Seven Findings on Lone-Actor Terrorists

This article was originally posted on Extremis Project on 06/02/13: http://extremisproject.org/2013/02/seven-findings-on-lone-actor-terrorists/

Anders Breivik
Anders Breivik

Several months prior to Anders Breivik’s attack in Norway, researchers at the International Center for the Study of Terrorism (at Pennsylvania State University) had begun work on a project entitled “Tracing the Motivations and Antecedent Behaviors of Lone Actor Terrorism”. This one-year project was funded by the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, and the effort was coordinated through the United Kingdom’s Home Office in conjunction with DHS.

Based on an extensive analysis of 119 lone actor terrorists across a mixture open-source material, the report contains important insights into who the Lone Actors are, what they do, and ultimately what an analysis of their behaviors might imply for practical interventions aimed at disrupting or even preventing attacks. The researchers –Paul Gill, John Horgan and Paige Deckert- came to seven major conclusions.

Finding 1:
There was no uniform profile of lone-actor terrorists.

Although heavily male-oriented, there were no uniform variables that characterized all or even a majority of lone-actor terrorists. The sample ranged in age from 15 to 69. Half were single, 24% were married and 22% were separated or divorced. Twenty-seven percent had children. Educational achievement varied substantially. While 40% of the sample was unemployed at the time of their terrorist attacks or arrests, 50% held jobs and 10% were students. Twenty-six percent had served in the military. Finally, 41% had previous criminal convictions, 31% had a history of mental health problems and 22% had a history of substance abuse.

Finding 2:
In the time leading up to most lone-actor terrorist events, evidence suggests that other people generally knew about the offender’s grievance, extremist ideology, views and/or intent to engage in violence.

Indeed, most of the variables pertaining to this section occurred far more regularly than any of the socio-demographic variables outlined above. This suggests that lone-actor terrorists should largely be characterized by what they do rather than who they are. For a large majority (83%) of offenders, others were aware of the grievances that later spurred their terrorist plots or actions. In a similar number of cases (79%), others were aware of the individual’s commitment to a specific extremist ideology. In 64% of cases, family and friends were aware of the individual’s intent to engage in a terrorism-related activity because the offender verbally told them. These findings suggest therefore that friends and family can play important roles in the early detection and prevention of plots. In 58% of cases, other individuals possessed specific information about the lone actor’s research, planning and/or preparation prior to the event itself. Finally, in the majority (59%) of cases, the offender produced letters or made public statements prior to the event in order to outline his/her beliefs (but not his/her violent intentions). These statements include both letters sent to newspapers, self-printed/disseminated leaflets and statements in virtual forums.

Finding 3:
A wide range of activities and experiences preceded lone actors’ plots or events.

Half of the sample changed address at least five years prior to their terrorist event planning or execution. Of the 40% who were unemployed, 27% had lost their jobs within six months, and a further 16% between seven and twelve months before the event. On a related note, 25% experienced financial problems. Thirty-three percent of the offenders were characterized as being under an elevated level of stress due to a number of reasons. Fifteen percent subjectively experienced being the target of an act of prejudice or unfairness, 19% subjectively experienced being disrespected by others and 14% experienced being the victim of verbal or physical assault. A fifth of the sample converted to a religion before engaging or planning to engage in an event. Thirteen percent noticeably increased their physical activities and outdoor excursions.

Finding 4:
Many but not all lone-actor terrorists were socially isolated.

More than a quarter of the sample (27%) adopted their radical ideology when living away from home in another town, city or country. Thirty-seven percent lived alone at the time of their event planning and/or execution, and 53% were characterized as socially isolated by sources within the open source accounts we coded.

Finding 5:
Lone-actor terrorists regularly engaged in a detectable and observable range of behaviors and activities with a wider pressure group, social movement or terrorist organization.

Approximately a third of the sample had recently joined a wider group, organization or movement that engaged in contentious politics. Just less than half (48%) interacted face-to-face with members of a wider network of political activists, and 35% did so virtually. In 68% of the cases, there is evidence to suggest that the individual read or consumed literature or propaganda associated with a wider movement. Fourteen percent previously engaged in fundraising or financial donations to a wider network of individuals associated with either licit pressure groups or illicit groups who espoused violent intentions. One in six (17%) sought legitimization from religious, political, social or civic leaders prior to the event they planned.

There is evidence to suggest that in 17% of the cases there may have been wider command and control links specifically associated with the violent event that was planned or carried out. In approximately a third of the cases (35%), the lone actor had tried to recruit others or form a group prior to the event. In 24% of cases, other individuals were involved in procuring weaponry or technology that was used (or planned to be used) in the terrorist event but did not themselves plan to participate in the violent actions. In 13% of cases, other individuals helped the lone actor assemble an explosive device.

Finding 6:
Lone-actor terrorist events were rarely sudden and impulsive.

Training for the plot typically occurred in a number of ways. Approximately a fifth of the sample (21%) received some form of hands-on training while 46% learned through virtual sources. In half the cases investigators found evidence of bomb-making manuals within the offender’s home or on his or her property. The fact that strategic and tactical planning goes into lone-actor terrorist events is demonstrated by the finding that 29% of offenders engaged in dry-runs of their intended activities.

Finding 7:
Despite the diversity of lone-actor terrorists, there were distinguishable differences between ideological subgroups.

Al-Qaeda-related offenders were younger and were more likely to be students, seek legitimization from epistemic authority figures, learn through virtual sources and display command and control links. They were less likely to have criminal convictions.

Right-wing offenders were more likely to be unemployed and less likely to have any university experience, make verbal statements to friends and family about their intent or beliefs, engage in dry-runs or obtain help in procuring weaponry.

Single-issue offenders were more likely to be married, have criminal convictions, have a history of mental illness, provide specific pre-event warnings and engage in dry-runs. They were less likely to learn through virtual sources or be depicted as being socially isolated.

How Islam counters the arguments of extremists

The recent horrific and inhumane killings by Islamic extremists across the world including, Beirut, Mali and Paris has been the focus of the media. One of our previous blogs introduced Islam and extremism; with an emphasis on how radicals are distorting Islam to recruit vulnerable people.

As illustrated in the previous blog (link below), Islam is a religion which condemns violence and whilst groups such as Daesh and Al Qaeda act in the name of Islam, their representation is contrary to the basic principles of the religion. Counter arguments were drawn from Qur’an, therefore in this post a list of further counter arguments will be drawn from Hadiths (sayings of Prophet Muhammad [Peace be upon Him]) and Islamic history.

See:

 

Hadiths (sayings of Prophet Muhammad [Peace be upon Him])

 

There have been abundant cases of Muslims leaving their families and homes, travelling to war stricken countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Extremists groups entice individuals to join the ‘holy war’ through various means. However we can also counter argue this when looking at the following hadiths:

  • Mu`âwiyah b. Jâhimah al-Sulamî said: “Jâhimah came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and said: ‘O Messenger of Allah! I want to join in the military effort, and I have come to consult you.’ The Prophet (peace be upon him) asked him: ‘Is your mother alive?’ He said: ‘Yes.’ The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: ‘Be with her, for verily, Paradise is at her feet’”. [Musnad Ahmad and Sunan Ibn Mâjah]
  • `Abd Allah b. `Umar related that a man came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and asked his permission to join in the military effort. The Prophet (peace be upon him) asked him: “Are your parents alive?” The man replied: “Yes.” The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “By serving them you perform jihad”. [Sahîh al-Bukhârî, Sunan al-Nasâ’î, Sunan, Abî Dâwûd and Sunan al-Tirmidhî]
  • It is narrated on the authority of ‘Abdullah that a woman was found killed in one of the battles fought by the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him). He disapproved of the killing of women and children. [Sahih Muslim]

The first two Hadiths exemplify the importance of parents in Islam. In the media we have sundry cases of parents pleading their children to return or disowning them. We understand from the Hadiths that it is better for Muslims to obey their parents and serve them, rather than cause them any distress. Therefore, concepts of Islamic extremists groups are contrary to the religious principles of Islam.

Furthermore, we understand Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) condemned the killing of women and children (other Hadiths also state the elderly and sick); however through bombs and blasts, Islamic extremist groups are doing just that. This notion has also been questioned by various Muslim scholars such as the late Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaykh Ibn Baaz.

Islamic History

The life of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) is considered by Muslims to be a ‘way’ and ‘guide’ to life. However, there are numerous examples of the Prophet (Peace be upon Him) choosing peace rather than violence. The following are detailed accounts:

  • Conquest of Makkah – Muslims were tortured, persecuted and banished out of Makkah. They were denied the right to perform their pilgrimage and faced brutal treatment for two decades forcing them to move and reside in Madinah. This included, murdering and mutilating the body of Hamza, the uncle of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him). However, after a number of years Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) with a large army (estimated 10,000-20,000) returned to Makkah to perform their pilgrimage. The opposing army (Quraish) feared mass killings, persecution and revenge from the Muslims, “Watch out O Abu Soofyaan! What you see is the Prophet of Allah leading his people. Misfortune will befall the Quraish tomorrow morning, when his army storms the city”.

However, Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) did not use violence but rather forgave and freed them, “Today there is no reproach against you. Go, you are all free”.

  • Journey to Taif – Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) travelled to Taif (city near Makkah) to preach Islam. However, the people were disinterested and showed animosity towards him. He was asked to clear off from their town and go wherever else he liked. Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) realised efforts being made mean nothing, he decided to leave but they wouldn’t let him depart in peace, so instead they set the street urchins after him, to hiss, hoot, jeer at and stone him. He was pelted with so many stones that his whole body was covered with blood, and his shoes were clogged to his feet. The Prophet (Peace be upon Him) did not seek revenge and, despite being given the opportunity, he replied: “Even if these people do not accept Islam, I do hope from Allah that there will be persons from among their progeny who would worship Allah and serve His cause.”

In the conquest of Makkah, Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) forgave and freed the very ones who persecuted his friends and family. The journey to Taif also illustrates what Islam teaches. If people do not accept upon preaching then do not force them as per the verse of the Qur’an, “Let there be no compulsion (or coercion) in the religion (Islam)” (Qur’an, 2:256). However, this is not the state of Islamic extremist groups who are persecuting innocent people such as Alan Henning and others – once again, showing that these groups are acting contrary to the core Islamic principles.

Conclusion

Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, the first caliph, gave these instructions to his armies, “I instruct you in ten matters: Do not kill women, children, the old, or the infirm; do not cut down fruit-bearing trees, do not destroy any town, do not cut the gums of sheep or camels except for the purpose of eating…”.

As the previous article also stated there are concepts of jihad in Islam, however, extremist groups are acting in blatant violation of its basic principles. The above quote emphasizes how Islamic extremist groups act contrary to Islam. Not only are their actions conflicting to Islam, but the following two articles stress the importance of understanding the dangers of radicalization, how to spot potential extremists and how Islam is completely independent from the ongoing conflict and distress terrorist organizations, such as ISIS, are causing. The following paragraph has been taken from the previous blog and, accompanying the paragraph, are two articles that stress the importance of Dr. Gill’s words.

See:

“As Dr Paul Gill (UCL) noted, most of those that are being radicalised barely know anything about their religion therefore are more prone to being recruited based on distorted interpretations. This view is supported by Dr Doug Weeks (2015) who said, “I look at new people who join these [terrorist] organizations, and most have no idea about ideology or even religion.” (http://www.buzzfeed.com/husseinkesvani/cameron-extremism-flawed-report#.vfxpqX5kYk)”

 

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Lone-actor Jihadists are motivated by much more than a distorted religious ideology

This article was originally posted in New York Daily News on 18/01/15: http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/paul-gill-bringing-terrorists-sharper-focus-article-1.2081837

Amedy Coulibaly and Hayat Boumeddiene                                         Handout/Getty Images

In the wake of terrorist attacks across Europe, the western world is on edge about the threat of lone actors. But more often than not, we’re looking at it all wrong. Until we see the problem clearly, we have no hope of combating it effectively.

I have spent much of my career poring over evidence about what motivates these individuals and think some clarification is in order.

Lone-actor terrorism is when an individual or individuals, inspired in part by a radical ideology, develops and acts on a plot without explicit training and direction from a larger organization.

The Charlie Hebdo attacks don’t fit that pattern precisely. Though at first they seemed to be the work of two independent criminals, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula last week claimed responsibility for plotting the carnage.

But the murderers in Paris will almost surely spur other religious radicals, acting on their own, to try to cause murder and mayhem. There’s a reason Al Qaeda’s English-language magazine is titled Inspire.

If we want to stop more people from committing similar, terrible acts, we have to get inside their minds. And we have to do it without preconceptions.

The key mistake we typically make when trying to understand such terrorists is caricaturing them, reducing their reasons to a single motivating factor.

Are lone actors often religious radicals, and in many cases violent Islamist radicals? Yes. Religious ideology was surely a key factor for the Charlie Hebdo attackers and for Major Nidal Hasan, who killed a dozen people at Fort Bragg, among many others.

But we need to remember that other religions and ideologies can inspire terrible attacks. Anders Breivik killed 77 people. Timothy McVeigh killed 168.

Still more important, we need to remember that religious fervor is just one of many driving factors. These men (I will use that gender pronoun because they are mostly men) are not only trying to speak to God or hoping to spend the afterlife in paradise.

They have other motivations in this life that drive them to murder. They have political messages they seek to spread. They have personal pain from which they are reeling. They seek acceptance among their fellow warriors. They actually want to be famous.

This is why a surprisingly high number of would-be lone-actor terrorists — far, far more than most people would guess — actually express their intent to murder before doing so.

If they were simply looking to do God’s work, with no concern for what other people thought of them, that would not be the case.

How do we ferret them out?

Not easily. It is profoundly challenging to discern people with radical beliefs from lone actors with violent intent.

By definition, the usual counterterrorism tools of tracing communications and contacts are less relevant — though even lone actors often express their violent intent to someone.

This work is difficult, but it is not impossible. Lone actors can be identified and their plots interrupted if we approach them and the threats they pose the smart way.

Conventional profiling won’t work. We have in our minds an image of an angry young man, but that’s not helpful.

An Islamist radical is just one example for when religious zeal can turn violent. Nebojsa Bobic/Getty Images/iStockphoto

 

A few years ago, alongside colleagues at Pennsylvania State University, I undertook a research project looking at 119 lone actor terrorists. These individuals ranged in age, spanned a wide spectrum of educational achievements, employment histories, social backgrounds and marital statuses.

There was no consistent profile. Even if there was, the utility of a profile is questionable because it will most likely point to a far greater number of people who don’t hold a political grievance, let alone want to act violently upon it.

What motivates those who do act violently? Political or religious ideology can be a contributor. Obviously, when someone shouts “God is great” before killing many people, that’s a serious part of what has driven them to commit the crime.

Still, we must remember that we’ve seen lone actors emerge from a wide range of ideological backgrounds including the extreme right-wing, Islamic extremism, anti-abortionist, environmentalism and collection of miscellaneous idiosyncratic endeavours.

To suggest that the problem lies in Islam, as opposed to in the minds and actions of the terrorists, is to misunderstand it. We need to move away from a simplistic reductionist search for golden-bullet type answers to try to understand the intricate combination of factors that light the fuse.

It is never just ideology. It is never just mental illness. It is never just online radicalization. The reality is far more complicated and typically involves a crystallization, or perfect storm, of features and behaviors.

Remove one, and you might have just an angry person who expresses himself through words. Add them all together in just the right way, and dozens could die.

Lone-actor terrorism is usually the culmination of a complex mix of personal, political and social drivers that, like a chemical reaction, combine at the same time to drive the individual down the path of violent action.

And we make a major mistake if we believe that there’s a standard cause and effect, as though it’s always religion that leads to violence, or economic frustration that leads to religion, and then to violence.

Sometimes personal problems create a susceptibility to ideological influences. Sometimes long-held ideological influences became intensified after personal problems. People’s motivations are complex. Our understanding of terrorism must be, too.

Risk also needs to be viewed dynamically. Given a set of circumstances and conditions, at any given point in time, an individual may appear not to be a threat.

However, small changes in his life-course, personal circumstances or opportunity to offend can have a force-multiplier effect and rapidly propel him into a higher category of risk.

One of the most surprising findings in our research was the extent to which the sample tended to leak information to significant others regarding their attack plans. Lone actors may be thought of as radicalizing in dark basements, cut off from others. That’s wrong.

More than half of the lone actors made verbal statements to others about specific parts of their attack plans. Studies of similar actors have however found similar results.

A study of adolescent mass murderers in North America found that 44% of the sample discussed the act of murder with at least one other person prior to the event itself. Also, a remarkable 58% had made threatening statements alluding to mass murder prior to the event.

In 81% of cases in a sample of U.S.-based school shooters, at least one other individual had known of the offender’s intentions or specific plans for the school attack. In 59% of the cases, more than one non-attack related person had prior knowledge.

Some leaked their intentions because they were trying to recruit others — but many did so because they wanted to avoid the pitfall of “messageless resistance.”

Lone-actor terrorists are difficult to identify and do not fall neatly into a single profile. Each of the killers above, Maj. Hasan Nadal (from left), Anders Breivik and Timothy McVeigh, had vastly different motivations.

It is crucial that we understand that terrorists are desperate to tell us something. They want their message to resonate, and that often guides them to communicate with others about their plots.

Terrorism, by its very nature, is a form of political communication. Jihadists’ violence targets not just those cut down by it but the wider unharmed public.

They intend to demonstrate the vulnerability of the state, to communicate to organizational sympathizers, to provoke repressive counter-measures — and to highlight the supposed heroism of the perpetrators. Without the corresponding political message or justification for the violence, it is not terrorism. It is without a message, and easily framed as “ordinary” violence.

When we call terrorists “monsters,” we gloss over the fact that there is a message behind the violence, no matter how cruel and indiscriminate and horrific the violence may be.

We saw this during day two of the trial of Anders Breivik, the radical Christian who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011. At trial, Breivik argued the necessity of outlining his ideology. Without it, he felt that the “massive, sickening demonization of my character is going to continue.”

Would-be terrorists and terrorists are often very concerned about precisely how they are portrayed. They want their message to be correctly heard.

And this proves, contrary to what many assert, that we can indeed intervene early to counter the threat.

This is tricky business. The information they leak can only be acted upon if the recipient of the leaked information passes it up to the relevant authorities. And it’s not easy to encourage such cooperation in a constructive way.

If people misjudge, they’ll over-report, telling authorities about tons of innocuous behaviour. Or they’ll under-report, leaving plots to incubate. Civilians are not counterterrorism professionals, and we can’t expect them to be.

Since not all of the instances in which information is received about verbalized intent are viable threats, the logical next step must be for authorities to engage in a risk assessment and look at the individual’s situation, capability, motivation and opportunity to act.

Because of how difficult it is to zero in on would-be plotters while their plots are in motion, we must understand the limits of this approach.

It therefore might be better to guard against future self-starter terrorists by making the actual undertaking of a terrorist attack more difficult.

For example, it might be easier and more cost-efficient to deter a budding lone-actor terrorist by making it more difficult to acquire the necessary bomb-making materials, rather than by interrupting the radicalization and plotting process.

In recent years, our capability to identify and interrupt would-be plots has drastically improved. We can track, monitor and store communications like never before. This gives us new power to ferret out potential plots.

But for all that we’ve gained in technological prowess, we lack some basic understanding of the problem.

Building safer societies starts with educating ourselves.

Gill, a lecturer in security and crime science at University College London, is author of “Lone-Actor Terrorists: A Behavioral Analysis.”

How extremists distort Islam to recruit vulnerable people

There are countless rationalizations used by Islamic extremists groups to vindicate their acts of violence through the Islamic concept of ‘jihad’ (holy war). Their justification comes in using verses from the Qur’an and quotes from Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad [Peace be upon Him]) which thus act as the main source of incitement.

I will look at the religious justifications used by radical groups when persuading young Muslims to join the ‘war’. Furthermore, I will also provide some counter arguments for such justifications. Before I discuss the above, I would like to draw your attention to a recent Q&A with Jordan Horner, a reformed extremist. (http://news.sky.com/story/1578648/q-and-a-muslim-patrol-extremist-on-his-new-life)

“Through the internet, lectures online, reading certain books, and learning from certain individuals – all of that collectively, the way it affected me was it convinced me to go out in public and do these things as a propagation of my faith.” (Responding to a question about his journey to becoming radicalized)

 

We know extremist groups are using online platforms to recruit and target young Muslims. The following are justifications used by groups to sway individuals to believing ‘jihad’ is an obligation for every Muslim:

  • Qur’an 9:73O Prophet! strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites and be unyielding to them; and their abode is hell, and evil is the destination.”
  • Qur’an 9:29 – “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book (Jews and Christians)…”
  • Qur’an 4:74 – “Those who readily fight in the cause of God are those who forsake this world in favour of the Hereafter. Whoever fights in the cause of God, then gets killed, or attains victory, we will surely grant him a great recompense…”
  • Qur’an 2:190 – ”You may fight “in the cause of God” against those who attack you…”
  • The Prophet (PBUH) said to Umm Haarithah bint an-Nu’maan – after her son was killed in the battle of Badr – after she asked:
    “Where is he (i.e. is he in Paradise or the Fire)?” –
    he replied,
    “Indeed, he is in the highest Firdaws”
    [al-Bukhaari]

These are just a few extracts from Qur’an and Hadith but we can see they convey a ‘religious obligation’ and the promise of paradise through martyrdom. However, it should be noted that Daesh and other Islamic extremist groups are misinterpreting many Qur’an and Hadiths quotes for their own agenda. One example is, “You may fight in the cause of GOD against those who attack you, but do not aggress. GOD does not love the aggressors.” [Quran 2:190]. Radicalizers will distort this verse by removing the latter part in order to persuade young Muslims to join their cause.

As Dr Paul Gill (UCL) noted, most of those that are being radicalised barely know anything about their religion therefore are more prone to being recruited based on distorted interpretations. This view is supported by Dr Doug Weeks (2015) who said, “I look at new people who join these [terrorist] organizations, and most have no idea about ideology or even religion.” (http://www.buzzfeed.com/husseinkesvani/cameron-extremism-flawed-report#.vfxpqX5kYk)

There are numerous counter arguments or the ‘correct’ Islamic views which can be used to condemn extremist ideologies. I would like to draw on a statement by the late Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaykh Ibn Baaz said, regarding ‘Jamaa’tul Jihaad’, a group involved in terrorism and suicide bombings, “…they are not to be co-operated with, nor are they to be given salutations. Rather, they are to be cut off from, and the people are to be warned against their evil. Since they are a tribulation and are harmful to the Muslims, and they are the brothers of the Devils!”

Indeed a very powerful statement which condemns terrorism. Whilst scholars have condemned extremist ideologies, it can also be done through quotes from Qur’an and Hadiths:

  • Let there be no compulsion (or coercion) in the religion (Islam). (2:256)
  • Whosoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind, and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. (5:32)
  • And if they incline to peace, so you must incline to it. And trust in God, for He hears and knows all. – Qur’an 8:61
  • “… They should rather pardon and overlook. Would you not love Allah to forgive you? Allah is Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Qur’an, 24:22)

There are various other extracts from Qur’an and Hadiths that condemn violence and extremism. Whilst there are concepts of jihad in Islam, extremist groups are acting in blatant violation of its basic principles. Islamic extremists are recruiting and justifying their acts of violent extremism, however, the majority of Muslims agree that their actions are contrary to the teachings of Islam. Therefore, it is essential to understand that while being a Muslim itself is not an indicator of radicalization and extremism, a flawed interpretation and view on religion can be.

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Are memes counterproductive in the war against terrorism?

When this headline, “Senators Suggest Trolling Terrorists With Memes, Presidential Staffers”, popped up on my newsfeed earlier this year, it got me thinking about how far we have come, socially, to accepting cultural phenomena, such as memes. Because of their cultural, rather than social, status, a lot of the comments were derogatory (I am excluding the comments made about his stance on other political issues). Memes have become socially acceptable because they have become embedded in our daily lives; whether it is finding them on our Facebook feeds, actively seeking them out on the internet, or downloading them from social media specialising in just memes, we have created a socially acceptable ‘meme cult’. In today’s day and age, where internet is easily accessible on mobile phones, memes comes to us in all shapes and sizes, and in for all intents and purposes (entertainment, newsworthy, educational, etc.).

Thinking back to the headline, I decided to investigate this idea further – perhaps there was some sort of wisdom in the senator’s thinking. Why shouldn’t we fight back at terrorists through humorous means, and since we are in the 21st century, memes are the way to go! If we look back, again earlier this year, humour prevailed over the icy threat of ISIS conquering Rome spurring the hashtag which went viral on twitter “#We_Are_Coming_O_Rome”. Looking at some of those comments at that time, I thought to myself, how can these people think like that? They have just received a threat from one of the biggest terrorist organisations currently around after the decapitation of 21 people! How callous of them to respond with humour? However, after a lot of thought and thinking back on the various responses, my whole perception of the situation has changed – I no longer think of them as callous beings who have no regard for human life. They are my heroes. As someone who uses humour as a defence mechanism, I usually opt out of it when it comes to terrorism due to the sensitive nature of the topic. However, in this case, what else can you, as a mere citizen, do but make jokes?

After doing my research, and looking at old posts retrospectively of this, I have changed my mind. Let’s see if you change yours (or perhaps reaffirm your stance on the matter).

The appeal of internet memes as a means of coping with terrorism

Research has shown that humour can be used as a means of coping with terrorism. In fact, research shows both a psychological and scientific explanation for how humour can be used to combat the emotional turmoil associated with terrorism. Researcher, Elaine A, Pasquali at Adelphi University wrote a paper on the benefits associated with humour as a coping mechanism for terrorism.

Freud coined the term ‘gallows humour’ as a type of purposeful humour that attempts to deal with morbid, or tragic, situations (just as is the case of terrorism). Laughing at death, and making fun of tragic situations, helps people cope with the underlying psychological pain associated with the tragic event. Furthermore, using humour allows people to re-evaluate the situation and look at it from another perspective thus giving opportunity to satirise the event.

Further to Freud’s ‘relief-release mechanism’ of gallows humour, there is also a scientific explanation to using humour as a means of coping with stressful/tragic situations. You know those tears you get when you laugh? Well those, apparently, contain more proteins, hormones, steroids and toxins than artificially induced tears (for example, when you slice onions and they make you cry for no reason?). By releasing all those things, your body is relieved of stress and tension thus allowing for a fresh, new perspective outlook on tragic situations. Additionally (bonus point!) laughter decreases cortisol levels and counter the immunosuppressive effect that comes with stressful situations which could compromise your immune system (which would already be weak from a stressful situation)!

So next time you laugh at an inappropriate joke, don’t despair – it’s all perfectly natural! (And good for you too)!

Humour is food for the soul

So basically, Pasquali promotes humour as a means of combatting tragic events in our lives. Studies were conducted in the aftermath of 9/11 when they found out that a couple of years after the event, people still suffered from PTSD. What was interesting to note was that a majority of these people were not direct victims of the terrorist attack, but rather feared that something similar would happen to them in the future (if it already happened once, it was likely to happen again).

Therapeutic humour, a fancy term to explain everything I just said, is a holistic approach to dealing with the crisis of terrorist effects. However, remember, to each their own; if people are not comfortable with the idea of using humour to combat the effects of their stress, this could probably add to their stress levels and not help them in any way. People using humour as a means of ‘therapy’ have to assess the level of emotional adjustment the person is going through. Internet memes are widely accessible, and most of the time, people have to actively seek them out. Some memes go a bit too far, and others are taken out of context; but the bottom line is that they should not be considered as a counterproductive measure in the war against terror. We love to laugh and if these mechanisms help us to deal with the effects of terrorism, let them.