Those who watch the film “The Mask of Zorro” are asked to suspend disbelief as they watch the movie. For all intents and purposes the mask that the hero wears barely masks his true identity. In all honesty, it is a fig leaf that anyone with basic observational skills could see through. There are too many other physical attributes that signal who the true character is for any normal person not to spot and understand his true purpose.
The suddenness of the attack in San Bernardino, California on December 2 highlights one of the major issues with the prevention of acts of terror that exists in the Western world today. Those who appear to be integrated and a part of society while harboring malign intent are difficult to find. They, like Zorro, wear a mask and it too can be penetrated, with the right training.
It is a sobering thought that had the couple not decided to attack the center where the husband worked and instead had stuck to their original plans, afar worse incident would no doubt have ensued, possibly involving people on the freeway at a busy time of day. For all those tempted to note that terrorists favor busy places like shopping malls and major sporting events just think of how crowded the freeway is at certain times of day – and how unprotected it often is.
There is little doubt – given the weapons and devices found in the couple’s garage after the incident – that had their original plan been carried through, the fatality count of twelve dead and twenty-four injured would have been significantly higher. But for the couple’s impetuous behavior, their achievement could have been that much more devastating. A busy freeway offers a major target for anyone wishing to create a killing ground.
So how do the authorities try and engage and stop people like Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik? According to FBI Director James B. Comey, the investigation into the couple’s previous activities had revealed they were “home-grown violent extremists” who had been inspired by a foreign terrorist group, believed to be the so-called Islamic State group. The evidence collected by the FBI does not point to them being part of a group or specific network. It appears their route to radicalization was one that was entirely conducted as a couple, with little external stimulus.
In such a difficult situation, trying to prevent attacks like this requires innovative approaches. In the United Kingdom, legislation now requires public servants that are in the Health Service, schools, and other major institutions of the state to undergo training into what to look for to decide if someone is being radicalized. What signs or behavior might they exhibit that indicate the pressure cooker of radicalization is building to a point where it is quite literally ready to boil over?
Individuals exhibit a number of behaviors that are indicative of being on a journey. One model developed in the United Kingdom looks at the journey into being radicalized through the metaphor of the game of snakes and ladders. The ladders are steps that people take along the journey to being ready to commit an act of violence. Snakes are opportunities for law enforcement agencies to intervene.
The problem with trying to recognize people that have embarked upon the journey is that sometimes the signs they exhibit are subtle and often fleeting. This can be regarded as “wearing a mask” where outwardly the people involved appear normal. But every so often there will be a time when the “masks drops.” In San Bernardino, that point arrived when the perpetrators had a violent argument with a Jewish college at the center. This was the point the pressure cooker cracked. From that point onwards the die was cast.
Hindsight has been called “the perfect science.” For those who survived the attack at San Bernardino, there will be many hours of agonizing over what they could have done to uncover the true intent of the couple involved.
Could they have seen signals beforehand? This kind of mental cross-examination is perfectly understandable, even though it is doomed to failure. Nothing can bring back those who were lost that day. Similar agonies will be experienced by those who knew Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood killer. He too had appeared to be integrated and trustworthy.
Recent developments in psychology provide some indications that an approach that trains people what to look out for may offer some hope. When people are acting one way, appearing to be integrated in society, and yet have very different values and beliefs systems, they experience dissonance. Interestingly, the higher the disparity between the behavior and beliefs, the lower the dissonance that is experienced, and people move to rationalize away the disparity by appearing to alter their values and beliefs to suit.
But this is an unhappy situation. It simply adds to the development of pressure on those involved. Little signs of discomfort will appear, such as a changed facial expression that quickly reverts back as the mask is restored.
In the United Kingdom, an organization called Virtual College has developed a training package to help public servants address this problem of how to spot behavior that is indicative of someone on the road to being radicalized. This package is called Understanding the Pathways to Extremism and the Prevent Programme.
For those in the United States and elsewhere who desire to avoid the agonies of having to try and post-rationalize why they did not spot the indicators, investing ninety minutes and a few dollars to take the course may be valuable. Where extremists become actors and become adept at wearing a mask, the insights gained from such e-learning might just save lives.