Members in the Media
From: Time

Inside the Dangerous Mission to Understand What Makes Extremists Tick—and How to Change Their Minds

On a cool winter’s day in early 2014, the American academic Nafees Hamid was invited for tea at the second-story at the Barcelona apartment of a young Moroccan man. It started well enough; they sat down at the kitchen table, chatting amiably in French while two acquaintances of the host sat nearby in the living room. Halfway through the conversation, though, things took a turn. “He started saying things like, ‘Why should we trust any Westerner?’” Hamid recalls. “‘Why would we not kill every one of them? Why should I even trust you—you are an American—sitting here? Why should I even let you out of my apartment?’” The man briefly left the kitchen and went into the living room to speak to the others in Arabic, a language in which Hamid is not fluent. But he repeatedly heard one word he did know: munafiq—a term that, at best, means hypocrite; at worst, “enemy of Islam.”

“I realized that they were talking about me, and that this was going in the wrong direction,” says Hamid, who had arrived hoping to coax the Moroccan to participate in a study.

As quietly as possible, he opened the second-story window and jumped out, his fall cushioned by the awning of a fruit stand below. Adrenaline spiking, he bolted to the safety of a crowded train station a few blocks away.

Field research on jihad has its hazards. Hamid, now 36, had come to the apartment knowing—from a questionnaire he had already filled out—that the Moroccan man harbored extremist inclinations. The effort was part of a larger project to discover the roots of radicalization and what might cause someone to fight or die—or kill—for their beliefs.

But the work goes on, a part of a larger undertaking by an unusual network of policy experts and international scientists, many of whom have their own harrowing tales of escaping danger or navigating dicey situations in pursuit of groundbreaking research. Recently, the group published the first brain-imaging studies on radicalized men and young adults susceptible to radicalization. The private research firm behind the group’s work, Artis International, is officially headquartered in Scottsdale, Ariz., but doesn’t truly have a base. Its academics and analysts operate from far-flung places, tapping an array of funding from various governments, the U.S. military and academic institutions. The central goal of the firm is to advance peace by figuring out what motivates people to become violent—and how to reorient them toward conflict resolution, or prevent them from becoming violent in the first place.

In the 1990s, social psychologists Jonathan Baron at the University of Pennsylvania and Philip Tetlock at the University of California, Berkeley, developed the concept of “sacred values” to counter economic theories that suggested everything had a price. Certain values (like human life, justice, civil liberties, environmental or religious devotion) could be so sacred to people that they would be unwilling to act against them, no matter the cost or consequence.

Atran, who had been studying values for decades through the lens of anthropology, began applying this concept to the study of violent extremists after 9/11. It occurred to him then that, perhaps, the perpetrators had committed the suicide attacks in defense of deep values the rest of the world had been overlooking. By 2007, Atran had advanced this line of thinking in several articles about jihadist terrorists. His Artis colleagues found evidence that material incentives may backfire when adversaries see the issues at the heart of a dispute (like land and nationhood) as “sacred.”

The team’s work, published in the Royal Society Open Science journal in June 2019, has garnered a flurry of attention, especially from social psychologists and other academics interested in human motivation. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University and author of the controversial book The Coddling of the American Mind, commended Atran and his colleagues on their “ecological validity”—how relevant the studies are to real-world problems. “We often use the easiest subjects to obtain, which are college students,” he says. “But Scott, at great expense and with great difficulty has always been committed to ecological validity—to studying people who are truly involved in extreme behavior, including terrorist behavior.”

Read the whole story: Time

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