Address to the UN Security Council on “the Role of Youth in Countering Violent Extremism and Promoting Peace,” 23 April 2015
I am an anthropologist. Anthropologists, as a group, study the diversity of human cultures to understand our commonalities and differences, and to use the knowledge of what is common to us all to help us bridge our differences. My research aims to help reduce violence between peoples, by first trying to understand thoughts and behaviors as different from my own as any I can imagine: such as suicide actions that kill masses of people innocent of direct harm to others. The key, as Margaret Mead taught me long ago, when I worked as her assistant at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was to empathize with people, without always sympathizing: to participate in their lives to the extent you feel is morally possible. And then report. I’ve spent much time observing, interviewing and carrying out systematic studies among people on six continents who are drawn to violent action for a group and its cause. Most recently with colleagues last month in Kirkuk, Iraq among young men who had killed for ISIS, and with young adults in the banlieus of Paris and barrios of Barcelona who seek to join it. With some insights from social science research, I will try to outline a few conditions that may help move such youth from taking the path of violent extremism….
“For Cause and Comrade: Devoted Actors and Willingness to Fight,” Atran, Scott; Sheikh, Hammad; Gomez, Angel, CLIODYNAMICS: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution 5 (1), 2014
This report provides initial evidence that “devoted actors” who are unconditionally committed to a sacred cause, as well as to their comrades, willingly make costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying. Although American military analysts since WWII tend to attribute fighting spirit to leadership and the bond of comradeship in combat as a manifestation of rational self-interest, evidence also suggests that sacrifice for a cause in ways independent, or all out of proportion, from the reasonable likelihood of success may be critical. Here, we show the first empirical evidence that sacred values (as when land or law becomes holy or hallowed) and identity fusion (when personal and group identities collapse into a unique identity to generate a collective sense of invincibility and special destiny) can interact to produce willingness to make costly sacrifices for a primary reference group: by looking at the relative strength of the sacred values of Sharia versus Democracy among potential foreign fighter volunteers from Morocco. Devotion to a sacred cause, in conjunction with unconditional commitment to comrades, may be what allows low-power groups to endure and often prevail against materially stronger foes.
“The Devoted Actor as Parochial Altruist: Sectarian Morality, Identity Fusion, and Support for Costly Sacrifices,” Sheikh, Hammad; Atran, Scott; Ginges, Jeremy; Wilson, Lydia; Obeid, Nadine; Davis, Richard, CLIODYNAMICS 5(1), 2014
We explore how Darwinian notions of moral virtue and parochial altruism may relate to the emerging cognitive framework of the devoted actor who undertakes extreme actions in defense of group values. After a brief discussion of the theoretical framework, we present exploratory data resulting from interviews of 62 Lebanese individuals of varying religious backgrounds (Sunni, Shia and Christian) in Beirut and Byblos (Jbeil) in a time of heightened tension owing to spillover from the Syrian civil war. Analytic measures focused on willingness to make costly sacrifices for confessional (religious) groups and sectarian values, as a function of the degree to which people perceived universal and parochial values to be morally important, and considered their personal selves “fused” with their group. Sectarian moralists who fused with their religion expressed strong willingness to support costly sacrifices for the group, whereas people who fused with their religion but moralized universal values over sectarian ones were least likely to support costly sacrifices. In addition, when people believed that they had control over their future, fusion increased support for costly sacrifice and desired social distance to outgroups. These results have implications for notions of religion as both a booster and buffer to costly sacrifices, and the impact of identity fusion for and against extreme actions.
“Devoted actors sacrifice for close comrades and sacred cause,” S Atran, H Sheikh, Á Gómez, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, vol. 111, early edition Dec. 8, 2014
What inspires the willingness of humans to make their greatest exertions, to fight unto death with and for genetic strangers, a propensity to which no creature but humans seems subject? What determines the “fighting spirit” that enables one group of combatants to defeat another, all other things being equal? These are basic questions about human nature and warfare…. …. Two factors, identity fusion and sacred values, interact to determine who is likely to become a devoted actor based on expressions of willingness to make costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying. In this graph summarizing results from a Moroccan community surveyed with links to militant Jihad, only those subjects who were fused with a family-like group and considered Sharia a sacred value were more willing than not to make costly sacrifices, being above the midpoint of a 7-point response scale….
“Islamischer Staat: Warum ist der Dschihad so anziehend?” SPEKTRUM (Germany), 14 Jan. 2015
2014 bekundete einer von vier französischen Jugendlichen Sympathien für die Terrororganisation Islamischer Staat. Die Gründe dafür erklärte der Anthropologe Scott Atran vom Nationalen Forschungszentrum in Paris wenige Monate vor dem jüngsten Anschlag im Psychologiemagazin “Cerveau & Psycho”. Scott Atran
“État islamique : l’illusion du sublime ?” Cerveau & Psycho, No. 66, nov-déc 2014
L’État Islamique séduirait en France un jeune sur quatre. Parce que ces jeunes y trouvent ce que nos sociétés n’offrent plus : le frisson lié au combat pour une cause qui leur fait croire qu’ils ont un pouvoir sans limites, un pouvoir divin. Notre idéal est-il seulement un idéal « de confort, de sécurité et d’évitement de la douleur », comme Orwell le supposa pour expliquer la capacité du nazisme, du fascisme et du stalinisme à susciter l’engagement notamment de la jeunesse aventureuse et en quête d’horizons nouveaux ? Pour le futur des démocraties libérales, même au-delà de la menace de djihadistes violents, cela pourrait constituer la question centrale.
“Sacred values in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict: resistance to social influence, temporal discounting, and exit strategies,” Annals of the New York Academy of Science, vol. 1299 (pages 11–24) Hammad Sheikh, Jeremy Ginges and Scott Atran Article first published online: 24 SEP 2013 | DOI: 10.1111/nyas.12275
Conflicts over sacred values may be particularly difficult to resolve. Because sacred values are nonfungible with material values, standard attempts to negotiate, such as offering material incentives to compromise, often backfire, increasing moral outrage and support for violent action. We present studies with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza demonstrating three other ways sacred values may make conflict more intractable, focusing on what we call devoted actors, people who regard issues central to the Israel–Palestine conflict as sacred values. We show that devoted actors (1) were less amenable to social influence, (2) perceived conflict-related events in the past as well as expected events in the future to be temporally closer, and (3) were blind to individual opportunities to escape the conflict. These results suggest that sacred values may affect decision making in a number of ways, which, when combined, contribute to common defense and continuation of conflict.
Ginges, J. & Atran, S. Sacred values and cultural conflict. In Gelfand, M. J., Chiu, C. Y., & Hong, Y. Y. (Eds.), Advances in Culture and Psychology (Vol. 4). New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 273-301, 2013
This chapter reviews a body of research on sacred values and cultural conflict. Research conducted in the West Bank, Iran, Indonesia, and India reveals that when people transform a resource, idea, or activity into a sacred value, normative approaches to dispute resolution may fail. In a series of experiments, the authors find that offering material incentives to encourage people to compromise over a sacred value will often “backfire” leading to heightened opposition to such compromise. In contrast, culturally sensitive attempts to offer powerful symbolic gestures—such as a painful apology or sacrifice over one’s own sacred values—often increase flexibility towards compromise. The chapter also discusses a direction of future research focusing on the way people manage sacred values over time.
“Black and White and Red All Over: How the hyperkinetic media is breeding a new generation of terrorists,” FOREIGN POLICY, April 22, 2013
…. The Boston bombings have provoked the most intense display of law enforcement and media coverage since 9/11. Greater Boston was in full lockdown: “a ghost town,” “a city in terror,” “a war zone,” screamed the headlines. Public transit was stopped, a no-fly zone proclaimed, people told to stay indoors, schools and universities closed, and hundreds of FBI agents pulled from other pressing investigations to exclusively focus on the case — along with thousands upon thousands of other federal, state, and city agents equipped with heavy weapons and armored vehicles. It all came close to martial law, with all the tools of the security state mobilized to track down a pair of young immigrants with low-tech explosives and small arms who failed to reconcile their problems of identity and became amateur terrorists. Not that the events weren’t shocking and brutal. But this, of course, is part of the overall U.S. reaction to terrorism since 9/11, where perhaps never in history have so few, armed with so few means, caused so much fear in so many. Indeed, as with the anarchists a century ago, it is precisely the outsized reaction that sponsors of terrorism have always counted on in order to terrorize….
“Social Warfare: Budget hawks’ plans to cut funding for political and social science aren’t just short-sighted and simple-minded — they’ll actually hurt national security,” FOREIGN POLICY, March 15, 2013
With the automatic sequestration cuts geared up to slash billions of dollars from domestic programs, military funding, social services, and government-sponsored scientific research — including about a 6 percent reduction for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) — policymakers and professionals are scrambling to stave off the worst by resetting priorities. In a major speech last month, House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), proposed outright to defund political and social science… Florida Governor Rick Scott has made a similar push, proposing to divert state funds from disciplines like anthropology and psychology “to degrees where people can get jobs.” …. Social science may sound like a frivolous expenditure to legislative budget hawks, but far from trimming fat, defunding these programs would fundamentally undercut core national interests. Like it or not, social science research informs everything from national security to technology development to healthcare and economic management. For example, we can’t decide which drugs to take, unless their risks and benefits are properly assessed, and we can’t know how much faith to have in a given science or engineering project, unless we know how much to trust expert judgment. Likewise, we can’t fully prepare to stop our adversaries, unless we understand the limits of our own ability to see why others see the world differently. Despite hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars poured into the global war on terrorism, radicalization against our country’s core interests continues to spread — and social science offers better ways than war to turn the tide. …. Even before they revolted in 1776, the American colonists may have already enjoyed the world’s highest standard of living. But they wanted something different: a free and progressive society, which money couldn’t buy. “Money has never made man happy, nor will it,” gibed Ben Franklin, but “if a man empties his purse into his head no one can take it away from him; an investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” He founded America’s first learned society “to improve the common stock of knowledge,” which called for inquiry into many practical matters as well as “all philosophical Experiments that Light into the Nature of Things … and multiply the Conveniences or Pleasures of Life.” George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, James Madison, and John Marshall all joined Franklin’s society and took part in the political, social, and economic revolution it helped spawn. Like the Founding Fathers, we want our descendants to be able to envision great futures for our country and a better world for all. For that, our children need the broad understanding of how the world works that the social sciences can provide — not just a technical education for well-paying jobs.
“God and the Ivory Tower,” Foreign Policy, August 2012
Time and again, countries go to war without understanding the transcendent drives and dreams of adversaries who see a very different world. Yet we needn’t fly blindly into the storm. Science can help us understand religion and the sacred just as it can help us understand the genome or the structure of the universe. This, in turn, can make policy better informed. Fortunately, the last few years show progress in scientific studies of religion and the sacred, though headwinds remain strong….
“Religious and Sacred Imperatives in Human Conflict,” S. Atran & J. Ginges, SCIENCE, Vol. 336 no. 6083 pp. 855-857, 18 May 2012
Religion, in promoting outlandish beliefs and costly rituals, increases ingroup trust but also may increase mistrust and conflict with outgroups. Moralizing gods emerged over the last few millennia, enabling large-scale cooperation, and sociopolitical conquest even without war. Whether for cooperation or conflict, sacred values, like devotion to God or a collective cause, signal group identity and operate as moral imperatives that inspire nonrational exertions independent of likely outcomes. In conflict situations, otherwise mundane sociopolitical preferences may become sacred values, acquiring immunity to material incentives. Sacred values sustain intractable conflicts that defy “business-like” negotiation, but also provide surprising opportunities for resolution.
“Managing the Risks of Climate Change and Terrorism,” By Eugene A. Rosa, Thomas Dietz, Richard H. Moss, Scott Atran, Susanne Moser, SOLUTIONS 3(2):59-65, 2012
In Brief: Society has difficult decisions to make about how best to allocate its resources to ensure future sustainability. Risk assessment can be a valuable tool: it has long been used to support decisions to address environmental problems. But in a time when the risks to sustainability range from climate change to terrorism, applying risk assessment to sustainability will require careful rethinking. For new threats, we will need a new approach to risk assessment.
“Religion, group threat and sacred values,” H. Sheikh, J. Ginges, A. Coman, S. Atran, Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 7, No. 2, March 2012, pp. 110–118
Sacred or protected values have important inﬂuences on decision making, particularly in the context of intergroup disputes. Thus far, we know little about the process of a value becoming sacred or why one person may be more likely than another to hold a sacred value. We present evidence that participation in religious ritual and perceived threat to the group lead people to be more likely to consider preferences as protected or sacred values. Speciﬁcally, three studies carried out with Americans and Palestinians show: (a) that the more people participate in religious ritual the more likely they are to report a preference to be a sacred value (Studies 1–3); (b) that people claim more sacred values when they are reminded of religious ritual (Study 2); and (c) that the effect of religious ritual on the likelihood of holding a sacred value is ampliﬁed by the perception of high threat to the in-group (Study 3). We discuss implications of these ﬁndings for understanding intergroup conﬂicts, and suggest avenues for future research into the emergence and spread of sacred values.
“Talking to the Enemy – An Alternative Approach to Ending Intractable Conflicts,” SOLUTIONS 3(1):41-51, 2012
Perhaps the key set of world events since the Al Qaeda attacks of 9/11 is the Arab Spring, whose consequences may not be clear for years, possibly decades…. What can the United States do to keep the hope of the Arab Spring alive, without too strongly embracing, and so strangling, the movement in perhaps another “nation-building” project? What can the United States do to keep the pressure on extremist groups, without too strongly relying on,and so reinforcing, remnants of the political and military old guard? How do we deal with the diverse and popular nonviolent Islamic groups and currents in the region in order to ensure that they remain nonviolent and tolerant of representative government and individual rights? Recommendations for a change in course in dealing with foreign forms of political and religious extremism that take violent aim at our society should be geared to a policy of “less is more,” that is, less costly and more effective: CUT short-term and long-term costs of U.S. military and foreign aid. LIMIT U.S. military and ideological involvement to a minimum, consistent with support for—rather than management or direction of—local, national, and regional democratic aspirations and initiatives. SHIFT from top-heavy government-to-government planning and programs to establishing relationships with local actors and groups, including relationships involving America’s most influential, efficient, and productive nongovernmental national resources: U.S. universities, entertainment media, small-business groups, and faith-based organizations. INCREASE America’s moral standing, influence, and leadership.
Berns, G. & Atran, S. (2012) The biology of cultural conflict. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 367:633-639
Although culture is usually thought of as the collection of knowledge and traditions that are transmitted outside of biology, evidence continues to accumulate showing how biology and culture are inseparably intertwined. Cultural conflict will occur only when the beliefs and traditions of one cultural group represent a challenge to individuals of another. Such a challenge will elicit brain processes involved in cognitive decision-making, emotional activation and physiological arousal associated with the outbreak, conduct and resolution of conflict. Key targets to understand bio-cultural differences include primitive drives—how the brain responds to likes and dislikes, how it discounts the future, and how this relates to reproductive behaviour—but also higher level functions, such as how the mind represents and values the surrounding physical and social environment. Future cultural wars, while they may bear familiar labels of religion and politics, will ultimately be fought over control of our biology and our environment.
Berns, G., Bell, E., Capra, C., Prietula, M., Moore, S., Anderson, B., Ginges, J. & Atran (2012) The Price of Your Soul: Neural evidence for the Deontic Processing of Personal Sacred Values. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society – B. 367:754-762
Sacred values, such as those associated with religious or ethnic identity, underlie many important individual and group decisions in life, and individuals typically resist attempts to trade off their sacred values in exchange for material benefits. Deontological theory suggests that sacred values are processed based on rights and wrongs irrespective of outcomes, while utilitarian theory suggests that they are processed based on costs and benefits of potential outcomes, but which mode of processing an individual naturally uses is unknown. The study of decisions over sacred values is difficult because outcomes cannot typically be realized in a laboratory, and hence little is known about the neural representation and processing of sacred values. We used an experimental paradigm that used integrity as a proxy for sacredness and which paid real money to induce individuals to sell their personal values. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we found that values that people refused to sell (sacred values) were associated with increased activity in the left temporoparietal junction and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, regions previously associated with semantic rule retrieval. This suggests that sacred values affect behaviour through the retrieval and processing of deontic rules and not through a utilitarian evaluation of costs and benefits.
“Psychology Out of the Laboratory: The Challenge of Violent Extremism,” AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGIST, Ginges, J., Atran, S., Sachdeva, S., & Medin, D. (2011), v. 66, pp. 507-519
The idea that people inevitably act in accordance with their self-interest on the basis of a calculation of costs and benefits does not constitute an adequate framework for understanding political acts of violence and self-sacrifice. Recent research suggests that a better understanding is needed of how sacred values and notions of self and group identity lead people to act in terms of principles rather than prospects when the two come into conflict. Perhaps the greatest challenge is to better understand how sacred causes and moral imperatives diffuse through a population and motivate some (usually small) segment of it to commit violent actions. The challenge to psychology is to adopt an interdisciplinary focus drawing on a range of research methods and to become bolder in its choices of study populations if it is to be relevant to real-world problems.
“MORAL IMPERATIVES AND DEMOCRATIC DYNAMICS IN THE FIGHT AGAINST AQAP IN THE CONTEXT OF THE ARAB SPRING: POLICY AND RESEARCH CHALLENGES,” in A. Chapman, J. Adelman (Fall 2011) Influencing Violent Extremist Organizations Pilot Effort: Focus on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment Office, Dept. of Defense, Office of the Sec. of Defense
“Enemies,” Chronicle of Higher Education,August 7, 2011
Since 9/11, the terrorist has been Public Enemy No. 1. The attack was a heinous crime that produced great suffering for thousands of people, and empathy and outrage among many millions more, but terrorism never threatened our national survival. Yet perhaps never in the history of human conflict have so few people with so few capabilities frightened so many. That is in part because the “war on terror” has been framed as “a struggle of ideas” and a fundamental challenge to “who we are” in a world that no national power can control.
“Moral Moonshine: Sam Harris’s Guide to Nearly Everything,” THE NATIONAL INTEREST, March/April 2011
… the method of good science is doubt; the religion of the sanctimonious is certainty. Yet for Harris, “the primacy of neuroscience and the other sciences of mind on questions of human experience cannot be denied.” And neuroscience, or rather Harris’s own two dissertation experiments on a few dozen people who live around UCLA, tell us that (in all times, places and contexts) “the division between facts and values is intellectually unsustainable.” One neuroimaging study purportedly slam-dunks the conclusion that religious beliefs are simply false beliefs about “the nature of reality.” Since “it seems clear that as societies become more prosperous, stable, and democratic,” the more they stop promoting religion, then “contrary to the opinions of many anthropologists and psychologists, religious commitment ‘is superficial enough to be readily abandoned when conditions improve to the required degree.’” And “clearly, religion is largely a matter of what people teach their children to believe about the nature of reality,” so unlearning religion just requires reeducation. Despite expressions like “clearly” and “cannot be denied,” which here obfuscate complicated matters that Harris deems irrelevant, ridicules or simply ignores, this work contains precious little science. There is, however, much playacting at science to justify a peculiar sort of Brave New World where atheism will help do away with female genital mutilation and lie detectors will preclude pleading the Fifth Amendment. There is also much that is politically pernicious here: you don’t have to read Machiavelli to understand how Osama bin Laden and Glenn Beck seem to need one another to rile audiences to their sides, and now Sam Harris means to bring even the more sober and saner members of our society squarely into the ideological fray by pretending to be heavens above it….
“War as a Moral Imperative (Not Practical Politics by Other Means),” Jeremy Ginges & Scott Atran, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, February 16, 2011, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2010.2384
We present findings from one survey and five experiments carried out in the USA, Nigeria and the Middle East showing that judgements about the use of deadly intergroup violence are strikingly insensitive to quantitative indicators of success, or to perceptions of their efficacy. By demonstrating that judgements about the use of war are bounded by rules of deontological reasoning and parochial commitment, these findings may have implications for understanding the trajectory of violent political conflicts. Further, these findings are compatible with theorizing that links the evolution of within-group altruism to intergroup violence.
“Keystone Al Kaeda – in the battle against Al Qaeda, the only thing we to fear is fear itself,” FOREIGN POLICY, 5 Nov. 2010
The printer-cartridge bombs sent from Yemen to a Chicago synagogue were probably never meant to reach their destination — they were addressed to a 12 century Crusader who was beheaded by Osama Bin Laden’s hero, Saladin, and to a 15 century inquisitor notable for his torture of Muslims and Jews — but the important thing is that they detonated at all. As with almost every al Qaeda-directed plot against the West since 9/11 — from the underpants dud on a flight to Detroit last Christmas to the recent firecracker fizzle in Times Square — the attempt flopped. Nonetheless, Americans have once again panicked about their vulnerability to terrorist attacks. Once again, their president has proclaimed that the country will not rest until it tracks down everyone involved and assured that the sum of U.S. national power would be brought against them. Once again, conservative politicos and pundits have pounded the president for ignoring a much broader-based “Islamic threat” to Western civilization. And again, congressional leaders have joined the anxious chorus. COMMENTS (0) SHARE: Twitter Reddit Buzz More… In truth, terrorists just aren’t worthy of this level of hysteria. Rarely in the history of human conflict have so few people with so few actual means and capabilities frightened so many. Islamist terror groups are undoubtedly the enemy of all humanity, but it is our own exaggerated fear that may be the greater threat….
“Sacred values and conflict over Iran’s nuclear program,” Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 5, No. 7, December 2010, pp. 540–546, by M Dehghani, S Atran, R Iliev, S Sachdeva, D Medin, J Ginges
Conflict over Iran’s nuclear program, which involves a US-led policy to impose sanctions on Iran, is perceived by each side as a preeminent challenge to its own national security and global peace. Yet, there is little scientific study or understanding of how material incentives and disincentives, such as economic sanctions, psychologically affect the targeted population and potentially influence behaviour. Here we explore the Iranian nuclear program within a paradigm concerned with sacred values. We integrate experiments within a survey of 1997 Iranians. We find that a relatively small but politically significant portion of the Iranian population believes that acquiring nuclear energy has become a sacred value, in the sense that proposed economic incentives and disincentives result in a “backfire effect” in which offers of material rewards or punishment lead to increased anger and greater disapproval. This pattern was specific to nuclear energy and did not hold for acquiring nuclear weapons. The present study is the first demonstration of the backfire effect for material disincentives as well as incentives, and on an issue whose apparent sacred nature is recent rather than longstanding.
“The Evolution of Religion: How Cognitive By-Products, Adaptive Learning Heuristics, Ritual Displays, and Group Competition Generate Deep Commitments to Prosocial Religions,” Scott Atran & Joseph Henrich, Biological Theory 5(1) 2010, 18–30.
Understanding religion requires explaining why supernatural beliefs, devotions, and rituals are both universal and variable across cultures, and why religion is so often associated with both large-scale cooperation and enduring group conflict. Emerging lines of research suggest that these oppositions result from the convergence of three processes. First, the interaction of certain reliably developing cognitive processes, such as our ability to infer the presence of intentional agents, favors—as an evolutionary by-product—the spread of certain kinds of counterintuitive concepts. Second, participation in rituals and devotions involving costly displays exploits various aspects of our evolved psychology to deepen people’s commitment to both supernatural agents and religious communities. Third, competition among societies and organizations with different faith-based beliefs and practices has increasingly connected religion with both within-group prosociality and between-group enmity. This connection has strengthened dramatically in recent millennia, as part of the evolution of complex societies, and is important to understanding cooperation and conflict in today’s world.
“A Question of Honour: Why the Taliban Fight and What to do About It,” Asian Journal of Social Science 38 (2010) 341–361
Afghanistan is not like Iraq. What may work well in Iraq, or elsewhere, may not be a wise policy in Afghanistan. The original alliance between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda was largely one of convenience between a poverty-stricken national movement and a transnational cause that brought material help. Unlike Al-Qaeda, the Taliban are interested in their homeland, not ours. The Taliban know how costly keeping Qaeda can be. Even if the Taliban took control of Afghanistan it is not clear that Al-Qaeda would be welcome again. Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan must be dealt with on their own terms. There’s a good chance that enough of the factions in the Taliban coalition would decide for themselves to disinvite their troublesome guest if we contained them by maintaining pressure without trying to subdue them or hold their territory, intervening only when we see movement to help Al-Qaeda or act beyond the region. We’re winning against Al-Qaeda and its kin in places where anti-terrorism efforts are local and built on an understanding that the ties binding terrorist networks today are more cultural and familial than political or ideological.
“Interview with Ramadan Shallah, Secretary General, Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” by Scott Atran& Robet Axelrod, Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 4 (2), May 2010
Question: Both Israelis and Americans, including their leaders, want to know if there is any possibility that you or Hamas could ever recognize Israel, not necessarily now but in the future, under whatever conditions? And if you could, what would you want for it? Ramadan Shallah : I cannot speak for Hamas. But I will never, under any conditions, accept the existence of the state of Israel. I have no problem living with the Jewish people. We have lived together in peace for centuries. And if Netanyahu were to ask if we can live together in one state, I would say to him: “If we have exactly the same rights as Jews to come to all of Palestine. If Khaled Meshaal and Ramadan Shallah can come whenever they want, and visit Haifa, and buy a home in Herzliyah if they want, then we can have a new language, and dialogue is possible.” But until then, I would say to Netanyahu: “I will not accept the existence of Israel. I will never accept the existence of a state of Israel. Never. Ever.” (Smiling) I hope that is clear enough.
Nature 465, 292-293 (20 May 2010), “Decentralize, adapt and cooperate,” R. Sagarin, C. Alcorta, S. Atran, et al.
Humankind faces a wide range of threats to its security and safety, from terrorist groups and cybercriminals to disease pandemics and climate change. All these threats share one characteristic: they are constantly changing.
Statement Before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats & Capabilities, Ma10, 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.
“Emerging sacred values: Iran’s nuclear program,” Judgment and Decision making 7(4): 930-933, Dec. 2009, by M. Dehghani, R. Iliev, S. Sachdeva, S. Atran, J. Ginges, D. Medin
Sacred values are different from secular values in that they are often associated with violations of the cost-benefit logic of rational choice models. Previous work on sacred values has been largely limited to religious or territorial conflicts deeply embedded in historical contexts. In this work we find that the Iranian nuclear program, a relatively recent development, is treated as sacred by some Iranians, leading to a greater disapproval of deals which involve monetary incentives to end the program. Our results suggest that depending on the prevalence of such values, incentive-focused negotiations may backfire.
“What Motivates Participation in Violent Political Action,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2009, v. 1167, pp. 115-123, by J. Ginges, S. Atran
In standard models of decision making, participation in violent political action is understood as the product of instrumentally rational reasoning. According to this line of thinking, instrumentally rational individuals will participate in violent political action only if there are selective incentives that are limited to participants. We argue in favor of an alternate model of political violence where participants are motivated by moral commitments to collective sacred values. Correlative and experimental empirical evidence in the context of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict strongly supports this alternate view.
“Reframing Sacred Values,” Negotiation Journal, 2008, v. 24, pp. 221-246 , by Scott Atran & Robert Axelrod
Sacred values differ from material or instrumental values in that they incorporate moral beliefs that drive action in ways dissociated from prospects for success. Across the world, people believe that devotion to essential or core values – such as the welfare of their family and country, or their commitment to religion, honor, and justice – are, or ought to be, absolute and inviolable. Counterintuitively, understanding an opponent’s sacred values, we believe, offers surprising opportunities for breakthroughs to peace. Because of the emotional unwillingness of those in conflict situations to negotiate sacred values, conventional wisdom suggests that negotiators should either leave sacred values for last in political negotiations or try to bypass them with sufficient material incentives. Our empirical findings and historical analysis suggest that conventional wisdom is wrong. In fact, offering to provide material benefits in exchange for giving up a sacred value actually makes settlement more difficult because people see the offering as an insult rather than a compromise. But we also found that making symbolic concessions of no apparent material benefit might open the way to resolving seemingly irresolvable conflicts. We offer suggestions for how negotiators can reframe their position by demonstrating respect, and/or by apologizing for what they sincerely regret. We also offer suggestions for how to overcome sacred barriers by refining sacred values to exclude outmoded claims, exploiting the inevitable ambiguity of sacred values, shifting the context, provisionally prioritizing values, and reframing responsibility.
“Connecting Terrorist Networks,” J. Magouirk, S. Atran, M. Sageman, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 31:1-16, 2008
This article highlights findings from the authors’ Global Transnational Terrorism Database and charts the rise of the militant minority within Southeast Asia’s Jemaah Islamiyah that was responsible for a series of terrorist attacks from 2001 to 2005.
“Humiliation and the Inertia Effect: Implications for Understanding Violence and Compromise in Intractable Intergroup Conflicts ,” Journal of Cognition and Culture, 2008, v. 8, pp. 281-294, by J. Ginges, S. Atran
We investigated the influence of humiliation on inter-group conflict in three studies of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. We demonstrate that experienced humiliation produces an inertia effect; a tendency towards inaction that suppresses rebellious or violent action but which paradoxically also suppresses support for acts of inter-group compromise. In Study 1, Palestinians who felt more humiliated by the Israeli occupation were less likely to support suicide attacks against Israelis. In Study 2, priming Palestinians with a humiliating experience caused fewer expressions of joy when subsequently hearing about suicide attacks. In Study 3, Palestinians who felt more humiliated by peace deals were less likely to support those deals, while Israeli symbolic compromises that decreased feelings of humiliation increased support for the same deals. While the experience of humiliation does not seem to contribute to political violence, it does seem to suppress support for conflict resolution.
“Mutually Assured Support: A Security Doctrine for Terrorist Nuclear Weapon Threats,” by Baruch Fischhoff, Scott Atran, Marc Sageman. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 618, No. 1, 160-167 (2008)
If the United States were subject to a terrorist nuclear attack, its president would face overwhelming political pressure to respond decisively. A well-prepared response could help both to prevent additional attacks and to bring the perpetrators to justice. An instinctive response could be cataclysmically ineffective, inflicting enormous collateral damage without achieving either deterrence or justice. An international security doctrine of Mutually Assured Support can make the response to such attacks more effective as well as less likely—by requiring preparations that reduce the threat. The doctrine requires all subscribing nations to mobilize fully in support of the attacked nation, in return for a promise of nonretaliation. It provides a vehicle for domestic and international leadership, allowing the president to engage the American people, from a position of strength, around an issue that has had little public discussion. The authors describe its rationale, implications, and implementation.
“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
“Who Becomes a Terrorist Today?”
Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. II, Issue 5, March 2008
“Radical madrassas in Southeast Asia” (with J. Magouirk & J. GInges)
CTC Sentinel, vol. I, issue 3, February 2008
“Sacred bounds on rational resolution of violent political conflict,” Jeremy Ginges, Scott Atran, Douglas Medin, and Khalil Shikaki
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA | May 1, 2007 | vol. 104 | no. 18 | 7357-7360 (We report a series of experiments carried out with Palestinian and Israeli participants showing that violent opposition to compromise over issues considered sacred is (i) increased by offering material incentives to compromise but (ii) decreased when the adversary makes symbolic compromises over their own sacred values. These results demonstrate some of the unique properties of reasoning and decision-making over sacred values. We show that the use of material incentives to promote the peaceful resolution of political and cultural conflicts may backfire when adversaries treat contested issues as sacred values.)
“Genesis of suicide terrorism,” Science magazine, March 2003, v. 299, pp. 1534-1539.
Contemporary suicide terrorists from the Middle East are publicly deemed crazed cowards bent on senseless destruction who thrive in poverty and ignorance. Recent research indicates they have no appreciable psychopathology and are as educated and economically well-off as surrounding populations. A first line of defense is to get the communities from which suicide attackers stem to stop the attacks by learning how to minimize the receptivity of mostly ordinary people to recruiting organizations.
“Stones against the iron fist, terror within the nation: Alternating structures of violence and cultural identity in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 1939-1989,” Politics and Society, 18:481-526, 1990.
Résumé en français COURRIER INTERNATIONAL
Genèse de l’attentat suicide, 8 August 2003
Genesis and Future of Suicide Terrorism Web Debate
INTERDISCIPLINES. International Web Debate, organized by the National Center for Scientific Research, CNRS, France. July 2003
Web Debate (Version Française)
INTERDISCIPLINES. Web Debate, organized by the National Center for Scientific Research, CNRS, France.
“The Strategic Threat from Suicide Terror”
AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, Related Publication 03-33, Dec. 2003
“STRATEGIC BLUNDER: CONFOUNDING ROGUE STATES AND TERRORIST NETWORKS”
Paper Presented to Conference on “Roots of Terrorism,” University of Michigan, March 2004
“The Jihadist Mutation”
Jamestown Terrorism Monitor, v. 2 no. 6, 25 March 2004
“Soft Power and the Psychology of Suicide Bombing”
Jamestown Terrorism Monitor, v. 2 no. 11, 3 June 2004
“Trends in Suicide Terrorism: Sense and Nonsense”
Presented to the World Federation of Scientists Permanent Monitoring Panel on terrorism, Erice, Sicily, Aug. 2004
“Tuning Out Hell’s Harpists: Interviews with Hamas”
Up dated Version of Paper on Hamas Presented to the Permanent Monitoring Panel on terrorism, World Federation of Scientists, Geneva, Oct. 2004
“Facing Catastrophe – Risk and Response: The 9/11 and 11-M Commissions’ Blind Sides”
Paper prepared for the International Summit on “Democracy, Terrorism and Security,” Madrid, 8-11 March 2005 (AEI-Brookings Joint Center For Regulatory Studies), Policy Matters, 05-05, March 2005)
“The ‘Virtual Hand’ of Jihad”
Jamestown Terrorism Monitor, v. 3 no. 10, 19 May 2005
Suicide Terrorism Database 2004
All suicide attacks in Iraq for 2004, summary of attacks worldwide, 2001-2004
An Interview with Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, Alleged Leader of the Southeast Asian Jemaah Islamiyah Organization (Jamestown Foundation, Spotlight on Terrorism, Volume 3, Issue 9, September 15, 2005)
Interview with Abu Bakr Ba’asyir
Full interview in English and Behasa Indonesia with the alleged leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, from Cipinang prison, Jakarta, August 13 and 15, 2005. I have been using interviews like this to probe theoretical questions, including the limits of rational choice and utility theories (vs the role of sacred values in decision making and judgement), the fundamental attribution error, and ideas of essentialism. There have been similar interviews with Hamas leaders and and the questionnaire has also been given to mujahedin in various places (also to two groups of Islamic schools, moderate and radical)
“Small Groups Find Fatal Purpose Through the Web,” Nature, v. 436, no. 7059,p. 620.
co-authored with Jessica Stern
“To Jihad and Back,” Foreign Policy, November-December, 2005, pp. 78-80
Interview with former Jemaah Islamiyah regional leader Nasir Abas and review of his book “Unveiling Jemaah Islamiyah”
“Risk in the Wild”
AAAS annual Meeting, “Risk and Society” Panel (Sunday, 19 February 2006)
“The Moral Logic and Growth of Suicide Terrorism”, Washington Quarterly, vol. 29, pp. 127-147, spring 2006
Whereas Martyrdom actions once primarily consisted of organized campaigns by militarily weak forces aiming to end the perceived occupation of their homeland, as argued by political scientist Robert Pape in Dying to Win, suicide attacks today serve as banner actions for a thoroughly modern, global diaspora inspired by religion and claiming the role of vanguard for a massive, media-driven transnational political awakening. Living mostly in the diaspora and undeterred by the threat of retaliation against original home populations, jihadis, who are frequently middle-class, secularly well educated, but often “born-again” radical Islamists, including converts from Christianity, embrace apocalyptic visions for humanity’s violent salvation. In Muslim countries and across western Europe, bright and idealistic Muslim youth, even more than the marginalized and dispossessed, internalize the jihadi story, illustrated on satellite television and the Internet with the ubiquitous images of social injustice and political repression with which much of the Muslim world’s bulging immigrant and youth populations intimately identifies. From the suburbs of Paris to the jungles of Indonesia, I have interviewed culturally uprooted and politically restless youth who echo a stunningly simplified and decontextualized message of martyrdom for the sake of global jihad as life’s noblest cause. They are increasingly as willing and even eager to die as they are to kill.
Commentary: A Failure of Imagination (Intelligence, WMDs and ‘Virtual Jihad’). Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 29:263-278, 2006
Intelligence estimates based on models keyed to frequency and recency of past occurrences make people less secure even if they predict most harmful events. The U.S. presidential commission on WMDs, the 9/11 commission, and Spain’s comisión 11-M have condemned the status quo mentality of the intelligence community, which they see as being preoccupied with today’s “current operations” and tactical requirements, and inattentive to tomorrow’s far-ranging problems and strategic solutions. But the overriding emphasis in these commissions’ recommendations is on further vertically integrating intelligence collection, analysis, and operations. Such proposals to further centralize intelligence and unify command and control are not promising given recent transformations in Jihadist networks to a somewhat “leaderless resistance” in the wake of Al Qaeda’s operational demise. To defeat terrorist networks requires grasping novel relations between an englobing messianic moral framework, the rootless intellectual and physical mobility of immigrant and diaspora communities, and the overarching conceptual, emotional, and logistical afford- ances of the Internet. Britain’s WWII experience provides salutary lessons for think- ing creatively with decentralized expertise and partially autonomous approaches.
Global Network Terrorism
Briefing to the National Security Council, White House, April 28, 2006
Connecting the Dots, Scott Atran & Marc Sageman
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July-August-2006, “Turn Back the Clock”
“Terror in the Mountains: A Series of Brutal Killings in Kashmir has not been Reported in the Pakistani Press. Why?”
The First Post, 10 July 2006
“WHAT WOULD GANDHI DO TODAY? NONVIOLENCE IN AN AGE OF TERRORISM”
Prepared for Gandhian Nonviolence Conference, Georgetown University and MK Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, September 2006, Washington, DC, Co-Chairs, Madeline Albright, Peter Burleigh; Participants/ Peter Ackerman, Scott Atran, David Cortright, Luis Moreno OCampo, Amartya Sen
“Sacred Values: Report on Meetings with Hamas Leaders in Gaza”
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Web Exclusive, July-August 2006
Preliminary Remarks on the “Devoted Actor vs. Rational Actor Models in Understanding World Conflict”
Presented to THE NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL, THE WHITE HOUSE, 14 September 2006
“Beyond Belief: Religion, Science, Politics and Survival,” followup to the Salk Institute debate
In response to suggestions about continuing the conversation I had on the podium with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris at the Salk Institute conference on “Beyond Belief,” here I would like to elaborate a bit on what I said at the time. I am always very, very leery when scientists use science to justify political or moral missions. Science can sometimes deeply inform politics or ethics; however, I do not think that science can justify either. I find it fascinating that brilliant scientists and philosophers have no clue how to deal with the basic irrationality of human life and society other than to insist against all reason and evidence that things ought to be rational and evidence based.
“Balancing Act: Pakistan,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November/December, 2006
The 7.6 magnitude earthquake that struck Pakistan last October killed 75,000 people and left 3 million homeless. But the deaths would not end there. In May, the Pakistani army managed to force out most remaining foreign relief workers from the still-devastated region of Azad Kashmir, the Pakistan-controlled part of the disputed province. Just days later, 38 people in villages of southern Azad Kashmir had their throats cut or were beheaded. The youngest victim was four months old.
“Counting Causualties: A Framework for Respectful, Useful Records,” Baruch Fischhoff, Scott Atran, Noam Fischhoff
Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 2007
TERROR NETWORKS AND SACRED VALUES
Synopsis of report from Madrid – Morocco – Hamburg – Palestine – Israel – Syria Delivered to NSC staff, White House, Wednesday, March 28, 2007, 4 pm, by Scott Atran, Robert Axelrod and Richard Davis (co-principal researcher, Marc Sageman, was not at the meeting but represented)
“The Nature of Belief”
Science Magazine, July 27, 2007
“Band of Brothers”: Civil Society and the Making of a Terrorist, The International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law, Vol.10 (4), August 2008
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.