Evidence-Based Analysis and Policies Best Answer Violence
Yesterday, at least 120 people died in Paris in the largest-scale European terror attacks since the 2004 Madrid train bombing. French President François Hollande declared a state of emergency, closed the borders, and shut down the Métro, while police and City Hall recommended people stay inside. French special forces freed concert-goers who had been held hostage in one of several simultaneous gun and suicide bomb attacks. Some witnesses heard the gunmen shout, “This is for Syria.” The Islamic State has since claimed responsibility. France has been on heightened alert since joining American-led airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria in late September. Now its capital — previously synonymous with romance — remains under curfew for the first time since World War II, has 1,500 extra troops guard buildings including schools, and the Eiffel Tower is closed indefinitely.
Confusion and kneejerk reactions often characterize the aftermath of violence — creating precisely the sort of escalation that violent adversaries may wish to engender. Correcting false assumptions and backfiring policies in favor of evidence-based deradicalization programs, analytical practices, and policing methods best serves France’s national interests — and global security. Fittingly, such measures require working from a place of faith — in goodness, humanity, and the shared values that link all of us, whether we experience this faith as religious or secular.
News coverage and governmental research alike tend to mischaracterize people who go to Iraq or Syria to fight as homogeneous. For instance, a French parliamentary report spearheaded by Senator Jean-Pierre Sueur concluded this spring that 47% of known European jihadists were French. This number was widely reported as illustrating France’s massive loss of young men to radical Islam. Such characterizations make two big leaps.
First, they wrongly assume that everyone who went to fight joined ISIS. Two and a half years ago, young men in East London or one of Paris’s predominantly Muslim suburbs who were enraged about Syrian President Assad’s human rights abuses in the country’s ongoing, bloody civil war might have gotten on a plane to Turkey and crossed into Syria through Iraq with the intention of helping protect innocent civilians. The rebel groups at that time were already fragmented. Some went to protect Muslims, some Free Syrian Army network associates, some Christians, some Kurds. People who have fought on the ground in this war as in most others will tell you that it’s chaotic, everyone lies, and there are many more than two sides.
So blanket characterizations of everyone who has gone to fight in Iraq and Syria in the past few years as ISIS jihadists are incorrect. They may also be harmful insofar as they invite people who have risked their lives to defend innocent civilians from a brutally repressive regime in a bloody civil war to identify with ISIS as a natural ally. This works against the interests of everybody except ISIS.
Second, treating Islam as the cause of violence is always wrong. Prominent Muslim groups have consistently condemned ISIS and other violent extremist groups that claim the banner of Islam. To be radically faithful in Islam, as in other faiths, can mean many things to many people.
French intelligence is overwhelmed by its own mass surveillance practices. The math bears out the implications of that fact. According to Bayes Rule, mass security screenings backfire and hurt the security they’re intended to advance. Monitoring everyone associated with Syrian networks for intent to commit violent crime is no exception to this Bayesian statistical rule.
Mass surveillance hurts security by wrongly identifying large numbers of innocent people as suspicious while missing substantial percentages of dedicated attackers. This has a number of security-harming implications, including taking away finite resources from more targeted investigative work and degrading the fairness perceptions among innocents which underpin the community trust that is essential to effective policing.
Some say that profiling is the answer to these mass surveillance problems. That is exactly wrong, because it magnifies both the resource drain and the community trust problems of mass surveillance. According to a 2008 MI5 (domestic British intelligence) report, stereotypes about who gets involved in Islamic terrorism don’t hold. Most American forensic psychologists and psychiatrists agree that criminal profiling is insufficiently evidence-based. Racial profiling, too, doesn’t work.
Mass surveillance is also vulnerable to confirmation bias, in which facts seems to support preconceived notions because we’re not seeking disconfirming evidence (as required by the scientific method). The case of exonerated 2004 Madrid train bombing suspect Brandon Mayfield illustrates this dangerous vulnerability. Overzealous FBI examiners erroneously matched Mayfield’s fingerprints with an attacker’s, probably swayed by extraneous information from Mayfield’s background. He was a Muslim convert who had defended an alleged Islamic extremist in a child custody case. The FBI used the rubber-stamping FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court to place Mayfield’s family under intrusive, blanket surveillance, because they didn’t have enough evidence to justify a criminal wiretap. When he figured out he was under federal surveillance and acted nervous, they threw him in jail for a few weeks — but still couldn’t find evidence of guilt. Spanish authorities eventually caught the real culprit, Ouhane Daoud, and the FBI’s Inspector General found that the FBI had misled a federal judge to get warrants for the wrong man.
Mayfield’s false positive case appears to have been caused by a combination of bulk forensic data analysis (the FBI looking for a needle in a haystack where the needle wasn’t there to be found), confirmation bias, and religious profiling. Bulk data collection increases the number of this type of false positive identification cases, wasting finite security resources that could be better directed.
More violence, surveillance, security screenings, profiling, and even forensic evidence analysis may not be the most evidence-based effective answers to horrific violent crimes like the Paris attacks. Here are some other options.
Deradicalization trumps criminalization in preventing and reintegrating Western recruits to foreign jihadists causes. A recent Brookings Institute report estimates that of about 30,000 foreign fighters globally, France has the highest raw number of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria among Western countries. But several countries — Belgium, Sweden, Australia, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Canada, and Finland — have higher base rates (foreign fighters per million citizens). These countries lead in the development of deradicalization programs on the Aarhus Model, which applies community trust-building insights to help young, Muslim Danes — often alienated by bigotry, and discouraged about their opportunities at home by discrimination — better integrate their Muslim and Danish identities.
It shouldn’t be surprising that promoting hope for the future helps prevent and reverse radicalization. We know that positive future ideation — dreaming of the beautiful future, especially for groups instead of isolated individuals — promotes well-being among general populations and even correlates with fewer repeat suicide attempts among survivors. But the positive psychology of security is in its infancy.
Conversely, angry alienation with Western identities is exactly what violent extremist organizations like ISIS seem to want. Violence begets violence, spreading like a virus along social networks. In this way, terrorism that engenders violent response succeeds in spreading its social contagion.
At the state level of response, those arguing for an Article 5 NATO response that treats the Paris attacks as an act of war against all NATO member countries — justifying possible ground troop deployment and other military escalation — may be playing right into their opponent’s hands. These attacks may have been a distraction and recruitment drive in response to ISIS’s recent military losses. At the individual level, anti-refugee aggression — though an order of magnitude worse since it violates rule of law and widely shared norms of toleration — similarly only stokes the mistrust and alienation with which groups like ISIS recruit.
But those simply calling for peace without providing a solution are on equally shaky ground. Effective counter-terrorism refrains from escalating mistrust spirals, while confronting the reality that dedicated attackers like ISIS must be destroyed. You destroy an enemy that relies on hate for recruitment with love. The global war on terror will not be won with drone strikes or more arms.
Building out from bright spots in evidence-based intelligence analysis and policing will help combat the false assumptions and backfiring policies that might otherwise stoke the fires of violence. History suggests that we are likely to instead see escalations in radicalizing retaliatory violence, and expansions in mass surveillance and profiling, in response to the Paris attacks. The evidence is insufficient to establish that these responses do more good than harm, and suggests instead that other options — which are often not discussed — hold significant promise.
In the name of peace and goodness, please stop compounding our losses.