Government Testimony and Reports

“The Devoted Actor, Sacred Values, and Willingness to Fight: Preliminary Studies with ISIL Volunteers and Kurdish Frontline Fighters,” Recent and ongoing research in conjunction with the U.S. Dept. of Defense MINERVA Initiative Presented to the Strategic Multilayer Assessment of ISIL in Support to SOCCNET, Nov. 2014. by Scott Atran with Lydia Wilson, Richard Davis, Hammad Sheikh

The following report entitled, “The Devoted Actor, Sacred Values, and Willingness to Fight: Preliminary Studies with ISIL Volunteers and Kurdish Frontline Fighters,” Dr. Scott Atran with Ms. Lydia Wilson, Mr. Richard Davis, and Mr. Hammad Sheikh (ARTIS Research & The Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, University of Oxford, Harris Manchester College and School of Social Anthropology) assess ISIL membership. They observe that much prior research indicates that close camaraderie with a family-like group (band of brothers) is critical to the “fighting spirit” of combatants, and recent studies among combatants and supporters of militant Jihad suggest that identity fusion is a key mechanism, providing a sense of invincibility and special destiny to the group and motivating willingness to make costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying. Yet, historical studies of foreign volunteers such as those recruited by ISIL indicate that for some groups, commitment to sacred values ratchets up fusion and fighting spirit beyond the close family-like group to an extended ideological group defined by a sacred cause. The authors go on to propose If sacred values are more strongly associated with a larger group, then combatants will fuse with that larger group and consider that larger group, defined by its sacred cause, to be what they are most willing to defend and fight for, even unto death. Unconditional commitment to comrades, in conjunction with their sacred cause however perverse it may seem to others, can be what allows low-power revolutionary and insurgent groups (e.g., the Islamic State) to endure and often prevail against materially stronger foes who are motivated more by typical reward structures like pay and promotion (e.g., the Iraqi army).

Moral imperatives and democratic dynamics in the fight against AQAP in the context of the Arab Spring: Research policy and challenges. Report for the National Security Initiative and Department of Defense, August 2011

The transformative changes sweeping North Africa and the Middle East pose a direct and potentially game-ending challenge to the appeal of al-Qaeda’s central narrative, namely, that: • Political change in the direction of enhanced personal and collective dignity (qarama) and social justice (‘adala ijtima’iah) is possible only through violent confrontation with the US and its allies (“the far enemy”) that will check America’s regional and global interests. • This makes possible annihilation of the region’s governments (“the near enemy”) and their replacement with a theocratic regime (Islamic Caliphate) that is hostile to Western and other secular forms of governance, banking and commerce, and cultural influence. The Arab Spring creates a brief opportunity for the US to demonstrate its moral leadership, by gearing counter-terrorism efforts to a “democratic dynamic” that creates the conditions for people’s movements to earn their society’s leadership position. This can be a less costly but more promising framework for CT efforts than “nation-building” in enhancing US security and influence, while reducing military and foreign aid expenditure. ➢ The policy focus is on a “democratic dynamic” that fosters grassroots, Arab Spring aspirations as plausibly providing a more effective framework for CT efforts against AQAP than government-to-government military assistance and development aid. One challenge is to help along democratic change in subtle ways that are somewhat alien to our own society insofar as they uphold “Islamic principles and values” that people across the region massively say they want represented in government along with democracy. ➢ The scientific focus of research reported and suggested is on the importance of moral imperatives, or “sacred values” – core principles of collective identity that trump cost-benefit calculations – in generating and sustaining AQAP, and the Arab Spring opposition to it. The aim is to better understand and undermine AQAP, and to bolster Yemen’s Arab Spring against it. It is important to note that AQAP’s sophisticated electronic media campaign (audiotapes, videos, e-magazines) appears to be primarily targeted towards enlisting foreign fighters, sympathy and aid, and some urban Yemeni youth. The bulk of AQAP’s Yemeni membership likely comes from local social networks, and moral message play more on local themes. Thus, one important research challenge for counterterrorism efforts against AQAP is to: • Explore more local Arab language sources and debriefings of captured AQAP members on issues pertaining to the transmission and content of stories, events and moral messages among locals. This is needed to understand what ideas are working with which networks of local youth to bring them along the path to violent extremism, so that alternatives could be considered that might take them off the path to violent extremism.

“US Government Efforts to Counter Violent Extremism,” US Senate Armed Services Committee, 2010-2011 (Testimony, Statement, Response to Questions)


Statement Before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats & Capabilities, March 10, 2010

PATHWAYS TO AND FROM VIOLENT EXTREMISM: THE CASE FOR SCIENCE-BASED FIELD RESEARCH We are fixated on technology and technological success, and we have no sustained or systematic approach to field-based social understanding of our adversaries’ motivation, intent, will, and the dreams that drive their strategic vision, however strange those dreams and vision may seem to us….As one Air Force General said to me: “I was trained for Ds ─ defeat, destroy, devastate ─ now I’m told we have responsibility for the Rs ─ rebuild, reform, renew . Well, I was never trained for that, so what the Hell am I supposed to do? Destroy in just the right way to rebuild?”…. Young people constantly see and discuss among themselves images of war and injustice against “our people,” become morally outraged (especially if injustice resonates personally, which is more of a problem abroad than at home), and dream of a war for justice that gives their friendship cause. But of the millions who sympathize with the jihadi cause, only some thousands show willingness to actually commit violence. They almost invariably go on to violence in small groups of volunteers consisting mostly of friends and some kin within specific “scenes”: neighborhoods, schools (classes, dorms), workplaces, common leisure activities (soccer, study group, barbershop, café) and, increasingly, online chat-rooms. A key problem with proposals on what to do about radicalization to violent extremism is lack of field experience with the context-sensitive processes of selection into violence within these scenes. To understand and manage the local pathways to and from violent extremism requires science-based field research that is open to public verification and replicable, with clear ways and means to falsify what is wrong so as to better and better approximate what is truly right.

“Theoretical Frames on Pathways to Violent Radicalization,” PRPEPARED FOR THE OFFICE OF NAVAL RESEARCH, AUGUST 2009 

The Making of a Terrorist: A Need for Understanding from the Field Testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security Washington, DC, March 12, 2008 (, 07-05-2011)

“Terrorism and Radicalization: What to do, What not to do,” Presentation to U.S. State Dept. / UK House of Lords, Oct / Nov ’07

TERROR NETWORKS AND SACRED VALUES, Delivered to NSC staff, White House, Wednesday, March 28, 2007, 4 pm

TERROR NETWORKS AND SACRED VALUES Synopsis of report from Madrid – Morocco – Hamburg – Palestine – Israel – Syria


Ever since the end of the Second World War, Rational Actor models have dominated strategic thinking at all levels of government policy and military planning. In the confrontation between states, and especially during the Cold War, these models were insightful and useful in anticipating a wide array of challenges and in stabilizing the world peace enough to prevent nuclear war. But now our society faces a whole new range of challenges from non-state actors who are committed to die in order to kill and terrorize enough of our citizens to change the course of history. The darkest fear in the current struggle with terrorism is a nuclear bomb exploding in a major city. Given the operational demise of Al Qaeda and the still generally amateurish capabilities of its spiritual descendents, the present probability of such an event is low. Nevertheless, low probability events do occur and they are responsible for most of the cataclysmic and cascading changes that move human history from one phase to the next. Yet even attacks on the scale of September 11th, such as the recently foiled plane bombing plot out of London, with several thousand casualties and tens of billions of dollars in losses, can cause great and unpredictable changes, just as September 11 set the stage for the Iraq War and its spiraling aftermath. The ability of a few deeply committed terrorists to change the world is a strategic challenge that standard, rational state actor models do not adequately address. We need new ways of thinking about the Devoted Actor who is routinely willing to make extreme sacrifices that are all out of proportion to the likely prospects of success….

Global Network Terrorism: I. Sacred Values and Radicalization II. Comparative Anatomy and Evolution (NSC briefing, White House, Washington DC, April 28, 2006)