Atran studies important differences between Islamist terrorist groups and other criminal groups

February 21, 2022

Islamist terrorist organizations are often described as similar to other criminal organizations, like gangs. A new study, “Willingness to sacrifice among convicted Islamist terrorists versus violent gang members and other criminals,” published by Ford School professor Scott Atran and 18 other authors, investigates the differences between jihadists and other criminals. Their results prove helpful when designing programs to fight recidivism. 

With a recent “wave of pending releases” of convicted Islamist terrorists, ensuring that those released do not return to terrorism is critical. In addition, the end of the War in Afghanistan raised global concern over a resurgence of Islamist violence, making the study even more pertinent. 

Using a Devoted Actors Experiencing Identity Fusion framework, the authors conducted 350 face-to-face interviews and structured surveys in 35 Spanish prisons to fill gaps in current literature about the characterization of terrorism as criminal behavior. 

The prisoners interviewed made up four distinct groups: 

  • Inmates imprisoned because of jihadist terrorism.
  • Muslim inmates imprisoned because of reasons unrelated to terrorism.
  • Non-Muslim inmates belonging to delinquent bands.
  • Inmates in Latino gangs. 

The interviews and surveys asked prisoners about their attachment to fellow group members and values, their willingness to sacrifice for their specific groups, what factors favor and sustain radicalization in prison, and what mitigating factors might lessen their willingness to sacrifice. The study is one of the only studies to analyze factors underlying cognitive radicalization in terrorists under real-world conditions and the first comparative study of jihadists, Latino gang members and other criminals in the same prison environment.  

Analyzing their interview and survey results, Atran and his colleagues found that “the nature of extremism for imprisoned jihadists, assessed in terms of willingness to self-sacrifice for primary group and value is appreciably different from that of Latino gangs or other convicted criminals…This disposition is motivated by stronger perceived injustice, discrimination, and a visceral commitment to such values.” 

Based on their results, the authors recommend that policies that deal with Islamist terrorists, both in and out of prison environments, focus on what sets these groups apart from other criminal groups. Those differences include a more significant commitment to their values, a more enduring commitment to their values and the group representing those values, and a more robust perception of unfair and hostile treatment by the state and society, reinforcing the link between commitment to their group, values, and willingness to sacrifice. 

These findings could help “forestall recidivism, and to disengage from radicalization and recruitment into violent extremism more generally.” Further, Atran and his co-authors believe that their study could help scientists and policymakers work together to understand how to mitigate current and future threats. 

Read “Willingness to sacrifice among convicted Islamist terrorists versus violent gang members and other criminals,” which was published in Nature Portfolio.