U.S. Mission Somalia on Ordered Departure of “Non-Essential” U.S. Citizen Employees

Posted: 12:26 am ET
Updated: 1:09 pm ET
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We understand that the State Department did not/did not put US Mission Somalia on ordered departure. This explains the absence of a new Travel Warning. Our understanding is that the post directive was for embassy U.S. citizen employees to depart, and not all American citizens. It looks like the U.S. Ambassador to Somalia is based in Kenya, so we don’t even know how many U.S. and local embassy staffers are actually in Mogadishu. When we asked US Mission Somalia whether there is an updated Travel Warning, we were directed to its security message of November 4 with a link to the January 11, 2017 Travel Warning, which specifically notes that “There is no U.S. embassy presence in Somalia.” The most recent Travel Warning for Somalia is actually dated August 3, 2017 which similarly notes the absence of U.S. embassy presence in Somalia. So who were actually directed to depart? Can post “direct” the departure of just embassy employees without triggering an update in Travel Warning? Wouldn’t that run afoul of the “no double standard” policy? Is this a case of folks just not knowing what they’re doing? Other missions in the past have restricted travels of staff members from various parts of their host countries citing “no-go” or red zones where employees are not allowed to go. But U.S. Mission Somalia uses the words “direct” implying a directive and “non-essential” which is usually used in reference to evacuations.

In May this year, we blogged that the @StateDept Plans to Build a “Somalia Interim Facility” in Mogadishu For $85-$125M. Also see D/SecState Blinken Swears in Stephen Schwartz, First U.S.Ambassador to Somalia in 25 Years.

On November 4, U.S. Mission Somalia announced that it has directed “its non-essential (sic) U.S. citizen employees” to depart Mogadishu until further notice due to specific threat information against U.S. personnel on the Mogadishu International Airport. The order came a day after AFRICOM announced that it conducted air strikes against ISIS in northeastern Somalia.

The directive for personnel  to go on authorized or ordered departure has to come from the State Department. Also U.S. Mission-Somalia’s original tweet says it directs “all non-essential U.S. citizen employees”; note that the corrected one says it directs “its non-essential U.S. citizen employees.” Who does that exclude? Everyone not under Chief of Mission authority? But all agencies fall under COM authority with the exception of those under the authority of combatant commanders, or has that changed?

We don’t know how many State Department U.S. citizen employees are actually in Mogadishu but the solicitation back in May to pre-qualify firms for design-build construction services for the construction of a Somalia Interim Facility in Mogadishu referred to a “20- acre site located on the Mogadishu International Airport (MIA) Compound” with “currently” three firms working on the compound: Bancroft Global Development, RA International, and SKA Group.

As far as we can tell, no updated Travel Warning had been released reflecting the departure of “non-essential” employees from Somalia.  And folks, if you keep calling evacuated employees “non-essential”, we’re going to start wondering what were they doing there in the first place if they were not essential.

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Libyan National Charged in 2012 Attack on U.S. Special Mission and Annex in #Benghazi

Posted: 2:22 am ET
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Media reports say that U.S. special forces have captured a militant who was allegedly involved in the 2012 deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya.  The suspect has been identified as Mustafa al-Imam. An unnamed official told the AP that the suspect was captured in Misrata, on the north coast of Libya and was taken to a U.S. Navy ship at the Misrata port for transport to the United States.

Per DOJ announcement:

Mustafa al-Imam, a Libyan national approximately 46 years old, has been charged for his alleged participation in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Special Mission and Annex in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans.

“The murder of four Americans in Benghazi on September 11, 2012 was a barbaric crime that shocked the American people. We will never forget those we lost – Tyrone Woods, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty and Ambassador Christopher Stevens – four brave Americans who gave their lives in service to our nation,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  “We owe it to them and their families to bring their murderers to justice. Today the Department of Justice announces a major step forward in our ongoing investigation as Mustafa al-Imam is now in custody and will face justice in federal court for his role in the attack.  I am grateful to the FBI, our partners in the intelligence community and the Department of Defense who made this apprehension possible.  The United States will continue to investigate and identify all those who were involved in the attack – and we will hold them accountable for their crimes.”

“The apprehension of Mustafa al-Imam demonstrates our unwavering commitment to holding accountable all of those responsible for the murders of four brave Americans in a terrorist attack in Benghazi,” said U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu for the District of Columbia.  “Together with our law enforcement partners, we will do all that we can to pursue justice against those who commit terrorist acts against the United States, no matter how far we must go and how long it takes.”

Mustafa al-Imam is charged in a recently unsealed three-count criminal complaint.  The complaint, which was filed under seal on May 19, 2015, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, charges al-Imam with:

  • Killing a person in the course of an attack on a federal facility involving the use of a firearm and dangerous weapon and attempting and conspiring to do the same.
  • Providing, attempting and conspiring to provide material support to terrorists resulting in death.
  • Discharging, brandishing, using, carrying and possession of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.Al-Imam is in U.S. custody, and upon his arrival to the U.S. he will be presented before a federal judge in Washington, D.C.

Read the full announcement here.

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Avoidable Mess: U.S. to Help Chad After “Important Partner” Withdraws Troops From Niger Following Visa Sanctions

Posted: 3:33 am ET
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On September 24, President Trump announced new security measures that establish minimum requirements for international cooperation to support U.S. visa and immigration vetting and new visa restrictions for eight countries, including Chad. See Trump Announces New Visa Restrictions For Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen, Somalia:.

Chad – Although it is an important partner, especially in the fight against terrorists, the government in Chad does not adequately share public-safety and terrorism-related information, and several terrorist groups are active within Chad or in the surrounding region, including elements of Boko Haram, ISIS-West Africa, and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb. Accordingly, the entry into the United States of nationals of Chad, as immigrants, and as nonimmigrants on business (B-1), tourist (B-2), and business/tourist (B-1/B-2) visas, is suspended.

Via BuzzFeed: Experts from the State Department to humanitarian organizations were stunned when the Chad was added to the travel ban in late September. The country is home to a US military facility and just hosted an annual 20-nation military exercise with the US military’s Africa Command to strengthen local forces to fight extremist insurgents. Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, is the headquarters of the five-country Multinational Joint Task Force battling Boko Haram.

What kind of visa numbers do we have for Chad? For temporary nonimmigrant visas the last five fiscal years, see below via travel.state.gov:

FY2016: 1,355 | FY2015: 1,352 | FY2014: 1,294 |  FY2013: 731 |  FY2012: 624

So given Chad’s counterterrorism cooperation, and the carved out already given to Iraq in the September 24 order, why was Chad included in the visa restrictions?  FP proposes this:

One possible explanation for this discrepancy, which would be preposterous in any administration except this one, is that the architects of the ban, having repeatedly heard the phrases “Boko Haram” and “Lake Chad” in the same sentence, assumed that Chad must be the epicenter of Boko Haram. (Lake Chad in fact lies on the border of Chad and three other countries, and Boko Haram is mostly confined to northern Nigeria, northern Cameroon, and southeastern Niger.)
[…]
In the wake of the new travel ban announcement on Sept. 24, Chad has withdrawn hundreds of troops from neighboring Niger, where up to 2,000 of its soldiers were part of a coalition battling Boko Haram. The Chadian government has not yet offered an official explanation for the pullout, but Communications Minister Madeleine Alingué condemned Chad’s inclusion on the travel ban, saying that it “seriously undermines” the “good relations between the two countries, notably in the fight against terrorism.”
[…]
The Chadian president is likely betting that with his forces withdrawn from Niger, the Trump administration will quickly come to appreciate his country’s security contributions and remove it from the list.

But it turns out — Chad had simply run out of passport paper!

AP’s Josh Lederman writes that Chad lacked the passport paper and offered to furnish the U.S. with a pre-existing sample of the same type of passport, but it was not enough to persuade DHS.  A congressional official told the AP that DHS working with the White House “pushed Chad onto the list without significant input from the State Department or the Defense Department.” 

Without significant input from agencies with people on the ground in Chad. If we were in Chad’s shoes, wouldn’t we do exactly the same? Obviously, being called an “important partner” does not make up for having your citizens banned from traveling to the other country. The action telegraphed careless disregard of the relationship, and Chad most likely, will not forget this easily. “Remember that time when the U.S. put Chad on the visa sanctions list while we have 2,000 soldiers fighting in Niger?” Yep, they’ll remember. We actually would like to know who among the local contacts showed up for the new embassy dedication, by the way (see @StateDept Dedicates New $225M U.S. Embassy in N’Djamena, Chad).

The DHS/WH architects of these visa bans/sanctions really are the best people with the best brains, hey?

Federal court has now issued a TRO for the latest travel restrictions that includes Chad. So basically, a carefully constructed bilateral relationship ends up in a mess, and it was all for nothing.

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GAO Cites Gaps in @StateDept’s Crisis and Evacuation Preparedness for Overseas Posts

Posted: 3:11 am ET
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The GAO recently released its review of the State Department policies and procedures for evacuating overseas posts. The report notes that from October 2012 to September 2016, the State Department evacuated overseas post staff and family members from 23 overseas posts.  The evacuation was in response to various threats, such as terrorism, civil unrest, and natural disasters. Overseas posts undergoing evacuations generally have three types of movement: authorized departure (voluntary), ordered departure (mandatory) of specific post staff or family members, and suspended operations (closure).

The report also note that in fiscal years 2010 through 2016, State’s reported costs associated with evacuating from posts on 53 occasions were roughly $25.5 million.

“According to State officials, costs associated with evacuations varied due to several factors, including the number of post staff and family members evacuated. In fiscal year 2014, costs associated with evacuating Embassy Maseru in Lesotho were roughly $20,000, while in the same year, costs associated with evacuating Embassy Sana’a in Yemen were roughly $1.9 million.”

Certainly, a big chunk of that cost has to come from security and transportation. Below are the significant gaps cited by the GAO in the State Department’s crisis and evac preparedness:

U.S. personnel working at overseas posts, along with the family members who accompany them, face a range of threats to their safety and security—such as terrorism, civil unrest, and natural disasters. To help protect them, State has established processes to prepare overseas posts for crises and to conduct evacuations. However, State has significant gaps in implementation of its preparedness processes for crises and evacuations at overseas posts.

➥Overseas posts are not completing required annual Emergency Action Plans (EAP) updates

➥ Diplomatic Security is not identifying incomplete updates in its Emergency Action Plan (EAP) reviews

➥ The EAPs themselves are not readily usable during emergency situations

➥ Although regular drilling is a critical crisis preparedness task, very few overseas posts have completed all required annual drills

➥ Because overseas posts are not submitting required after-action reports containing lessons learned following evacuations, the State Department is missing important opportunities to identify challenges and best practices and to make changes to prepare for future evacuations from overseas posts.

The report concludes that “while State has taken initial actions— including some actions in response to our ongoing work—to improve implementation of its preparedness processes for crises and evacuations, significant shortcomings exist.” It also says that “while each of these gaps is of concern, taken together, they increase the risk that post staff are not sufficiently prepared to handle crisis and emergency situations.”

 Other details excerpted from the report:

Late Annual Updates:

In fiscal year 2016, about 1 in 12 overseas posts were late in completing required annual updates. On average, these posts were about 6 months late in completing their EAP updates. For fiscal year 2016, the list of posts that were late in completing their annual EAP updates included 7 posts rated high or critical in political violence or terrorism.

DS Does Not Fully Review Key Sections of EAPs Submitted by Overseas Posts

The FAH directs DS to review each EAP submitted by an overseas post during the annual EAP review cycle to ensure that EAPs include updated information needed by State headquarters and other agencies to monitor or assist in responding to emergency situations at posts.22 To conduct these annual reviews, DS Emergency Plans Review Officers in Washington use a list of 27 key EAP sections that the Emergency Plans Review Office has determined should be updated each year.23 According to DS officials, Emergency Plans Review Officers spot check these 27 key EAP sections to review and approve each EAP. In addition, DS officials told us that Review Officers consider forms included in key EAP sections that they spot check to meet the annual update requirement if the forms were updated up to 3 years prior to the check.24

DS does not document its annual EAP review process. We requested the results of the Emergency Plans Review Officer reviews, including data on who conducted them and what deficiencies, if any, were found. Federal internal control standards call for agency management to evaluate performance and hold individuals accountable for their internal control responsibilities.25 However, DS was unable to provide copies of the reviews completed because the Emergency Plans Review Officers do not document these results.

Emergency Action Plans Are Viewed As Lengthy and Cumbersome Documents That Are Not Readily Usable in Emergency Situations

While officials from State headquarters and all six posts we met with told us that EAPs are not readily usable in emergency situations, officials at five of the six posts we met with also said there is value for post staff to participate in the process of updating EAPs to prepare for emergencies. The process of updating the EAP, they noted, includes reviewing applicable checklists and contact lists before an emergency occurs, which can help post staff be better prepared in the event of an emergency. Officials at two of the six posts we met with also observed that EAPs contain large amounts of guidance because it is easier for responsible staff at post to complete required updates to their specific sections if all the guidance they need is directly written into each EAP.

The GAO reviewers were told that EAPs are often more than 800 pages long. “Our review of a nongeneralizable sample of 20 EAPs confirmed this; the 20 EAPs in our sample ranged from 913 to 1,356 pages long,” the report said.

One other footnote says that “while each major section, annex, and appendix of an EAP had its own table of contents, the full EAP lacked a single, comprehensive table of contents or index.”

A new system sometime this year?

The State Department is reportedly in the process of developing a new electronic system for overseas posts to draft and update their EAPs to address issues with the current system, according to State headquarters officials. According to the report, the State Department plans to launch the new system in the second half of 2017.

Absent a functioning lessons learned process …

The GAO reviewers talk about lessons not learned:

We learned of several challenges that posts faced in different evacuations in discussions with officials from the six posts with whom we met. Different posts mentioned various challenges, including disorganized evacuation logistics and transportation, unclear communication with local staff, confusion surrounding the policy for evacuating pets, problems with shipment and delivery of personal effects, difficulty tracking the destination of staff who were relocated, poor communication with senior State leadership regarding the post’s evacuation status, difficulties getting reimbursement for lodging or personal expenses related to the evacuation, and other similar challenges.

Absent a functioning lessons learned process, State’s ability to identify lessons learned and to share best practices from staff that have experienced evacuations may be constrained.

Back in 2009, Rep Howard Berman sponsored H.R. 2410 during the 111th Congress to provide for the establishment of a Lessons Learned Center for the State Department and USAID under the Under Secretary for Management.  That bill made no specific provision as to staff composition of the Center or its funding, and it also died in committee (H.R. 2410: Lessons Learned Center, Coming Soon?).

In 2016, the State Department and the Foreign Service Institute marked the opening (reportedly after two years of preparation) of its Center for the Study of the Conduct of Diplomacy. Then D/Secretary Tony Blinken said that the Center ensures “that we apply the lessons of the past to our conduct and actions in the future.” Some media outlet called it a ‘lessons learned’ center but its aim is on the study and analysis of diplomatic best practices to study how to effectively apply policy.

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Related post:

USA Offers Up to $5 Million #Reward For Information on Joel Shrum Murder in #Yemen

Posted: 2:47 am ET
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On March 15, in partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Rewards for Justice program, the FBI announced a reward of up to $5 million for information on the murder of U.S. citizen Joel Wesley Shrum in Ta’izz, Yemen in 2012. The RFJ announcement notes that at the time of his death, Shrum worked at the International Training and Development Center as an administrator and English teacher. He was living in Yemen with his wife and two young children. Below is the FBI announcement:

The FBI Washington Field Office, in partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Rewards for Justice program, announced today a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest or conviction in any country of any individual who committed, conspired to commit, or aided or abetted in the commission of, the murder of U.S. citizen Joel Wesley Shrum.

On March 18, 2012, Joel Wesley Shrum, 29, was driving to his place of employment in Ta’izz, Yemen when two gunmen armed with AK-47s approached Shrum’s vehicle on a motorcycle and fired on the vehicle. Shrum was pronounced dead on the scene. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the murder. The U.S. State Department designated AQAP as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2010. At the time of his death, Shrum worked at the International Training and Development Center as an administrator and English teacher. He was living in Yemen with his wife and two young children.

Individuals with information concerning the shooting of Joel Shrum are asked to contact the FBI or the nearest American Embassy or Consulate or submit a tip on the FBI’s website by visiting tips.fbi.gov. Tips can remain confidential. Additional information regarding Joel Shrum, including a seeking information poster with his picture, is available on the FBI’s website at http://www.fbi.gov/wanted/seeking-info or on the U.S. Department of State’s Rewards for Justice program website at www.rewardsforjustice.net.

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New CG Jennifer Davis Arrives in Istanbul as Post Goes on ‘Ordered Departure’ For Family Members

Posted: 12:15 am ET
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FSO Jennifer Davis officially began her tenure as U.S. Consul General in Istanbul on October 25, 2016.  On October 29, USCG Istanbul was officially placed on mandatory evacuation order for family members. Below is her welcome video in Turkish.

Below is a brief bio posted by USCG Istanbul:

Jennifer Davis is a career member of the U.S. Foreign Service and a 2016 Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. National War College, where she received the George Kennan Award for Excellence in Strategic Writing.  From 2012-2015, she served as the Executive Assistant to U.S. Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.  She also has served as the Deputy Political Counselor at Embassy Bogota, Acting Deputy Political Advisor and Political Officer at USNATO, Special Assistant to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Watch Officer in the State Operations Center, and Consular Officer and Special Assistant to the Ambassador in Mexico City.

Before joining the Foreign Service, Jennifer was a corporate attorney specializing in media and banking law.  She clerked for the Honorable Judge James C. Fox in the Eastern District of North Carolina.  She has a B.A. with distinction and J.D. with honors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a BCL (LL.M.) in international law from the University of Oxford in England.  She is the wife of fellow U.S. diplomat Nick Harris and the proud mother of two boys.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and State Department Executive Assistant Jennifer Davis, bangs the gavel to begin a meeting of more than 60 anti-ISIL coalition parties held on December 3, 2014, at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. [State Department photo /Public Domain]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and State Department Executive Assistant Jennifer Davis, bangs the gavel to begin a meeting of more than 60 anti-ISIL coalition parties held on December 3, 2014, at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. [State Department photo /Public Domain]

Former Consuls General:

 

 

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US Embassy Kenya’s Threat Designation Downgraded Just as ISIS Claims Stabbing Attack

Posted: 1:15 am ET
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There was a shooting incident outside the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya on October 27 after a knife-wielding assailant attacked an armed Kenyan police officer guarding an entrance to the embassy.  This is one more reminder that local law enforcement employed by host countries and local embassy guards are in the front line of protecting our missions overseas.  The US Embassy said that no Embassy personnel were involved and no U.S. citizens are known to have been affected by this incident.  The Embassy closed to the public on October 28 for routine consular services but emergency consular services for U.S. citizens remained available.  In its Security Message to U.S. citizens, Embassy Nairobi writes, “We are grateful for the ongoing protection provided by the Kenyan police. We are cooperating with Kenyan authorities on the investigation of the incident on Thursday, October 27 and refer all questions about the investigation to them. We will be open to the public for normal operations on Monday, October 31, 2016.”

 

A quick look at the State Department’s Office of Allowances website indicates that Kenya had zero danger pay in September 2013, when the Westgate mall attack occurred. The website indicates that Kenya has been designated as a 15% danger differential post since June 29, 2014  until October 30, 2016 when the latest data is available online.

However, we understand that Embassy Nairobi has recently been downgraded in threat designation for terrorism which eliminates danger pay. We were reminded that it took 9 months after the Westgate Shopping Mall Attack before any danger pay differential kicked in for U.S. Embassy Nairobi; and this happened while reportedly about a third of the country including several neighborhoods in Nairobi remain red no-go zones for employees posted in Kenya.  The allowances website does not reflect the downgraded status as of yet so we’ll have to wait and see what happens to the mid-November update.

The sad reality is these attacks could happen anywhere.  There were 1,475 attacks in 2016 alone involving 12,897 fatalities around the world.

 

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US Embassy Kuwait: Construction Vehicle as Weapon Targets U.S. Military Personnel

Posted: 4:12 am ET
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On October 9, the US Embassy in Kuwait issued a Security Message to US Citizens in Kuwait about a failed terrorist attack against deployed U.S. troops:

U.S. Embassy Kuwait confirms that what at first appeared to be a routine traffic accident involving three deployed U.S. military personnel on a Kuwaiti highway on Thursday, October 6, was in fact an attempted terrorist attack.  An Egyptian national deliberately rammed a construction vehicle into a passenger vehicle containing the three U.S. personnel.  The Egyptian driver was incapacitated by the impact.  The three U.S. military personnel, who were uninjured, pulled the driver from his vehicle, which had caught fire.  The perpetrator was subsequently hospitalized and is in Kuwaiti custody.

We are not aware of specific, credible threats against private U.S. citizens in Kuwait at this time.  Nonetheless, this attack serves as a reminder to maintain a high level of vigilance, and the Embassy advises U.S. citizens to review their personal security plans and remain alert to their surroundings at all times.

Read in full here.

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Burn Bag: Why are our most threatened missions not getting appropriate security staffing?

Via Burn Bag:

“Someone  needs to ask DS leadership why the bureau with the greatest growth  since Nairobi and Benghazi is not fully staffing it’s positions at High Threat  Posts.  I mean DS created an entire new office to manage High Threat posts so  why are our most threatened missions not getting appropriate security staffing? At my post, which is designated as Hight Threat, the two ARSO positions have  been vacant for more than a year.   I understand from colleagues that numerous  other posts have similar significant security staffing gaps.  DS agents leaving for agencies (as reported by Diplopundit) is not going to help what appears to be a significant DS personnel shortage.  Does DS  or the Department have a plan to fix whatever the issues are?”

via zap2it.com

via zap2it.com

Note: Active link added above
DS – Bureau of Diplomatic Security
ARSO – Assistant Regional Security Officer

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What every dictator knows: young men are natural fanatics

 

by Joe Herbert, emeritus professor of neuroscience at the Cambridge Centre for Brain Repair at the University of Cambridge. His latest book is Testosterone: Sex, Power, and the Will to Win (2015). This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Young men are particularly liable to become fanatics. Every dictator, every guru, every religious leader, knows this. Fanatics have an overwhelming sense of identity based on a cause (a religion) or a community (gang, team), and a tight and exclusive bond with other members of that group. They will risk injury, loss or even death for the sake of their group. They regard everyone else as outsiders, or even enemies. But why are so many of them young males?

In a world of nation-states, young men fought the wars that formed most countries. The same goes for tribes, villages and factions. Young males have qualities that specialize them for this essential function. They readily identify with their group. They form close bonds with its other members. They are prone to follow a strong leader. This is why young males are so vulnerable to environmental influences, such as the prevailing culture in which they happen to live, and why they are so easily attracted by charismatic leaders or lifestyles that promise membership of restricted groups with sharply defined objectives and values. They like taking risks on behalf of their group – and they usually underestimate the danger that such risks represent. If they didn’t have these properties, they would be less willing to go to war, and therefore less able to fulfil one of their essential sociobiological roles.

Why are young men like this? Part of it seems to depend on testosterone, acting on their brain during early foetal life. Exposure in the womb ‘masculinises’ the brain – giving it certain properties, including sexual identity as a male, as well as a preference for play patterns that involve physical contact and even play fights. We know this because girls exposed to abnormal levels of testosterone during this time show similar behaviour, but much less otherwise. At puberty, there is another surge of testosterone acting on this already-prepared brain: this not only awakens sexuality, but encourages various strategies for competing for a mate – including the use of aggression and risk-taking behaviour. But testosterone is far from the only factor in making a fanatic.

Testosterone acts on an ancient part of the brain, the limbic system. The human limbic system looks very like that in other primates, such as chimpanzees, and is even easily recognisable in rats. But this part of the human brain is regulated by a more recent addition: the frontal lobes, which lie behind your forehead. Folk usage recognises their importance: in a hangover from the age of physiognomy, we call bright people ‘highbrow’, reflecting their tall foreheads (and thus their assumed larger frontal lobes). Among their other functions, the frontal lobes are important for personality, social interactions ­– and restraint. Damage to them results in impaired and inappropriate social behaviour, as well as lack of judgment.

Crucially, males’ frontal lobes don’t fully mature until their late 20s, whereas those of women mature earlier. This part of the brain is highly reactive to social cues and the behaviour of other people. The stereotyped young man – loud, risky, unreasonable, aggressive (but also non-conformist and thus innovative) – might be one result. So while it’s an evolutionary advantage to the group as a whole, a combination of rampant testosterone and an immature frontal lobe also explains why young men like taking risks and why they are liable to fanaticism.

Of course, not all young men, even the fanatics, become terrorists. Young men are not all the same. Different outcomes might be due to different social factors. Many terrorists come from criminal or deprived backgrounds. We know that a neglected or abusive childhood can result in antisocial or deviant behaviour later in life. An individual’s social environment, particularly early in life, can have long-lasting behavioural implications. We are beginning to learn something about how these conditions can result in persistent or even permanent changes to the brain, but so far we cannot do much about undoing them. We call people who have disregard for normal human relationships ‘psychopaths’, implying that they have abnormal (pathological) events in their ‘psyche’ (mind). We also know that there are people who develop genetically abnormal social traits (autism is one example) irrespective of upbringing. We do not know the precise defects in the brain that are responsible. Nevertheless, their nature – abnormal social behaviour and inter-personal relationships – points towards the frontal lobes, though other areas of the brain can also be involved.

Social status is prized by the males of many animal species, including humans. Several non-human primates maintain clear-cut dominance rankings. Higher status gives increased access to food, shelter and mates. It’s mostly based on physical prowess, and males fight or threaten each other to determine their relative position.

This also occurs in humans, of course. And yet the human brain has developed other ranking systems, including those based on money, birth or technical ability. The development of projectile weapons has reduced our dependence on muscular strength, but emphasised other traits, such as ruthlessness, bravery and leadership. Within fanatical groups, there is much competition to show qualities that increase a member’s standing with others in the group. This might be particularly attractive to those who, in the rest of life, have little cause to think they rank highly.

Terrorist or aggressive acts, therefore, can be carried out to prove a member’s worth, and attract the kind of attention that seems otherwise unattainable. It’s a modern way to satisfy an ancient biological need, for the respect that individual males crave. In summary, the propensity of the masculine brain is to form bonds with other males (eg street gangs), to recognise and identify with groups, to defend those groups against others, and compete with them for assets. A young male’s hormonal constitution and the way his brain matures together increase his susceptibility to fanaticism, an extreme instance of bonding, and make him prone to taking risk-laden actions on behalf of his group.

The human brain has invented additional categories of identity seemingly unknown in other species, including those based on common beliefs or ethical points of view. Today, identity is increasingly based on beliefs. The huge human brain has enabled the invention of weapons; these have given fanatics increasingly effective means of achieving the primitive aim of dominance by terrorising others. The path to fanaticism will be influenced by a male’s genes, his early experiences, his hormones, the maturity or otherwise of his brain, and the social context in which he finds himself. All these can result in a brain state we label fanaticism, a dangerous mutation of a role that is biologically essential for young men. Our task is to recognise what that brain state might be, how it arises and, if possible, to counter it.Aeon counter – do not remove

Joe Herbert

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

 

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