Pierson sees links between extremism and arsons by firefighters

Homeland security professionals grasping for better methods of identifying violent extremists could learn lessons from the phenomenon of firefighter arsons of past decades, Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security master’s degree alumnus Vernon Pierson contends.

Pierson brought that message to the 2017 International Terrorism and Organized Crime Conference in June, in a presentation based on his CHDS thesis, “Westerner Radicalization: Rethinking the Psychology of Terrorism.” The conference covers an array of homeland security issues that go beyond gang investigations.

As Pierson, the District Attorney in El Dorado County, California, was considering research topics for his CHDS thesis he recalled his time as a young prosecutor witnessing a trend of arson investigations that led to firefighters as suspects.

Vern Pierson

The perception at the time was that they were pyromaniacs with complex psychological disorders who joined the fire service. But FBI profiles would later show that there was a simpler explanation and one that Pierson believes could aid the modern age of countering violent extremism.

“None of them were pyromaniacs,” Pierson said. “They were people who had difficulty fitting into society. They became firefighters looking for a way to fit in. What they were driven by was a need to be significant.”

His thesis cites research from the FBI Behavioral Science Unit and researchers in South Carolina that identified traits of potential arsonists.  Instead of being pyromaniacs, the firefighter arsonists were setting fires to create the opportunity to appear heroic.

“Typically, the offenders studied had dysfunctional childhoods and unstable relationships as young adults, with the associated lack of social and interpersonal skills,” Pierson wrote. “They also possessed poor occupational histories, which often involved frequently changing menial, low-wage jobs. Many of the offenders experienced stressors such as isolation, alcoholism, depression, or other psychosocial disorders. Cumulatively, the profiles depict persons who were shunned by family and society.”  Heroism served as a mechanism to create a social identity.

By the mid-1990s those type of arson cases plummeted and Pierson says techniques used by the profession to accomplish that could apply to countering extremism. For example, The Hero to Zero program in Pennsylvania and Secrets in the Firehouse program in Louisiana were directed at recruits with warnings about career implications for committing arson and positive reinforcement for entering the fire service to eradicate any feelings of isolation.

“The programs talk about the fact that as a firefighter you belong in an honored fraternity and once you are in this fraternity you don’t need to prove yourself,” Pierson said.  Conversely, setting a fire dishonors you and the fraternity.

Pierson’s thesis shows, religious extremists can display similar characteristics. Pierson notes the case of Omar Mateen, the gunman in the June 2016 nightclub shootings in Orlando, Florida. Mataeen was a failed aspirant to a law enforcement career, and transcripts of his conversation with police negotiators during his attack illustrated his desire for significance.

Pierson’s research challenges what has become the traditional notion that individual extremists are psychologically normal and reacting to a grievance, and instead looks to the search for significance as an underlying factor. Groups act on a grievance, with the individual act based on more personal physiological factors. He refers to a concept called the “dark triad” of sub-clinical narcissism, psychopathology and Machiavellianism as key traits in identifying those susceptible to the hero complex. Those factors are tailor-made for online recruitment into extremist acts.

“Ultimately, we need to ensure those tasked with identifying radicals realize that not everyone is susceptible to radicalization,” Pierson wrote. “Instead, they need to look for indications of the individual’s quest for significance and the trait of narcissism. Moreover, a potential radical may be both a terrorist and mentally ill.”



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