LONDON – A puzzling feature of the recent Paris massacres is that families and friends of the perpetrators professed no inkling that anything unusual was afoot; no indication that their intimates were embarking on a vicious mayhem of innocents where they themselves would likely die.
As told by Mohamed Abdeslam, the surviving brother of Salah and Brahim, who actively participated in the murderous assaults, their “family is in shock” and a state of “frustration that (it) lived together without noticing what was going on.” An astonished friend of Salah Abdeslam similarly exclaimed that, “If Salah could do this, then any of my mates could do it.”
This story is hardly unique to the Parisian case. It repeats itself time and time again in nearly all instances of extremist attacks. For instance, the shooting of June 26, 2015, that killed 38 tourists near the city of Sousse in Tunisia was carried out by Seifeddine Rezgui, whose family afterward expressed deep shock and dismay that this could happen. Khalil, the father of Mouhand al-Okbi, killed while carrying out an attack in Israel last month, was stunned by the news of what his son had done. “I never believed such a thing could happen,” he told reporters, “nor did I see any evidence (for it).” The rest of the family found the event equally surprising. “The look of shock on their faces was still fresh one day after (the attack).” Hasan Edmonds is facing federal terrorism charges in the United States for plotting to attack a military base in Illinois. His stepmother was jolted by the news. “Is it a dream?” she asked. “I don’t even know what to believe. I talked to him three weeks ago and he sounded like his usual self. I’m still kind of shook up.”
Are such disclaimers and protestations credible? How likely is it that people close to the attackers saw no telltale signs of their growing extremism, no hints of their altered state of mind as they prepared to kill and be killed?
Actually, it is quite likely. First, the plotters might conceal their true purpose to prevent a thwarting of their “sacred missions.” Second, the families may refuse to acknowledge the signs that did exist and to admit the possibility that their loved one is about to self-destruct while dispensing tragedy and pain all around. Most intriguingly, the family may refuse to accept the alienation and strangeness that radicalization of their kin represents.
Confronting an intimate’s alienation is psychologically taxing; it requires recognizing that he or she was transmogrified; turned into an “alien” of sorts, thoroughly altered from the person that the family and friends once knew and loved. By adopting a point of view at odds with that of the other members, the alienated individual disrupts their “shared reality,” casts doubt on its validity and ushers in angst and uncertainty about its fundamental premises. It means that their intimate has crossed over to the “dark side,” defected from the social network and relinquished its cherished values and perspectives. Such a person is all but lost to his family and friends, no longer self-identifying as one of theirs. Understandably, these thoughts are frightening and painful to the remaining members of the social net. The thoughts are banished from mind and repressed out of hand.
And yet the evidence is often out there, if only one bothered to look. A study of lone wolf attackers suggests that in the majority of cases (63.9 percent), family and friends were aware in retrospect of the individual’s intent to engage in these deadly activities. Similarly, in school shooting cases family and friends were aware of the shooter’s intentions a whopping 81 percent of the time. It appears then that the problem is often not that perpetrators’ intimates don’t know — rather, it’s that they don’t take the would-be extremists at their word.
The secret lives of violent extremists aren’t as secret and impenetrable as one might surmise. Family and friends often have tacit, if repressed, awareness of their loved one’s intentions; they know more than they can tell. The challenge, therefore, is to work with social networks of youths at risk of radicalization, increase their vigilance and facilitate their readiness to “say something” when “seeing something.” They should well want to do it not only to prevent vast tragedies from happening, but also to save their intimates who seem headed full steam for disaster.
Arie W. Kruglanski is a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland.
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