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Barcelona and other recent terrorist attacks are forcing a serious rethink on counterterrorism strategies. Earlier terrorist attacks involved a long process—procurement explosive materials, developing the expertise to make explosives, having the ability to plant these explosives without detection, etc. The recent terrorist attacks have shown that the only resource that is required to launch a terrorist attack anywhere in the world is the ability to drive a vehicle. In this new scenario, one needs a total rethink about our counterterrorism strategies.

The 11 September 2001 attack on World Trade Center brought in a dramatic new focus on terrorism. The immediate response to terrorism after the attack was the classic kinetic approach of targeted killing and arresting of terrorists. Soon policy makers realized that killing terrorists only helped terrorist organizations recruit a new generation of committed terrorists.

The growing realization that the much-hyped “war on terror" had not only failed to stop terrorism in its tracks, but had also led to the emergence of new terrorist groups made policy makers sit up and think. They realized that to get rid of the problem of terrorism one needed to understand it first.

The problem of terrorism is incredibly complex. It has multiple dimensions— political, cultural, economic, social and ideological. Learning from the fields of sociology, political science and history has helped us understand the socio-cultural circumstances that give rise to terrorism. But we still know precious little about the psychological underpinnings of a terrorist.

Terrorism researchers have now accepted the fact that terrorists are not psychopaths and do not suffer from any significant mental illnesses. Several studies have shown that there is no specific terrorist personality nor is there any accurate profile, psychological or otherwise, of a terrorist or a potential terrorist. So identifying a potential terrorist becomes a difficult task.

The ingredients of today’s terrorism are very different from those of the past. Today terrorism is all about radicalized minds using commonly available things like vehicles and knives for a terrorist act. It is impossible to restrict access to these new weapons of terrorism. This new scenario has forced counterterrorism strategies to strongly focus on the radicalization processes, the very root of terrorism. All terrorist organizations use the radicalization process to convert a normal youth into a terrorist who can drive a vehicle into a crowd of innocent people.

In 2008, Time magazine chose “reversing radicalization" as one of the 10 ideas for changing the world. In the last few years there have been a spate of de-radicalization programmes around the world. Daniel Koehler in his article ‘How And Why We Should Take Deradicalization Seriously’ in Nature Human Behaviour explains that although de-radicalization programmes are the cornerstone of counterterrorism strategies in several countries, few of these programmes are evidence-based or properly evaluated.

Key to developing an effective de-radicalization programme is developing a deep understanding of the radicalization process itself. Marc Sageman of Philadelphia-based Foreign Research Institute has identified four elements that could lead to radicalization. They are: a perceived war on one’s in-group, moral outrage at some salient major injustice, resonance with personal experiences and mobilization by an already politically active network.

Understanding the issues used in the radicalization process is a good beginning. But according to Frank Cilluffo, researching de-radicalization at George Washington University, “the real centre of gravity of the enemy is their narrative". This narrative makes three fundamental changes in the minds of a new recruit, changes that are a 180-degree shift from the behaviour of normal human beings.

All human beings are afraid of death. The basic human instinct of self-preservation makes one do all that is required to protect one’s life. But terrorist organizations manage to replace this basic instinct of fear of death with a willingness to embrace death among its recruits.

Several studies have shown that humans have a basic tendency to take care of one’s present self and are not bothered about the welfare of the future self. Given an option between receiving a benefit in the future and in the present, normal human being will prefer the benefits in the present. But the terrorist organizations have managed to get terrorists to forgo all the pleasures of today for the pleasures of a paradise which they have only heard of.

Normal human beings cannot kill another human being. Studies have shown that even when we know that killing the other person is the best option to save one’s own life, it is not easy for one to kill another person. But a terrorist has no qualms about killing innocent people.

Behaviour change of any kind is tough. For example, many financial services firms have spent crores of rupees to get their investors to give up the pleasures of today’s spending and save for a better future—to no avail. But how do terrorist organizations manage to achieve such fundamental changes in human behaviour with no financial and other material incentives?

Once we have answers to these and more questions about the real behaviour change process a terrorist recruit undergoes, we will be able to develop the counter narrative to take on the behaviour change strategies of the terrorist organizations.

New counterterrorism strategies are all about the ability to influence the minds of young men. Who can do it better? The terrorist organizations or the governments?

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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