The New York Times

The New York Times 3 Mar 2020

I Studied The Brains of Potential Terrorists. Here's What I Learned.


A far-right nationalist opened fire in a hookah bar in Hanau, Germany, last month killing nine people. That same week, New Jersey raised the threat-assessment level of white extremists to a higher level than ISIS'.

How do we protect ourselves against attacks from white nationalists?

In the above video, a cognitive scientist, Nafees Hamid, argues the answer lies in understanding the minds of radicalized Islamists.

He spent the past seven years studying supporters of groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda and convinced more than 70 of them to have their brains scanned in an MRI. The results of two experiments show that we may have more power than we think to prevent the next white-nationalist attack.

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… show captions ↓
Terrorists rely on you and me and the way
we speak about their crimes to increase
the impact, the virtual blast radius, massively,
from a small town to the whole nation.
"Once again in America, we are waking up
to horrifying news."
"Mass shooting with casualties."
"In El Paso, Texas, new details
about the carnage at a Wal-Mart."
The Shooting in El Paso, Texas, was
one of several deadly attacks in the U.S. last year
and beyond.
We have a power and responsibility to save lives,
but it means changing the way we
talk in the aftermath of an attack.
You see, I'm a cognitive scientist,
and I've spent the last seven years interviewing
radicalized people —
members and supporters of groups
like Al Qaeda and ISIS.
My colleagues and I carried out
a bunch of psychological tests,
including the first-ever brain scans of radicalized people.
We didn't find any evidence of mental illness,
but what we did find were clues
to what makes people willing to fight and die
for their beliefs.
To show you how, I need to tell you about these brain
scans, and that means taking you here.
This is where our fieldwork began,
looking for young men between the ages of 18 and 40,
all on the path to radicalization.
And under the promise of anonymity,
they agreed to step inside an MRI machine.
I need to stop here for a second,
because it's important that you
know about what cognitive scientists call
sacred values.
We all have beliefs that we care so passionately
about that we'd be willing to go to extreme lengths
to defend them.
Well, guess what?
Jihadists also have sacred values,
and they're willing to use violence to defend them.
And white nationalists have sacred values, too.
It starts with one of these.
We put some of our participants,
the less radicalized ones, into a virtual ballgame
with three other players.
They threw the ball to each other like this.
After a couple of rounds, half the players
were excluded from the game.
The other players ignored them.
And that's when we put them into the MRI scanner.
We know from previous research that when
people are processing their sacred values,
this part of the brain right here is very active.
And when our subjects were thinking
about their sacred values, sure enough, it lit up.
But after they were ejected from the ballgame,
something weird happened.
It lit up for non-sacred values, too.
In other words, when they felt excluded,
the list of things they're willing to fight and die for
got longer.
Of course, people don't commit terrorist attacks
just because nobody plays ball with them.
But our research shows that if someone
is at the early stage of radicalization,
excluding them can make them more willing to use violence.
In the next study, we took 30 highly radicalized supporters
of an Al Qaeda associate and showed
them a scale like this.
We asked them to rate their willingness
to fight and die for a series of sacred values,
and then we showed them where their peers--
other Muslims in the community —
fell on the scale.
And while they were doing this,
we scanned their brains.
We found that when our subjects were highly
willing to use violence, this part of the brain
was deactivated.
And that's a problem, because it
could mean that they're not as open to negotiation
or persuasion.
So how do we reopen this person's mind?
Well, when we told our participants
that their wider social group were not as willing
to commit violence as they were, this part of the brain
And get this — they lowered their explicit willingness
to fight and die for these values just
to match their peers.
The lesson here is that people can be turned away
from violence if they believe that a wider
social group disapproves.
This is only the first glimpse into the minds
of radicalized people, but I do
think it tells us something important about the role we
play in preventing terrorism.
In the days after the El Paso shooting,
I saw a lot of tweets like this —
prominent figures saying Trump's base
is white nationalist, or if you support Trump,
you support terrorism.
Now, I'm not saying you shouldn't call out racism,
but in a case like this, blaming all conservatives
risks making someone out there feel more excluded.
And if they're at the early stages of radicalization,
it could push them closer to violence.
At the very least, it creates divisions
in society, which is exactly what terrorists
want to achieve.
No. 1, don't blame whole groups.
And if you see or hear friends, family
or people you follow online talking that way,
challenge them.
And number two, seek out and amplify voices
on the right who are condemning violence.
I still remember this tweet from a Trump supporter
urging him to make a statement about white nationalism.
He said, "We have to tell them we do not want them to be
part of us."
Voices like this have the power to turn someone away
from violence.
We're not responsible for the actions of terrorists,
but we all have the power to limit the blast
radius of an atrocity and maybe even prevent
the next one.

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