The Importance of Group Dynamics, Identity Fusion and Social Networks

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Understanding how sacred values influence decision-making, leading to deontic judgments and choices in disregard for material interests, is necessary but not sufficient to explain how they may influence extreme and costly behaviors. Sacred values may influence extreme behavior particularly to the extent that they become embedded or fused with identity and internalized. When internalized, they lessen societal costs of policing morality through self-monitoring, and blind members to offers to exit the group no matter how reasonable or rewarding.

There is more to group dynamics than just the weight and mass of people, their behavior, and ideas. There are also the structural relationships between group members that make the group more than the sum of its individual members (Magouirk, Atran & Sageman, 2008; Smaldino, 2014). It is the networking among members that distributes thoughts and tasks that no one part may completely control or even understand. Case studies of suicide terrorism and related forms of violent political conflict suggest that people almost never kill and die just for The Cause, but also for each other: for their group, whose cause binds their imagined family of genetic strangers—their brotherhood, fatherland, motherland, homeland (Atran, 2010a:33).

In this vein, Identity Fusion Theory holds that when people’s collective identities become fused with their personal self-concept, they display increased willingness to engage in extreme pro-group behavior when the group is threatened (Swann, Jetten Gómez, Whitehouse, & Bastian, 2012). Fusion theory differs from social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) in privileging group cohesion through tight, kin-like bonding of people and values ritualized in oaths and acts that often involve shared pain and suffering (Whitehouse, 2018), rather than through conceptual association and categorization.

Individuals and groups are thus empowered with sentiments of invincibility, exceptional destiny, and a willingness of each member of the group to self-sacrifice for every other and the group as a whole. In the field, we find that radicalization often involves “born again” identity change, with fusion occurring in tightly-clustered social network “scenes”: families, neighborhoods, work and sports teams, school and study groups, prisons, in expatriate and refugee communities, among migrants and fellow travelers, and in social media cliques.

Reports from The Soufan Group (2015), International Center for Study of Radicalisation (King’s College) and Combating Terrorism Center (West Point) indicate that about three-fourths of those who join ISIS do so in groups, as with al-Qaeda (Sageman 2004)—although there is more direct recruitment by ISIS (Atran & Hamid, 2015), whereas al-Qaeda was more an attractor for self-seekers (Sageman, 2008; Atran, 2010a). These groups often involve preexisting social networks, and typically cluster in particular towns and neighborhoods (Perliger & Milton, 2016). Clustering suggests that much recruitment owes not to individual exposure to organization agents or social media (which would entail a more dispersed recruitment pattern). Rather, recruiting often critically involves enlisting family, friends, and fellow travelers from specific locales (e.g., neighborhood, school, work place, prison), indicating a public health rather than strictly criminal approach to violent extremism as more appropriate (Alcalá, Sharif, & Samari, 2017).

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Consider, for example, the evolution of Paris–Brussels attack networks (2015–2016) in terms of ISIS’s increasing operational effectiveness via growing reliance on local facilitation networks involving preexisting social ties (Hamid, 2017). In 2014, at least 21 ISIS operatives were sent back from Syria into Europe to carry out attacks on soft targets. All were Francophone; most were French and Belgian; others came from former French colonies. They reentered individually or in pairs. All attacks, except one, were foiled. All were directed by ISIS’s external operations branch, EMNI (aka Amn al-Kharji). The attackers’ lack of local facilitation networks contributed to their failings. In contrast, the “success” of the November 2015 Paris and March 2016 Brussels attacks can be attributed largely to an extensive inter-European facilitation network of overlapping, preexisting, local social ties—including many individuals with no direct involvement in, or even knowledge of, planning or execution.

Network analysis indicates that women are often key social connectors that maintain terrorist networks in the long run. Women tend to fall under the radar of security and intelligence agencies that are primarily focused on those actively engaged in criminal acts (which also makes women “an ideal stealth weapon for terrorist groups,” Bloom, 2011). The role of women also changes as a function of the conflict dynamics. Thus, al-Qaeda primarily has been a clandestine group that foments spectacular acts of violence in multiple venues to gain attention and audience, and relies primarily on young men because they are more susceptible to commit severe violence than other age grades (Ellis, Beaver, & Wright, 2009; Junger-Tas et al., 2012), more prone to violence than women (Eagly & Steffen, 1986; Vugt et al., 2007), and traditionally more solicited into jihadi violence in particular. By contrast, ISIS sought to build a territorial state, which requires women to populate and maintain it. Once ISIS declared the Caliphate In Syria and Iraq, between one-fourth and one-third of all who joined were women (Atran & Hamid, 2015). A few women also became key links between ISIS-central in Syria and local European communities, such as Fatima Aberkan in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels.

Family and Influence Network of Fatima Aberkan, Belgian “Mother of Jihad.” Fatima’s brother, Abdelhouaid, helped facilitate the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud on September 9, 2001, which Bin Laden believed gave him cover with the Taliban to execute the 9/11 attacks. Fatima was condemned in 2015 to 8 years in prison for contaminating her entourage with jihadist ideology, and again in 2016 for being a leader of a terrorist group, having helped recruit numerous individuals into the Zerkani network that exploited family, friends, and underworld connections in France and Belgium to set up the attacks. While in Syria she sent messages to her circle in Belgium encouraging them to travel to Syria to fight for jihad. One of her son’s died in Syria; another was tried and condemned for terrorist activities. Her two daughters also went to Syria. Fatima’s sister, Naima, was also tried and condemned for jihadist activities.

Fatima Aberkan’s role suggests that radicalization is not merely about singling out radical individuals, but identifying networks within which individuals, families, peer groups and authority figures operate. Even in the age of the “lone wolf terrorist,” absolute isolation does not exist: ideas are shared, inter-linked and made actionable even without physical contact.[endnoteRef:1] [1: Lone-actor terrorist profiles vary. Those inspired by al-Qaeda have often been students seeking approval from authority figures; right-wing terrorists are more likely to be of limited education, unemployed, with criminal records and a history of mental illness (Gill et al., 2013) – tendencies also emergent in ISIS-inspired lone-actor attacks in Western Europe (Basra & Neumann, 2017).]

To understand the intricate networking of people and ideas, as well as susceptibility to social media, requires an epidemiology of radical notions in host social networks (Bond & Bushman, 2017). Although we may never be able to accurately predict which particular people will break into violence or when (much as we can’t predict which steam bubbles will first rise and burst when water boils), we do know some of the main enabling conditions, such as weakened or collapsed community structures and moral authority. Devitalized communities are potentially host to any number of socially disruptive and debilitating pathogens.

These include drug trafficking and crimes that garner local support as “Robin Hood” forms of social resistance in a hostile environment but actually further enfeeble communities. The distress of such communities amplifies the effects of perceived unfair treatment, deprivation and marginalization from mainstream or majority culture, and becomes a force for radicalization (Van de Bos, 2018).

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