At around 1700 local time, a van careened through the busy and beautiful tree-shaded boulevard street La Rambla in Barcelona. It was an ugly attack, seemingly one that was a backup plan after the original idea involving explosives blew up the previous day when alleged mastermind Abdelbaki Es Satty accidentally set off the explosives the group was intending to use.

Younes Abouyaaqoub, driver of the van

Not long after the attack took place, the identities of the attackers were public domain. A manhunt ensued for the van driver, Younes Abouyaaqoub, which ended with a bullet that killed him. Perhaps a fitting end for a young man who brought about the deaths of 15 people. Driving a van though a crowd is one type of slaying, an act of mass murder where the tool of the crime separates the perpetrator from its victims, but Younes then proceeded to stab a man to death in his attempt to escape when he hijacked his car, a killing which is up close and absolutely without the possibility of disassociation.

It’s easy to label Younes, Satty or any of the other six as extremists and monsters and leave it at that. But to do that would be wrong - all eight of these people were humans like us, and all eight of them became what they were through various forces that can make any one of us into ticking time bombs.

I am not attempting to justify their actions or blame society for their crimes. But I believe that if we label them neatly as “terrorists” and throw them into the bin with the others, giving no further thought as to what motivates these eight people, it will be much more difficult to stop future attackers. No, society is not to blame for the actions of its misguided prodigal members, but it played a role, and the faster we can find the crucible which creates people such as them to commit horrible acts, the less likely we will be to see another attack.

Yusuf, the American boy

Last week, Islamic State media released a video called The Fertile Nation 4 featuring two young boys, one American named Yusuf and one from Sinjar (in Iraq) named Abdullah, both aged seven (I will not link the video, you can find it yourself if you’re curious). The American boy says his father is a veteran of the US Armed Forces who fought in Iraq, and that his mother left America to bring herself and the boy to a new life under the Islamic State. The soundtrack, consisting of nasheed music plays throughout the segment, as the boys speaks of the world they live in:

Yusuf: I have not many friends, my best friend is Abdullah from Sinjar.

Abdullah: My name is Abdullah and I am from Sinjar. When the Islamic State liberated Sinjar they took me with them. I am 7 years old now, and am learning Tawhid and ‘Ibadah. I live with Yusuf in the same house, we are like brothers. Islam is what unites Yusuf and I together.

Yusuf: We live in a small city called Raqqah. This city has scared the whole world because the muslims living in it have learned the meaning of jihad and have established the rule of Allah. Because of this, all the nations of the world who are led by America have gathered to scare us away from what we have established. Every night there is more and more random bombings. They bomb us with all kinds of weapons, including phosphorus bombs from all kinds of planes - the B-52, jets, to drones.

During this part, video footage of bombs hitting the city can be seen. The haunting chant of the nasheed music plays on, with the sound of the explosions from the video footage overlayed. The two boys are filmed walking through the rubble of a street as they walk into a damaged mosque. As they walk inside, the floor is riddled with debris, and as they grab copies of the Qua’ran from a cabinet, we see a damaged ceiling above.

Yusuf: This is the same trial that all messengers of Allah have gone through. The non-believers have pressed and hurt them, but they have stood patient in the face of their trials. Allah could have prevented all their trials, but when he loves a servant, he tries him.

Yusuf and Abdullah play among the crooked remains of a playground.

Yusuf: I am not scared [of] their planes, because we know they do not fly by the rule of Allah.

IS technical fires at the sky

The video cuts to IS fighters prepping and firing a technical (improvised fighting vehicle, in this case consisting of a pickup truck with a mounted ZU-23-2 gun) at the sky towards an undetermined Coalition aircraft. The fighter yells “Allahu akbar”, and the video goes back to the boys walking through rubble.

Yusuf: My message to Trump, the puppet of the Jews: Allah has promised us victory and promised you defeat. This battle is not going to end in Raqqah or Mosul, it’s going to end in your lands. By the rule of Allah, we will have victory. So get ready, for the fighting has just begun.

The boys are then shown walking behind an IS fighter, both equipped with weapons. Then, hammering through a wall in a building to give quick access to the other side. Then, loading an AK-47 clip with bullets.

Yusuf: Do you think we are going to leave? Do you think we’re be finished? Never! We will remain until the Day of Judgement, with Allah’s permission.

The video ends, with the boy being shown how to use a sniper rifle.

The reason I share this snippet of propaganda is to help demonstrate its power. We see children as weak, and as such their indoctrination is not surprising. Indeed, Islamic State operates The Cubs of the Caliphate, a fighting unit made for small children. Boys from all over Islamic State’s territory are brought there to be brainwashed, drugged and sent to fight or drive SVIEDs (suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive device) into enemy lines.

But the propaganda value of this video goes beyond the small tactical use of the children themselves. It is instinctual for us as people to want to protect children, particularly from a group we identify with. The boys speak of their convictions and their hardships, of how bombs rain down on their heads and how the Islamic State is fighting for them. As someone who watched the video researching this article, I can tell you it is impossible to watch the video and feel nothing. I do not feel any kind of desire to join Islamic State, but I do feel an overwhelming sadness for those two boys.

If only things were different. If Yusuf’s mother never brought him there. If Islamic State never pushed into Sinjar. If Islamic State left any other alternative to its enemies besides having to fight them in urban centres. If religious fundamentalism was not as successful at gathering followers.

But they are not different, and that is the reality that we all live in. The Syrian Government retook Aleppo, with its eastern half levelled. The Iraqi government, Peshmerga and Coalition retook Mosul, with its western old city scarcely having two bricks on top of each other. And the Syrian Democratic Forces, aided by Coalition air power, are now slowly squeezing Raqqah from the grip of Islamic State with a terrible cost. Urban warfare is ugly business, and it breeds nothing but death and destruction.

The van driver in Barcelona, Younes, was only 18 when he was shot and killed by police. We consider him an adult, and his actions his own. His mother claimed that he fell under the sway of the older Abdelbaki Es Satty, an imam of about 40 born in Morocco. There is no doubt that besides being the mastermind, Satty was able to manipulate 7 otherwise ordinary young men into carrying out these horrible acts.

Psychologist Robert Cialdini studied the techniques of persuasion and compliance, and has written one of the master works in the field, Influence: Science and Practice. In it, he outlined six key principles of influence:

  1. Reciprocity
  2. Commitment & Consistency
  3. Social Proof
  4. Authority
  5. Liking
  6. Scarcity
  7. Unity (this one was not in his original work, but he has added it since)

Now, imagine the fragile state of a child or a teenager’s mind. Perhaps you can think back to that time yourself - I know I can. In Cialdini’s book, he quotes work studying the compliance techniques used on American prisoners of war during the Korean War. Through the careful use of, for example, commitment and exploiting the desire of those men to be consistent with their self image, it was possible for skilled Chinese interrogators to elicit compliance in their requests from an overwhelming amount of them. If trained combatants kept prisoner by their enemies can eventually succumb to the compliance techniques of their enemies, it is not hard to imagine some disillusioned boys doing the same.

Cialdini notes that, like in the case of the American POWs, an original small concession to a reasonable request is all it takes to begin to build a web of commitments and consistency. He gives examples of how POWs were invited to participate in essay contests in the internment camps, the rewards of which were free time from work, extra privileges or supplies. The only criteria for submitting such an essay was that they were written on certain topics and did not lambast their captors’ ideology - sensible rules that are something the POWs would not have thought were too much of a request since it makes sense that a writing competition might choose the topic for the contestants. Once the contest took place, the soldiers had been ensnared - now, they would not be able to retreat from their written and published work, and the points of view expressed in them, which by design were created to push them to identifying with their captors, warped their self image to becoming more and more sympathetic, or risk being perceived as inconsistent.

The snake Satty likely wormed some kind of initial point from them, perhaps about any of the religious flash points in the world today. In the same way that the POWs were held to account to be consistent in their beliefs, Satty likely created among his disciples a similar progression, where no one up-sell was beyond the reach of the previous. Slowly, he worked them towards the day when they would be no different than Yusuf and Abdullah. He likely showed them propaganda videos like The Fertile Nation 4, which, building on their sense of Muslim identity provided social proof of the life of a good jihadi.

Him being the key to this whole incident is obvious in what transpired after his death - after he accidentally set off the explosives they were preparing, his followers panicked - the very next day they carried out their attack.

And, like his new generation of IS attackers, Satty also likely came from a scenario like he perpetuated on the seven. The pattern repeats itself, and places people that are easily influenced or accessible to coercion. Imagining the difficulty of de-programming a child like Yusuf or Abdullah is obvious should they be captured alive, and would be comparable to the eight individuals involved in this attack, because at the time of the attack, their indoctrination was complete.

In 1974, Private Teruo Nakamura of the Imperial Japanese Army surrendered to authorities on the island of Morotai in eastern Indonesia. Despite the fact that The Empire of Japan officially surrendered in 1945, ending World War II, a number of “holdouts” remained in hiding in several regions that were former Japanese territories. Private Nakamura was the last of these - his one man war ended 29 years after the real one, and 30 years after the Allies took control of the island. So strong was his sense of duty that in 1956, being not the only holdout on Morotai, he eventually left the others to form his own camp. He lived entirely on his own for 18 years, awaiting orders from his superiors.

Private Teruo Nakamura on his return to his native Taiwan

This illustrates just how far people would go to fulfil their duty, and indeed, many in Japan’s military carried out suicide attacks - the famous Japanese Kamikaze pilots wreaked havoc on Allied warships as their specially modified aircraft (not that different from the land-based SVIEDs used by IS), laden with explosives, bombs and additional fuel, would ram into armoured hulls.

Satty’s seven could not have expected that they would survive the ordeal - they knew that what they were attempting was a suicide attack. Of the other European attacks, the attackers almost all perished. Their sense of duty to IS was overriding their desire to survive, and this state of being requires work to achieve.

If we are to prevent these kinds of incidents, we cannot simply look to banning online freedoms or restricting travel. As long as people exist that are willing to override their desire to live with their perceived duty to attack, they will find new and creative ways of doing it. New explosives using even more mundane of ingredients will be formulated. Different communications networks will be used, if not encrypted via technology then encrypted via code.

One example of how this will happen has already occurred with financing Islamist groups using the existing system known as hawala (an informal system of brokers who transfer money on someone’s behalf). In the hawala system, money can be transferred discreetly and informally from anywhere, and while it has seen a crackdown post-9/11, it is impossible to remove the whole network without a disproportionately costly effort. Scores of innocent transactions take place every day to add enough noise to the network even if someone was able to listen to its reverberations. As a result, while banks may hold and flag assets due to groups and individuals on watch lists, they can still receive funding through a system that has existed since the 8th century.

So the plan to curb extremism cannot be trying to block their methods alone. The answer lies in understanding them, and then using that knowledge to crack their programming. While their methods are extreme and their actions indefensible, the source of their indoctrination is often the suffering of others. Seldom do people act in a way they believe is wrong, especially if they are going to die for it.

All these attackers are indeed fuelled to right a wrong of some great hypothetical strawman oppressor. This particular problem is difficult to solve without re-aligning the policies of our societies towards Muslim-dominated states. The proxy wars, resource exploitation and propping up of dictators must end.

But, what we see is that at least some of the attackers show warning signs. Many are drawn to crime (particularly to the petty kind). Anis Amri of the 2016 Berlin attack had a long history for possession of drugs and stealing a truck. Khuram Shazad Butt of the London Bridge attack of 2017 had outstanding fraud charges and was well known for his extremism. Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel of the Nice attack had a history of domestic violence and drug use. Salah Abdeslam of the Brussels IS Cell (responsible for the Brussels, Molenbeek and Paris attacks) ran a bar which was shut down due to evidence that “hallucinogenic substances” were being taken there as well as a stint in prison for armed robbery. Many seemed to have been banned from their neighbourhood mosques for outbursts or other activities - Butt for example, took part in an bullying campaign against other muslims in the UK to prevent them from voting in the 2015 election.

What seems evident here is that committed ideologues often recruit people that are vulnerable to carry out this kind of work. The biggest terrorist threat to Europe was the Brussels Cell, and the leader of that cell was believed to be Abdelhamid Abaaoud, nom-de-guerre Abu Omar al-Baljiki. Abaaoud was a committed jihadist and fought with IS in Syria. His influence over the others is apparent, as is the case with Satty over his attackers in Spain. Butt was also associated with Al-Muhajiroun (a banned UK-based jihadist group), probably best remembered for the shocking murder of British Army Fusilier Lee Rigby by two of its members.

So by understanding them as people, both the ideologues and the followers, we can help profile better. By profiling better we can spot potential attacks and still have a chance to diffuse them.

And if we truly examine them as fellow human beings rather than monsters, we can also no longer look at them as incomprehensible entities - a monster stops being a monster when you know about its capabilities. We can look at their attributes and apply them to finding other extremists, whether they’re militant separatists, white nationalists or neo-nazis. And above all we can try to stay vigilant in our own hearts and minds against programming, no matter what kind we are susceptible to - there’s something out there for everyone after all.