What can we expect from research on terrorism?

The answer to the question in the title of this blog should be a no-brainer.  We want research to help us come up with ways to stop (or prevent) terrorism.  Who would quibble with that?

Well, things are not as simple as they seem according to an article in the New York Times.  In the words of veteran practitioner and academic Marc Sageman:

  • “After all this funding and flurry of publications, with each new terrorist incident we realize that we are no closer to answering our original question about what leads people to turn to political violence…The same worn-out questions are raised over and over again, and we still have no compelling answers.”

That is indeed a damning statement.  So, why have we not arrived at “compelling answers” after decades of asking?  In my opinion, the problem with terrorism research is fourfold.

First, we have not been very clear on what questions we really need to ask.  Should we focus on why people resort to terrorism?  Or should we narrow in on how?  Should we try to stop terrorists before they act or prevent people from going down the path in the first place?  Should we put more time and resources into intervention or disruption?  The easy response is, of course, all of the above.  Except that there is only so much money to go around and thus priorities need to be set.  But set by whom?  Governments?  Security and law enforcement?  Academics?   The way forward is far from clear.

Secondly the dialogue between researchers and practitioners needs work.  The latter have a job to do and are often under-resourced and over-tasked.  As a result, practitioners do not have the time to interact with researchers, let alone read their work (full disclosure: I tried to keep up with the literature when I worked in intelligence but was hard pressed to do so).  Furthermore, much of the research output is in a language that practitioners do not understand.  Then there is the theory vs. data-driven dichotomy: many researchers resort to the former since they have little access to the latter.  It is not clear that theory helps those on the inside.   I for one think it would be beneficial to give a few top-notch academics security clearances, bring them in to see the vast amounts of data security and intelligence forces have at their disposal, and see what they can contribute.  The downside is obvious: academics could not publish openly using secret information.  But we need to work better together.  Sometimes I feel that terrorism research and security agencies occupy different magisteria (using a term popularised by the late Stephen Jay Gould), but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.

Thirdly we are not doing a very good job of measuring what works and what doesn’t.  This goes for both research and programmes aimed at preventing terrorism (the so-called Countering Violent Extremism or CVE field).  I suspect that most of what we are putting in practice does no harm but as to whether it is decreasing the pool of future extremists is anybody’s guess.  Is that good enough?  Should it be?

Lastly, we have thrown a lot of money at research (the Kanishka project in Canada allotted $10 million over 5 years, not a vast sum perhaps but significant for Canada) but not seen a lot of actionable results.  This may be due to the wrong questions being asked, but I suspect that the bigger reason was the fact that terrorism studies went from a small niche field prior to 9/11 to  huge and poorly governed research space after.  Not surprisingly, money was made available in the wake of the largest terrorist attack in history and everyone wanted to get their hands on that money.  Not all those who got money had anything interesting to say.  True, some excellent findings came out of that funding but so did a lot of marginal or even useless work.  We have to get much better at that.

(For my academic readers, don’t take this last paragraph too harshly.  I have met some of the world’s outstanding terrorist researchers – some of whom have become friends – and think very highly of their work.  I have also met people who have told me they want to write on “terrorism” – this is not helpful.  We have to choose more wisely to whom to grant money.)

In the end we have to build better ties between outside academics and researchers and inside counter terrorism officials.  Doing so will not be easy but we can do this.

But there remains a disturbing aspect to our questions.  It is probable that there is no “answer” to terrorism.  Or rather, no simple answer that will satisfy everybody (or anybody for that matter).  There are, however, probably a lot of “little” answers that when put together will allow us both to have a better understanding of terrorism and figure out ways to deal with it.  Governments need to stop expecting easy answers to complex phenomena, of which terrorism is one, and academics have to stop promising to provide such answers.

Finally, for what it is worth here is my advice to academics.  Help practitioners ask the right questions.  Push for access to data and accept that having such access will preclude publishing since your work will be for the greater good.  Don’t portray your work as having THE answer: it won’t.  Don’t try to tell practitioners how to do their jobs: it does not go over well.

Together we can achieve much in our quest to comprehend terrorism.  Let us come up with creative ways to do so.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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