How Terrorists Think—and Why We May See More Events Like the Capitol Riot

(Photo by Noah Silliman via Unsplash)




Insights start with something strange, distant, unfamiliar.

Then they find their way home.

Terrorists, for example. Why are they willing to shut down the most powerful of all instincts and die for their beliefs? Having read stories of heroes and martyrs when we were kids, we take it on faith that people should be willing to die for their beliefs. That, or we dismiss suicidal terrorists as deluded, brainwashed. But have we looked inside the brains of extremists to see what might have been happening when they made their noble or mad choices?

In a podcast episode at, Scott Atran, a cultural anthropologist and psychologist, says he “didn’t believe for a moment” that suicidal terrorists were crazy. “Were they just cunning rational actors pushed to the extreme? That I didn’t believe either.”

Trying to understand, he drew closer, trekking with jihadists in Southeast Asia and spending hours with Hezbollah and Hamas members in the Middle East. Then he joined with counterterrorism strategist Richard Davis to set up ARTIS International, sending researchers to the front lines of conflict to understand what motivates extremists—and how people not yet radicalized can be manipulated into taking violent action.

Atran was thinking hard about “sacred values,” those so close to their core that tearing them away would rip your very identity. “Sacred values” need not be religious. Family, prosperity, freedom, cultural narratives, democracy, tradition, racial supremacy, nonviolence—just about anything can become, under the right circumstances, a sacred value. And once it is held as sacred, it must be protected from any perceived threat, cannot be compromised, and is by definition worth dying for.

“One of the peculiar things about human beings,” Atran remarks on the podcast, “is that once they’re attached to such values, they become even more important than the physical body that is the vessel of those values.” He also notes that it is possible to be entirely sane and still forsake reason for the sake of the sacred.

ARTIS researchers went to the battlefield in Iraq and talked to members of the various groups fighting ISIS. Those most willing to fight and die for abstract values—nationhood, heritage, religion—prioritized those values over their own families. “We’re even willing to abandon our comrades, that we fought and died with, if they forsake their values,” Atran was told.

He began to wonder: If sacred values are this powerful, does the brain process them differently?

Drawing conclusions from brain scans is a delicate and dicey proposition, but Atran figured it was worth a try. ARTIS hired Nafees Hamid, a cognitive scientist, to help design brain studies of jihadists and those on the verge of being radicalized. He recruited subjects in Barcelona, where many terrorists recruit.

Two values were sacred to all the participants: the anathema of gay marriage and of caricaturing the prophet Muhammad. Other values, like halal food being served in public centers, felt negotiable to those not yet radicalized.

The first study surveyed people who supported a cause championed by the jihadists and were thus vulnerable to recruitment. They were asked to play a game that the researchers then manipulated to make them feel left out. No matter how strenuously they insisted that they did not care, the results of feeling excluded could be measured by skin conductance, testosterone and cortisol levels, and heart rate.

After the game, they went into an fMRI machine and ranked, again, how ready they were to fight or die for certain values. Now the picture changed: After feeling excluded, they decided that the values they had initially thought negotiable were sacred values worth fighting or dying for. Social exclusion—which in real life can mean being marginalized, discriminated against, bullied, or ignored—made it far more likely that someone would adopt rigid, non-negotiable beliefs. In other words, that they could be radicalized. And the more values they held sacred, the less likely they were to negotiate, reason, or compromise.

The second study scanned the brains of professed jihadists: first-generation Pakistani immigrants who supported the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group, an associate of al-Qaida. After going into the fMRI and ranking their willingness to fight and die for each value, they were shown how their rankings compared to the average Pakistani in Barcelona. The researchers lied, making the average Pakistani agree with the participant’s rankings half the time. For the other half, the rate of agreement dropped, indicating that the average Pakistani was less willing to engage in violence.

When the participants emerged from the fMRI machine, they could retake the survey and, if they chose, change their rankings. When we make that sort of decision, two parts of our brain work in tandem: the impulsive (ventromedial prefrontal cortex) wanting and the rational (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) deliberating. We seesaw between impulse and deliberation until we reach our decision.

But when the extremists were processing sacred values, the part of the brain associated with deliberation shut down.

“When someone’s really at that moment of willing to fight and die for a sacred value, that is not the moment in which they are thinking of deliberating and self-reflecting about what they’re going to do,” says Hamid. Sacred values dictate the outcome, and the response is almost automatic, with no thought of consequences.

The only variable that still carried weight with these subjects was the response of their peers—the average Pakistanis. And when jihadists were told that their beliefs did not conform with those of their peers, the deliberating part of their brain came back online.

Is that too tidy? Neuroscientists are wary of these sorts of reverse inferences; so much happens in every brain region that you cannot be sure what is going on in that person’s mind when blood surges to that region. A fair criticism, says Hamid. “So we measured familiarity, accessibility, certainty, saliency, emotional intensity, attitude strength . . . Sacredness was the only dimension that actually correlated with the neural activity that we saw.”

Trying to distance someone from their beliefs or change the way they think . . . is not likely to work. There is no point focusing on ideology; it is too deeply ingrained. And what hardens that conviction into fanaticism is a history of exclusion, of feeling marginalized and unheard.

Hamid wrote a clear and crisp New York Times commentary titled “What I Learned From Scanning the Brains of Potential Terrorists.” The subhead was “How understanding the mind of a radical Islamist can prevent the next white-nationalist attack.” The date? Almost a year before the January 6 storming of the Capitol.

Yet we continue to alternate between attempts to persuade and the impulse to exclude—both of which only reinforce a defiant commitment to sacred values. Individual Freedom! Racial Supremacy!

ARTIS is now helping governments around the world better understand other types of extremist behavior, as well as the ways in which social media can make entire populations more vulnerable to manipulation. Through targeted misinformation, Davis explains, “people can be made to think their sacred values, for example personal freedom, safety, or even democracy, are at risk.” The Russians are especially skillful at such manipulations.

Which is why he thinks we may see more events like the Capitol riots in the future.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.