"Guernica," by Pablo Picasso (1937. Oil on canvas. 349 cm × 776 cm.), was painted in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque Country village in northern Spain, by Nazi German and Fascist Italian warplanes at the request of the Spanish Nationalists.

The scourge of political violence is as ancient as politics, but modern terrorism features a notable mark: citizens of one country supporting terrorism on behalf of another. How this violent radicalization occurs perplexes researchers from many disciplines.

At one level, the micro level, psychologists have analyzed historical, national, and socioeconomic factors among radicalized individuals to better understand what makes a terrorist. At a broader level, the meso scale, researchers have studied social networks and other structures to better understand recruitment and organization.

Zooming out even further, to a macro scale, physicists and computer scientists have sought patterns in data about the severity and frequency of terrorist acts to determine if they follow statistical laws that would suggest a degree of predictability.

Yet researchers at these three levels—the micro, the meso, the macro—often work in silos, says SFI Professor Mirta Galesic. Her own research explores how people’s beliefs influence—and are influenced by—their environments, giving rise to complex social behavior.

She has helped organize an early March meeting at SFI to bring together scientists who have approached violent radicalization from radically different approaches. Her co-organizers include SFI External Professor Aaron Clauset (CU Boulder), SFI Omidyar Fellow Marion Dumas, and SFI Co-founder In Residence David Pines. Invitees to the working group bring a range of expertise in fields ranging from forensic psychology to complexity theory.

“It is really an unusual effort to bring together scientists who work in terrorism, who tackle different levels of this phenomena, and who rarely speak to each other,” Galesic says. She anticipates some friction among the participants, but says that’s a good thing. “I think we will all change how we think about the problem.”

The meeting represents a first step toward a comprehensive framework of violent radicalization.

Ultimately, she says, the conversation will angle toward an underlying question: What are the implications for designing interventions to reduce the extent of radical violence?

Read more about the meeting.

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