Mask of ZorroAhead of Safer Internet Day (9 Feb), Dr Dave Sloggett explores how new developments in e-learning are helping prevent future terrorist attacks:

Those who watch the film ‘The Mask of Zorro’ are asked to suspend belief as they watch the movie. For all intents and purposes the mask that the hero wears is barely one that masks his true identity. In all honesty it is a fig leaf that anyone with basic observational skills would see through. There are too many other physical attributes that cry out who the true character is for any normal person not to spot and understand his true purpose.

The suddenness of the attack in San Bernardino, California in the United States on 2 December highlights one of the major issues with the prevention of acts of terror that exists in the western world today. Those that appear to be integrated and a part of society that harbour malign intent are difficult to find. They, like Zorro, wear a mask and it too can be penetrated, with the right training.

It is a sobering thought that had the couple not decided to attack the centre where the husband worked and they had stuck to their original plans a far worse incident would no doubt have been enacted, possibly involving people on the freeway at a busy time of day. For all those tempted to note that terrorists like busy places like shopping malls and major sporting events just think of how crowded the freeway or in the United Kingdom motorways are at certain times of day.

There is little doubt to anyone being objective about the weapons and bombs found in the couple’s garage after the incident that had their original plan been carried through the fatality count of twelve dead and twenty-four injured would have been significantly higher. But for the couples impetuous behaviour their achievement could have been that much more devastating. A busy freeway or motorway offers a major target for anyone wishing to create a killing ground. This simple observation has already been noted by Al Qaeda in its on-line publications.

So how do the authorities try and engage and stop people like Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik? According to the FBI Director James B. Comey the investigation into the couple’s previous activities had revealed they were “home-grown violent extremists” who had been inspired by a foreign terrorist group, believed to be so-called Islamic State. The evidence collected by the FBI does not point to them being part of a group or specific network. It appears their route to being radicalised was one that was entirely conducted as a couple, with little external stimulus.

In such a difficult situation trying to prevent attacks like this required innovative approaches. In the United Kingdom legislation now requires public servants that are in the Health Service, Schools and other major institutions of the state to undergo training into what to look for to decide if someone is being radicalised. What signs or behaviour might they exhibit that indicate the pressure cooker of radicalisation is building to a point where it is quite literally ready to burst open?

Perfect science of hindsight
Individuals exhibit a number of behaviours that are indicative of being on a journey. One model developed in the United Kingdom looks at the journey into being radicalised through the metaphor of the game of snakes and ladders. The ladders are steps that people take along the journey to being ready to commit an act of violence. Snakes are opportunities for law enforcement agencies to intervene, to being the individuals concerned off the board.

The problem with trying to recognise people that have embarked upon the journey is that sometimes the signs they exhibit are subtle and often fleeting. This can be regarded as ‘wearing a mask’ where outwardly the people involved appear normal. But every so often there will be a time when the ‘masks drops’. In San Bernardino that point arrived when the perpetrators had a violent argument with a Jewish college at the centre. This was the point the pressure cooker cracked. From that point onwards the dye was cast.

Hindsight has been called ‘the perfect science’. For those who survived the attack at San Bernardino there will be many hours of agonising over what they could have done to uncover the true intent of the couple involved. Could they have seen signals beforehand?

This kind of mental cross-examination is perfectly understandable, even though it is doomed to failure. Nothing can bring back those that were lost that day. Similar agonies will be experienced by those who knew Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood killer. He too had appeared to be so integrated and trustworthy. Recent developments in psychology provide some indications that an approach that trains people as to what to look out for may offer some hope. When people are acting one way (appearing to be integrated in society) and yet have very different values and beliefs systems they experience dissonance.

Interestingly the higher the disparity between the behaviour and beliefs the lower the dissonance that is experienced, people move to rationalise away the disparity by appearing to alter their values and beliefs systems to suit. But this is an unhappy situation. It simply adds to the development of pressure on those involved. Little signs of discomfort will appear, such as a changed facial expression that quickly reverts back as the mask is restored.

In the United Kingdom an organisation called Virtual College, one of the leading e-learning centres in Western Europe, has developed a training package to help public servants address this problem of how to ty and spot behaviour that is indicative of someone on the road to being radicalised. This package, ‘Understanding the Pathways to Extremism and the Prevent Programme” can be found at:

For those in western society who desire not to have to go through the agonies of having to try and post-rationalise why they did not spot the indicators of someone on the one and a half hour investment in time to do the course just might be valuable. Where extremists become actors and become adept at wearing a mask the insights gained from such e-learning might just save lives.

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