A Dangerous Displacement Crisis: The Psychological Ecology of Extremism After the Fall of ISIS
The Islamic State has lost much of its territory, leaving foreign fighters with few options. Specifically, they can choose to stay in a losing battle, move to a new theater of conflict, or return home. Those who choose to return home return to communities and structures that remain relatively unchanged since they left and return to watch regional conflicts—Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Palestine—simmer largely unresolved. In other words, the context and motivations that pushed thousands of fighters to take up arms and ideology with the Islamic State and other groups have not changed, and continue to be a source of frustration and potential radicalisation for thousands of new youth across the region. Grievances remain unaddressed, opportunities remain scarce, political change is slow or nonexistent, and millions of youth continue to feel excluded, hopeless, and marginalized even within their families and communities. Simply, neither the structural nor the psychological situation has improved in any meaningful way, maintaining the risk of extremism and violence across the region.
If structural “push” factors are going to remain unchanged for the foreseeable future, we need a new lens to understand the risk of violent extremism in the MENA region. In this chapter, we discuss some basic concepts from brain and behavioral science that can afford practitioners and researchers new frameworks for understanding the problem of extremism. By turning our focus to some of the biological and neural underpinnings of concepts like social belonging, peer influence, response to imagined threats, and social power and agency, we can think of new intervention points and new frameworks from which to design effective prevention programs. While brain and behavioral science cannot replace security interventions and measures, they can provide clear tools to create positive change in individual youth and peer groups, “hacking” how we are wired to think to redirect unrest for positive social development.