Category Archives: Radicalization of Youth

Thoughts on the Making of a Suicide Bomber

By Dr David Laing Dawson

After the Manchester bombing I read some articles in which the authors despaired of ever understanding any suicide bomber, any killer of “innocent children”. (I don’t know why we need the modifier ‘innocent’ in front of the word ‘children’, other than to imply there might be some not-so-innocent children it would be all right to kill.)

I often write to understand, a way of thinking things through carefully and with a degree of logic, using what we all know about these events and what we know about human behaviour. The following is what I arrived at. I do not know if this helps in any way, but here it is:

What are the layers of the pyramid that lead to an act of terror, especially an act of suicide terror, whether the weapon be a truck, a gun, or a bomb?

A mind experiment reveals the foundation of the pyramid: Imagine a group of 18 year-old boys (make that 16 to 23 years old if you will) being taken by their teacher to a small museum filled with artifacts. Once there the teacher tells the boys they have two choices. They can choose an artifact and the culture surrounding that artifact, spend the entire day studying it, and write a five page essay about it in the evening to be handed in the next day – or – they can each take up one of these baseball bats and spend an hour smashing the artifacts and then go for a beer in the nearest pub.

If need be we can refine this experiment by removing one or two of the most successful young men (academic, social, sexual, vocational) and by having the teacher demonstrate use of the bat on one of the artifacts.

I am not betting on the survival of the artifacts.

There is a developmental phase in the lives of young men when most experience some anger. Most put at least one fist hole in the dry wall before this passes. They are now quite suddenly responsible for their own futures; they are faced with years of unrewarding industry; it is now up to them to plan and organize and work if they are to eat, sleep under a roof, own a car, win the mating contest. And they must do this while watching it, seemingly, come so easily to others.

And this is new to homo sapiens – this span of adolescence reaching into the mid twenties. Until these last few generations most 16 to 23 year old boys were quickly embedded into a life of work, survival, training, routine. Just this morning there was recognition of this in the local paper with a proposal that boys in care be supported until age 25.

In his immature and random use of language Donald Trump may have actually been partially accurate when he recently called the Manchester bombers “losers”. I think he meant it as a school yard epithet with the modifier “evil” added, but within that pyramid of angry young men mentioned above, some are successful, some are struggling, and some perceive themselves as unjustly losing in the academic, social, vocational, sexual competitions.

So on this second level of the pyramid we find angry young men who perceive themselves as losing, unjustly losing.

We have to assume family has an influence here, though it seems suicide bombers are the progeny of both extremist angry fathers, and of fathers who are moderate in their religious beliefs. But we also know that the two psychological states by which boys react to their fathers is by either (sometimes both) imitation or opposition. Family then provides a third level of influence, though not necessarily as direct promulgation of extremist views.

But these are boys looking for direction, seeking answers for their disappointments and rage. They are also seeking simple answers to reduce their existential anxiety. So they easily fall prey to mesmerizing leaders, gurus, exhortations to violence. This can be an Imam at the local mosque, or a Youtube video or an extremist or racist website. The general source of their distress and their failures is made clear to them. This is the fourth level, a powerful influence in the form of an older man, a guru, a man with explanations and answers. A man, or group, who can point this angry and failing young man to a cause for his dissatisfaction and disaffection.

But this must be combined with some social isolation, a retreat from social influences that would otherwise undermine or counter the influences of the newly acquired “teacher”. And most friends or acquaintances interviewed after a suicide attack report something like, “He was always a little quiet, but I haven’t seen him for the last five or six months. He stopped coming to our….” And some do report a change of behavior such as an angry confrontation at the Mosque before they stop coming or are banished.

So now we have a fifth level: withdrawal from alternative social forces.

There would be a division at this point in the development: Those who end up being called a “lone wolf” because they act alone, and those who become part of a network.

The former, the lone wolf, is truly suicidal, and probably suffers from, by now, a psychotic depression (depressed and delusional). This person would have been in trouble before, perhaps summarily discharged, fired, or known to mental health services and local police. His attack will be one of rage with suicidal intent. The creed of groups like ISIS or the white supremacists simply give this person a final excuse and a sheen of righteousness. His weapon will be whatever is available to him. His target may be personally symbolic to him: People enjoying and celebrating when he cannot. Women who have spurned him. Gays who enticed him. A corporation that fired him. An army that excluded him. The group that gives him that “sheen of righteousness” could be white supremacists, fascists, extreme Islam, anti-Semites, or even, today, talk radio and Donald Trump.

The latter, the suicide bomber who uses a more sophisticated weapon crafted by others in a network, is the dupe. He is the youngest, weakest, of the group. He has been gradually pressured and convinced to carry this out. Though he may be a believer in the creed, and though he may also believe in the rewards of martyrdom promised, he is really doing this to please, to not disappoint his cult leaders and be cast out. These leaders may include an older brother, an uncle, a father. Or they are strangers who have become his family. To retain his position with them, at least in his imagination, he must carry out the act. They are the ones with the political agenda and the level of sociopathy required to inure them to the consequences.

Police Entrapment, Terrorism and Wasted Resources

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Years ago a not-so-bright young man stole a Cadillac convertible. He had always wanted to ride in one, like a country and western star in a small town parade. This was the only way he imagined it could happen. The ensuing police chase, crash, lawyers, court appearances, sentencing was extremely costly. It would have been, I noticed at the time, much, much cheaper to buy him a Cadillac for a birthday present.

Another young woman had a penchant for setting fires. Whether she was in a jail, a hospital, or a boarding home. She was mentally ill, and we were trying to help her, but there was always a risk that her pyromania would cause many deaths as long as she was residing with others. Her care was costing the taxpayers in the neighbourhood of $200,000 per year. While in our institutions someone had to watch her at all times. A decent little house was selling for about $50,000 at the time. I proposed we buy her a detached house and take our services to her.

These two stories came to mind when I read about John Nuttall and Amanda Korody. It has been reported that the RCMP spent about $1,000,000 “entrapping” them.

Two marginalized people. Addicts. Neither bright nor sophisticated. Probably with their fair share of grievances and yearnings. Both destined to be burdens on the taxpayer for years to come. And both in that state of mind, that existential position, of searching for someone or something to blame and a way of elevating their sad lives.

Neither capable, on their own, of condensing those grievances into strategic action. Neither capable, on their own, of buying the ingredients and making a bomb, and successfully delivering it. Probably neither capable on their own of formulating a coherent argument why they should do this.

So, having discovered this despairing pair of hapless would-be terrorists, would it not have been much cheaper to give them a Lotto win of $100,000 and send them on their way. I know there is no sane way of doing that, but perhaps, instead of this elaborate sting operation, the RCMP could have alerted the local social services that this at risk couple needs extra help. Assign a new worker, a counselor to them. Review their needs, (social, educational, medical) and plan with them a better life.

So much less expensive and damaging and wasteful than all that police work, surveillance, subterfuge, and legal work, court costs.

Addiction services, psychiatric treatment, disability benefits, social housing, educational programs. These are all expensive. But so much cheaper than the alternative.

The Adolescent Brain, The Bible and The Koran

By Dr David Laing Dawson

In our teenage years and often well beyond them, the adolescent brain struggles to form a map, a system of cause and effect, a number of certainties, a group of expectations, some rules and criteria that might guide it through this life, and sometimes beyond. A very healthy brain settles on a few absolutes, and leaves the rest quite flexible, able to adapt, change, and grow with new awareness and understanding.

But a very significant aspect to this journey involves the acceptance and/or rejection of the received wisdom of our parents and teachers. And in this process, in this process of the adolescent brain picking and choosing what to believe, invariably it (the adolescent brain) perceives the inconsistencies, oftentimes the hypocrisies to be found in our parents’ and our teachers’ instructions.

This leads to one of two reactions, sometimes both at the same time: one is to reject it all, the other to swallow it all, to become more of whatever it is, than our parents. And this may be a phase that ends in a healthy compromise and adaptation.

In its benign form the teen may shout at her parents, “How can you call yourself Christians when you only go to church at Easter and Christmas?” or “Is there any archaeological evidence this actually happened?”

Or it may lead to the teen and post-teen joining a commune, “going back to the church”, declaring himself atheist, finding solace in the Hare Krishna cult.

And today, as we know, it might lead a young man or young woman, raised in a “moderate” Muslim family, into the arms of ISIS. Perhaps these young people are especially vulnerable, unable to otherwise find their way, to fit in, to belong, to succeed.

But in the process of adopting a strict, conservative, oppressive, violent, rigid, immutable code they are also overcoming, reacting to, the perceived hypocrisies of their parents and teachers.

These teachers and parents are preaching from ancient texts, the Bible or the Koran. And they are choosing only the nice parts, all the while claiming that the whole book is the word of God. I’m not really sure how they do it. “We think of those as parables today.” “But the message is evil.” “Well we don’t really believe that part anymore.” “But you said the whole book is a holy book.” “Well yes but…..”

Let’s face it. Both the Bible and the Koran contain truly evil, ignorant passages, advice, instruction, and rules to live by. If we really believed all of what is in these ancient texts we would stop reading this now and gather some rocks to stone adulterers and apostates, to kill a few homosexuals, get our kitchen knives sharpened to cut off a hand or two, choose a small flexible branch to beat our wives; we might all make it our life’s work to spread the gospel and to fight the infidels, the unbelievers, and worse yet, the fallen believers.

But the point of what I am saying is this: When that moment comes in the adolescent brain in which her angst, his quest for certainty, their struggle to find a community, a set of rules to live by – when this is floundering – and when that young man or young woman sees the abundant hypocrisy, or at the very least, the paradox of claiming to be a true believer in a particular ancient text, but not really, not all of it, though it is the word of God…..well…there is the solution right there, spelled out in the early pages of that ancient text sitting on the bedside table. “It would be righteous to kill abortionists. An eye for an eye. The damnation of homosexuality. The closed door of heaven…….”

So, here is one thing we could do. Our churches and mosques could do. Tear out those pages. Stop teaching the whole book. Select the parts that time and enlightenment and education have proved valuable. Discard the misogynistic, racist, intolerant, violent passages.

Do this now. Please.

It is telling, I think, that the young women who left the very conservative Muslim school in Mississauga to join ISIS  felt that the teachings of this school were not sufficiently “conservative.” Well, in the eyes of most of us, what that school is teaching belongs in the 13th century.

But, they are using as their instruction book, their text, their Holy Book, the unadulterated Koran. And even though they were teaching those girls to behave as if living in the 13th century, they must have been skipping the more outrageous passages of the Koran – which is, to that adolescent brain, a tad hypocritical.

For humanities sake, let us rip out the stupid pages of both the Koran and the Bible. And, if you would like to test your knowledge of religion, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has this test you can take.

Primitive DNA in the Young Male Brain

Gus and WallyBy Dr David Laing Dawson

In the 1960’s we sat on the beach around a fire looking across the inlet to a few lights on the north shore, the moon rising in the east. The guitarists among us played freedom songs, folk songs, union songs, anti-war songs, love songs. We passed a joint or two around, drank cheap beer and wine, and sang.

We were confident, I think, that eventually the Americans would see the folly of the Vietnam War, there would not be a World War III, the iron curtain would collapse, and Russia would eventually find its way to the virtue of a mixed economy and full democracy. Universal health care was on its way. The women among us used birth control, looked forward to careers of their own.

We may have imagined having children at the time, though certainly not grandchildren. But had we imagined having grandchildren I think we would have imagined bequeathing them a world made up of mostly civilized countries gathering at the UN to discuss their mixed economies and their inclusive democracies. We could have guessed, I think, that they would also be discussing excess use of petroleum (or running out of it as some thought would surely come to pass), preserving the forests and wildlife, protecting endangered species, providing education for all, and eliminating poverty.

Fast forward to 2015 and a few countries, including Canada, do have universal health care. The Iron Curtain is gone. Despite Vlad’s wish to be Czar, Russia is getting there. We are certainly talking about petroleum, wildlife, forests and oceans. We continue to argue about the right mix in ‘mixed economies’. Not such high marks on education and poverty.

And then we have ISIS/ISIL and terrorism. Who would have guessed?

In Egypt the army is once again in control. A generational slippage, a step backwards, as often happens in the long, tedious, evolutionary road to an inclusive democracy and a better social contract.

But ISIS and terrorism. That’s not slippage, a step backwards, a pause, a stall. That is some unleashing of the remnants of very primitive DNA in the young male brain. Some instruction that may have served them well as they rode with Genghis Khan, or fought over a watering hole in the jungle, or reverted to cannibalism when other protein was scarce. Some thousands of years ago.

We have two boxer dogs. They can bark at perceived intruders, chase squirrels up trees, make birds take flight, but they are gentle, crave touching and play, and they are overly affectionate with friendly humans. Lovely dogs. But last summer an overweight ground hog, probably the patriarch of a brood in the nearby bushes, wandered onto our dogs’ territory looking for mulberries. The dogs moved quickly. Working as a team they cornered this hapless creature. And then they tore him apart.

Well, as a species our dogs are only a few hundred years from a time when this particular behaviour was required of them to eat, protect their families, and survive. So we have forgiven them. Besides, they don’t have language. It is impossible to teach them and explain to them that level of differentiation, consideration and nuance. And they did not invoke God and his ancient texts in the act of killing.

To be continued:

Jihadi John and The Radicalization of Youth Part II

David Laing DawsonBy Dr David Laing Dawson

Recent events have brought about much hand wringing and soul searching. Six teenagers from Quebec fly to Turkey on route to Syria. Jihadi John is identified as a British Citizen who has been described as gentle and kind before radicalization. Someone hints that harassment by MI5 pushed him into adopting this murderous personae. Someone else suggests that these youths are “alienated” by their western societies, meaning England and Canada in these cases.

How can this happen? How can a young person transform or be transformed in a matter of weeks or months from a fun loving, music loving, facebooking, photo sharing, academically successful teenager into a Jihadi fanatic?

How much of this is our fault? How real are their grievances? Do these grievances explain anything?

Well, these are not adults making a decision about their life trajectories. They are adolescents. And in the evolving socialization and developing brain of every human adolescent there comes a moment (a moment that can last a few months or a year or two) when the pathways of teenage idealism and teenage opposition intersect. This can be a moment of creativity, a moment when a teenager sets off on a good path, determined to do better than her parents, maybe save the environment, stamp out racism, help the poor, invent the personal computer or a new form of music. But it can also be a dangerous and vulnerable moment. And a moment that can be exploited by an unscrupulous adult – a cult leader, a criminal gang, the propaganda of Madison Avenue or slick videos from ISIS.

Reflexive opposition to parents is a natural phase of individuation, of becoming separate, of developing independence. “She argues with me about everything,” a parent will say. Or, as my son-in-law said to me recently, regarding my 15 year old grandson, “He never listens to me; how come he listens to you?”

And then we have idealism. CBC has an annoying habit of interviewing 10 year olds about a progressive program in the school system. I watch these kids on TV, microphone before them, struggling to remember and then repeat the platitudes they have been fed by the adults in charge. All well and good. But there will come a time in their adolescence when these kids notice that the adults around them, especially their parents, don’t really live up to those platitudes. Not completely anyway. In the Christian home the teen will shout at her parents, “How can you call yourself a Christian? You only go to church on Easter Sunday.” “How can you eat meat when you know how badly these animals are treated?”

I don’t know first-hand the equivalent in a Moderate Moslem home but I am sure it happens.

Add some confusion, some anxiety about the future, to this teen who is now able to discern the wide gap between the platitudes, the instructions and admonitions and recipes for life spelled out in our holy books and the actual lives of her parents and other adults, perhaps living Moslem-lite, perhaps drinking some alcohol, perhaps not fasting religiously. This child will prove fertile ground for the propaganda of ISIS: Playing to the teenager’s natural opposition to her parents; playing to her idealism; promising to staunch the confusion, to alleviate the anxiety; offering a role, a defined role and purpose, a part in a bigger play. To say nothing of everlasting life, joy and fulfillment, and, for some, a righteous excuse to wreak havoc and revenge.

So parents, brothers and sisters, community and religious leaders, family doctors, teachers and counselors, be aware of this vulnerability in all teens. Monitor. Watch for the signs of undue influence by cult leaders, drug dealers, middle aged men in another city, and this new horror in our town: ISIS.

Editor’s Note – For Part I see Rat Brains, Youth, and Jihadists. Dr Dawson is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the author of The Adolescent Owner’s Manual. Library Journal said of his book “Dawson’s understated sense of humor translates well to text. While there are a plethora of books available on parenting teens, his to-the-pointness recommends this for busy readers.” For a video book trailer see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VCrKf1lV2o