Where does extremist violence come from? In the wake of yet another American shooting by a white nationalist, this question is more pressing than ever. However, says Dr. Noémie Bouhana of UCL Security & Crime Science, writing for the UK Commission for Countering Extremism, the factors that lead to an act of terrorism are highly complicated.
When an individual commits an act of terrorist violence, rather than examining this person as a “lone wolf”, Bouhana recommends seeing their outburst as the culmination of the interwoven circumstances, a kind of ecosystem. It’s not about shifting the blame off the person, but about trying to develop a counter-strategy that really works: when interventions only focus on trying to build up an individual resistance to the kinds of beliefs that lead to extremist violence, they miss the bigger (and potentially more effective) picture.
So how does Bouhana’s ecosystem model work? She has outlined a Risk Inference Framework called S⁵, which looks at five different factors that can lead a person towards—or away from—illegal extremist action. Only one of those factors is personal susceptibility to terrorist messaging. The other four are Selection, Settings, Social Ecology, and Systems.
It works like this: in order for an individual-led terrorist act to take place, we start with someone Susceptible to extremist messaging—and willing to break the law; as it turns out, past law-breaking is a common trait among those who take such drastic steps.
This person is then subject to the forces of Selection, either by belonging to the demographic targeted by a particular pro-violence rhetoric, or, confusingly, by feeling excluded from a different group. (Positive and negative Selection both count as Selection.)
Next, the individual is exposed to a Setting in which they can encounter a subculture that approves of violent, extremist action. This can be a physical location, or nowadays, any number of internet communities. The important part is some space in which such ideas can be discussed.
This Setting is shaped by a Social Ecology, which is to say, the complicated collection of values, perspectives, and social norms in a given space. In this case, the Social Ecology of a Setting that encourages terrorism must be able to pull this individual in, and allow the individual to create a positive identity as someone capable of violence for a cause.
This small Social Ecology is in turn shaped by Systems—the larger socio-economic factors that create feelings of discontent in subcultures. For instance, unrest in a particular group grows when wealth and resources are scarce, and when there is a general feeling of having been wronged. We are all shaped by the Systems we live in, meaning that an individual’s personal Susceptibility to terrorist messaging might also be informed by their relationship to those Systems. That is to say, the S⁵ framework is not a straight line but a network of interrelated cause and effect.
“When dealing with a complex social problem like extremism, we should maybe spend a little less time asking ourselves ‘why do they do it?’ and a little more time asking ‘why here and now?'" says Bouhana.