Conning terrorism analysis

Like in most fields of study, terrorism analysis has made great contributions to our understanding of this violent phenomenon.  Whether it is in-depth examinations of the ideology or longitudinal data on whether or not de-radicalisation programmes work, we are better off than we would be in the absence of this knowledge.

Unfortunately, however, terrorism analysis also suffers from the presentation of small samples as trends.  This is of course nothing new as each researcher wants to make a significant addition to the field and everyone obviously believes in what they are doing (otherwise why would they do it?).  When we take statements based on small data collections and make grandiose claims we are not helping ourselves – quite the contrary.

I bring this up in light of an article that is getting some attention today.  It refers to the preponderance of criminals among Western recruits in IS.  According to the Washington Post writers, IS is “constructing an army of loyalists from Europe that includes an increasing number of street toughs and ex-cons.”  The article goes on to talk about three individuals and an obscure case of eight guys in Germany.  IS is contrasted with AQ whose members, it is claimed, were pious (see the article here).

There are several things wrong with this.  Yes, some Islamist extremists have criminal backgrounds and move from violence to ideologically-inspired violence.  This cohort has always existed.  And yes we need to take this into account.  But it is important not to extrapolate too much for two reasons.  Firstly, the data sample given is 11 (3 concrete cases and the eight Germans).  If numbers are correct and there are approximately 3,000 Westerners fighting with IS, then this cohort represents .003 percent.  Even if the number is 3 orders of magnitude too small, which is unlikely, then the percentage climbs to 3 percent.  Which means that 97% are of Western IS members or sympathisers are not criminal.  Some trend.

Secondly, national differences matter.  What is happening in France, Belgium and Germany does not necessarily transfer to Canada and the US.  In fact, research carried out by me and my colleagues at CSIS from 2005-2012 showed that the percentage of Canadian violent radicals who had criminal pasts was negligible (the number who had violent criminal records was even lower).  Furthermore, the pool from which the relatively small number of Western European Muslims radicalise already shows higher levels of criminal activity than analogous populations here.  So of course there should be higher percentages of criminals who radicalise.  More criminals who happen to be Muslim, more likely some of these will radicalise.

Also, where is the support for the contention that AQ guys were inherently more pious?  That was not true in my experience.  It is also important not to confuse piety and religiosity (one can be religious without being pious but probably not vice versa).  Religiously-inspired radicals are by definition religious, albeit not necessarily pious.

I worry when flashy headlines proclaim the newest discovery about terrorism.  As scholars themselves acknowledge, getting access to adequate data is problematic in the terrorism field.  We need to take care in making wide-ranginge claims when our sample sizes are tiny.  As the old saying goes, “the plural of anecdotes is not data”.

So by all means contribute to our collective knowledge on terrorism.  But don’t pretend that something is a trend when it isn’t.

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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