05 January 2010

Lessons (or maybe just “Observations”) from the Cases of Abdulmutallab and Hasan

Lessons (or maybe just “Observations”) from the Cases of Abdulmutallab and Hasan

The expression: “Hindsight is 20/20,” captures the common wisdom of an empirical finding known as hindsight bias. The basic idea is that specific outcomes and consequences seem much more likely after – rather than before - they have occurred. Events seem to be more easily foreseeable after they have happened. A recent Washington Post article on the Hasan case says: “When viewed in retrospect, Hasan's life becomes an apparent trail of evidence that leads to an inevitable end.”

There are several factors that contribute to this common cognitive bias. One condition that fosters hindsight bias after catastrophic events is that after-the-fact most of the evidence is assembled together in one place, when previously the facts were scattered about. And, of course, all “warning signs” seem much more predictive and significant when we already know what eventually happens. Hindsight predictability is amplified further by the fact that the public rarely sees or hears about the cases in which the same “warning signs” were present but no bad outcome occurred.

This does not mean that we cannot or should not learn from past events, and use what we learn to do better. We can and we should. But our first priority should be to fix the cracks rather than to stand chest deep in rising water trying to figure out who knew what about the leaking cracks and when they knew it. Knowing that hindsight bias operates for nearly all of us humans, we might also consider being a bit more circumspect in estimating how predictable or foreseeable a particular horrific event may have been.

In that spirit, I’ll offer a few personal thoughts and observations about four possible “take away” insights from the Abdulmutallab and Hasan cases that might be used to help us think about what we might change or do differently to improve our ability to prevent future acts of terrorism.

1. Managing threats may be a greater challenge than identifying them.

After an attack, it seems there is often a reflexive outcry for “more training” to identify persons of concern. Ironically, there are also numerous people simultaneously coming forward to say that they had observed concerning behaviors or inappropriate communications on multiple occasions. Some did not know if their concern was “enough” to prompt an official report, while others will say that they did attempt to report their concerns to others. The after-the-fact collage of evidence begins to assemble.

It is not clear that either Abdulmutallab or Hasan came “from out of the blue” or flew completely under the radar. If that’s true, then the ever-present pursuit of a better “checklist” to identify the next bad guy may be neither necessary nor sufficient to improve prevention. Instead, systems might choose to focus on questions like:

  • (1) When people saw or heard behaviors that concerned them, what influenced their decision about whether to report or share their concern with others?
  • (2) When concerns were reported to others, how were those assessed and handled and what follow-up occurred?; and
  • (3) What might have permitted the array of reported concerns from various sources to be aggregated and accessible to one (or more) authorities with prevention responsibilities?

2. Violent extremism is not always bred in an environment of poverty and deprivation.

Maybe the public has already moved past this assumption. There certainly have been numerous cases in the past 8 years to suggest that terrorism is not necessarily an affliction reserved for the poor and downtrodden. Abdulmutallab and Hasan were both persons of means; the former from a politically prominent and wealthy family and the latter, a trained physician and commissioned officer in the U.S. military. At a national and community-level, there are often good reasons to use economic development and assistance as part of a strategy to make areas less hospitable to extremists. At an individual level, however, poverty as an explanation for terrorism falls terribly short.

3. Social dimensions of violent extremism are absolutely critical.

Notwithstanding recently voiced concerns about a surge of “self-radicalization,” the process of adopting and acting upon a violent extremist ideology is nearly always marked by some degree of social influence. The nature of what is “social” has certainly changed over the past two decades, but interactions with others continue to be important markers on a pathway to terrorist violence.

It is common to think of the “charismatic leader” as the crux of the problem, but the real challenge is probably a bit more complex. A number of folks - Abdulmutallab and Hasan included – seem to have sought, not to have been sought by – the movement leaders with whom they had contact. Those who acted do not appear to have been entranced by charisma, but rather to have been seeking legitimacy, justification, and recognition from others as part of their path forward.

If that’s what you’re looking for, it’s not terribly hard to find; just go (virtually or in person) where there are likeminded others. The intellectual and emotional journey of many nascent militants is not so much driven by the well-informed pursuit of truth as it is by the need for certainty and consistency. This is what being connected to, and surrounded by, others (in a particular region, a training camp, a religious training school or a campus activist group) can provide – encouragement, belonging, and affirmation that they are on the right path.

4. Nothing succeeds like success.

Al-Qa’ida and affiliated groups have been rather successful in building the value of their “brand.” A large part of their post-9/11 success and the diffusion of their ideology comes from the prestige of that brand. AQ franchises have proliferated around the globe and individuals who want to be taken seriously, liberally use the Al-Qa’ida name even when their actual connections may be fairly tenuous. Media reports are sometimes equally loose in identifying Al-Qa’ida “members” and affiliates.

We cannot see inside the minds of Abdulmutallab and Hasan to discern their true motivations for violence. We do know that people are complicated and actions like this typically involve multiple motives operating simultaneously. Many reports also seem to suggest that each struggled at various times to fit in and to be accepted, whatever their financial means or professional accomplishments. If that’s the case, associating oneself with a powerful brand and a widely-feared movement might seem compellingly attractive.

Some researchers and analysts have observed that social movements generally – and militant jihadists specifically – seem to enjoy greater enlistment growth during periods of perceived prominence and operational success. The public and the security communities certainly need to take very seriously the threat posed by militant jihadist terrorists, but we might also be mindful not to inadvertently add equity to Al-Qa’ida’s brand or to create powerful, imposing icons of those claiming to act under its banner.