What do Terrorists Read and Are Tech Companies Suppressing Wages?

First, an interesting article claiming that tech companies are using artificial labor shortages to claim they need to import more H1-Bs in order to keep wages low:

That study was a key link in a chain of evidence leading to an entirely different view of the real origins of the Immigration Act of 1990s and the H1-B visa classification. … Their aims instead were to keep American scientific employers from having to pay the full US market price of high skilled labor. They hoped to keep the US research system staffed with employees classified as “trainees,” “students,” and “post-docs” for the benefit of employers. The result would be to render the US scientific workforce more docile and pliable to authority and senior researchers by attempting to ensure this labor market sector is always flooded largely by employer-friendly visa holders who lack full rights to respond to wage signals in the US labor market.

I rate this credible.

Second, an article by Donald Holbrook, “What Types of Media do Terrorists Collect?” [PDF] Unfortunately, the article only looks at religious/historical/political media, and so does not answer the eternal question of whether terrorists prefer Asuka or Rei, or whether their media consumption differs in other ways from other people’s.

The author looked at media collected by ten Islamic terrorists in, I believe, Britain. It would be interesting to compare these collections to those of NRA terrorists and people of similar backgrounds who didn’t commit terrorism–maybe someone can do a follow-up study on the matter.

So what media do they consume?

Holbrook found, first of all, that most of their media is pretty innocuous–things like 17-part audiobook series on some historical topic. (Audio–rather than written or video–media predominated, but that may not hold in the future with YouTube videos now quite easy to produce.) Only a small percent of the media was coded as “extreme” (that is, advocating violence)–even terrorists don’t spend all of their time reading about how to build bombs.

A few items were consumed by multiple people (this was generally more extreme media, which probably just exists in much lower quantities,) but most of the media was of sufficient variety that different people read different things.

Most of it was in English, since the terrorists speak English. The author expressed some concern that translations of much older religious material were not entirely accurate, but also noted that the terrorists possessed a fair amount of religious/historical commentaries that expressed counter-extremist messages.

So what can we conclude from this?

  1. It seems unlikely to me that radicalization is simply due to exposure to extreme material, since most of what they consumed was mild. It seems more likely that people who are prone to radicalization seek out more extreme material.
  2. However, it is possible that a strong sense of historical or religious identity is an important part of radicalization–most people don’t listen to 17 part serieses on obscure religious history topics.
  3. People who live in Britain but have a strong identity as something other than British are probably more likely to engage in anti-British terrorism
  4. The internet/modern technology have increased the availability of historical/foreign documents, especially in translation, allowing for people to communicate across nations and through time in ways that were much more difficult and limited before.

#4 is, I think, quite important–across a range of different human activities, not just radicalization. I think the increased availability of printed material in the early modern period allowed for the spread of the European witchcraft hysteria, for example, as the gullible public eagerly consumed pamphlets purporting to report on heinous crimes of witchcraft occurring in neighboring towns.

Increased literacy probably also went hand-in-hand with the Protestant Revolution, which emphasized the importance of people reading the Bible for themselves in order to have a personal relationship with God–something that was impossible before the era of relatively cheap Bibles.

This, of course, launched years of religious warfare that scourged the European continent and led to a lot of people being burned at the stake, at least until people mellowed and decided religious differences weren’t that big a deal.

Today, changes in media availability/ease of communication is changing how Westerners think about morality. It may also be changing how non-Westerners approach the world too–but not necessarily in the same ways.

Unsurprisingly, this study contradicts the common claim that terrorists aren’t religiously motivated or aren’t practicing “true Islam.” Of course, I have yet to see anyone, ever, admit to practicing a false version of a religion. Everyone believes that they are practicing the true version (or the true lack of a version, in the case of atheists,) and that everyone else is practicing a false version. Of course I also think terrorists have got religion wrong, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t practicing it to the best of their abilities–and of course, they think I’m doing it wrong.

But the fact that these folks are religiously motivated is undeniable–they definitely consume far more religious media than the average person.




Maybe Terrorists are Actually Just Morons?

Gwern has a fascinating essay about terrorism, Terrorism-is-not-about-Terror:

There is a commonly-believed strategic model of terrorism which we could describe as follows: terrorists are people who are ideologically motivated to pursue specific unvarying political goals; to do so, they join together in long-lasting organizations and after the failure of ordinary political tactics, rationally decide to efficiently & competently engage in violent attacks on (usually) civilian targets to get as much attention as possible and publicity for their movement, and inspire fear & terror in the civilian population, which will pressure its leaders to solve the problem one way or another, providing support for the terrorists’ favored laws and/or their negotiations with involved governments, which then often succeed in gaining many of the original goals, and the organization dissolves.

Unfortunately, this model, is in almost every respect, empirically false.

It’s a great essay, so go read the whole thing before we continue. Don’t worry; I’ll wait.



Now, since I know half of you didn’t actually read the essay, I’ll summarize: terrorists are really bad at accomplishing their “objectives.” By any measure, they are really bad at it. Simply doing nothing would, in most cases, further their political goals more effectively.

This is in part because terrorists tend not to conquer and hold land, and in part because terrorism tends to piss off its targets, making them less likely to give in to the terrorists’ demands. Consider 9-11: sure, the buildings fell down, but did it result in America conceding to any of Al-Qaeda’s demands?

The article quotes Abrams 2012:

Jones and Libicki (2008) then examined a larger sample, the universe of known terrorist groups between 1968 and 2006. Of the 648 groups identified in the RAND-MIPT Terrorism Incident database, only 4% obtained their strategic demands. … Chenoweth and Stephan (2008, 2011) provide additional empirical evidence that meting out pain hurts non-state actors at the bargaining table. … These statistical findings are reinforced with structured in-case comparisons highlighting that escalating from nonviolent methods of protest such as petitions, sit-ins, and strikes to deadly attacks tends to dissuade government compromise. … Other statistical research (Abrahms, 2012, Fortna, 2011) demonstrates that when terrorist attacks are combined with such discriminate violence, the bargaining outcome is not additive; on the contrary, the pain to the population significantly decreases the odds of government concessions.3

(Aside: Remember, right-wing violence doesn’t work. It’s stupid and you will fail at accomplishing anything.)

Another “mystery” about terrorism is that it actually doesn’t happen very often. It’s not that hard to drive a truck into a crowd or attack people with a machete. Armies are expensive; coughing on grocery store produce is cheap.

If terrorism is 1. ineffective and 2. not even used that often, why do terrorist groups exist at all?

Terrorists might just be dumb, stupid people who try to deal with their problems by blowing them up, but there’s no evidence to this effect–terrorists are not less intelligent than the average person in their societies, anyway. People who are merely dumb and violent tend to get into fights with their neighbors, not take airplanes hostage.

Gwern suggests a different possibility: People join terrorist organizations because they want to be friends with the other terrorists. They’re like social clubs, but instead of bowling, you talk about how going on jihad would be totally awesome.

Things people crave: Meaning. Community. Brotherhood.

Terrorist organizations provide these to their members, most of whom don’t actually blow themselves up.

Gwern quotes Sageman’s Understanding Terrorist Networks:

Friendships cultivated in the jihad, just as those forged in combat in general, seem more intense and are endowed with special significance. Their actions taken on behalf of God and the umma are experienced as sacred. This added element increases the value of friendships within the clique and the jihad in general and diminishes the value of outside friendships.

Enough about terrorists; let’s talk about Americans:

“Jihad” is currently part of the Islamic cultural script–that is, sometimes Muslims see some form of “jihad” as morally acceptable. (They are not unique in committing terrorism, though–Marxist terrorists have created trouble throughout Latin America, for instance, and the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka were one of the world’s deadliest groups.)

Thankfully, though, few major groups in the US see jihad or terrorist violence as acceptable, but… we have our exceptions.

For example, after a Jewish professor, Bret Weinstein, declined to stay home on a “Day of Absence” intended to force whites away from Evergreen State College, WA, violent protests erupted. Bands of students armed with bats and tasers roamed the campus, searching for Weinstein; the poor professor was forced to flee and eventually resign.

(More on Evergreen.)

Antifa are a growing concern in the US, both on-campus and off. As Wikipedia notes:

Antifa groups, along with black bloc activists, were among those who protested the 2016 election of Donald Trump.[10][44] They also participated in the February 2017 Berkeley protests against alt-right[47][48][49][50] speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, where they gained mainstream attention,[27] with media reporting them “throwing Molotov cocktails and smashing windows”[2] and causing $100,000 worth of damage.[51]

Antifa counter-protesters at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 “certainly used clubs and dyed liquids against the white supremacists”.[39]

During a Berkeley protest on August 27, 2017, an estimated one hundred antifa protesters joined a crowd of 2,000–4,000 counter-protesters to attack a reported “handful” of alt-right demonstrators and Trump supporters who showed up for a “Say No to Marxism” rally that had been cancelled by organizers due to security concerns. Some antifa activists beat and kicked unarmed demonstrators[51][63] and threatened to smash the cameras of anyone who filmed them.[64]

Antifa, like terrorist groups, typically attract folks who are single and have recently left home–young people who have just lost the community they were raised in and in search of a new one.

The article recounts an amusing incident when a terrorist organization wanted to disband a cell, but struggled to convince its members to abandon their commitment to sacrificing themselves on behalf of jihad. Finally they hit upon a solution: they organized social get-togethers with women, then incentivised the men to get married, get jobs, and have babies. Soon all of the men were settled and raising children, too busy and invested in their new families to risk sacrificing it all for jihad. The cell dissolved.

Even Boko Haram was founded in response to the difficulties young men in Nigeria face in affording brides:

Our recent study found that marriage markets and inflationary brideprice are a powerful driver of participation in violence and drive recruitment into armed groups. Armed groups often arrange low-cost marriages for their members, help members afford brideprice, or provide extra-legal opportunities to acquire the capital necessary to take a wife. In Nigeria, in the years in which Boko Haram gained influence under founder Mohammed Yusuf, “items required for [a] successful [marriage] celebration kept changing in tune with inflation over the years.”66  A resident of the Railroad neighborhood of Maiduguri, where Yusuf established his mosque, recalled that in just a few years, Yusuf had facilitated more than 500 weddings. The group also provided support for young men to become “okada drivers,” who gained popularity for their affordable motorbike taxi services — who often used their profits to afford marriage. Thus, Boko Haram’s early recruits were often attracted by the group’s facilitation of marriage. Even in the aftermath of Yusuf’s assassination by the Nigerian state and the rise of Abubakar Shekau, the group has continued to exploit obstacles to marriage to attract supporters. The women and girls that are abducted by the group, estimated to number more than 6,000, are frequently married off to members of the group.

Antifa of course aren’t the only people in the US who commit violence; the interesting fact here is their organization. As far as I know, Dylan Roof killed more people than Antifa, but Roof acted alone.


I suggest, therefore, that the principle thing driving Antifa (and similar organizations) isn’t a rational pursuit of their stated objectives (did driving Milo out of Berkley actually protect any illegal immigrants from deportation?) but the same social factors that drive Muslims to join terrorist groups: camaraderie, brotherhood, and the feeling like they are leading meaningful, moral lives by sacrificing themselves for their chosen cause.

Right-wingers do this, too (the military is an obvious source of “meaning” and “brotherhood” in many people’s lives).

And the pool of unmarried people to recruit into extremist organizations is only growing in America.

We have always been at war with Eurasia--I mean, supported gay marriage

But we don’t have to look to organizations that commit violence to find this pattern. Why change one’s avatar to a rainbow pattern to celebrate gay marriage or overlay a French flag after the Charlie Hebdo attack?

Why spend hours “fighting racism” by “deconstructing whiteness” online when you could do far more to help black people by handing out sandwiches at your local homeless shelter? (The homeless would also appreciate a hot lasagna.) What percentage of people who protest Islamophobia have actually bothered to befriend some Muslims and express support toward them?

The obvious answer is that these activities enhance the actor’s social standing among their friends and online compatriots. Congratulations received for turning your profile picture different colors: objective achieved. Actions that would actually help the targeted group require more effort and return less adulation, since they have to be done in real life.

Liberal groups seem to be better at social organizing–thus I’ve had an easier time coming up with liberal examples of this phenomenon. Conservative political organizations, at least in the US, seem to be smaller and offer less in the way of social benefits (this may be in part because conservatives are more likely to be married, employed, and have children, and because conservatives are more likely to channel such energies into their churches,) but they also do their share of social signaling that doesn’t achieve its claimed goal. “White pride” organizations, for example, generally do little to improve whites’ public image.

But is this an aberration? Or are things operating as designed? What’s the point of friendship and social standing in the first place?

Interestingly, in Jane Goodall‘s account of chimps in the Gombe, we see parallels to the origins of human social structures and friendships. Only male chimps consistently have what we would call “friendships;” females instead tend to live in groups with their children. Male friends benefit from each other’s assistance in hunting and controlling access to other food, like the coveted bananas. A single strong male may dominate a troop of chimps, but a coalition can bring him to a bloody end. Persistent dominance of a chimp troop (and thus dominance of food) is thus easier for males who have a strong coalition on their side–that is, friends.

Man is a political animal:

From these things therefore it is clear that the city-state is a natural growth, and that man is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low in the scale of humanity or above it … inasmuch as he is solitary, like an isolated piece at draughts.

And why man is a political animal in a greater measure than any bee or any gregarious animal is clear. For nature, as we declare, does nothing without purpose; and man alone of the animals possesses speech. … speech is designed to indicate the advantageous and the harmful, and therefore also the right and the wrong; for it is the special property of man in distinction from the other animals that he alone has perception of good and bad and right and wrong and the other moral qualities, and it is partnership in these things that makes a household and a city-state.

Most people desire to be members in good standing in their communities:

Thus also the city-state is prior in nature to the household and to each of us individually. [20] For the whole must necessarily be prior to the part; since when the whole body is destroyed, foot or hand will not exist except in an equivocal sense… the state is also prior by nature to the individual; for if each individual when separate is not self-sufficient, he must be related to the whole state as other parts are to their whole, while a man who is incapable of entering into partnership, or who is so self-sufficing that he has no need to do so, is no part of a state, so that he must be either a lower animal or a god.

Therefore the impulse to form a partnership of this kind is present in all men by nature… –Aristotle, Politics, Book 1

A couple of other relevant quotes:

From Eysenck’s work on political extremism


The spread of the internet has changed both who we’re talking to (the people in our communities) and how we engage with them, resulting in, I hypothesize, a memetic environment that increasingly favors horizontally (rather than vertically) transmitted memes. (If you are not familiar with this theory, I wrote about it here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) Vertically spread memes tend to come from your parents and are survival-oriented; horizontal memes come from your friends and are social. A change in the memetic environment, therefore, has the potential to change the landscape of social, moral, and political ideas people frequently encounter–and has allowed us to engage in nearly costless, endless social signaling.

The result of that, it appears, is political polarization:


According to Pew:

A decade ago, the public was less ideologically consistent than it is today. In 2004, only about one-in-ten Americans were uniformly liberal or conservative across most values. Today, the share who are ideologically consistent has doubled: 21% express either consistently liberal or conservative opinions across a range of issues – the size and scope of government, the environment, foreign policy and many others.

The new survey finds that as ideological consistency has become more common, it has become increasingly aligned with partisanship. Looking at 10 political values questions tracked since 1994, more Democrats now give uniformly liberal responses, and more Republicans give uniformly conservative responses than at any point in the last 20 years.

This, of course, makes it harder for people to find common ground for compromises.

So if we want a saner, less histrionic political culture, the first step may be encouraging people to settle down, get married, and have children, then work on building communities that let people feel a sense of meaning in their real lives.

Still, I think letting your friends convince you that blowing yourself is a good idea is pretty dumb.

Terrorists are getting better at Terrorism

Courtesy of Saul Montes-Bradley‏ @Debradelai

Saul Montes-Bradley is the author of Gander: Terrorism, Incompetence, and the Rise of Islamic National Socialism

Data from 1981-2015 is from the State Department; 2016’s data is from Homeland Security. Note that this is global, not limited to the US or Europe; it’s also specifically terrorism, not guerrilla warfare or similar war-related acts.

Let’s assume the data is accurate and not biased by something like “we couldn’t get into this area to count how many attacks there were before 2000,” nor, “Well, before this was a ‘war’ and 3,000 people were dying from ‘warfare’ every year but now we’re calling it ‘terrorism’.”

Montes-Bradle attributes the massive, recent rise to Obama/Obama’s policies, but I note that the rise began in 2004–when Bush II was still in power–and had a local maximum in 2007–also when Bush II was still in power. Things improved during Bush’s final year in office, and continued improving (slowly) for Obama’s first four years in office, before jumping back to Bush-levels in 2013.

So: clearly something has changed, and I’m going to say it changed in 2004, though we might say 2001. But what? And why? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the terrorists got serious about killing people. A lot of bombs and even airplane hijackers back in the 70s and 80s didn’t actually kill anyone, or if they did, casualties were fairly low. 9-11 marked a big departure from previous terrorism in that it actually killed a huge number of people, especially relative to the number of terrorists involved.

Terrorists are getting better at what they do because terrorists change their tactics much faster than governments change theirs. Terrorism mutates faster than governments can respond.