Debunking myths about terrorism through scientific research

SINGAPORE - In Minnesota, a disturbing 40-minute propaganda video recording urges young Somalian Americans residing in the state to join rebels fighting in Somalia.

Dahir Gure, an American Somalian now a rebel fighter in Somalia, said in the video with a toothy grin: "This is the real Disneyland. You need to join us." The recording by terrorist group Al-Shabaab was briefly shown on YouTube before it was removed for its violent content.

Subsequently, Al-Shabaab sent out a tweet saying it would document the journey of its Minnesota "martyrs".

In the past, terrorist groups used websites and chatrooms to reach their target groups. With the growth of space on social media, including Twitter, blogs and YouTube, such groups are now using these avenues to reach, radicalise and recruit new members.

Terrorist groups combine the online space with their existing offline recruitment methods to lure fighters to their violent causes.

At The Hague in the Netherlands, Moroccan and Turkish recruiters distribute on the streets an A4-sized paper with details on how to slip through Customs and immigration loopholes in Europe and join the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al- Assad. Among those who bought the idea were members of a Dutch football team who traded their football boots for war gear in Syria.

To better understand these evolving threats, research on terrorism needs to move away from stereotypical analysis of terrorists, said overseas and local security experts who spoke to The Straits Times last week at a security conference.

Research efforts also need to be evidence-based, have academic rigour and involve experts from other disciplines such as psychology, they said.

Researchers need to ask what makes people gravitate towards terrorism. New research is showing that not all radicals and extremists join a terrorist outfit solely for ideological reasons. Not all who become radicalised end up as terrorists or suicide bombers.

Meanwhile, a complex set of reasons are responsible for turning someone into a lone wolf or a suicide bomber, said the experts.

Their interviews with terrorists show that not all who become terrorists remain committed to the cause and, at some point, their extremist fervour may wane - an insight that allows for security agencies to potentially "turn them around".

Demos, a think-tank in Britain, found in its study in 2010, The Edge Of Violence, that those who participated in terrorist activities were attracted more to the glamour and excitement of an attack, and that it was typically group dynamics that instigated a spiral towards violence rather than the ideology of violence.

New approaches are needed as new challenges come up, said Professor Edwin Bakker, a Dutch terrorism expert. A new security headache, he said, was the spike in the number of European-born Muslims who are fighting in the Middle East battlefields.

The growth of these numbers has caught security agencies by surprise, he said, adding that the latest figures show that of the 5,000-odd foreign fighters in Syria, 600 are from Europe.

In June this year, a gruesome video of a beheading in Syria surfaced on the Internet and those in Belgium and the Netherlands reeled in shock as they heard the attackers speaking with Dutch, Flemish and French accents.

In Indonesia, terrorists are stealing money through the Internet for their cause, said Indonesian terrorism analyst Solahudin. One jihadist, Rizki Gunawan, persuaded Mawan Kurniawan, a computer hacker, to hack into online investment company Speedline Inc to steal US$700,000 (S$890,000); part of the money was used to finance military training and operations in Poso, Sulawesi island, in 2011 and last year.

The Internet has also become an important means of military training for people who have difficulty getting access to real training camps, added Mr Solahudin.

To understand these trends, researchers are doing transnational studies, said Professor John Horgan, who teaches security studies at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

One example is a study on the little-understood trend of Muslim converts' role in terror attacks.

The wide scope of the project includes Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia.

The study examines how people connect with extremist online material and how they are influenced by what is found in both online and offline material.

In another project, researchers in a Rand study are examining the real impact the Internet has on influencing someone to become radicalised.

According to analysts, it is simplistic to believe that a person becomes self-radicalised after watching extremist videos on the Internet or reading terrorist magazines, like Inspire.

"An overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in violence. And, there is growing evidence that people who engage in terrorism don't necessarily hold radical beliefs," said Prof Horgan.

Using a more scientific approach to gather leads in terrorism research can also help predict future terror attacks, he said.

He and another academic, Dr John F. Morrison, from the University of East London, have been monitoring the growth of the Irish Republican dissidents who are pushing for Britain's withdrawal from Northern Ireland, through force.

The two have been gathering data on the dissidents' steady rise by logging thousands of events and documents in the process.

Their leads suggest that the dissidents are expected to strike in spectacular style in 2016, the year that marks the 100th anniversary of the Easter Uprising, an event that led to the birth of the modern Irish Republic.

In the post-9/11 world, the threat of a terror attack any time, anywhere and from any group continues to be real.

It is difficult to answer with certainty whether the war on terror will be won by states fighting it.

New research being done on terrorism will plug loopholes in the understanding of terrorism and play an important part in strengthening policies aimed at weakening terrorist organisations. The work is never done.

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