Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Chimps and Baboons

I read this great piece somewhere about how baboons were smart enough to form small hunting groups, but still so dumb that the excitement of the hunt made them forget they were supposed to cooperate and they began attacking each other instead. The net result was that baboons had more success hunting alone than they did in teams.

Chimpanzees on the other hand often formed groups of young males that had been ousted from their troop for some reason or another. These bands would systematically attack other groups, slaughtering all the males and children, and taking the women for themselves. Intelligence and cooperation are effective, but not benign.

In a similar mode, I very much enjoyed Sageman's analysis of the sociological factors that lead to the narrow phenomenon of Al Qaeda, and the broader phenomenan of Islamism. He states some interesting facts, quite contrary to the usual conceptions of terrorists:
Most people think that terrorism comes from poverty, broken families, ignorance, immaturity, lack of family or occupational responsibilities, weak minds susceptible to brainwashing - the sociopath, the criminals, the religious fanatic, or, in this country, some believe they’re just plain evil.

Taking these perceived root causes in turn, three quarters of my sample came from the upper or middle class. The vast majority—90 percent—came from caring, intact families. Sixty-three percent had gone to college, as compared with the 5-6 percent that’s usual for the third world. These are the best and brightest of their societies in many ways.

Al Qaeda’s members are not the Palestinian fourteen-year- olds we see on the news, but join the jihad at the average age of 26. Three-quarters were professionals or semi- professionals... quite surprisingly very few had any background in religion. The natural sciences predominate.

Far from having no family or job responsibilities, 73 percent were married and the vast majority had children. Those who were not married were usually too young to be married. Only 13 percent were madrassa-trained and most of them come from what I call the Southeast Asian sample, the Jemaah Islamiyya(JI).
So, they were educated and successful. They were also not crazy
So they are as healthy as the general population. I didn’t find many personality disorders, which makes sense in that people who are antisocial usually don’t cooperate well enough with others to join groups. This is a well-organized type of terrorism: these men are not like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, loners off planning in the woods. Loners are weeded out early on... You could almost say that those least likely to cause harm individually are most likely to do so collectively.
So, maybe they were fueled by religious hatred? Maybe not
At the time they joined jihad, the terrorists were not very religious. They only became religious once they joined the jihad. Seventy percent of my sample joined the jihad while they were living in another country from where they grew up. Eighty percent were, in some way, totally excluded from the society they lived in. Sixty-eight percent either had preexisting friendships with people already in the jihad or were part of a group of friends who collectively joined the jihad together... The Khadr family from Toronto is typical: the father, Ahmed Saeed Khadr, who had a computer engineering degree from Ottawa and was killed in Pakistan in October 2003, got his five sons involved: all of them trained in al Qaeda camps and one has been held for killing a U.S. medic. Their mother is involved in financing the group
What then, provided the catalyst?
They also seem to have clustered around ten mosques worldwide that generated about 50 percent of my sample. If you add the two institutions in Indonesia, twelve institutions generated 60 percent of my sample. So, you’re talking about a very select, small group of people. This is not as widespread as people think.

When they became homesick, they did what anyone would and tried to congregate with people like themselves, whom they would find at mosques. So they drifted towards the mosque, not because they were religious, but because they were seeking friends. They moved in together in apartments, in order to share the rent and also to eat together - they were mostly halal, those who observed the Muslim dietary laws, similar in some respects to the kosher laws of Judaism. Some argue that such laws help to bind a group together since observing them is something very difficult and more easily done in a group. A micro-culture develops that strengthens and absorbs the participants as a unit. This is a halal theory of terrorism, if you like.

These cliques, often in the vicinity of mosques that had a militant script advocating violence to overthrow the corrupt regimes, transformed alienated young Muslims into terrorists. It’s all really group dynamics. You cannot understand the 9/11 type of terrorism from individual characteristics. The suicide bombers in Spain are another perfect example. Seven terrorists sharing an apartment and one saying “Tonight we’re all going to go, guys.” You can’t betray your friends, and so you go along. Individually, they probably would not have done it.
So what lead to Islamism? Smarts, lonliness, and peer pressure? In particular, I think the observation that crazy loners have a limited ability to do damage because they cannot coordinate with others is very sharp. Coordinated activity can achieve much more than an individual acting alone, and nuts cannot work in conjunction with others. A good criminal organization looks for the same qualities as a good employer: trustworthiness, predictability, and concientiousnous.

The notion of human capital, that some people are more productive than others, and that people can act to increase (or decrease) their productivity, can make people uncomfortable but it's an important way to understand group dynamics. Global Guerillas posits people as autonomous, disciplined, and able, but in fact people respond to their social environment, have average will power, and need to learn and develop skills. Global Guerrillas mocks any attack on an enemy stronghold as being useless because "an octopus has no spine" ie. scatter them in one place and they will just regroup in another. But this is not true. Counter-terrorism measures since 9/11 have dramatically reduced Islamist terrorists ability to act and to build capital, reducing them to small bands of angry young men.
In order to really sustain your motivation to do terrorism, you need the reinforcement of group dynamics. You need reinforcement from your family, your friends. This social movement was dependent on volunteers, and there are huge gaps worldwide on those volunteers. One of the gaps is the United States. This is one of two reasons we have not had a major terrorist operation in the United States since 9/11. The other is that we are far more vigilant. We have actually made coming to the U.S. far more difficult for potential terrorists since 2001.
Scattering terrorist works by reducing the group feedback dynamics neccessary to maintain their motivation.
So in 2004, Al Qaeda has new leadership. In a way today’s operatives are far more aggressive and senseless than the earlier leaders. The whole network is held together by the vision of creating the Salafi state. A fuzzy, idea-based network really requires an idea-based solution. The war of ideas is very important and this is one we haven’t really started to engage yet.


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