic chants whatsoever. So the question is, why do some of these kids go on to blow themselves up and commit horrendous acts and why do others just become good normal members of society? And that’s the problem we face.
One final thing we do is that we’re able with social media to identify how we can influence the spread of information in these types of neighbourhoods. So what we found for example is that with the bombing of the Jordanian pilot, all the social media shifted away from pro-ISIS to negative ISIS. It didn’t depend at all on what our public diplomacy did, it didn’t depend at all on our military actions, it didn’t depend at all on our counter-narratives. It depended on an event that nobody had predicted but had huge ramifications in the Arab and Muslim world because then we were able to show quite specifically how social media support shifted away from ISIS and towards anti-ISIS. We’ve done that for the Ukraine, showing how its shifted from anti-Russian support to pro-Russian support and we are doing it in the Iran with this group. Dick Armens, the guy who made the first hydrogen bomb back in 1951, and others and we’re trying to figure out ways to keep the dialogue going with Iran which for me is the gravest challenge we all face that is nuclear war. What we’re able to do is go into the networks of every one of these leaders and supporters, figure out what they’re saying and up until now we’re trying to intervene but we’re trying to figure out where their messages are going and where they’re getting their support, what kinds of things are driving them.
Finally, civilisations rise and fall on the basis of cultural ideals, not material assets alone. Those willing to fight and die for societies like ISIS or certain of those who fight against them are again willing to make the last make the last measure of devotion for their comrades and for the cause they firmly believe in. My students after a year of dialoguing with ISIS invariably come back to me and say ‘you know I wish I could believe in something so deep. I can’t believe in that, but I wish I could believe in something’. And I give my students two articles to read, I give them the discovery of DNA which is a one-and-a-half-page article in Nature, fantastic, and I give them George Orwell’s one-page review of Mein Kampf, written in 1940. And Orwell asks how is it socialist countries and to a more grudging extent capitalist countries offer their citizens ease, security, avoidance of pain, comfort, in short the good life. And at that time our people are not willing to fight at all. ‘And Mr Hitler, what is he offering his people? Adventure, revolution, destruction and 70 million people fall down at his feet. Why’, asks Orwell. Because Mr Hitler understands something deep about human nature. Human beings need, at least intermittently, a sense of transcendence, a sense of self sacrifice. As I would say, you know, hey Charlie, we’re not alone here in the world, there’s something we’re fighting for and worth living together and that’s what Mr Hitler was providing his people at least at the beginning. Now, when I was at Davos, I heard these billionaires say that the solution to the rise of populism and the wave we’re experiencing now of violence is to provide a universal income to the poor people of the world. If you have 20 billion dollars, that a million dollars a year for 20,000 years, give them a couple of years of your income. But we can show in both experimental and historical research that poor people never do revolutions. If you give people a basic income and subsistence but no purpose in life, they’re the ones who become the revolutionaries. So, I asked, just like communists and fascists clobber the middle classes in the 1930’s, we now have the jihadis and the alt-right and the phobic nationalist movements clobbering our societies, and the greatest challenge to our societies is not from violent extremism itself. The greatest challenge from our society is whether our own values can endure. The vitality of our own values are in question and unless you can inspire young people around the world to embrace those values, then this generation will be lost and so will the future about our societies. We see our democracies receding at every level. The majority of young Germans no longer believe democracy is essential, the majority of educated Americans no longer believe that democracy is essential. And we find democracies on the retreat everywhere in the world. But here’s the problem: young people are considered a problem, not a solution. People talk about a youth bulge across the world, not a youth boom. When americans came back from WWII the youth boom was the greatest impetus to creativity perhaps in the world. They were viewed affectionately; they were viewed as the vanguard of creativity. But now we view across the world, especially young men and increasingly young women, as problems to be clobbered. And there’s no real forum for them to express their ideas because people ask me, ‘So what ideas are we going to come up with? How are we going to save our democracies?’. Well it’s not gonna come from me and it’s not gonna come from most of you. Well, at least the old folkies among us. It’s going to come from young people, and there are. I mean, at the UN when we passed resolution 255 on the Jordanian’s presidency, we had youth coming in from all over the world and they were inspired and they were creative and they had fantastic ideas but the problem with that, as Alan Brooke said about Churchill is that he has ten ideas a day, one of which may be good. Young people don’t know how to realise their ideas, there’s no guidance for them on how to navigate the halls of power. Which ideas will work, which ideas won’t, why they won’t work. That’s why I appeal to people here, in society, or in parliament, to make an effort to engage youth at all levels. Through the media, in communities to try and find the solutions that we need, because military power won’t do it. Once we use the military it’s already pretty much too late. And because the trend is going against us right now and we need some creative solutions and it’s not going to come from us. Thank you.
BARONESS FALKNER OF MARGRAVINE: Thank you very Dr Atran. I think we got a good overview of what you’ve been doing. So interesting. Before I open it up to questions, I have my own question, if I might exercise the chair’s privilege, and that is this. I’m aware, broadly, of academics breaking down into two views and I’m familiar with the view of an anti-terrorism expert working out of Brandeis, a Dr Jytte Klausen and she comes from a view that in the post-ISIS landscape we have more lone wolves, whereas what you’ve demonstrated here is network effects and I find very interesting because I think that I myself tend to veer your side because people don’t eat fish and chips in the night and then just wake up in the morning and decide to drive a white van across Westminster bridge. Am I characterising that debate correctly and why do you think the other one has taken effect, that’s what ISIS wants us to think that people will go out and do individual actions but they are much more organised than that aren’t they?
DR SCOTT ATRAN: Well, first of all a lot of what people think are lone wolves actually aren’t lone wolves, they’re actually plugged into the networks. But there are lone wolves and the social media’s allowed that to happen because the social media actually solves the collective action problem. What it says is that instead of you taking a personal physical risk to join a group, now you can do it vicariously. I mean you can do it through the internet and you can radicalise yourself and then you learn and you can go out on your own and your virtual community becomes a reference community just like a physical community. And we find this much more actually on the alt-right than we find among jihadis. So the Stormer, right out of a little office in Ohio, now has six million subscribers and as they put out in September 2017, ‘we are the largest white supremacist organisation in the history of the world because our ancestor, Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer only had 250,000’. And we’re finding that the rise of the alt-right depends upon the rise social media and more and more lone actors as well. So it is a very big problem. The social media has given freedom but it has also, again, allowed for moral corruption because no one what’s the truth or not and therefore everything becomes corrupt. It has lowered the personal costs of joining these organisations and acting and it has lowered the barrier of social control so that virulent, angry, nasty and disgusting messages are amplified over the internet in ways that never happened before.
BARONESS FALKNER OF MARGRAVINE: Thank you very much. Shall we start the questions?
Q1: You mentioned cost. Where does ISIS get its money from and what are the prospects of deradicalisation which the government sets a certain amount of store by.
DR SCOTT ATRAN: Okay, so ISIS was formed actually in American prison camps, in Camp Bucca, where they had 30,000 prisoners in 30 tent camps of 1,000 and there was no internal control over any of these camps, they had their own courts, they had their own punishment systems and the American military at the time says, ‘well, they’re in detention so…’. There, the Ba’athist leaders and ISIS recruiters – the religious guys – were hooked up and formed ISIS. And they used clandestine funds to keep going. At the beginning, 80% of their effectives during the surge were destroyed. But they were extremely well organised. From the captcha computer records, we know they kept accounts, they maintained funding for martyrs’ families and they maintained their extortion rackets. When the Syrian civil war happened, that opened up enormous possibilities because they went back from the old oil smuggling routes into Syria. They realised that the Syrian refineries only had up to six to twelve people guarding them. They took over the Syrian refineries, they sold the oil back to Assad and to the Turks. They were selling for $5-7 a barrel. Still, they’re doing it. And of course the Turks, no one’s going to refuse that and I was watching these convoys going across the Turkish border. Plus, they had their extortion rackets and so they were fairly effective. Now, of course, they’ve lost most of it.
De-radicalisation is mostly a joke in the west. I’ve visited all the de-radicalisation places on the Saudi things – which is like, if you have billions of dollars to do finger painting for somebody’s kids. By the way, the ones in the Saudi camps never did anything really bad. They were captured while they were trying to get someplace and then they’re offered all these things and journalists are brought in. They’re offered courses and college courses, help with marriage. And of course they’re successful because it wasn’t really a problem. The de-radicalisation efforts I see in France, for example, they are just basically worthless. The only way you de-radicalise people is either to sunder their groups or to get them to switch their values set. And we don’t see that happening at all anywhere. So the way you de-radicalise the Nazis was to destroy their infrastructure and de-nazify. But there’s no infrastructure for ISIS, for example, and there’s no coherent programme for de-jihadisation. But there are two places that I saw it was successful. One was Indonesia where we worked with the General Tito Karnavian who is head of the national police. And what he did, actually it was a meeting here in the House of Lords, that John Alderdice presided over. Tito and the general director of the FBI and all sorts of intel guys were here and Tito puts up a slide where he is hugging the one Bali bomber who wasn’t executed and he said, ‘This guy was so important to us because he really repented and then he was crucial for us to get into the networks and to hook up into the families. And John Mueller who is now head of intel for NYPD, was deputy director of the FBI said ‘Tito that’s great man, but if I did that, can you imagine me hugging Timothy McVeigh. They’d have me hanging by my balls from the dome of Congress’. So what Tito was saying was this was a public health problem not a criminal problem. And the problem with treating it as a criminal problem is it basically negates all the motivating factors for joining the jihad. Basically, you’re getting more and more criminals joining as it becomes a mass-movement. More and more marginal types are joining. But treating it as just a criminal problem avoids the fact that it has deep deep social networks. We find that the people involved in these plots and the networks, it’s almost like a game of musical chairs. An arbitrary moment. People are coming in and out of these networks all the time and it just moves here at a certain time and people move along with it. So again, the only way we see is to actually engage in communities. If you look at the recruitment patterns across Europe and North Africa, they’re extremely highly clustered. You can find communities with the same demographic profiles and that have no relationship whatsoever, that have sent nobody to Syria, that are not involved in any kinds of activities. But once it gets involved in a particular community, in a particular network, it becomes endemic to that network. Just like the way a body can be immunised to pathogens, if there’s criminality, if the community structure is broken down, then all it takes is neutrality for these ideas to spread and gain hold. That’s what we’re finding in places like Molenbeek. So, shoring up the communities themselves is a big part of the problem, but root causes (problems of marginalisation or problems of unemployment for Muslim youth) is an enormous waste of funds. Why? Take France where you have 16,000 people under surveillance on the FICE ES out of a population of three to four million young Muslim men. That means that between 96-99% of the people have nothing to do with radicalisation and these programmes are targeted to capture the other 1-3%. So it’s like using carpet bombing to kill a fly and the fly still gets away. Again it has to be targeted: look where the clusters of radicalisation are, look at the particular communities, get into those communities, both physically and in their social networks. And then we find that it works. The Turkish government was very good until Erdogan became crazy and decided to jail all his national police officers. They were actually in the communities working with Kurds deradicalising, bringing them together, providing them computers. Actually doing fantastic things like even organising recognition of Armenian genocide. But that all came to screeching halt.
Q2: The government producing its integration paper. You been very negative about everything except about reaching communities and engaging. There is a slight note of hysteria in this report because if it doesn’t work then I have to coerce you with fatwa. I wondered what you thought, whether you’ve read it and what you think about a proactive and indeed coerced programme of integration.
DR SCOTT ATRAN: Coerced programmes of integration won’t work; we’ve never seen it work anywhere. As for messaging integration, yes you can do that. And the way you can do that is on the internet. On the internet, what we’ve seen work and we’ve actually done intervention studies that have shown. You take a group that, say, is pro-jihadi and you take a group that is very close to them that isn’t pro-jihadi and you try to get them to buy into the group that’s close to them. I’ve worked with groups of suicide bombers. The only time I’ve seen groups turn away from suicide bombing was when a bunch of salafi preachers came into the community and said, ‘guys, this isn’t the way to do it’. The way we do dawah is this way. And they were slowly to push their way in and get these guys to give up the idea of suicide bombing, of martyrdom. But if Americans or brits come there and say ‘well this is way we’re gonna do it…believe in democracy’. I mean, give me a break, democracy took 200 years to develop here. You had the development of liberal institutions, you had tolerance of minorities, you had a free press, you had legislative assemblies, you had universal suffrage as the last stage. We go into places like Iraq and the first thing we do is universal suffrage, all you get is a tyranny of the majority and you give democracy a really bad name. So, go in, work with their own values. Work with the sharia values. I interviewed an Imam, he was very interesting. He was a recruiter for ISIS and he left ISIS because he felt ISIS had been violating sharia by killing guests – the honour of guests is very important. The foreigners had come in and they were being killed and they were foreigners when they were accepted as guests to begin with. So he left and said – this was a time when Al Qaeda was reaching out, even to people like me because they were on the hit list from ISIS, so they were reaching out to everybody, saying Bin Laden didn’t really want to do bad things, but you got out of our hair, we got out of your hair. But anyway, he said first we’ve got to give these kids a positive message, they are well meaning kids, they want to change their lives around. Even the criminals, they’re petty criminals, they don’t want to be criminals, that’s why they come to us. They’ve been forced in their societies to be petty criminals, now we’re giving them a way out, we’re saying turn the skills you were forced to learn upon your oppressors and free yourself, so they come to us. So what do we do? So we have to give them a positive message. What are you doing? All you’re doing is giving them a negative message, you’re telling them that they’re decapitating people, jeez didn’t everybody know that already? So think that’s really gonna change people’s minds. Give them something they can hold onto, that they can develop within their own communities and structures and if integrations mean that they have to adopt our values entirely, then we’re in for a difficult time.
BARONESS FALKNER OF MARGRAVINE: I have to challenge you on that. They value of integration above all and I say that as a relatively integrated Muslim. Understanding our values helps to reduce a level of suspicion, distrust, barriers in society so surely integration is worth it in any event? Even if it doesn’t stop jihadis from shooting you, it surely helps to make people more engaged in society and more cohesive.
DR SCOTT ATRAN: I agree absolutely, don’t misunderstand me. I not saying don’t go for integration, I’m saying that if you want integration and it’s simply just the one way movement then it’s not going to work.
Q3: I was wonder if you think that German foreign fighters pose a threat to the Eurasian continent. And the second question is that you’re not yet engaging in the narratives that you track in social media by Ukraine etc. But what kind of ethical responsibility do you have when you are going to engage with that? And also how will you do it?
Q4: Your frustration in your talk is expressed not about the objects of your study which you’ve come to understand quite well, but the failure of many authorities to grasp this. What can we do to encourage a greater appreciation of the central importance of understanding?
Q5: What parallels can you draw between ISIS, Hamas and Hezbollah?
DR SCOTT ATRAN: Do foreign fighters pose a threat? Yes, but less than people think. You know ISIS had an incredible munitions expertise developed. Not a single one of those guys has come back. If one of those guys came back, can you imagine the havoc that would cause. Up till now all of the attacks in the west have been trivial, with firepower. Almost nothing: gas canisters, shootings, stabbings. If any of those guys, I mean the real experts, ever got back to Europe and did a coordinated attack across Europe it would upset European society to no end. That’s what I’m afraid of, but I haven’t had any information coming to me that that is in the offing. But that’s what I would look out for. I wouldn’t really worry much. I mean, the police should worry more about these small scale things. That’s what we worry about.
As far as counter narratives and the responsibility of counter narratives, that’s a very big problem. I mean, we have intelligence organisations coming to us all the time because were able to track the guys who gave the propaganda for the Russian intervention into the Ukraine. We’ve now tracked these same guys and their networks into Lithuania and Latvia. So the question is, do we give all this information to intel people? And I don’t. I don’t want to do anything that’s classified because then they have censure over me, and even with ISIS we do human subjects reviews and we give the same conditions, we do students in universities. So ethically, we try to be as upfront as we can.
Understanding, why do governments not understand? You know I had a very interesting time in the national security council when Eliot Abrahams was head of the middle east desk. And we had come in and we just gone to see Mashal and Ramaddan Shalakh in Damascus and we had talked to Netanyahu about what they needed and what do it about the settlers in Gaza in order to get them to withdraw. And we came with studies we did which shows that the settlers were willing to leave Gaza in exchange for recognition from the Palestinians that they had the right to be in the middle east, not in Gaza, but in the middle east. We had a recognition even from the Hamas militants that they were willing to peace negotiations with the Israelis along the 1967 borders if they apologise for what they did in 1948. So when we came, we brought this to the White House and the recognition was entirely on the Israeli side: that is, we understand where they were coming from, this is what I told Sharon we should talk to their values. They believe the other side however just functions out of pure meanness, evil, jealousy, and material interest. So I said Chaney, ‘Look, I’ll tell you what. Ring some of these guys, even some Al Qaeda guys right here in the White House’, and they looked at me like I was a fruitcake. But I said that you have to understand where they’re coming from, even if you want to fight them. If you don’t want to be killed and someone is trying to kill you, don’t you wanna find out really why they want to find you and kill you instead of projecting your own fantasies? It hasn’t changes since then. It’s still there. The UK is not as bad to tell you the truth.
In 1987, I was the French scientific liaison to Jerusalem and I was doing Palestinian villages and teaching at the Hebrew University and I had Hamas which was just swarming and the Muslim Brotherhood as my assistants. And that’s what’s enabled me to have access to Hamas to this day, and Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. And when 9/11, everyone was confusing Hezbollah, the Hamas, Al Qaeda. There really is a huge difference and it’s as vast as the difference between the Michigan Militia and the Christian Identity movement in the US and evangelicals in the US or Pentecostals. There really isn’t much of a relationship at all. They have very different goals, very different aim, Hamas, even the Taliban has no geopolitical ambitions. They have local ambitions as supposed to something like Al Qaeda or ISIS. So they’re quite different – they’re locally based territorially based. Much more rooted in the home base. I mean, one of the reasons why Al Qaeda formed was because after the assassination of Sadad, the Gama Islamia split into two groups. The blind sheikh’s group was actually embedded in the upper Sayeed in Egypt so after the massacre in luksor, the people in the upper Sayeed said no more and it died. Because they had no support. Meanwhile Zawahiri, he leads Egypt and becomes increasingly apocalyptic because he’s disembedded from his local groups. So it’s very important to know to what extent their embedded in local groups and even ISIS it varies enormously. ISIS in Gaza or ISIS in Malaysia, or ISIS in the Syria or ISIS in Afghanistan are very very different groups depending again on where they are and I have lots of ideas about how to treat, where and when but we can’t go into that here.
Q5: Is part of the solution that you think might work is working through the clerics to make sure the clerics aren’t radicalised and are providing a voice that will attract the networks.
Q6: Did your study because you didn’t mention the presence in Iraq. Did they look at the element of nationalism which fuelled the radicalisation within the cells?
DR SCOTT ATRAN: The problem is who are the clerics who have authenticity if the communities? If the clerics just started preaching moderation which is what they do then it’s lost. Moderation is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard because it’s like trying to get a teenage kid to be moderate. Give me a break. They want excitement, they want ideals, they want to fight, they want energy, they want creativity and so you have to inspire them not teach them moderate Islam which is what the main clerical take is. If you can get clerics on the other hand to be in inspirational, to give them positive ideas to channel their energies. A good example is Yemen, where in the Machra in the province to the east of the Hadrama, Al Qaeda had a fairly big presence and what happened was able to go into the communities and get local people to work with the young people and work on their own project and were enormously successful and they did it with tribal leaders and clerics who understood that. Nationalism was very important in Iraq because the sunni Arab heartland who had been the seed of the nationalist Arab movement in that part of the world was the popular support base for the development of ISIS. This was particularly true of the Baathists who joined ISIS at the beginning. Foreign fighters couldn’t care less about nationalism and that’s what gave ISIS its global dimension. So you had two different aspects of ISIS coming together, both quite formidable.
BARONESS FALKNER OF MARGRAVINE: thank you very much indeed, we have to leave fairly quickly.