Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Terrorist mindsets: importance of spatial orientations — using STA to analyze the Boston Marathon bombers

Watching news and analysis about the Boston bombers led to wondering what might come up that bears on my episodic efforts to elaborate a framework about people’s space-time-action perceptions and their implications for how people think and behave — acronymed STA, for brevity’s sake. It is the other framework behind this blog, besides TIMN.

Would analysts find, for example, that the bombers felt diminished by life and wanted to show they’d become big (a spatial orientation)? Or that they had lost hope and sought a new future (in time)? Or that they’d felt powerless and saw bombing as a way to wield secret power (an action orientation)? These are the kinds of questions, categories, and narrative elements that STA instructs looking for and working with.

Lots of observations have indeed come up about the Tsarnaev brother’s space-time-action orientations. But what's striking is that spatial referents have been so prominent, more so than time and action. And that seems sensible and significant from an STA perspective.

For example, a roundtable discussion on CNN with Phillip Mudd, Jessica Stern, Fareed Zakaria, and two others whose names slip my mind emphasized that the Tsarnaevs had difficulties assimilating even though they seemed to fit in well; they came to feel marginalized and even humiliated, saw pathways blocked, and externalized their frustrations. Then they radicalized, after expanding their horizons and connecting to jihadi notions. Ultimately they boxed their minds off. Another time on CNN, Sherry Turkle opined that the older brother felt isolated and displaced, and developed a parallel life in secret.

On a PBS news-hour program, Jerrold Post and Jessica Stern observed that individuals who are isolated and lonely and feel they don't belong can use the Internet to connect up and bond with hatred groups. The Tsarnaev brothers, especially the older one, may have sensed loss; they may have felt like losers left by their parents, and become confused about their identity. They found they could consolidate their identity online, by learning that they are victims in a global struggle and that defensive jihad is the way to go, following recipes for action online.

[UPDATE — May 7, 2013: The pattern continued into the next week. On a CNN Sunday show chaired by Candy Crowley, a segment about the roots of radicalism assembled another set of expert observers: Zuhdi Nasser, Jessica Stern, Suhail Khan, and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. They too spoke mainly in terms of spatial referents — mostly regarding the separation, isolation, and exclusion that the Tsarnaevs may have felt. Nasser also noted the pull of the Islamic dream. Stern asked why some individuals are so vulnerable to the jihadi narrative, why they end up identifying more with the global jihadi movement than with their own neighbors. Travel abroad, the group agreed, can facilitate self-radicalization, as can the Internet. Yet, while the two may not have felt like part of the American fabric or the American dream, there was no evidence they were assimilation failures. Indeed, lots of people subscribe to extremist ideologies without acting on them; they do not turn to violence and claim that the ends justify the means. Several in the group advised that community leaders must promulgate messages of inclusion in order to counter jihadi narratives of exclusion. But, they cautioned, local narratives of inclusion will not work well if they posture that guys like the Tsarnaevs are not really Muslims, or if they are voiced amid heavy police surveillance.]

What I like about all this — what prompts this blog post — is the plethora of spatial referents, more than I’ve seen before in discussions of terrorist incidents. These experts’ observations are full of key words and phrases that represent grist for an STA hypothesis that a person’s turn to terrorism depends mainly on changes in his/her spatial (S) orientations.

Of course, the experts’ observations are just that — expert observations, fashioned from afar. Thus I can’t be sure of their reliability; little direct evidence is available about the bombers’ mindsets — nothing like systematic diagnostic interview materials. But let’s work with what’s at hand, even though it may turn out to reflect the experts’ mindsets more than the bombers’.

Reprise of points about space-time-action orientations in terrorist mindsets

It’s been a while since I addressed STA. So let me remind interested readers that there is no single paper (much less a book) that lays out the STA framework. But I’ve done blog posts about it, briefly describing how/why it occurred to me (here), and what some basic elements and dynamics are (here). I’ve also shown that STA orientations figured in aspects of the Occupy! movement (here). More to the point, one post’s appendix began to lay out what terrorist mindsets look like from an STA perspective (here). I also opined that Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Ft. Hood shooter deemed a lone-wolf terrorist, was more of a loner tribalist bent on running amok in ways that illustrated spatial orientations à la STA (here).

For readers who want some quick explanatory background, however, what may be most useful is an excerpt about terrorist mindsets from a 2009 post on “Millenarian terrorism — an STA perspective (3 of 4): modern parallels to chiliasm, importance of spatial orientations” (here). It still shows what I’m after, and applies quite well to analyzing the Boston bombers, by emphasizing three general points as follows:
“My first point is that many analyses of terrorism — religious and millenarian terrorism included — tend to emphasize just one of the three STA dimensions. But the more an analyst elaborates, the more it becomes clear that all three STA dimensions are embedded in his or her analysis.
“Often the initial emphasis is on time perceptions— e.g., loss of hope, a new vision of the future. But it could be on space or action perceptions. Here, for example, a scholar emphasizes an action orientation — the loss of power:
“It is this sense of a personal loss of power in the face of chaotic political and religious authorities that is common, and I believe critical, to Abouhalima’s al Gamaa-i Islamiya, Timothy McVeigh’s circle of militia activists, and most other movements for Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist, and Hindu nationalism around the world. The syndrome begins with the perception that the public world has gone awry, and the suspicion that behind this social confusion lies a great spiritual and moral conflict, a cosmic battle between the forces of order and chaos, good and evil. Such a conflict is understandably violent, and this violence is often felt by the victimized activist as powerlessness, either individually or in association with others of his gender, race, or ethnicity. The government — already delegitimized — is perceived to be in league with the forces of chaos and evil. (Juergensmeyer, 2000, p. 224)
“But look at the details. There is chaos, a separation of good and evil, an association of one kind, a league of another kind — all spatial factors. Moreover, the world is awry, heading into a cosmic battle — time notions ... . In short, one STA dimension is stressed, but all three show up, in a rather jumbled fashion.
“Which leads to my second point: All three STA dimensions are important. Scholars and other analysts could do a better job of analyzing mindsets if they attended to all three in a systematic manner, so as to dissect — to deconstruct, disassemble, reverse engineer — them in detail. This could also help clarify which and what kinds of other models, including the relative-deprivation and absolute-disaster models, work best.
“And that brings us to my third point: While all three STA orientations are significant, the space orientation — the orientation that often gets the least attention — may be the key to understanding the appeal of terrorism. This may be particularly so for disaster-driven millenarian terrorism, even though it is defined by/as a time orientation.
“Consider this: People who have made statements about becoming a terrorist refer to having lacked an identity, feeling small and humiliated, facing obstacles and barriers, and feeling lost after moving abroad. Then they gain a new sense of worth from finding new connections. They see how the world is split between good and evil — in a duality that must be overcome. They regard an outside power’s presence as an invasion that must be expelled. They want to regain what was lost or stolen. They want to extend the borders of Islam — as God’s soldiers, not an organization’s. They want the sacred to rule over the secular — indeed, to deny any such dichotomy. And whereas they used to feel marginal, now they are part of something that has cosmic importance.
“These are all spatial referents. I could list time and action referents as well. But my point is that the number and variety of spatial referents is really quite large — larger than I’ve seen analysts notice. Thus, spatial orientations may deserve a lot more attention than they’ve received. The keys to understanding terrorism’s attraction to some mindsets may lie more in their space than in their time or action orientations. (This may also apply more broadly to the tribal mindset, which is so emphatic about upholding solidarity, respect, pride, honor, and dignity — all spatial values.)”
In my view, that all still applies today.

Write-ups about the Boston bombers that illuminate spatial orientations

I don’t know why so many analysts — at least the ones who’ve caught my attention — have emphasized spatial more than time or action referents in discussing the Tsarnaevs. But I think the tendency began some time ago, perhaps with Hasan, and may have something to do with the fact that these perpetrators have been outsiders in one sense or another. Perhaps analysts tend to gravitate naturally toward spatial referents when analyzing the mentalities of immigrants and other kinds of displaced persons. I can only speculate. But whatever the reasons for the emphasis on spatial referents, it sure provides grist for the STA framework.

To further illustrate the significance of spatial referents in current analyses — and to offer further material for the hypothesis that terrorist mindset’s are based mainly, at least initially, on spatial more than time or action perceptions — I have at hand two pertinent articles.

One is by Amy Zalman, an expert on narrative matters and strategies. I’ve underlined some of the key words that clearly correspond to spatial referents.
“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, as Tamerlan Tsarnaev did, 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.” (source)
Notice also an article by Scott Atran, an anthropologist who studies religion and terrorism. It focuses on organizational matters — networks! — but also attends to mindset matters. He includes “goals” (a time orientation) and “modes of action” (an action orientation), but then emphasizes spatial points. Again, I’ve underlined some key words that are spatial referents.
“ ... Three key elements characterize the "organized anarchy" that typifies modern violent Islamic activism: Ultimate goals are vague and superficial (often no deeper than revenge against perceived injustice against Muslims around the world); modes of action are decided pragmatically on the basis of trial and error or based on the residue of learning from accidents of past experience; and those who join are not recruited but are locally linked self-seekers -- often from the same family, neighborhood, or Internet chat room -- whose connection to global jihad is more virtual than material. Al Qaeda and associates do not so much recruit as attract disaffected individuals who have already decided to embark on the path to violent extremism with the help of family, friends, or a few fellow travelers.
“Like the young men who carried out the Madrid and London attacks, most homegrown jihadi plotters first hook up with the broad protest sentiment against "the global attack on Islam" before moving into a narrower parallel universe. They cut ties with former companions who they believe are too timid to act and cement bonds with those who are willing to strike. They emerge from their cocoon with strong commitment to strike and die if necessary, but without any clear contingency planning for what might happen after the initial attack. ...
“But the popular notion of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West is woefully misleading. Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance. This is the dark side of globalization. ...
“Especially for young men, mortal combat with a "band of brothers" in the service of a great cause is both the ultimate adventure and a road to esteem in the hearts of their peers. For many disaffected souls today, jihad is a heroic cause -- a promise that anyone from anywhere can make a mark against the most powerful country in the history of the world.” (source)
Those two articles speak well to this post’s themes about STA and the importance of spatial perceptions in terrorist mindsets. But there are also insightful analyses that emphasize the other two STA orientations: perceptions about time and agency. For example, consider the one by Mark Juergensmeyer that says “Don’t Blame Religion for Boston Bombings” (here) — along with the one by Timothy Furnish about “The Ideology Behind the Boston Marathon Bombing” (here), which does indeed blame religion (h/t Charles Cameron).

Juergensmeyer argues that, especially for lone-wolf terrorists, religion is not so much a cause as a cover for trying to overcome powerlessness and become powerful — an action orientation (which he also emphasized in a quote I used way above). But when he turns to why the older Tsarnaev turned to terrorism, spatial referents play a big role (and again I’ve underlined some key words).
“Then what about Tamerlan Tsarnaev? He was clearly a troubled young man. He had dropped out of college, was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend, was separated from the woman with whom he had fathered a child, was ineligible for US citizenship because of the assault record, and had abandoned his dream of becoming an Olympic boxer. Worse, he had no social support network. He told one colleague, “I don’t have a single American friend... I don’t understand them.” It was then that he began to be more deeply involved in radical religious and political ideas related to the family’s war-torn homeland of Chechnya. ...
“Still, for Tamarlan the notion of being a part of a great battle seemed appealing. ...
“Hence the defense of a religion provides a cover for violence. It gives moral license to something horrible that the perpetrators had longed to do, to show the world how powerful they really could be, and to demonstrate their importance in one terminal moment of violent glory. Religion doesn’t cause the violence, it’s the excuse for it.” (source)
Furnish barely dwells on the Tsarnaevs. He is intent on making a broader point: that religion — Islam more than any other, and especially its apocalyptic strain Mahdism — is a motivator of terrorist violence. Furnish is a rare expert on this topic, and his points run against the grain of conventional punditry (for further illumination, see Charles Cameron’s posts at Zenpundit).
How did the Tsarnaevs move from Mahdist videos to maiming and murdering in Massachusetts? A number of analysts and commentators have opined about the Tsarnaevs’ “self-radicalizing.” However, self-radicalization” is a fatuous concept. First, what does “radical” mean in this context? I would submit that it means to accept, internalize and, ultimately, act upon the belief that violence in the name of Islam is not only justified but mandated. This is not a “radical” concept in Islam, ... More than any other world religion Islam lionizes violence, even in the modern world ... . Indeed, it’s probably more accurate to call Muslims who eschew violence “radical,” ... . Thus, no Muslim terrorist “radicalizes” himself but, rather -- as we see with Tamerlan Tsarnaev -- is more prone to engaging in terrorism and violence as he (or, less frequently, she) becomes more observant of traditional (in particular, Sunni) Islam and then falls under the influence of Internet teachers ...
“ ... [W]hat struggle is more epic than the eschatological one in which Islam will, according to hadiths, eventually take over the world?
Unlike the legions of Muslims who believe in the Mahdi but are content to wait passively and piously for his arrival (if they’re Sunni) or return (if they’re Twelver Shi`i), but like AQ [al Qaeda] and some other Sunni groups, the brothers Tsarnaev fused jihadist and Mahdist thought in an attempt to “hotwire the apocalypse.”” (source)
Furnish’s points are mainly about time and action orientations, not spatial ones. But they are worth including here. They show that time and action orientations are significant too — and of greater interest in some perspectives. They also show that analysts should attend to nuances. I particularly like his point that radicalization in this case is tantamount to traditionalization —the Tsarnaevs were connecting not to a brand new space of thinking, but to a deeply ancient one. Moreover, his analysis shows that sectarian Muslims may share similar views about the coming of the Mahdi (a time orientation), yet differ over whether to wait passively or push for it (alternative action orientations). In other words, though it may be interesting whether one STA dimension or another dominates, the entire STA profile must be delineated in order to fully understand a mindset.

Wrap-up comments: suggestions for developing STA as theory and tool

So I’ve made my key point: that the Boston bombers provide grist for STA, especially for the hypothesis that spatial orientations play leading roles in the formation of terrorist mindsets. Now here are some additional points for thinking about STA and trying to develop it as theory and tool. Lots more will have to be done to develop STA if it is ever to become attractive and useful.

First, a digression: I’ve long used the word “action” — the A in STA — to get at whether, how, when, and why people think they can, or cannot, affect the world around them. But as the years have passed since the STA framework first occurred to me in the 1960s, social scientists have increasingly used “agency” to refer to much the same thing. Indeed, Wikipedia now has three entries for the term, depending on whether one’s concern is with agency in philosophy (here), in sociology (here), or in theory about structure and agency (here). Thus, since the the term action has never seemed entirely suitable to me, I may henceforth substitute agency at times. Some readers may prefer it.

1. Mapping the spatial terrain — As implied by the underlining of key words in quotations above, it seems advisable to design a coding scheme based on key words and phrases, and relations among them — sort of a narrative network analysis. As noted in a prior post (here), my reading of the literature indicates that the basics should include mapping the following:
  • The actors, objects, and structures — their identity, distribution, scope, and strength — defining the space(s).
  • Connections and pathways that link them.
  • Layout in terms of centers, distances, and horizons.
  • Divisions, or partitions, into realms, domains, and layers.
  • Organization of the above into whole spatial systems.
Ultimately, something like that would also be needed for all three STA dimensions.

2. Charting changes in spatial orientations — Analysts should be on the look-out for how spatial orientations evolve over time. For example, an STA proposition that seems consistent with what’s in this post is that the Tsarnaevs went through a phase of compression-diminution, followed by a phase of enlargement-exaltation — sort of an upside-down spatial variant of the once-famous temporal J-curve theory (Davies, 1967) whereby rising expectations followed by dashed hopes leads to revolution.

As noted in a prior post about spatial matters (here), this resembles an explosive reaction known as “running amok” in which a period of sullen underground brooding is followed by an outburst of homicidal rage. Psychiatrist B. G. Burton-Bradley (1972), after analyzing amok-runners in Papua-New Guinea (the source of the term), described such brooding as follows:
“I am not an important or ‘big man.’ Although poor, I have always had my sense of personal dignity and social identity. But I have had little else. Now even this has been taken from me and my life reduced to nothing by an intolerable insult. Therefore, I have nothing to lose except my life, which is rated as nothing, so I trade my life for yours as your life is favored. The exchange is in my favor, so I shall not only kill you, but I will also kill many of you, and at the same time rehabilitate myself in the eyes of the group of which I am a member, even though I might be killed in the process.”
That sounds like part of what may have evolved with the Tsarnaevs — an emotionally-intense cognitive process, spread over time, that has much to do with STA dynamics, and little to do with grand beliefs that get attached about religion, ideology, or whatever.

There are surely lots of other such propositions waiting to be identified as well. After all, the literatures about globalization, the Internet, and radicalization are full of propositions about effects on and changes in people’s spatial perceptions, not to mention their time and agency orientations as well.

3. Modeling STA as a dynamic progression — This post focuses on spatial orientations, but STA instructs inquiring into all three dimensions in order to gain a full picture of the cognitive underpinnings of a person’s (or group’s, or culture’s) mentality. STA further instructs charting changes in all three dimensions over time, along with overlapping interactions among them. It’s bound to be a complex compound process.

My preliminary view is that, in cases like that of the Tsarnaevs, especially the older brother, the spatial orientations shift and re-consolidate first, then the time orientations, and finally the notions about agency. Evidence is lacking to be sure about this, but it seems a potentially interesting hypothesis. It’s also an hypothesis that should be approached with context and nuance in mind. For example, in the past some immigrants who shifted that way turned to communism, whereas today the lure is to jihadi terrorism — quite different outcomes, for quite different people in different eras.

Coda: Rethinking narrative strategy — Beyond and apart from the Boston bombing case, my view of STA (not to bring in TIMN as well) is that it has implications for the weaving of narrative and counter-narrative strategies. I can only hint at this intuition as a way to wrap-up this post, but it’s already hinted in quotes above from Zalman and Atran:
“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.” (source)
“But the popular notion of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West is woefully misleading. Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance. This is the dark side of globalization.” (source)
STA implies paying detailed attention to the space-time-action elements that may figure in narratives and counter-narratives. Those elements may be crucially important in determining a narrative’s effect — just as important as the grand ideas that are said to be at stake, like freedom and democracy. Get the STA elements right or wrong, and you get the narrative strategy right or wrong.

- - - - -

[UPDATE — December 16, 2013: Boston Globe journalists have provided a long comprehensive report about “The Fall of the House of Tsarnaev” that focuses on family history and dynamics. It starts by emphasizing that:
“One decade after they arrived bristling with expectation, the Tsarnaev family had imploded, each member marked by some personal failure within a culture they never fully understood or adapted to. Only two of the Tsarnaev children would graduate from high school, and none of the four ever found their footing outside the troubled family circle.”
While both brothers’ lives were beset by blocked and broken dreams and family disconnects, the older appeared to suffer from some schizophrenia or paranoia (not to mention narcissism) as well:
“As their relationship grew closer, Tamerlan confided in Larking his troubling secret about the voice inside his head. Tamerlan told him that he had been hearing the voice for some time, and that he had a theory of what might be afflicting him.
“He believed in majestic mind control, which is a way of breaking down a person and creating an alternative personality with which they must coexist,” explained Larking. “You can give a signal, a phrase or a gesture, and bring out the alternate personality and make them do things. Tamerlan thought someone might have done that to him.””
And as for the younger brother,
“Still, starting in the winter of 2013, Jahar almost certainly knew his hopes of ever getting a college degree — and bringing honor to his family — were bleak, if not impossible. He had so prized his independence from his fractious clan, but had proved entirely unable to manage on his own. It’s unclear why. Some who knew him think the loss of the sense of cohesion and caring he had known in high school, especially on the wrestling team, was more than he could handle. … But regardless of the cause, Jahar was spiraling. And his thoughts were taking a darker — more politically radical — turn.”
Thus the report provides useful new material for an STA analysis of the evolution of the two terrorists’ mindsets.]


Tim Furnish said...

Mr. Ronfeldt,
Thanks for your kind and thoughtful comments on my analysis of eschatological influence on the likes of the Brothers Tsarnaev.
I have a lot more analysis (some tongue-in-cheek, but much not) over at
Tim Furnish

David Ronfeldt said...

many thanks for stopping by. also, i welcome that you have just begun guest-blogging at onward.