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A nation must think before it acts.
Motivated by his fear of automation and limited opportunities, as well as by a shortage of resources that he reasoned would be exacerbated by climate change and immigration, Patrick Crusius carried out a terrorist attack to advance his racist population control mission, targeting Latinx individuals and killing 22 Walmart shoppers in El Paso, Texas. Michael Todd Wolfe, who was sentenced to nearly 7 years in prison for attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State, was ready to “hop into Syria [and was] ready to die” for his “righteous brothers” there. A few minutes before committing a vehicular attack in Toronto that killed 10, Alek Minassian declared the “Incel Rebellion” and praised Elliot Rodger, who in 2014 killed six people at U.C. Santa Barbara before ultimately killing himself.
It is this host of national and international terror threats that the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, addressed last week, presenting a Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence. This newly introduced framework calls for the implementation of a whole-of-society approach for prevention—focusing on current and emerging threats, noting that “racially- and ethnically-motivated violent extremism, in particular, violent white supremacism, is one of the most prevalent and abhorrent of these anti-American ideologies.” The new strategic framework calls for a new and updated definition of targeted violence and addresses the need for closer cooperation with communities to combat these issues.
Self-sacrifice for the sake of a group, outside of one’s immediate family, has perplexed scientists since the time of Darwin’s natural selection framework. Evolutionary theorists argued that organisms, including primates, engage in individually risky and costly behavior to ensure that shared genes make it to the next generation. Research suggests that identity fusion, a “visceral sense of oneness with a group,” evolved under that same framework. When the group’s identity takes over the personal self, as in the case of Crusius, Wolfe, and Minassian, individuals are more likely to consider its members as family and the likelihood of taking extreme and costly actions increases. This form of firmly held identity may explain why individuals affiliated with and inspired by ideologies like ethno-nationalism, Salafi jihadism, and incels make the ultimate sacrifice for a group beyond their immediate family.
Dysphoric experiences—extreme experiences such as painful initiation rites, fighting on the frontlines on behalf of an insurgent group, and even imagined ones like the perception of being denied by a group—create self-defining memories that impel individuals to reflect and search for meaning. Perceiving such episodes as being shared with members of one’s group, as in the case of Crusius, Wolfe and Minassian, is a common pathway to bonding with members of that group. Highly fused individuals express themselves and interact with the world on the basis of the group’s identity. For them, membership with the group “is not a means to an end (e.g., a positive social identity) but an end in itself.”
Dysphoric experiences, like losing the last controlled territory in Syria as in the case of the Islamic State, impel individuals to contribute to the group’s objectives. The intensity of such experiences and competition with a stronger enemy increase cooperation between members of the group. The impact of dysphoric experiences on taking actions that advance a group’s objectives is stronger in times of decline in manpower and when one’s group is perceived to be losing.
In the summer of 2019, the Islamic State’s branches in Africa, Asia, Middle East, and the Caucasus renewed their pledges of allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a sequence of 15 propaganda videos. Dysphoria and shared identity are the underlying themes of most of these videos. This series starts with the propagandist from the Islamic State branch in West Africa promising: “Be patient, soldiers of the Islamic State, I swear . . . that you are the righteous ones, and this scourge does nothing but purify your ranks. You are waiting for one of two blessings: victory or martyrdom.”
In the second video of these releases, the propagandist of the Islamic State branch in Sinai, Egypt, puts the argument succinctly in what he called the Logic of Scourge: “The believer gets scourged on the basis of his faith. For the committed, the steadfast believers, god scourges them with more. God lowers the burden on the least committed. For god scourges the people of faith until they are absolved of sin.” The first and second release, much like the others, paired footage showing the hardship endured by members of the terrorist organization during the Battle of Baghouz in eastern Syria with statements on the logic of scourge and how such dysphoric experiences would increase their resolve. Brotherhood in pain and oneness with the group were the clearest themes in these videos.
Evolutionary evidence suggests that when a group faces existential crisis, free-riders lose incentive to stay with that group. While this trend leads to a decline in membership, dysphoric episodes experienced during times of crisis strengthen the bonds between members of a group, motivating them to take extreme actions to ensure the survival of such a group. The Islamic State’s latest series of propaganda videos described this process in terms of scourge and purifying the ranks. Wolfe spoke of his yearning to travel to Syria to “be with” his brothers, to “protect them and fight with them.” He was ready to die for his “righteous brothers.” Crusius was prepared to sacrifice himself so that he would advance a white dystopian America. Minassian tried to attain similar martyr status as his hero, Elliot Rodger, by attempting to unleash the incel revolution.
Previous work on the topic demonstrated the resilience of identity fusion to institutional efforts aimed at defusing individuals from violent groups. The newly released DHS framework is a strategic document that outlines the top-level guiding principles pertaining to countering terrorism and the prevention of targeted violence. It leaves the implementation of these principles to its community and private sector partners. According to research on identity fusion, facts do not unite us. If shared pain—real or perceived—is what unites members of violent groups and mobilizes them to take extreme action like suicide bombing, then facts may not be the best antidote to countering hateful ideology. Our enemies, strategically or intuitively, use the narrative of shared pain to signal to members and sympathizers their pivotal role during times of extreme hardship. This, they contend, will be the key to the survival of the group. As such, an approach that aims at distorting perceived sharedness of pain and struggle with members of a violent group could pay more dividends for DHS’ community and private sector partners.