Figuring Out the Causes of and Conditions for Terrorism

In the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, Scott Atran and Marc Sageman look at the short comings on research into terrorism and discuss a new pilot.

How do terrorists become radicalized? What motivates them? Who supports them? Who among them is most liable to defect? We don’t have reliable answers to these vital questions because of a dearth of relevant data.

Several extensive terrorist databases currently exist. But they are incident-based catalogs of terrorist names and events: who, what, where, and when. Conspicuously absent is the “why.” The records illustrate the geographic distribution and frequency of attacks and focus on operations rather than on what drives the terrorists. The U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, for instance, maintains a central repository of 325,000 names of international suspects and people who allegedly aided them. The names, usually harvested from telephone or e-mail intercepts, are important to collect. But names and numbers alone don’t indicate why an individual turned to terror. We can collect names and numbers endlessly, but until we understand the reasons behind terrorism, we will be underprepared to fight it.

A database that focuses on the complexities of people, rather than incidents, would be the best way to better understand and predict terrorist behavior. To that end, we have piloted a database that now includes more than 500 people involved in global network terrorism (GNT).

Our database comprises two parts. The first is a detailed categorization of basic biographical and socioeconomic information, including nationality, ethnicity, occupation, and religious upbringing. The second addresses the vast network of connections–the glue that holds the diverse array of terrorists together–and includes data on acquaintances, family ties, friendships, and venues for terrorist training. Such an approach is crucial since the growth of GNT is largely a decentralized, evolutionary process. And, as in any natural evolutionary process, individual variation and environmental context are the critical determinants of future directions and paths.