U.S. Military Should Rely on Social Science More to Fight Jihadism, Anthropologist Argues

By Matthew Harwood

The United States military would do better to rely on science-based field research rather than military technology to defeat violent radicalization and the terrorism it spawns among young Muslims globally, an anthropologist told lawmakers earlier this week at a Senate subcommittee hearing.

Scott Atran, director of research for ARTIS Research and Risk Modeling, told members of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities that only by understanding why a young man becomes a violent jihadist can the United States protect the nation as well as its service members overseas.

"If this committee is to be truly relevant in solving the radicalization problem that it poses, then you have to understand these pathways that take young people to and from political and group violence," he said in his prepared testimony. "Then, knowing these pathways, you can do what needs to be done."

And the only way to do this, he says, is to send social scientists like himself into real and potential conflict zones. Artan told subcommittee members that social scientists with government funding can use scientific techniques to create experiments on the ground in conflict regions and learn how to dissuade young men from accepting al Qaeda's and other jihadist narratives.

"Quality field-based research can help save lives and treasury," he said.

Atran testified that field research has punctured the conventional wisdom on how young Muslim men become violent extremists.

He disagrees, for instance, with the perception that higher-level jihadists prey on young men's weaknesses. Rather, these disaffected young men enlist in the jihadist cause to give adventure and meaning to their lives. Or in Atran's description: "to try his hand at slicing off the head of Goliath with a paper cutter.'

Men like Anwar al-Awlaki, the American radical Islamist cleric now in Yemen, "are important not because they brainwash, command, or even guide others to actions and targets," the anthropologist argued. "Rather, popular radical imams serve as 'attractors' whose message and presence draws into line a searching soul who has already pretty much chosen his path."

Atran points to Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged Ft. Hood shooter, and his communications with al-Awlaki to prove his point. "Maj. Hassan, for example, sent over a score of email messages to Awlaki but received only two back, with no operational implications."

The pathway to terrorism primarily isn't top down but bottom up among peers, Atran said: "from alienated and marginalized youth seeking out companionship, esteem, and meaning, but also the thrill of action, sense of empowerment, and glory in fighting the world's most powerful nation and army."

Because of the tendency of friends to radicalize themselves, Atran told lawmakers that counterradicalization programs shouldn't rely on community elders to steer youth away from violent extremism but to peer-to-peer efforts.

While Atran advocates that social scientists' fieldwork should inform and adjust U.S. military counterinsurgency efforts, he does not support embedding social scientists into military units on the ground.

"I do not think that efforts like the Human Terrain System experiment in Afghanistan are all that promising," Atran said. "It is the infantry units themselves that should be trained before they go in theater to be culturally sensitive."

(For more on anthropologists' criticisms of the Human Terrain System, see Laura Spadanuta's article "Anthropology and the Army" in this month's print issue.)

Atran believes that only bad things can happen if anthropologists mix in with soldiers. In theater, anthropologists are vulnerable to bodily harm. So either they embed unarmed and become sitting ducks, or they receive arms and run the risk of killing local people.  Either way, the wider community of anthropologists will refrain from any involvement with the U.S. military to the detriment of understanding why someone resorts to violent jihad while another stays on the sidelines.

If social scientists can maintain their independence and get some of the government resources that currently go to technology, then they can determine what makes U.S. adversaries tick, Atran argues.

"Widgets—for which there are billions of dollars—cannot do the job of socially sensitive thinkers—for whom there is relatively little concrete support—in creating alliances, leveraging nonmilitary advantages, reading intentions, building trust, changing opinions, managing perceptions, and empathizing... with others so as to understand, and change, what moves them to do what they do."

♦ Photo by SSgt. Dayton Mitchell/U.S. Air Force


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