Does Ideology or Personality Drive Domestic Terrorism?

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(Illustrative photo: Flickr/Neil Moralee/CC 2.0)
(Illustrative photo: Flickr/Neil Moralee/CC 2.0)

Domestic terrorism, by definition, depends on having an ideology behind it. But is what we are seeing terrorism or just individuals with severely problematic personalities? 

In addition to a bold first speech on domestic terrorism from President Trump, the recent mass shootings also yielded a statement from six former National Security Council directors for counterterrorism across three administrations.

Brett McGurk, a former special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS under Trump and Obama shared the following message in a tweet released a day ahead of the president’s public statement:

The statement on domestic terrorism reads in part:

“Even as we await the full investigations of the tragic events of the last 48 hours, it has become abundantly clear over many months now that more must be done to address acts of violence driven by extremist views of all types, including acts of domestic terrorism. We call on our government to make addressing this form of terrorism as a high priority as countering international terrorism has become since 9/11 … This also means providing a significant infusion of resources to support federal, state, and local programs aimed at preventing extremism and targeted violence of any kind, motivated by an ideology or directed at any American community.”

Though it’s timely and promising to see leaders in government rally around challenging domestic terrorism, there is a tangential issue of whether domestic terrorists are of the same vein as the international terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al-Qaeda.

While both need to be addressed for the national security risks they pose, Dr. Brad Patty, the senior vice president of research and rnalysis at Security Studies Group, questions the theories that drive domestic terrorists.

In conversation, Patty shares:

“I wonder how much ideology actually has to do with any of this. My guess is that neither of these two shooters [El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio], nor the one from the previous week [Gilroy, California], will prove to have seriously entertained political theory. My guess is that their flirtation with such theories was more about looking for a reason to be angry than about an attempt to actually understand and critique or change society. That would explain why they seem to have embraced essentially every criticism at once: socialist but also nationalist, ecoterrorist left and fascist right. Any stick will do if you’re just looking for a stick.

If I were wagering, I’d bet the real issue is that they were incels, and the real root of their anger lies in longing to be loved but actually finding constant rejection (because, being weird and creepy, anyone would be wise to reject them). I’ll bet the rest is just painted on. But that’s just a guess, based on what information is available in the last few days.”

The evidence pouring in around the lives of the shooters paints very much the same picture of alienated, isolated, misogynistic young men.

  • Former classmates identify the El Paso Walmart shooter as a “socially awkward loner,” adding that “he was soulless.”
  • The Dayton, Ohio shooter was in a band that released disturbing and disgusting songs about raping and killing women.

What’s clear is that social isolation is a common thread with these shooters, while the ideology perhaps comes second after a threshold has been crossed through push and pull factors that drive other behaviors.

For Patty, “If the ideology isn’t really what’s driving them, we’re spinning wheels trying to address it. You can talk down jihadists by engaging them within the context of their ideology, but that works because it really is what is driving them. If they’re really mad for another reason, all the time you spend trying to convince them to adopt a less-radical ideology is time wasted.”

This is a conversation that raises more questions, including:

  • How do we distinguish ideological appeal from a copy-cat shooting-spree killers, especially given the trend to post quick online manifestos ahead of the attack. To what extent does political theory (or lack thereof) of the shooters and their manifestos shape how we understand them?
  • What is the role of social media in incentivizing political violence?

What is clear, however, is that in the aftermath of another shooting epidemic, the next step is already defined: Combating homegrown terrorism must be as high a priority as combating violent Islamist extremism.



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Shireen Qudosi

Shireen Qudosi is Clarion Project's National Correspondent.

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