Men in (Terrorist) Groups

When men get together, dangerous things can happen

A recent talk about terrorism sent me back to 1969, when a classic in sociobiology was published. It was called Men in Groups, and it had a straightforward thesis: “The behavior of men in groups in part reflects an underlying biologically transmitted ‘propensity’ with roots in human evolutionary history.”

It was by Lionel Tiger, whom I knew and respected as one of the then-rare social scientists who admitted—in his case, insisted on—a role for biology in human behavior.

In 1969 virtually all societies were run by men in groups, so this was a hypothesis with big implications. And in those days almost no social theorists were willing to use biological explanations, so the book was guaranteed to stir up a furor.

It did not really delve into physiology, it just reviewed what was known at the time about male (non-erotic) bonding in a wide range of cultures, and in the monkey and ape societies we evolved from. For the latter, it was about dominance hierarchies; for humans it began with hunting parties, which through a process of cultural evolution gave rise to work-gangs, gaming-groups, secret societies, war parties, and of course dominance hierarchies, with most women a long way down the pecking order.

Feminists hated it—one, in The American Journal of Sociology, compared it to some of the worst racist theories of the past. Now we understand you don’t have to like something because it’s natural, but if you want it to change, you’d better know what you are up against. In method, Men in Groups was like what ethologists (not ethnologists) did for geese and gulls; if a social pattern is very widespread in a species, they start to think it may have some biological underpinnings.

It was said that it couldn’t be tested; not true. A broad cross-cultural study done for other reasons by John and Beatrice Whiting later found that warlike societies keep men separate from women and children. As for our ape relatives, we now know that bonobos, otherwise very similar to chimpanzees, have much less violence because their female coalitions are at least as strong as the male ones.

So where does terrorism come in? C-SPAN televised Marc Sageman talking about his research. The sample includes over 400 individuals, many of whom were directly involved in plotting or carrying out the 1998 African embassy bombings, the 9/11 attacks in New York, the Daniel Pearl beheading, the 2004 Madrid bombings, the Netherlands assassination of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, the 2005 London bombings, and the attempted London and Glasgow attacks of 2007. They didn’t have to be card-carrying members of Al Qaeda, but they were close, and they had to be attacking “the far enemy”—usually the “corrupt” West.

Let me say clearly: Neither Sageman nor I think that all terrorism is Muslim or that Islam leads to terrorism. The anarchists ofnineteenth century Russia and the U.S., the worldwide left-wing violence of the‘60s, even the anti-globalization violence of recent years has much in common with what we are talking about here. But this is now, and today the terrorist threat comes mainly from a loose, worldwide network of people who have interpreted Islam in a very dangerous way.

Why Sageman of all experts? Well, he is both a psychiatrist and a Ph.D. sociologist, but also a former Navy flight surgeon and CIA analyst. He was introduced for this talk at the University of Pennsylvania by PeterBergen, a terrorism expert I respect. But more importantly, he is almost unique among these experts in seeing his research as science. I had read his 2003 book, Understanding Terror Networks, and wanted to know what he had found out since.

A lot. The title of his new book, Leaderless Jihad, says it all in one sense, but there is much more to be learned from it. However, I urge you also to see and hear his talk, which has a graphic presentation of data absent from the book. Speaking or writing, Sageman is succinct and to the point. And he follows the method of Karl Popper, who defined science as generating hypotheses and systematically destroying them.

Think about what you have heard and believe. First, poverty breeds terrorists, right? But the overwhelming majority come from middle class families. Second, terrorists are brainwashed by their upbringing. Sorry, 87 percent did not go to madrassas, and very few came from religious families. Okay, then, they were young, impressionable, and uneducated–easy to indoctrinate. Nope–the average age when they hooked up with terror networks was 26, and 62 percent had university degrees (it’s 52 percent for the American population). Most studied engineering, just like the anarchist terrorists in Russia a hundred years ago.

Surely, sexual frustration has something to do with this? These young men as Muslims can’t get any, so they opt for the 72 virgins in heaven and blow themselves up! But 73 percent of them were married; two thirds had kids–and plenty of them–leading Sageman to opine (as a joke) that they become terrorists out of sexual exhaustion.

Alright, they must be criminals by nature; who else would commit the worst crimes of our era? But 90 percent of them have no prior arrest records. Only two in the entire sample had antisocial tendencies going back to childhood. How many of them are crazy? Sageman the psychiatrist looked hard and long: No psychosis, no real personality disorders,no narcissism, not even any childhood trauma.

So what is the process? Sageman’s answer: radicalization, fantasies of glory, and a sense of significance in belonging. There is moral outrage, and it has to be interpreted in a specific way, but the key is to be mobilized by and in networks. These networks are almost entirely male; in otherwords, what we are talking about is, men in groups.

The risk is greatest in Europe, where there is no American dream to believe in, even educated young men are underemployed, and boredom is endemic. There are six times as many Muslims in Europe as in the U.S., but 40 times as many Muslim terrorists, over 90 percent of them  expatriates. They drift into mosques looking for companionship, and there find like-minded men who talk with them, eat with them, befriend them.

They encourage each other’s anger and begin to make plans. They slowly withdraw from former friends and family and in time only really talk to each other. Then there are mutual challenges, verbal commitments, and finally an inability to back down without humiliation and a sense that you are letting your friends down.

So how does this analysis help? Aside from letting intelligence agencies know what to look for–not top-down orders, for instance–Sageman thinks that the U.S. is relatively protected, and that (for all our sakes) Europe needs to integrate and employ these kinds of young people. We must stop them but not demonize them or stir up exaggerated fears.

But there is a broader lesson here: when idle, enthusiastic young men get together in all-male groups, detached from a wider social world–whetherthey are terrorists, gang members, or soccer hooligans—something can happen among them that, despite being natural, is altogether not quite nice.

(After communicating with Lionel Tiger about this entry, he sent me his approval along with a link to something he wrote in Slate in September 2001 saying much the same thing. Except for emphasizing the young men’s limited sexual access, he predicted Sageman’s findings–and of course, my analysis–with remarkable precision.)

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