What is on Terrorists' Minds?

As authors and screenwriters, it's our unenviable job to interpret what's going on in the world to our readers and viewers.

Take the highly emotionally charged topic of terrorism and terrorists.  Act of terror either by groups or isolated lone wolf terrorists seem to happen daily and almost anywhere.  Fear of terrorism has become a fact of modern life.

What are these people thinking when they plan or execute an attack?

According to this research led by Sumitra Sri Bhashyam and Gilberto Montibeller, one reason anti-terror officials find it hard to predict attacks is predictive modelling that assumes a rational mind trying to achieve clear objects effectively and efficiently.  As researchers across a number of fields are pointing out, the rational conscious mind gives us an impression of being in control of our thoughts and actions but that in reality our conscious self only acts as a "traffic cop" between thoughts and impulses generated in different parts of our mind.

As one researcher puts it, "free will. . . does not exist."

When looking at terrorist motivation, the authors of this study, "urge counter-terrorism modelers to consider how terrorists' preferences are affected by 'emotions and visceral factors' that influence their decisions about short- and long-term goals."

Many terrorists and apparently lone wolf terrorists are motivated by rage similar to the road rage experienced around the world.  Others are motivated by the desire to fit in and be accepted with the group.  A strange motivation for blowing yourself up or causing mass deaths.

Sometimes it's hard to remember that terrorists are people first, subject to all the desires, needs and wants of you and I.  This seems to be what the researchers in this report are implying:  that what motivates these people is similar to what motivates everyone else.  If we're ever to get a handle on the violence, we need predictive models based on this insight.

A reminder.  A number of research reports state clearly that mental illness is NOT a direct cause of violence on any level.  While it may be present in a criminal or terrorist, it is not directly linked to nor predictive of violence. In fact, it is much more likely that the mentally ill will be victims of violence rather than perpetrators.  Drugs, alcohol, access to firearms, a history of childhood abuse, deep seated anger and rage, and even our heredity - all play a bigger role in predicting who will act with violence.

Here's the report with a link to the original story in the attribution:
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What's on terrorists' minds?
Research points to improved prediction models

Counter-terrorism officials working to anticipate where and how terrorists are planning their attacks could gain important insights into terrorists’ judgments by modifying the widely held assumption that terrorists are fully rational actors who seek to maximize tangible goals and instead recognizing that their rationality is limited and that emotional factors of anger and fear could affect their behavior.

Terrorists' decisions about which targets to attack and how to launch attacks are driven by a variety of emotional factors that are not well reflected in counter-terrorism modeling used to predict suicide bombings and other terrorist actions, according to a new study that challenges current assumptions employed by terrorism analysts and suggests ways to achieve more accurate assessments.

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The new study thoroughly explores the current trend in modeling terrorists' judgments.  That trend assumes people who commit such acts are "fully rational" in striving to achieve goals as efficiently and effectively as possible. The study urges counter-terrorism modelers to consider how terrorists' preferences are affected by "emotions and visceral factors" that influence their decisions about short- and long-term goals.

Drawing widely from such fields as behavioral decision research, politics, philosophy of choice, and conflict management in terrorism, researchers propose modifications in the assumptions used by counter-terrorism risk analysts to make models conform more closely to what actually is known about terrorists' motivations and judgments. Current models are incomplete in their key assumptions that terrorists only seek to maximize economic or damaging impacts, that they have well-established and stable preferences, and that they view the probabilities of achieving success of their actions objectively.

According to Sri Bhashyam and Montibeller, there are different types of terrorists who cannot be assumed to operate in a fully rational way. Although "sympathizers" can be assumed to fit current rational decision making models, such rationality does not hold in many instances for "active" and "suicidal" terrorists, whose profiles are based on research (for example, the understanding of suicidal terrorists' motivations are based on secondary research on interviews with failed suicidal terrorists).
  • Active terrorists -- including leaders -- can be "impulsive, emotionally unstable and are prone to externalize their emotions," such as anger.
  • Suicidal terrorists, on the other hand, "seek care and guidance from stronger personality figures" and "benefit" from the attention accompanying martyrdom.
The authors note that:
"passions and visceral factors influence an agent to
behave extremely myopically and to seek immediate
rewards, disregarding any detrimental effects."

 As such, the authors recommend that counter-terrorism modelers consider terrorists as myopic decision makers. Terrorists also should be considered as subject to clouded objectives due to irrational visceral factors; for example, in anger, agents become risk-seeking (comparable to road rage).

The authors also provide an extensive table of "social objectives" associated with terrorism that should be given more weight in counter-terrorism models than straightforward political gain. In addition, terrorists' risk attitude should be considered, with fearful terrorists being risk-averse and angry terrorists being risk-prone.

Lastly, terrorists' biased estimates when "assessing the performance of certain strikes and their likelihood of success" can be worsened by visceral factors, and this factor should be incorporated into models to improve the descriptive validity of attackers' judgments.

Related stories:
Story Source:  Materials provided by Society for Risk Analysis (SRA).  Sumitra Sri Bhashyam, Gilberto Montibeller. In the Opponent's Shoes: Increasing the Behavioral Validity of Attackers’ Judgments in Counterterrorism Models. Risk Analysis, 2015

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