Brain Scans Show What Happens When You Ask Al-Qaeda Sympathizers About Their Sacred Values

A team of researchers has scanned the brains of supporters of a radical Islamist group while asking them about their sacred values and willingness to fight and die for the cause.

Researchers recruited sympathizers of the Al-Qaeda affiliate group Lashkar-et Taiba—the Army of the Righteous. This group carried out the 2008 attacks on Mumbai and is known as a terrorist organization in the U.S., Russia and the European Union. After a long selection process and about two years of gaining their confidence, participants, from Barcelona, Spain, were invited to fMRI facilities.

Anthropologist Scott Atran, one of the study authors, has been investigating the motivation behind the "will to fight" for several years. He noted that in 2016, former President Barack Obama said one of the mistakes made in the war with Iraq was to underestimate militant extremists' will to fight. Understanding why and to what extent people will fight for causes could be linked to the level of their sacred values.

Over the last few years, research has suggested people with sacred values are more willing to fight and die, but that peer pressure could reduce that desire. But understanding the social motivation is difficult, with the problem of posturing—where participants could behave in a way that is misleading—potentially skewing results.

"The neuroimaging studies were meant to rule out posturing—you can't consciously control these brain processes—and to show that the behavioral results of willingness to sacrifice for sacred values is truly rooted as deep-down as it goes in human cognition and brain processes," Atran told Newsweek.

The study was organized by Artis International and published in the Royal Society Open Science. Behavioral and neuroscientists designed studies that radicalized people would eventually be willing to voluntarily enter an fMRI machine.

While in the machines, participants were asked about their willingness to fight and die for their sacred values, and values not held sacred to them. Findings showed that when discussing their sacred values, there was a lower level of activity in the area of the brain related to cognitive control and reasoning—"regions that have previously been implicated in calculating costs and consequences," they wrote.

Researchers also found that when participants were told their peers were less willing to fight and die, their own willingness dropped.

The findings indicate there are distinct processes that take place in the brains of people who have an extreme commitment towards sacred values. It does not, however, suggest extremists are more prone to radical behavior because of their brain wiring.

"I have found in working on and with radical groups across the world that almost anyone could become radicalized in the right ideational and social circumstances," Atran said. "The people who join such groups are mostly youth in transitional stages in their lives—students, immigrants, between jobs or mates—having left their genetic family and seeking significance in life and a place in the world in a new family of friends and fellow travelers. In fact, the best predictor of who and how people join radical groups is what neighborhood they live in and who their friends are."

He said the findings indicate that engaging with people on a deep, personal level, and respecting their values as much as possible "can provide an opening that may turn them from murderous violence." Once locked into a belief, however, trying to dissuade them from violence will probably not work.

brain scan
File photo showing a brain scan. iStock