Through the Wormhole s07e01 Episode Script

What Makes a Terrorist?

1 We're at war, and the battle lines have been redrawn.
Terrorism can strike anywhere and everyone is a target.
Science is peering into the dark heart of terror networks to find out why terrorists embrace unspeakable atrocities.
Are they so different from us, or do we all have the ability to give our lives for a cause? Could we learn to dehumanize our enemies, or could science show us a way to stop terrorism and understand what makes a terrorist? Space, time, life itself.
The secrets of the cosmos lie through the wormhole.
When four planes dropped out of a clear-blue sky on September 11th, 2001, it was shocking to realize we were all potential targets.
Today, al-qaeda and Isis claim the headlines, but it was once the ira and basque separatists in Europe, or anarchists and the Ku Klux Klan in the United States.
Terrorists, like any group, have ideals they belive in a cause to rally around.
But for them, the cause justifies the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians.
How can they think that way? Can we peer inside the mind of a terrorist? Anthropologist Scott Atran has spent years trying to understand the enemy.
He went to the front lines of Iraq, embedding himself with American allies to meet terrorists face to face.
This is the foremost position on the front lines.
I'm 10 kilometers west of makhmur.
So, we went to Iraq in 2016 to follow up on a battle.
Some 500 kurdish soldiers had cornered fewer than 100 Isis fighters.
When all appeared to be lost to them and the last 15 were retreated, 7 of them blew themselves up to cover their retreat.
The kurdish forces, seeing this, decided it just wasn't worth trying to hold on to the territory, even though they vastly outnumbered the islamic state fighters.
Scott wanted to know how such a small group were able to hold off a much more formable force.
He sat down to interview captured Isis fighters and put them through a battery of tests to assess the strength of the group.
Scott discovered there was an incredible bond between these fighters.
They would do anything for their cause.
Scott has been studying the dynamics of groups for years.
Humans are the preeminent group animal.
That's what allows us to build things like that.
It's a collective effort.
They have to coordinate, and they have to take risks for one another.
In fact, they have to be able to sacrifice for one another.
One world trade stands as a testament to America's resolve after September 11th.
When the towers came down in 2001, it was the iron workers from local 40, amongst others, who rebuilt the site a decade later.
Terrorists and iron workers seem like polar opposites to us.
But to an anthropologist, both groups share a crucial trait.
These New York City iron workers risk their lives every day for each other maneuvering these massive beams while balancing hundreds of feet in the air.
Just set it down here.
They have an extremely close group dynamic.
Today, Scott is going to measure how strong it is, administering to them the same test he has given to terrorists in Iraq.
We're interested in how individuals relate to the groups they live with and they work with.
The test is simple.
It involves five cards.
Each card shows a pair of circles.
The small one represents me.
The large circle represents the group.
In the first pairing, the "me" circle and the "group" circle are totally separate.
But gradually, they begin to overlap.
In the fifth pairing, the "me" circle is entirely contained within the "group" circle, the two identities fully fused.
And what I'd like you to do is pick the one that defines the way you think you are.
The iron workers see their identities closely overlapped by the group's.
Scott expects this it's a natural byproduct of a tight-knit group in a highly risky profession.
So, how do the iron workers' answers to the test compare to those of terrorists? The terrorists' answers were unlike those of any other group Scott had studied.
For them, the group was all consuming.
The individual was nonexistent.
Well, they did this with guerillas in Libya, where they actually rubbed it out and blackened out the "me" in the group, as if there were no difference.
Well, then we say they they're completely fused with the group.
What makes their dedication so extreme? Scott says it has to do with the values that hold the group together.
Iron workers are loyal to their brothers, but probably wouldn't go to work if they weren't paid or their families were being threatened.
Not so for Isis fighters, who see their group as their salvation and an islamic state as absolutely non-negotiable.
These values have become sacred to them.
Sacred values are often religious values, because they're transcendent.
You wouldn't comprise or negotiate to trade off your children.
Many of us wouldn't negotiate or comprise to trade off our country or our religion for any amount of money, under any social pressure.
They respond on all other measures willingness to fight, to die, to sacrifice for one other, to torture, to have their families suffer.
And so, if you have a group of people fused around a set of ideas they hold sacred, for which no negotiation and compromise is possible, well, then you have the most formable fighting force possible.
And Isis is no exception.
Scott's work has shown how terrorists are single-minded and absolutely committed to a cause.
But how do they take this behavior so far as to load a car full of explosives and blow up a building full of innocent people? How do we shut down our ability to care for others? According to psychologist Jay Van bavel, our brains have a remarkable ability to dehumanize others under the right circumstances.
Jay has designed a test to demonstrate how we recognize humanity in the first place.
People came in, we took an image of a doll and morphed it with a human face that looked very similar.
And when does this face look human to you? Jay asked participants the same question.
And right about now.
Just passed the half-way mark between the doll face and the real face, most of us perceive that the face is human and has a mind.
Right There.
In Jay's field, it's called "perception of mind.
" But he says it's not fixed.
Jay adjusted the experiment, and told his subjects what college the person in the photo went to.
Their own college, an in-group And right about now.
or a rival college across town, an out-group.
This rivalry had a measurable effect.
What we found was that these students were able to mind behind the in-group face much faster.
And they were slower to see the humanity in students from another college.
Right about now.
These are subtle kinds of dehumanization.
How do we get into the mind of a terrorist who can view a tower full of civilians as a justifiable target? Jay believes it's easier than you think.
For a second experiment, Jay divides subjects, arbitrarily, into two teams the "rattlers" and the "eagles.
" We told people that we were keeping track of points, and the winning team would walk away with the money.
Jay's creating the essence of conflict two group competing for resources.
So, now I'm gonna read both teams a number of statements.
He reads the group short stories about people who supposedly belong to neither team.
Jane managed to get indoors before it started to rain.
These stories are designed to measure empathy.
If you empathize with the person's story, you put your thumb up.
If you don't care, thumb down.
Brandon got soaked by a taxi driver through a puddle.
Eagles and rattlers give equally empathetic responses.
Then Jay changes the game.
Andrew sat in gum on a park bench.
Andrew is a member of the eagles.
Serves him right.
Even in an entirely artificial setting, the results are profound.
Once there's competition added to the mix, conflict can escalate very quickly towards the out-group.
Team members actually take pleasure in the other team's pain.
Remember, they've only been assigned to these teams for a matter of minutes.
The thing that's really remarkable is that there needs to be no history of conflict or any stereotypes towards the groups for them to start feel negative towards them.
Right there.
Jay's tests reveal that dehumanization can happen with very little prodding.
Whenever groups compete, the dehumanization process begins.
When that competition includes whole cultures, the results can be deadly.
If science has discovered anything about terrorists, it's that we all have the potential to think like one.
All of our brains are programmed to dehumanize.
We all have values that we can't compromise.
So what stops us from thinking and acting in extreme ways? The answer to that lies less in what you believe and more in who you know.
After every big coordinated terrorist attack in Europe, the U.
, or Asia, we wonder how it could have happened again.
How did a terrorist cell live among us for months or years before deciding to strike? What's the glue that binds them together, and how can we dismantle them before they strike again.
A café in central London may seem like a strange place for a lab, but this is where social psychologist nafees Hamid is trying to uncover the structure of terror networks.
My goal is to understand the "how" of recruitment.
If you start with how, you understand the networks that are in play.
Nafees is trying to figure out how terror networks function and how they can be pulled apart.
It's not a simple task.
There's a lot of theories out there, but there's very little data, and this is largely because it's hard to get jihadis to go into a laboratory.
But nafees, a Pakistani-American living in London, tried something a little out of the ordinary.
He called them.
Salaam alaikum, brother.
How are you? How's it going? I decided to just contact them directly online found them on social media, on Twitter, on various accounts.
Getting terrorists on the phone is not as hard as you think.
I'm very honest, and that's the key.
There's so many people, intelligence officers and so forth, who are pretending to be people they're not to contact these people, and they can usually sniff those people out.
How's the weather in sham today? Nafees uses these conversations to make social network analysis models of terrorist groups.
He's not tracking "likes" on Facebook.
He's looking at terrorists real-life social networks friends, family, and acquaintances.
He's talked to members of Isis, al-qaeda, groups all over the world.
Nafees' research leads him to believe the reasons people join a terror cell has little to do with how religious their family is or how how poor their neighborhood is.
There doesn't seem to be a correlation between the ecology of an environment and who radicalizes and who doesn't radicalize.
Instead, your best predictor of whether someone's going to go join an islamist group is whether they have a friend who's already a member of that group.
Friendships basically create an echo chamber that allows the radicalization process to take shape.
So, does knowing how these networks form tell us how to break them apart? Paris, 2015.
Brussels, 2016.
After the attacks, attention focused on an Isis terror cell from the poor Brussels suburb of Molenbeek and their radical leader Abdelhamid Abaaoud.
What's amazing about the Paris, Brussels attack is that a terror cell carried out a major attack on European soil, then had the weight of all of the police and intelligence agencies of Europe brought down on it, and then was able to successfully carry out a second attack within months.
How were they able to do this? Nafees supplies social network analysis to the Molenbeek cell to see how the group functioned.
Nafees measures each man's importance to the group by the quantity and type of his connections within it.
How long had he known the others, from where? Had they served on the battlefield or done time together in prison? In order to carry off an attack of this magnitude, you need deep friendships with people.
In the end, you're trusting these people with your lives, and so if they're siblings, if they're childhood friends, prison mates.
And you really see this in this network.
Predictably, abdelhamid abaaoud has the most connections.
But abaaoud was killed in a police shootout right after the Paris attacks.
And instead of falling apart, the terror cell struck again in Brussels.
Nafees says that network analysis doesn't just track how many connections you have, it also tracks how you know those connections.
"Are you the only one bridging one group to another?" "Do you only know people who live close to you?" Using all of these metrics, a seemingly minor player named salah abdeslam rises to the surface.
Salah was a guy who never went to Syria, never recruited anyone himself, was supposed to blow himself up in Paris, but chickened out at the last minute.
This was guy who was clearly less radicalized than abdelhamid abaaoud.
Salah didn't know as many people as abaaoud, but he knew more kinds of people.
He was often the only bridge between different groups.
Salah abdeslam was driving all over Europe, back and forth, connecting people, moving money around.
He was connecting players that wouldn't have been connected to each other had he not been filling that social network up.
Facilitators like salah are often less radical, less visible.
They stay off the radar and help a terror group survive, even after the leader is taken out.
Generally, police, intelligence agencies don't pay enough attention to the facilitators.
If you go after those people, you will do more in reducing the efficacy of that network then if you go after the central figures.
"Focus on the facilitators.
" This is a good rule of thumb, until it's not.
As law enforcement has grown more successful tracking terror cells, more attacks are being carried out by solo actors.
And these lone wolves could be anywhere.
The lone wolf the killer who's part of no cell, who arouses no suspicion until he acts.
In September 2014, Isis issued a global call for its followers to attack the west.
And since then, the pace of lone wolf attacks has been accelerating.
The Orlando nightclub shooting, the deadliest attack by a lone gunman in American history, was part of that horrifying trend.
Can science trace the origin of lone wolves and help us stop them? Social psychologist Sophia Moskalenko researches radicalism at a university of Maryland think tank.
She grew up immersed in the subject, but not by choice.
I was born in the Republic of Ukraine, and when I was growing up, I was part of the Soviet union's effort to radicalize all of its citizens.
I often questioned that and got into a lot of trouble at school for questioning it.
Radicalism is still the focus of her life.
Now she studies the path people take to terrorism.
More frequently, people become radicalized through groups or through people that they already know who belong to terrorists or radical groups.
On rare occasions, however, people radicalize on their own.
Typically, these lone wolves, like Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, or Omar Mateen the Orlando mass shooter, are disturbed misfits.
And people like that can turn to terrorism to escape their demons.
But in 2004, UK Investigators uncovered a plot that challenged everyone's notion of what makes a terrorist.
They were tailing a terror cell.
All the members were known to law enforcement, except one man who only was discovered when another member picked him up from the airport.
They saw someone they didn't yet know who, in fact, turned out to be Momin Khawaja.
24 year old Momin Khawaja lived in Ottawa, Canada.
He was a computer programer with no criminal record.
He had become radicalized in total isolation, just like a lone wolf.
Police arrested Khawaja and the others before hey had time to act.
The cell was plotting to make and detonate a number of fertilizer bombs in and around London, and Khawaja's role in the plot was to design and make the detonators.
Captured terrorists rarely take you back to the turning points of their youth, but Khawaja was different.
In blogs and e-mails, he chronicled his journey growing up in the suburbs of Ottawa, Canada, in a house much like this.
Khawaja was unique in that he liked to write down his thoughts, his feelings, his intentions.
For Sophia, finding these written records was like stumbling upon a terrorist's private journal.
I once was a normal kid, too.
I played basketball, went swimming, bike riding, and did all the naughty, little things kids do.
For us, as researchers, this was a very rare opportunity to look into the mind of a terrorist as radicalization was unfolding in real time.
How did he turn to terror? He and his family had no contact with terrorists.
He lived a typical teenage life of friends and schoolwork.
In his writing, he expressed one motive for his radicalization empathy.
He identified deeply with the suffering of fellow muslims.
Khawaja was emotionally affected.
He watched fundamentalist islamic videos that depicted injustices perpetuated by the west on muslims or revenge that muslims take on westerners.
Then, right after I got out of college, the invasion of Afghanistan happened.
I felt that something was wrong terribly wrong.
He was driven by ideology and felt compelled to pick a side.
He picked the side of terror.
He was a very sensitive individual who couldn't just stand idly while someone else was suffering.
Finally, fully radicalized, Khawaja boarded a plane to a terror training camp in Pakistan.
That's where he first met the other members of his cell.
Khawaja combined many qualities that can be prized in any society.
He was a self-starter, he was very smart, and under different circumstances, if he became a doctor, which, you know, he contemplated at one point, he would have utilized all of those talents and propensities in a very different way.
But he was instead put on this path that lead him to terrorism.
The goals of men like Momin Khawaja are a despicable perversion of empathy.
Psychologists say most young terrorists share the same traits as young people everywhere.
They desperately want to belong to something.
But how can they decide to kill themselves for their cause? It may be easier than you think.
Suicide attacks, the most insidious aspect of terrorism - killers who walk calmly among their victims before they strike.
The phenomenon has haunted us for over a century.
The first we know of was a Russian revolutionary who assassinated a czar.
Since the 1980s, the number of suicide attacks has risen dramatically, taking the lives of almost 50,000 people.
How can this happen so often? What can make someone want to end their life in an act of mass murder? It's a question psychologist arie kruglanski has long grappled with.
The early assumption on the part of social scientists was that it reflects a kind of psychopathology that is people are basically mentally disturbed and abnormal.
That was in the '70s and early '80s.
But research has never shown that terrorists have any more mental problems than the general population.
So how do they decide to kill themselves in order to murder many? Surely, most people would not make this choice.
Or could they? Let's go, big red! Could these cheerleaders become martyrs? Let's go! It's an absurd question, but arie believes anyone can, given the right push.
In the particular experiment, we try to emulate the process of group identification what are you ready to commit on behalf of the group? Arie divides his subjects into two groups, then he asks each group to read a story and to circle the pronouns as they go.
But arie has given each groups slightly different versions of the story.
One group has a story which only has singular pronouns "I," "me," and "my.
" "I go to the city often.
" My anticipation fills me "as I see the skyscrapers come into view.
" The other group has the same story, but with plural pronouns "we," "us," and "ours.
" "We go to the city often.
" Our anticipation fills us "as we see the skyscrapers come into view.
" Arie's priming his subjects, activating their subconscious to focus on belonging or not belonging to a group.
It has been demonstrated that once you prime these plural pronouns, a person gets into a mind set of group identification.
After this priming, it's time to test exactly how much the "we" and the "I" groups would sacrifice for members of their own group.
He asks the cheerleaders to participate in a classic psychological scenario called the trolley problem.
It portrays individuals who are in danger of being run over by a trolley, and the dilemma is for a person who could safe them by sacrificing their life in throwing themselves in front of the trolley.
First, arie tests the subjects who were primed to think of themselves as individuals.
Let's go, big red! Only 30% say they would give their lives for their friends.
Then arie tests the "we" group.
Let's go, big red! The difference is profound.
Over 90% of people primed with the "we," "ours," "us" pronouns were willing to self-sacrifice for the group.
Arie's experiment shows that group dynamics have incredible influence on individual behavior.
Even a subtle feeling of belonging can dramatically change what you're willing to do.
And that doesn't mean that everybody's equally susceptible to the influence of violent ideologies.
So there are individual differences, but by and large, it's not a psychopathological phenomena.
These people are not crazy, so it's a question of group pressure, group influence.
Arie says that group pressure and the human desire to belong is the lever that allows terrorists to give their lives for a cause.
Under certain circumstances, even the most normal person can become a violent extremist.
If subtle cues can push someone towards violent self-sacrifice, the right push in the other direction might stop it.
What kind of push? The first step to changing an extremist's mind might be to agree with him.
We've looked inside the mind of a terrorist.
What we really want to know is whether there is a way to get into that mind and change it.
You've heard the expression "winning the hearts and minds of the enemy.
" With terrorists, that seems like a tall order.
But there might be a way, and it starts by making a slight adjustment to another old phrase "if you can't beat them, agree with them.
" Psychology professor eran halperin studies the science of changing minds.
It's an uphill battle in his country, Israel, home to the intractable struggle between Israelis and palestinians.
One of the reasons most traditional peace interventions do not work is that we have two groups of people with opposing views trying to reason with each other.
Israelis and palestinians argue like humans everywhere one side express an opinion, the other counters it.
When someone tells you something that you disagree with, the most automatic reaction is to try to confront him with a counter message.
But we've all been in arguments where reason gets you nowhere, for deeply held beliefs, say, for gun control or abortion.
Science has shown that counter messages can actually be counter productive.
Because, basically, their beliefs, their attitudes are part of their identity, and then anything that contradicts what they believe in sounds to them, or looks to them, like a threat.
In psychology, we call the the state of mind "frozen.
" This kind of freezing can happen around any tightly held belief, and it happens with terrorists.
Their believes are sacred to them, and they become frozen, resisting any argument, no matter how rational.
As a young man, eran looked around his homeland.
He saw a conflict seemingly without end and a sea of frozen minds.
I was very seriously injured in the Israeli army, and I decided that this is my mission.
We cannot just accept it as the reality.
This cannot be the only situation in which we can live in.
But how do you change minds without having an argument? Eran and his students at Tel Aviv university had an idea.
We are going to tell people with extreme views, "you know, what? You're right.
" Eran calls it "paradoxical thinking.
" It's like mental jujitsu you use people's own opinions against them.
Let's go go back to a rivalry we already know.
Say you have a friend who is a rabid fan of the rattlers.
You could tell him how awesome the eagles are, but this will just freeze his love of the rattlers in place.
However, if you use the paradoxical thinking technique, you tell him how awesome the rattlers are, you tell him it's the best team ever, better than family, better than love, better than anything.
Overwhelmed, your friend might reconsider his love of his team.
Eran wanted to test his theory on Israel's most pressing issue the Israeli-palestinian conflict.
So, he made some ads about it.
It's meant to shock.
The text reads We took the core ideas that Israel belive in, and we practically took them to the extreme.
Israelis, by and large, believe their side of the conflict is just.
But the ads concluded that not only was the conflict just, but Israelis needed the conflict.
For the sake of these ideas, to preserve these ideas, we have to preserve the conflict.
And this is absurd in the eyes of most Israelis.
Eran started the experiment small, with a focus group of conservative Israelis.
While they were watching these videos for the first time, Israelis got really, really angry.
But as the time went by, and as they saw these video clips again and again and again, they started what we call "a process of unfreezing.
" When bombarded by views even more extreme than their own, the test subjects started to question their own positions, even those who had said they would never compromise with palestinians sudden signal a willingness to talk.
It seemed to work with eran's small sample.
How would it work in a real Israeli town? It is called giv'at shmuel, a city mainly dominated by Israeli rightist and centrist people.
And we tried to implement this intervention on this entire city of giv'at shmuel.
Eran and the other researchers handed out fliers on the streets, put up billboards, and targeted the video clips to people in the neighborhood who were online.
What they discovered was a change beyond their expectations.
Again, in some cases in the beginning, people got very angry, but then they discussed these issues, when they talked about them, when they really exposed themselves to these ideas, suddenly they started reconsidering their positions.
In fact, the intervention worked best with people who had the most hard-line views.
One year later, eran found the shift in opinions in the test group had held steady.
We hope that by exposing more and more people to this paradoxical thinking intervention, we can help them consider more seriously positive or peaceful solutions to the conflict.
But one scientist has another far more radical proposition to reduce terrorism complete disengagement.
Our struggle against terrorism feels like a wall with no foreseeable end.
We take out osama bin laden, and we find ourselves fighting Isis.
And a military victory over Isis in Iraq or Syria won't end their attacks on civilians around the world.
For every terrorist we eliminate, many more seem to take their place.
What can we do? Is there any way to stop terrorism once and for all? Evolutionary anthropologist Peter turchin has combed through the library of our collective history to study the rise and fall of nations.
He rose to prominence by making one stunning prediction.
My book "war and peace and war" which I published in 2005, two years after the occupation of Iraq by the U.
and allies, I wrote the following prediction "the western intrusion" will eventually generate a counter response, "possibly in the form of a new theocratic caliphate.
" The U.
went to Iraq in part to promote nation building.
According to Peter, that effort was a stunning success.
The name of that success is "Isis," an islamic caliphate declared in 2013, eight years after Peter's prediction.
What had Peter seen that others had missed? Peter is not your typical anthropologist.
He takes a dim view of most so-called "lessons" of history.
One German historian counted how many explanations people have proposed for the fall of the Roman empire, and he counted over 220.
Peter wanted to find a way to put historical hypotheses to a scientific test.
He developed a new mathematical approach to history called cliodynamics.
I see it as a slayer of theories.
By the time you're done, I want to have whole cemeteries of dead theories out there.
In the early 2000s, he started to build mathematical models to do just that.
One theory he wanted to explore was what causes the rise of strong nation-states.
He had hypothesized that strong nations form when two dramatically different cultures go to war.
He thought of these wars as a global version of Darwin's survival of the fittest.
It's a little like a backgammon tournament where players stand in for nation-states.
The conditions of intense warfare create a constant struggle for survival amongst armed groups.
The group that wins is the one which is the most cohesive, the most functional, and oftentimes, the nastiest one.
Peter set a team to work collecting data points, over 100,000 in all birth and death rates, whether they had iron weapons, agriculture, anything that might measure a nation's strength or weakness.
He observed that the more the groups fought, the stronger the winning group became.
Eventually, he developed a mathematical formula that predicted the rise and fall of the Roman empire, the rise of the ottoman empire, and the historical growth of islamic caliphates in the middle east.
It seemed to work in the past.
How would it work in the future? That's when Peter turned his attention to the U.
invasion of Iraq.
So, after the U.
overthrew Saddam Hussein, this created a large swath of territory, which was essentially stateless with multiple armed groups battling against each other.
Eventually, the strongest, most ruthless group survived Isis.
If data can predict the rise of Isis, can it tell us how the islamic state could be defeated? So, how should we deal with the islamic state? We have three options one of them is stay the course, which essentially means continue using air power.
Peter believes this will only perpetuate warfare, the evolutionary pressure that gave rise to Isis in the first place.
The second option is to escalate.
This means we must be more ruthless than our enemy, but given that this would cause widespread civilian deaths, Peter believes it's not an option.
The other opposite extreme is to do nothing.
In the face of a brutal organization like Isis, doing nothing seems shocking.
But Peter is convinced that if we completely turn our backs on the region, the war that created Isis will diminish.
They'll be left like a backgammon champion with no one to play against.
Peter knows this course will be painful.
Isis and the horrors they perpetuate will not go away in an instant.
We'll have to sit by and let it happen.
But Peter points to his data.
This is the best option in terms of saving most lives.
Essentially, it means closing the board and going home.
In this era of terrorism, we may not like our options.
But disagreements and debate are what make us free.
Today, the tools of science offer us new approaches.
The war against terror is a war of ideas.
As terrorists seek to impose their rigid ideas, our greatest weapon is our openness to new ideas.