State Dep't Official Offers New Explanation For the Fact Terror Recruits Come From Widely Different Backgrounds

By Patrick Goodenough | June 16, 2015 | 4:34am EDT
U.S. Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Sarah Sewall speaks at a news conference in the Albanian capital, Tirana, on May 19, 2015. (AP Photo, File)

( – As part of its ongoing “countering violent extremism” campaign, an administration official has delivered another speech highlighting a range of factors that “push” young people towards terrorism – but with no reference to Islamic teachings.

Speaking in Geneva on Monday, Undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Sarah Sewall cited a theory in popular psychology – the “hierarchy of needs” – in an attempt to explain why people from widely different backgrounds are attracted to terrorist groups.

“We remain challenged by the difficulty of understanding why individuals or communities would join such backward, violent extremist groups,” Sewall said. “Terror network recruits come from all walks of life: posh suburbs and forgotten slums; from countries rich and poor, repressive and free, stable and conflict-ridden.”

She said their motives in joining or aligning with terror groups may be “complex, overlapping and context-specific.”

Sewall argued that those motives could be examined in line with the “hierarchy of needs,” a theory presented by psychologist Abraham Maslow in the mid-20th century.

Popularly represented as a triangular diagram, the theory holds that human beings have needs beginning with the base physiological (food, shelter etc.); followed by safety (protection, law and order); love and belonging; esteem (status, self-respect etc.) and – at the triangle’s peak – self-actualization (fulfilment, personal growth etc.)

Sewall said that while people may be vulnerable to recruitment by extremists due to factors like poverty (“the inability to provide for oneself or one’s family”) or physical insecurity, needs higher up the hierarchy are also relevant.

“Even where people’s lower-level needs are met, social and political marginalization can impact higher-order human needs such as a valued role or purpose,” she said.

Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” theory represented in simple diagram form. (Image: Psychology Today)

“The ‘hierarchy of needs’ therefore helps us understand why dramatically different profiles of persons can be drawn to organizations antithetical to what we would identify as progress and humanity.”

Her prepared remarks for delivery at the Geneva Center for Security Policy were released by the U.S. Mission in Geneva.

Administration officials have raised eyebrows by attributing terrorism to factors such as deprivation and a lack of jobs – rather than Islamic teachings or interpretations – especially when such factors as poverty are clearly absent in the cases of many top terrorists, who may be well-educated and even wealthy.

Last October, for example, Secretary of State John Kerry linked terror recruitment to the fact many young people “live in places where they feel oppressed, where they don’t have a lot of opportunity, there’s not enough education, they don’t have jobs.”

More recently, officials have expanded those “push” factors, with Kerry last February citing factors like “rebellion against anonymity” and the desire to belong to a group.

Sewall’s speech developed that theme.

“Any type of violent extremist group exploits human needs all along the spectrum,” she said.

“From al-Shabaab in Somalia to Da’esh [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS] in Syria, terror groups lure some with the promise of a paycheck – the undereducated youth with no prospect of employment or a future, or the father who can no longer provide for his family,” Sewall said.

“Others are motivated to join extremist ranks by higher-end needs – purpose, meaning, identity.”

Because terror groups appeal to grievances across the spectrum, she said, “a ‘whole-of-society’ approach is the key to preventing the spread of violent extremism’s appeals.”

Beyond the need for military, intelligence and law enforcement tools to defeat terror networks, Sewall appealed for an approach that includes “greater emphasis on prevention – protecting individuals and communities from violent extremism.”

Administration officials have actively shied away from using terms like “radical Islam” or “Islamic extremism” in discussing the terror threat, and Sewall’s speech made no direct reference to any role Islam may have in driving terrorism or terror recruitment.

The closest she came to an indirect mention of a religious factor was a line in which she said global counter-terrorism efforts should include “amplifying the voice of cultural or religious leaders to challenge violent extremist marketing and propaganda.”

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