Global HotSpots

Fighting Terrorists? Needed: More Effective Battle of Ideas

There are different kinds of terrorists. Understanding the variations could help stop them.

Credit: Joseph Sohm


  • We have an era of decentralized and more individualized terrorist activity.
  • Making sense of violent actors requires that we think harder about the multiple motivations that drive individuals.
  • The contemporary global terrorist lives in a paradoxical situation.
  • Today's terrorist may be a cosmopolitan. More likely, he lives in a narrow, self-reinforcing narrative that closes off himself or the world.
  • There is nothing more challenging to uproot than another person's worldview. Yet, this is the general premise of the "war of ideas."

Several trends are coming into view with each recent terrorist attack in North America, Western Europe or Australia and are likely to deepen in the future:

Hybrid terrorism

In traditional categorization of terrorists, there are “lone wolves” who are unconnected to any organized group and those who are members of organizations.

Today, a hybrid type appears to be evolving: someone who works without full organizational support or direction, but who is not working in total isolation from others.

We may call this the “hybrid” or “networked” terrorist, who may be or feel himself to be associated distantly with a group or an idea, but who may still carry out all or some of his activities without the direction of an organizational leader.

Multi-motivational terrorism

Although human action is inevitably over-determined, this mattered less in diagnosing the violent motivations in the era of single-purpose groups.

The 20th century featured either groups with specific ethnic-nationalist goals, such as Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA, in Basque) and the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK). Or they had revolutionary objectives, exemplified by groups like the Black Panthers or the Baader Meinhof Group, for example.

Despite the complex motivations of individual members of these organizations, the coherence of the group ideology helped categorize it.

In an era of decentralized, more individualized terrorist activity, making sense of violent actors requires that we think harder about the multiple motivations that drive individuals.

They may have diffuse ideological beliefs coupled with specific triggers, such as economic dislocation or social marginalization, or recruitment.

Narrative terrorism

As violent actors become more likely to act without leaders, they can afford to be less connected to the socialization processes of radical groups.

In its place, they are connected to digital as well as social networks — and capable of developing destructive capabilities with limited help from others.

In contrast to terrorists of the past century, today’s may not be physically isolated from the rest of the world in training camps.

And they are not psychologically isolated from the world by other members of a radical group driving toward the same goals.

They are isolated, instead, in an imaginative construct of their own. They pick from the information available to them, those bits that help them make sense of the world and their role in it.

So, the contemporary global terrorist lives in a paradoxical situation.

On the one hand, if he (or she) moves around the world and is exposed to multiple cultures, he is actually exposed to more ideas than someone may have been many years ago. He could be a cosmopolitan.

Yet, rigidity of mind, a profound sense of displacement or other feelings of dissonance and the ability to personalize digital information sources means he more likely lives in a narrow, self-reinforcing narrative that closes off alternative ways of viewing himself or the world.

There is nothing more challenging to uproot than another person’s worldview. One way not to do it is with “counter-narratives” that simply oppose or offer alternatives with no connection to the cultural or ideological fabric of an extremist’s worldview.

Nevertheless, this was the general premise of the “war of ideas” for the last decade.

Where to Start: A more nuanced, focused battle

Where then, could we begin to approach a necessary battle with ideas so powerful that they lead people to terrorist violence? Here are a few starting ideas.

Address multi-motivated extremism

The United States made progress in the last decade recognizing that all jihadist movements are not alike. They arise in different places and for different reasons.

Now is the time to acknowledge the complex makeup of individuals who engage in violent activity.

They have ideological, temperamental, circumstantial, psychological and other motivations. Addressing only one promises to leave all of the others intact.

Counter non-constructive psychological and cognitive aspects

Would-be violent actors may not be motivated by the same issues. But they are likely to think about those issues in similar ways.

There is strong evidence of a fairly consistent psychological profile among violent protagonists in different ideological and regional settings.

These include rigid turn of mind and feelings of alienation or marginalization, for example. This knowledge offers clues to the prevention of extremism.

Most important, it suggests itself as a global call for educational standards that highlight flexibility of mind, the ability to withhold judgment, self-reflection and other abilities that help people develop constructive narratives about themselves and the world around them.

Counter from within the worldview of would-be extremists

People change their views of the world over time, using their existing understanding of it as a pathway to new information and new ideas.

In order to present alternative narratives, the United States must be able to traverse those existing pathways in their international projects and their counterterrorism communications.

This ability may draw on empirical facts about the cultural contours or dominant media messages suffusing an extremist network.

But it is as much or more the art of learning to speak from within — rather than at — the imaginative constructs of other people and societies.

Build policies that address actual factors that contribute to radicalization

In order to approach what may be a renewed era of counterterrorism, it is imperative to keep unrelated issues and domestic politics from muddying the water.

Immigration reform, for example, is not the place for a counterterrorism strategy: people do not move to extremist violence because they are from another country.

Rather, they do so because they are vulnerable to ideological influence, feel disenfranchised and find that a narrative of violence helps them make sense to themselves.

In conclusion, nothing is more important than to keep our eyes on the right ball.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

About Amy Zalman

Amy Zalman is a professor of Strategic Foresight at Georgetown University and the founder and CEO of Prescient, a foresight consultancy.

Responses to “Fighting Terrorists? Needed: More Effective Battle of Ideas”

If you would like to comment, please visit our Facebook page.

Privacy Preference Center

Necessary Cookies

The use of certain cookies is required for the site to function correctly.



Improve content and site performance.