The Pre-Terrorists Among Us

Is it possible to stop terrorism before it happens?

Dylan Martinez / Reuters

Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report is a short story about a dystopian future in which there are “no major crimes,” but a mass of imprisoned “would-be criminals.” This is thanks to “Precrime,” a criminal-justice agency whose preventive efforts are directed by a trio of mute oracles called “precog mutants.” The inherent and dark illiberalism of this approach is not lost on Precrime’s chief John Anderton, who concedes, “We’re taking in individuals who have broken no law.” The film adaptation of the story was described by the film critic Peter Bradshaw as an “allegory for a hi-tech police state which bullies villains and law-abiding citizens alike with self-fulfilling prophecies of wrongdoing.”

To a certain degree, the future Dick envisioned has already arrived. It comes in the form of “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE), a set of “non-coercive” counterterrorism initiatives—embraced in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere—aimed not only at de-radicalizing or disengaging convicted terrorists, but also at preventing “at risk” individuals from becoming terrorists in the first place.

Unlike Precrime, CVE doesn’t license the mass imprisonment of would-be terrorists. But it does promote interventions that are intrusive and stigmatizing, targeting those who, to echo Anderton, have broken no law—but, as U.S. President Barack Obama recently put it, are “vulnerable ... to violent extremist ideologies.” British Prime Minister David Cameron struck a similar note in a speech earlier this month, promising to introduce yet more measures in the United Kingdom to tackle extremism “in all its forms,” including the “non-violent,” insisting that it was necessary to “stop this seed of hatred even being planted in people’s minds.”

Who are the so-called extremists in our midst? They are everyone and no one, promiscuously crossing the gamut of social backgrounds and personality types. Among the membership of the numerous and varied terrorist groups in the world today, there are no usual suspects: men, women, teenagers, childrengrandparents, as well as a whole kaleidoscope of exes: ex-punk rockers, ex-medical students, ex-gangbangers, ex-engineers, ex-rappers, ex-male models. And this is just from the jihadist spectrum. Who becomes a terrorist is anyone’s guess, although where you live and who you are related to and know are more salient factors than how you think and how poor you are.

The idea that there is no single, all-encompassing terrorist profile is now something of a conventional wisdom among scholars. Yet the notion that terrorists, like mythical demons, take on a recognizable shape, however spectral, is strongly implicit in CVE preventive thinking. In Britain, the face of CVE is the “Prevent” strategy, a putatively “community-led” approach first launched in April 2007 and now mandated by the U.K.’s 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. Its central aims are to counter “the ideological challenge of terrorism,” and to offer “practical help to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.” Terrorism, as Prevent constructs it, isn’t a form of political activism that sentient people choose to engage in for reasons, however poorly conceived; rather, it’s an ideological contagion—a “disease,” as Cameron described it in February—that afflicts the vulnerable and “risks” their safety and well-being.

The British government’s radicalization “referral” program aims to stop this contagion through “early intervention” before it takes hold, though it’s not fully clear what such intervention actually involves. It is now a statutory obligation for specified community partners, including social workers, teachers, probation officers, and “credible community organisations,” to monitor for “vulnerability indicators” that suggest people are “turn[ing] towards terrorism,” and refer those who manifest these indicators to the authorities. Such indicators include “spending increasing time in the company of other suspected extremists;” “changing ... style of dress or personal appearance;” “loss of interest in other friends and activities not associated with the extremist ideology, group or cause;” “possession of material or symbols associated with an extremist cause;” blaming others “for all social or political ills;” and “using insulting or derogatory names or labels for another group.” Since ISIS’s dramatic rise to prominence last year, the number of referrals to the program has skyrocketed: There were 796 referrals this summer alone, more than in the entire first year of the program from 2012 to 2013.

Similar notions about how to detect radicalization underpin CVE programs in the United States, Canada, Australia, and France. A document the Australian government published last month warned that people undergoing radicalization can display “significant behavioural changes in major areas” of their lives, ranging in severity from “changes in normal behaviour” to expressions of hostility “towards people they see as the ‘enemy.’” The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in a 2014 handbook co-produced with the Islamic Social Services Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims, advised concerned parents to be aware of signs that can manifest in “at-risk youth,” such as “sudden onset of anti-social behaviour; spending excessive ... time online, especially at night when most of the family is asleep; ... excessive secrecy regarding what sites they are visiting online, where they are going, who they are meeting; ... [or] external and overt expression of hyper-religiosity.”

It is easy to scoff at this. Yet the emphasis on physical appearance and speech as cues of personal identity is not entirely off the mark, and finds support in a range of social-science research. The sociologist Helen Rose Ebaugh has studied how people communicate via “cuing” that they have undergone a decisive life-change. Ex-nuns she observed, for example, would grow their hair long, experiment with new clothing styles, and “relearn ways of carrying their bodies so that they would not be identified as ‘nunnish.’” Other research testifies to the centrality of the body as a vehicle for symbolic self-expression. As the sociologist Chris Shilling, one of the founding scholars of body studies and author of The Body, told me, referring to religious individuals, “people’s physical appearance serves as a canvas on which they affiliate themselves to their faith via markings that not only display their allegiance, but also prompt within them regular emotional reinforcements of this identity.”

Do radicalized individuals cue their transformation toward ideological militancy in their “body canvas” and outward behavior? In Murder in Amsterdam, Ian Buruma recorded how Mohammed Bouyeri’s adoption of jihadist ideology was preceded by a series of notable behavioral shifts. In a period of just a few months, Bouyeri, a once very secular person born to Moroccan parents in the Netherlands, radically changed his appearance, discarding his Western street clothes for a djellaba and prayer hat; growing a beard; renouncing alcohol, weed, and women; and severing all ties with friends from his past. Not long after this transformation, and inflamed with ideological fever and righteous fury, he murdered the director Theo van Gogh, proclaiming at his trial that it was his religious obligation “to chop off the head of anyone who insults Allah and the prophet.” This was a direct reference to van Gogh’s and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Submission, a short film in which lines from the Quran, specifying a man’s right to beat his wife, were superimposed on the naked body of a woman.

Yet the cues Bouyeri gave off are also the very same cues one might expect to see in anyone who has undergone a conversion toward non-violent or pacifistic Islamic religious conservatism, and do not necessarily indicate conversion into the Salafi-jihadist fold. The danger of CVE is that it risks conflating the two and promotes an atmosphere of mistrust. There are many cases in which ordinary Muslims have been singled out and harassed—not for anything they may have done, but because of the suspicious minds of others, who see a Muslim man reading a scholarly book on terrorism and think “terrorist,” or who read support for Palestine as support for global jihadism. Even converts to radical Islam—or the “non-violent extremists” whose ideology Britain’s new strategy aims to counter, in addition to the violent variant—aren’t necessarily appropriate targets for suspicion. As the terrorism scholar John Horgan puts it, “The overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in violence … and … people who engage in terrorism don’t necessarily hold radical beliefs.”

Another major weakness of CVE lies in its naïve and imaginatively cramped view of social life, of which so much is theater, and where how people act is often at variance with their unvarnished “backstage” self. Erving Goffman, the foremost exponent of this “dramaturgical” view of social affairs, wrote that “a performer tends to conceal or underplay those activities, facts, and motives which are incompatible with an idealized version of himself,” and remarked on the prevalence of “disidentifiers”—affectations or props intended to convey normalcy—among stigmatized groups.

In his study of men who visited public restrooms in search of sex, Laud Humphreys described how the men, 54 percent of whom were married and living with their wives, would adopt conservative postures in public so as to detract from their then-illicit sexual liaisons with men and boys. In Goffman’s terminology, they were “disidentifying,” much like the 9/11 hijackers, who made a point of shaving their beards and visiting strip clubs prior to launching their attacks. (“How conveeenient,” Andrew Sullivan mordantly remarked about that stratagem.)

CVE seems blissfully ignorant of this theatrical dimension of everyday social life, and the lengths to which people go to conceal their innermost thoughts and feelings. “I couldn’t believe it, I can’t believe it. ... My son ... loved music and breakdancing and football. … He wanted just to work, to have a nice cellphone, a laptop or nice clothes,” said Radhia Manai, the mother of Seifeddine Rezgui, who this summer calmly slaughtered 38 people at a beach resort near the city of Sousse in Tunisia. But her account could stand in for any number of recent jihadist-assassins, like 15-year-old Hassan Mahania, whose father reportedly told the BBC journalist Jeremy Bowen that “his son was a typical teenager, not political and certainly no radical.” Clearly, such accounts are self-exculpatory, serving to immunize the parents of terrorists against the criticism that they should have intervened to stop their children’s murderous actions. But they may also be sincere and truthful.