Herd Immunity and e-pidemics


In the case of Fnideq, with its extraordinary density of young terrorist recruits (see my last post) I find myself mulling not just over propaganda, but over contagion, and wonder if the tools of epidemiology might not be as useful to understand it as radicalization theory. I don’t of course mean by this simply the glib image of ‘radical Islam’ as a rampaging virus in a grubby turban. But I do think that there may be more interesting parallels in looking at the way information, acceptability, normalization and recruitment develop. The density of cases of departure on jihad in Fnideq, at one percent of the total population (and perhaps 15 percent of young men in the poorer quarters) is so great that it does seem to behave almost like a highly infectious disease. What proportion of cases per thousand of population would push – have pushed – the ‘epidemic’ beyond the control of public health, or in this case public security, officials to achieve an unstoppable momentum of its own? Is there a percentage of population that must succumb before the dam breaks, and what epidemiologists call ‘herd immunity’ – the level of inoculation or immunity that gives protection to the whole of a population group by making the vulnerable too few for effective transmission – breaks down?

It is reckoned that immunization levels of about 92-94 percent will guard a community against measles, those who are un-immunized being protected by their scarcity in a much larger protected population. When immunization levels drop (through ignorance, laziness, or faddish refusal to use MMH vaccine), hotspots emerge where immunizations levels are particularly low, and then they spread and join up. It is what has happened during the ebola epidemic in Monrovia and Freetown, and what the government of Freetown is trying to counter with its three-day city lockdown. Like infectious disease the jihad jumps from person to person opportunistically. Where resistance is low, progress is fast. Where each infected person infects more than one other, the epidemic grows – and where fewer, it shrinks and ultimately disappears. Moving from the former situation to the latter is as much the business of counter-terrorist thinkers as it is of epidemiologists.

It’s easy enough to see why immunity is low in the poor quarters of poor towns on the Mediterranean coastal plain, where hash-smuggling is a staple, education poor, youth unemployment appalling, and where the poor live in proximity to the very rich. In Fnideq everyone knows someone who has gone to Syria, and everyone has family across the border in Sebta where “the Moroccan quarter, called Principe, is a real nest of jihadists. It is in many ways a ghetto, and the Spanish police practically never set foot there.” Principe is, in public health terms, a source of infection. It’s actually quite hard to imagine that number of people in a small town simply taking off for jihad; and it’s certainly not sufficient, though it may well be necessary, to imagine each of them sitting in a lonely bedroom with a 3G key, independently reaching identical ideological conclusions. Personal contact is needed too, and the life-opportunities that the lads at the café talk about are as likely to be jihad as jobs. The idea of jihad, the jihadi meme, which hops from victim to victim, finds easy new hosts. ONERDH suggests that the virus has evolved as viruses do, so far, over two ‘generations’ of adaptation. We may see that as a parallel to the adaptive behaviour of a real virus, which, having exhausted the pool of those susceptible to its original form, evolves very fast and begins to try other ways of entering other hosts. The jihad virus/meme has mostly exhausted the pool of those accessible through religious means, and has moved on in slightly different form to hosts whose interests are – initially at least – more material and more self-centred.

I recently, courtesy of my student son, came across a fascinating article in the New England Journal of Medicine on – of all the strange analogies – the spread of obesity, a study using a long-term (32-year) network analysis to try and see whether obesity is at least in part socially transmitted. The study showed that for individuals at one degree of separation from obese members of the original group tracked, the chance of obesity was 45 percent higher than random, and if the two people were actually friends, it was 57 percent higher. Among the study’s conclusions is the suggestion that “the psycho-social mechanisms of the spread of obesity may rely less on behavioural imitation than on a change in [a person’s] general perception of the social norms regarding the acceptability of obesity.” And if that happens in social networks in the US, it seems very probable that dense radicalizing networks, like those in Fnideq, change the social norms regarding the social acceptability of jihad. And it makes good sense: we don’t really need the NEJM to tell us that if our friends are all doing something, we are more likely to do it too.

Perhaps this is a useful way of thinking about radicalization and jihadi recruitment. It is clear that there is a lot of internet flirtation with radicalizing materials. In an immunized population, this sort of sporadic, or stochastic, occurrence would flare occasionally and die out. But in a dense and susceptible population where immunization and resistance are low, and networking close-packed, it spreads like wildfire. Natural immunity may come at first from a lazy secularism, so the infection develops to spread through different channels: it appeals to the frustrated, jobless or marginally employed, bored, hopeless and listless young. The same sort of young people, in other words, who a few years ago would have slipped away to Europe.

What constitutes immunization in this metaphorical sense? It is perhaps a heady cocktail of jobs, healthcare, education, opportunity, respect and permission to hope for a better future, to engage in a political process with the hope and intention of change. In the absence of this serum, the germ spreads. It’s interesting to note the conclusion to the TelQuel article (on Daechi recruitment) that I quoted in my last post, and the evidence from Marrakech of a specifically religious immunization. In the Ochre City, it seems, herd immunity is intact:

One can’t yet predict the decline of ideological jihadism in favour of a jihadism … which has more to do with adventure. A city like Marrakech is proof that ideology and religious discourse still have their place, given that the number of departures on jihad [from Marrakech] is extremely low, thanks to a local salafist network that is firmly apolitical and pacifist. Even so, the migration (hijra) and combat to which Daech calls seem still to hit their mark: “A response to frustration,” suggests Mohamed Mesbah [a researcher]. Above all, it’s the emptiness they feel that all the candidates seem to have in common: an emptiness in politics, in spiritual life, in social life … that’s the common denominator.”

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