Joint Chiefs of Staff White Paper on Social and Cognitive Neuroscience Underpinnings of ISIL Behavior

White Paper on Social and Cognitive Neuroscience Underpinnings of ISIL Behavior and Implications for Strategic Communication, Messaging, and Influence

Page Count: 68 pages
Date: May 2015
Restriction: None
Originating Organization: Joint Chiefs of Staff
File Type: pdf
File Size: 870,720 bytes
File Hash (SHA-256): 89BD10E6DEBB4CEB2CA11B055F8A405E5110DA1749827095C1C50CC075FEE3E8

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This White Paper makes a significant contribution to the study of terrorist behavior in general and ISIL behavior in particular. Unique in this work is the melding of neuroscientific considerations about the basic structures and functions of the brain with social and cultural influences in order to provide a holistic insight into the motivations for terrorist behaviors. Importantly, this paper also explores the relationship between the narratives that support terrorist behavior and the neuro-cognitive processes that contribute to those behaviors. That relationship is accurately portrayed as symbiotic in the sense that one can only truly understand seemingly aberrant behavior if one understands the continuous ebb and flow of chemical and cultural influences that are manifested in an individual’s actions.

Important in framing the discussion of terrorist behavior is the presentation of two foundational constructs; the postulation about the normality of aggression and the admonition against the use of terms such as deranged, psychotic, and evil in describing ISIL behaviors. When thinking about the normality of aggression one wonders if Hannah Arendt’s observation about the banality of evil, alternately interpreted as describing the many dull organizational tasks that need to done by ordinary people in order to perpetuate genocide, has relevance to this discussion about ISIL.

What we classify as evil is influenced by the local moral order or culture in which we live. It has been said before and remains historically valid that what one culture calls a terrorist another culture calls a freedom fighter. As morally disturbing as the ISIL beheading videos are, they are informed by a certain rationality that is shared by those who belong to or want to be accepted by ISIL. Trying to understand this rationality is made more difficult when terms such as deranged and psychotic are applied to members of ISIL, since they are actually behaving in accordance with the norms of rationality within their own organization. People seek to join ISIL and aspire to be accepted by that organization in the same way that they join any other self-described elitist organization.

The terrorist narratives that support and justify their behavior are linguistic manifestations of non-epistemic beliefs and are critical to supporting terrorist agendas and rationalizing the outcomes of actions inspired by those agendas. Those narratives are defined by language and were appropriately characterized by Ludwig Wittgenstein when he said: “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” The micro-world of ISIL is defined by the language and the narratives they use in identifying themselves. However, there are also influences on the individuals in ISIL that shape and sustain those narratives, which can be empirically assessed and perhaps influenced, in part by using the scientific approaches articulated in this report. Presenting the totality of context, which should inform any discussion of ISIL behavior, is the great strength of this paper and is the reason for the unique contribution it makes to the contemporary literature about ISIL. The wide diversity of expertise and experience of the authors combine to produce exclusive insights into the origins of terrorist narratives and the manifestations of those narratives in intentional acts.

This white paper provides a succession of chapters designed to lead the reader through a logical series of discussions intended to: (1) describe and define neuro-cognitive mechanisms involved in the type(s) of aggressive narratives and violent behaviors exhibited by ISIL/ISIS; (2) afford an overview of brain structures and function involved in these cognitive and socially-interactive behavioral processes of thought, emotion, decision-making and actions; (3) provide insight to the possible effect(s) of narratives and discourses upon these neuro-cognitive processes; (4) describe ways that religious constructs afford meta-narratives that can be engaged to influence individual and group cognitions and behavioral activity; (5) illustrate how these narratives can be utilized in psychological operations and actions to support terrorist agenda and outcomes; and (6) explain how an understanding of these processes and factors can be important to developing operational techniques, tactics and strategies that are viable and valuable for deterring ISIL/ISIS’ rhetoric, recruitment and actions upon the world stage.

In Chapter 1, Dr. James Giordano provides an introductory view of the basic processes by which various environmental circumstances can lead to individual and group sentiments of marginalization, vulnerability and repression, and describes how these situations can foster neuro-cognitive processes of aggressive ideation and emotion, which can escalate to violent behaviors. The key point emphasized is that in the main, such processes are not necessarily representative of individual or group psychopathology, but rather represent an aspect of human behavior, which while hostile and threatening, can be viewed as an aspect of normal – and definably predictable – human traits. This view enables more accurate insight to possible causes, escalating effects, and means to evaluate, intervene, mitigate and/or prevent the progression of such neurocognitive-to-behavioral events. Current and near-term techniques and technologies of cognitive and social neuroscience, taken in concert with psychological, sociological, anthropological and computational methods, may prove useful in intelligence gathering and analysis, and the development of low- to high-tech approaches aimed at diverting, deterring and preventing ISIL/ISIS’ activities.

In Chapter 2, Drs. James Giordano and Diane DiEuliis provide a short “primer” on the neurobiological basis of aggression. While this topic has been extensively addressed in other publications, for purposes of understanding aspects of ISIL narratives, discourses and activities, it is necessary to provide a specific view to neurobiological structures and functions operative in cognitive, emotional and behavioral processes of aggression and violent action(s). Although neural networks involved in and controlling aggressive cognitions and behaviors are extremely complex, there are some important takeaways from a general study of the brain in this context. Brain regions and networks involved in the control of cognitions and emotions of anger overlap with, and in some cases are identical to are networks involved in perceptions of threat and emotions of fear. Age differences in developmental maturity and susceptibility of these networks is important to recognize, as a key factor in environmental and social “shaping” of neurobiological mechanisms that may be primed for particular patterns of cognitive and emotional activities underlying dispositions to inter-individual and inter-group aggression. As well, somewhat distinct neurocognitive processes of impulsive versus premeditated aggression are also important to acknowledge, as these involve mechanisms that may be differentially assessed and influenced. Engaging these networks elicits cognitive processes that influence decision making and a variety of resulting behaviors. Understanding the structure and functions of these networks is important to identifying key regions and processes as targets for assessment and intervention, using a variety of neuroscientific techniques and tools, together with psychological, sociological and anthropological methods. This suggests a capability to influence those cognitive processes which handle the outcomes of such complex circuitry. Lastly, given the role that environment influences play, purposeful change or manipulation of the environment is one of the most accessible tools one can apply to influencing aggressive behaviors.

In Chapter 3, Dr. Nicholas Wright provides a detailed analysis of the neurocognitive aspects of decision making. This insight is important in order to avoid miscalculations and errors and/or lead to unintended results in interactions with adversaries. He notes several key themes that are intrinsic to successful strategies: First, an understanding of the environment is an essential brain function, and socio-culturally-dependent “world view models” are how individuals construct cognitive and emotional impressions of their situations and circumstances are fundamental to the ways that humans perceive reality. Second, individuals’ key motivations are important for both understanding their actions, and for providing potential targets for strategic communication with those individuals, and the groups (if not populations) to which they belong. Finally, the neuro-cognitive phenomenon of “prediction error” provides a basis for increasing or decreasing the impact of actions. A prediction error framework forecasts effects, and simplifies strategic concepts so they can be operationalized.

Chapters 1-3 provide discussion of the way(s) that the brain functions in response to various environments, the generation of cognitions, world view perception, cognitive and emotional aspects of decision-making, and behavior (including violence). Communicative inputs, provided by visual and auditory stimuli (e.g. – images, sounds, language) are important factors in engaging neuro-cognitive processes of emotion, motivation, decision-making and behavior.

The next several chapters move from the neurobiological mechanisms of neurocognitive decision making and behaviors, to the psychological and decision-making strategies employed by individuals and groups to achieve particular outcomes, with particular emphasis upon how these processes might be utilized by ISIL/ISIS, and thus how they may be engaged as targets for intervention and deterrence.

In Chapter 4, Dr. William Casebeer addresses how methods from the neuro-cognitive sciences are best applied in various phases (0-5) of the doctrinal military planning process. Drawing upon work from Emily Falk and co-workers, as well as other research groups’ (e.g. – Gregory Berns; Rebecca Saxe; Paul Zak; Jamil Zaki) current studies, enables a clearer picture to be developed about how various types of communicative messaging can and should be formulated and operationally implemented. Specifically, Dr. Casebeer addresses how neuro-cognitive science and approaches can better inform (a) what messages about a particular group are most effective in highlighting disparities between the interests of the group and the interests of the individual; (b) ways to change interactions between groups so that it becomes less likely bystanders to conflict will support, for example, a terrorist organization; and (c) post-conflict re-establishment of peace and stability, and setting conditions for cultivation of legitimate mechanisms of governance.

In Chapter 5 Dr. John Shook affords an overview of constructs of religious ideals, narratives and belief stratagems. Shook provides insight to core concepts that offer cognitive and social resonance as both undergirding and over-arching themes, or “meta-constructs”, which can be amplified and fortified with emotional content to evoke radicalism and/or fundamentalism. Dr. Shook proposes that in certain instances, psychological factors, evoked by particular environmental influences can produce a hyper-vigilant form of in-group, rule attendance that is typical to particular forms of fundamentalism. Shook terms this Directed Emotion Favoring In-group Ascendancy Needing Triumph (DEFIANT), and describes its key elements as strong suppression of generic emotional concern for people, strong enhancement of specific emotional concerns for special persons related to oneself, and the regard of oneself as urgently crucial for upholding righteous protection of those special persons. Dr. Shook addresses how such ideals create individual and group cognitions of “Singular Sacredness”, which can override more traditional constructs of Just War rationalizations, and discusses how these are operational in ISIL/ISIS’ narratives and actions.

In Chapter 6, Dr. Jason Spitaletta outlines psychological warfare, noting that terrorism is a deliberate, purposeful tool in psychological warfare’s armamentarium, which can cause paralyzing fear in the intended targets. Specifically he defines ISIL’s use of gruesome prisoner executions and the subsequent humiliation of the groups those victims represent as an example of this purposeful decision to incite terror. Dr. Spitaletta describes how beheadings, which ISIL has interpreted from the Quran as legitimately authorized for non-Muslims prisoners, is a way in which the organization can reinforce their narrative, while justifying their religious legitimacy. The intentions of these acts are to terrorize and affect the behaviors of those terrorized, and Dr. Spitaletta notes that those who view the beheadings might identify with either the victim, or the aggressor, depending upon their own affinities or in-group bias.

In Chapter 7, Dr. William Casebeer presents current neuro-cognitive technologies that can be rapidly developed and/or modified to meet definable operational needs for messaging communication and interpretation. Dr. Casebeer defines system capability, enabling and augmenting technologies, current and near-term maturity of various techniques and technologies, and methods for employing any such tools in distinct tactical and strategic scenarios. In the main, Dr. Casebeer provides a framework for assessing the operational viability of neuro-cognitive technology, such that any approach would need capabilities to:

(1) monitor and analyze multiple media types in real time,
(2) combine that analysis with other types of event data,
(3) automate extraction and analysis of narratives to allow sentiment forecasting,
(4) connect narrative analysis to social network analysis of populations and group,
(5) test proposed information operations and counter-narratives with a human-in-the-loop, ,
(6) allow effective detection, analysis, forecasting, planning and execution of information and environmental shaping actions.

In sum, this report:

• Describes environmental (socio-cultural, economic and political) factors that foster marginalization, vulnerability and repression can induce neuro-cognitive processes of aggressive ideation and emotion, which may escalate to violent behaviors

• Recommends that terms such as deranged, psychotic and evil, need to be strongly re-assessed because they tend to create a false lens through which to view and examine ISIL behaviors

• Illustrates that ISIL’s use of gruesome prisoner executions and the subsequent humiliation of the groups those victims represent are examples of purposeful decisions to incite terror

• Advocates that incorporating neuro-cognitive understanding and knowledge will be important to optimizing intelligence and deterrence efforts

• Advises that increasing messages’ impact requires resonating with key psychological drivers and constant creativity to keep their nature unexpected.

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