Learning From Bin Laden's Death

Are we safer now than we were before the launch of our massive counterterrorism effort?
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With the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death and accelerating plans to draw down troops in Afghanistan, it's a natural moment to look back at the decade-long "War on Terror" and consider how far we've come. Are we safer now than we were before the launch of our massive counterterrorism effort?

Those who argue that we are safer point to the killing of major al Qaeda leaders, destruction of the group's logistic and financial capabilities, the success of drone attacks against terrorist targets, as well as the Arab Spring movements that -- hopefully -- represent an alternative engine of political change in places like the Middle East.

Critics note these victories, but focus on the struggle ahead. They point to the continued and, according to some, improved ability of al Qaeda and its affiliates to recruit young Muslims worldwide. This wave of radicalization has already led to dangerous plots and bombings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and in Europe, and potentially in the United States as well.

In other words, our "kinetic" efforts to defeat the terrorists have been successful, but radicalization and extremism continue to spread worldwide. As terrorism expert, Bruce Hoffman, recently quipped, "You can't kill'em all."

Phillip Mudd, the CIA's Counter Terrorism Center deputy director between 2003-2005, put it this way in a Washington Post column last year: "There have been more arrests of al Qaedist Americans in the past few years than ever before. These are people on the West Coast and the East Coast, in the South and in the Midwest, all with their homegrown plots, coming at us at a rate that we did not see in 2005."

The long-term challenge, then, is prevention -- disrupting radicalization, and eradicating it where it has set in. To succeed, we need a better understanding of just how efforts to radicalize young people take hold. We need to identify with far greater precision radicalization's essential causes and germination. We need to pierce its appeal and grip on young people.

In an important sense, radicalization is a psychological phenomenon, and the good news is that we have learned a lot about it in the past decade. The work of such social scientists as Scott Atran, Mark Sageman, Rick McCauley, Ariel Merari, Fernando Reinares, and many others offer intriguing, empirically based insights about aspects of radicalization and deradicalization.

Nonetheless, the insights from this research often have been piecemeal and fragmented. They typically have focused on a single psychological factor suspected of contributing to radicalization. Some scientists looked at personality attributes that characterize terrorists, others at social networks, ideology or emotional traumas that may push individuals to extremism. We need to connect these "dots."

The challenge is twofold: (1) We need to integrate these valuable, though fragmented, efforts into a comprehensive, global theory of radicalization, (2) we need to conduct "translational research" that will show how this comprehensive theory works on the ground in actual situations. Our ultimate goal is to identify potential action steps that can translate into concrete policy. We need to think globally and act locally -- under the guidance of the global theory.

With a recent grant awarded by the Department of Defense through its MINERVA Research Initiative, an inter-disciplinary team of social scientists led by University of Maryland psychologists -- myself and Co-Principal Investigator Michele Gelfand -- will undertake this challenge. The team will carry out comprehensive field work on radicalization in various parts of the world, including the Middle East and Africa, as well as South and South East Asia.

Our strategy is to attack the problem from both ends -- from the top down and the bottom up.
At the top, we're working on the big picture of radicalization. The process seems to involve the conjunction of forces, a quest for personal significance (to do something "big" that really matters) mixed with a commitment to sacred values, whose defense lends warrant to violence. In this big picture, personal motivations, collective ideologies, social networking and group dynamics all converge to produce a radical state of mind.

The bottom up aspect is premised on the assumption that careful empirical field work and attention to cultural variation are essential to accurate understanding of social phenomena. Radicalization efforts are undoubtedly nuanced, adapted to fit local conditions on the ground. Researchers need to have as sensitive an ear to setting as a recruiter does. There is no single radical state of mind.

Just as important as getting the theory right is the team's commitment to drawing practical lessons from the insights we gain. Our work is designed to inform policy in this protracted, yet unavoidable, struggle against the scourge of extremism. The so-called War on Terror involves more than cutting off the head of the monster. It requires preventing it from endlessly growing new heads in its place.

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