Nafees Hamid is a cognitive scientist who spent the last seven years studying jihadis, including the supporters of groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Despite at times having to jump out of second story windows when the interview requests turned sour, he convinced more than 70 Islamist extremists to take brain scans.
The results, he says, can help us prevent future attacks from other extremists, including white supremacists.
The effort is part of a larger project studying radicalization by Artis International. The project saw policy experts and scientists team up to publish the first brain scans on radicalized individuals (see video below).
Published in Frontiers in Psychology and Royal Society Publishing, the MRI study looked at “the underlying neural and behavioral relationships between sacred values, violent extremism, and social exclusion” among a group of 535 young men from European Muslim communities around Barcelona, Spain. The pool was comprised of first and second generation young men from the Moroccan diaspora.
What makes this study particularly outstanding is the scientific lens through which it looks at an often uncomfortable element of extremism: sacred values.
Sacred values (also sometimes referred to as sanctity) is a term normally associated with religious identity, and as such is rarely touched on within the field of preventing or countering violent extremism. Yet, sacred values can be either religious or secular (either the Holy Land or the “Nation”).
This means that the data for one group (the jihadis) can be used to identify patterns in other extremist groups, for example, white supremacists, recently identified by the Department of Homeland Security as the “most persistent and lethal threat” to the United States.
The term sacred values originated in the 1990s by social psychologists looking to counter material theory that pinned actions to metric values, or a “price.” The study defines sacred values as a critical element in radicalization — highly stable and resistant to being traded off for a material gain. Rather, the study concludes, it is a key component in creating “devoted actors.”
As Time reported, the project confirmed:
“Deradicalization programs focused on altering extremists’ beliefs through logic and reasoning, or through trade-offs and material incentives, are doomed to fail.”
The study found among jihadis there is less deliberation in making a decision to act when the behavior trigger is a sacred value (which is something often seen in honor killings for example). However, the study also found that the part of the brain linked to deliberation lit up if the individual’s peer group showed hesitation or reserve to default into violence behavior.
Significantly, the MRI results also showed that behavioral and neural responses to sacred value processing (including a willingness to fight and die) is not exclusive to this component. Social exclusion can have the same impact among young and vulnerable individuals.
This idea is something that Preventing Violent Extremism education has focused on — the part that social exclusion (alienation) can play in the radicalization process. In fact, the study indicated that if someone was at the early stages of radicalization, social exclusion made them more willing to use violence.
One of the main takeaways from the study is also something that a number of Muslim reformers have advised: “Don’t try to undermine their values. Try to show them there are other ways of committing to their values.”