Commentary: From Uber driver to terrorist…how killers are radicalized

Rental truck used in deadly terror attack in NYC on Halloween 2017. Photo by Gh9449, via Wikipedia.
Rental truck used in deadly terror attack in NYC on Halloween 2017. Photo by Gh9449, via Wikipedia.
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Editor’s note: The opinions here are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

By Barbara Franz

Sayfullo Saipov, the 29-year-old man who allegedly plowed a U-Haul truck down a bicycle path in Lower Manhattan on Oct. 31, 2017, killing eight people, is an Uzbek immigrant.

He immigrated to the United States in 2010 after winning a so-called diversity visa in a lottery designed to bring in immigrants from underrepresented nations. He lived initially with an Uzbek family in Cincinnati.

Holding various trucking jobs, he moved frequently: After Cincinnati, he lived near Cleveland, then Tampa, where he obtained his Florida driver’s license. He married an orthodox Muslim woman in 2013, who was 19 years-old at the time of their marriage.

Fifteen months ago the couple moved to Paterson, NJ, with their three children. For the past six months, Saipo was a registered Uber driver.

Barbara Franz
Barbara Franz

A fellow Uzbek immigrant said that there was nothing about Saipov that raised alarms. Authorities believe Saipov became more conservative after he arrived in the United States.

According to a criminal complaint filed on Nov. 1, in federal court in New York, Saipov decided a year ago to carry out an attack in the United States after being inspired by Islamic State videos he watched on his cellphone.

He planned two months ago to use a truck, following online instructions about how a vehicle could be weaponized. Saipov is now hospitalized with a gunshot wound to the abdomen. During the interview with law enforcement, he requested to display ISIS’ flag in his hospital room and stated that he felt good about what he had done.

What happened? Why do people turn into terrorists? What path does a person take to turn from immigrant to terrorist?

While it is impossible to understand ISIS or other terrorist groups without first understanding the colonial and imperialist violence perpetrated by the West that predated those groups, this is not my topic here today.

If convicted, Saipov will join the other 34 people who have legally immigrated to the United States since 9/11 and have been either convicted of terrorism offenses or killed during an attempted attack.

Of those, a large share arrived as children who were radicalized long after their entry. This commentary is not about these 34 immigrants (that’s one per every 41 million visas approved), but about the radicalization process of specifically, but not exclusively, lone-wolf terrorists and suicide terrorists.

I’m interested in the socio-psychological features that turn a person into a terrorist.

Marc Sageman argues in Misunderstanding Terrorism (2017) that terrorism is an expression of political violence. But people don’t start out as terrorists. We make sense of our world by dividing it into social categories, identifying ourselves with others who share our particular qualities (the “in-group”) and stereotyping those who do not (the “out-group”).

This shift from individual to social identification is what makes collective behavior possible. Social identities in and of themselves are natural, based on an associative process that is neither good nor bad.

The danger is when those identities become politicized.The catalyst of a politicized social identity starts with a grievance.

For example, the group NJ 11th For Change is a grassroots coalition that was formed after the district’s representative, Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.), was unresponsive to citizens in his district and refused to meet with them.

All the while, the congressman continued to vote with President Trump on various issues, from weakening health care and consumer protection policies to crippling the EPA. The citizens’ passive identity had become politicized and people began to call for change.

They felt unrepresented by Frelinghuysen’s votes in the House, and created a political protest community, which has been useful for political progress.

This is not inherently dangerous. Most Western liberal democracies were founded through political protest—peaceful and violent.

The step toward political violence begins not with the protestors, but with the escalation of the conflict by authorities. Radicalization continues when in-group victims have no effective legal redress and start to become disillusioned by the established political process.

Moral outrage at perceived—or real—egregious out-group aggression is the next step, followed by the activation of a militarized social identity to protect an endangered political protest community.

That’s one sociological explanation for the radicalization process.

But who is prone to react violently in this situation? Why do certain people decide to give their own lives in suicide terrorist acts? Why do so-called lone-wolf terrorists attack innocent civilians? Who are these people?

Despite what one might believe, poverty and socioeconomic need are not preconditions for radicalization.

Bruce Hoffman argues in the Daily Beast that lone wolf terrorists have various backgrounds. For example, Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber,” who attempted to blow up an American Airlines flight en route from Paris to Miami in December 2001, was a career criminal who dropped out of high school and converted to Islam while in prison before he was recruited to al Qaeda.

By comparison, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the al Qaeda operative responsible for the kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002, attended an exclusive private school and was admitted to the London School of Economics, where he studied applied mathematics, statistical theory, economics, and social psychology.

Described as “handsome, tall and muscular, very bright and charming,” his parents expected he would be knighted some day, as Reid explains, and not languishing in prison awaiting execution for his role in Pearl’s murder.

Hoffman claims that radicalized individuals always sees themselves as reluctant warriors: Cast perpetually on the defensive and forced to take up arms to protect themselves and their communities.

This is true for the 1995 Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh and for Anders Behring Breivik, who is responsible for the 2001 terrorist attacks in Oslo and Utøya, Norway.

These individuals see themselves as driven by desperation—and lacking any other viable alternative—to violence against a repressive state, a predatory rival ethnic, political, or nationalist group, or an unresponsive international order.

Indeed, the common element in the radicalization process reflects these individuals’ deep commitment to their faith— religious or political, and often recently re-discovered; their admiration of radical movements, fundamentalist, alt-right, or Islamophobic; hatred of their (often adopted) homes, especially if in the United States and Western Europe; and, a profoundly shared sense of alienation from their host societies.

Why are some people more susceptible than others to become radicalized? Here I will focus on those who are recruited by Al Qaeda, ISIS, and similar groups.

Many studies, specifically of immigration to European states, have emphasized that the migrants’ failed integration into the majority society is one of the major reasons for this radicalization.

This is specifically true for the children of immigrants—the so-called second generation—who rebel not only against the majority society but also against their parents’ ancestral tribalism, quiescent and accommodating Islam.

However, failed integration and, in some cases, a more fundamentalist understanding of Islam may not be the most determining reasons for individuals to join radical fringe groups.

Platforms such as Facebook and Tumblr also have been found to strongly influence online conversions to radicalism.

However, one 2014 German study found that only 18 percent of jihadists were radicalized online. By far the most important variable for the radicalization of German recruits is contact with imams and mosques (23 percent), and with friends who have gone off to fight in the jihad before them (30 percent).

Experienced traumas and the absence of father figures may also make recruits susceptible.

In the patriarchic traditions in the Balkans and the Middle East, and such countries as Turkey, Uzbekistan and Chechnya, the father-son dyad remains a key feature of family and household environments, along with masculine pride tied to lineage status.

Family and kinship bonds are seen as expanding forward in time and backward in history. Ideally the father has the unquestioned authority over and admiration of his son, correlated with the overtly strong need to “protect” the daughter and other female members of the family.

Once the father figure is no longer present, physically or psychologically, there is a perceived deficiency of direction and advice for both the sons and daughters. The young teenage sons often assume the father’s role and position in the family.

Growing up within patriarchal traditions, but without the guidance of fathers, these young men can be relatively easily influenced by substitute leader figures, such as radical imams.

In the past, similarly frustrated youth segments have fallen prey to extreme ideologies, such as the post–World War I veterans whose traumatization formed at least in part the foundation for the Nazi movement in the 1920s and 1930s.

Furthermore, the sons of fallen soldiers were also attracted to these movements, blindly following fascist leaders who often were idealized as authority figures by these youngsters, exactly because they had not experienced such role models at home.

The biographies of many jihadists show that this phenomenon, called Versagervater (failure/loser father), is quite prevalent within this cohort. It is also already part of the fabric of the next generation of displaced people — Iraqi and Syrian youth.

To be sure, America does not have Europe’s problems. Many European countries have not been providing members of the second generation with the necessary opportunities to integrate successfully into society.

Thus, a cohort of isolated, disjointed and disillusioned young people with European citizenship in paper only, committed themselves to finding meaning in fighting a holy war in the Middle East.

Some of these young men and women survived and they are coming home now. However, the isolation they often experience is not unique.

Meanwhile in America, Saipov’s family, like many new arrivals, did not speak English and both this language issue and other cultural impediments kept the young family from befriending other people in the neighborhood.

Saipov’s two friends were long-bearded men, similar in appearance to him, who frequently visited him with their wives. The wives dressed similarly to Saipov’s wife — wearing the niqab — which made them stick out in the neighborhood and experience even more isolation and stereotyping.

There always will be lone-wolf terrorists. However, we as a society can limit and discourage such development.

While we can not undo past traumas or missing father figures that increase the susceptibility to recruitment, we as a community should create environments that produce resilient people who can pursue fulfilling lives through integration into the culture and communities of their new homes.

Barbara Franz, Ph.D., is a political science professor at Rider University, and a Morristown resident.

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