Understanding ISIS Psychology Plays an Important Role in Counterterrorism

In the wake of the devastating assault in Paris, law enforcement agencies are laboring around the clock to understand how an attack of that scale could happen in a modern city and what psychological factors are motivating terrorists and extremists.

Specifically, investigators are curious about the changing role played by the terrorist that led the attacks, Salah Abdeslam. Salah is the only surviving fugitive of the Paris attacks. Everyone else involved is either dead or captured. That includes several members of Abdeslam’s own family and his friends, all of whom died in explosions or in gunfights with French authorities.

However, their interest in him is not limited to his fugitive status. Prior to the attack, Abdeslam was identified as a potential threat, but not as someone capable of orchestrating an attacking of that scale. Counterterrorism investigators are endeavoring to understand the psychology behind Abdeslam’s role in the attacks and ways that they could use that to identify potential threats in the future.

Investigators searching for Abdeslam believe that he was selected for the attack by his superiors specifically because he was not particularly important. They speculated that if he was important then he would not have been put on the ground in Paris. He is more of a field supervisor than a shot caller. However, surveillance on Abdeslam over the past several years shows that he went to Syria, trained and fought with ISIS there, and then returned to France. Investigators believe that he must have been supported by higher ranking members of ISIS because it would be abnormal for them to simply let someone leave the fighting in Syria.

While Abdeslam as an individual may not be that important, understanding why he was picked as an operative for ISIS to execute what was arguably the worst terrorist attack in the western world since 9/11 could help analysts in the future to stop attacks of that scale before any more lives are lost.