Just how useful is terrorism analysis and ‘prediction’?

Terrorism analysis and predictions often fall well short of their mark, making us wonder why all this work is done in the first place.

Sorry, another Harry Potter analogy.

In the Order of the Phoenix (book/movie #5 for those counting), Hogwarts School of Magic and Wizardry has been ‘taken over’ by Professor Dolores Umbridge, sent by the Minister of Magic to fix perceived problems at the school (including a belief, which happens to be true, that the evil wizard Lord Voldemort is alive). She proceeds to question everyone and everything, disrupting just about all activity. And she has a particular hatred for Harry.

In one scene in the movie version Umbridge tries to fire Sybill Trelawney, Professor of Divination, for, well, failing to predict anything. Not a good attribute for a teacher who is supposed to see the future. Hence why Umbridge wants to get rid of her (but just as she has Filch pack her bags out in the quad in front of all the students Professor Albus Dumbledore rescues her: I wonder if she foresaw that?).

At the risk of sounding cruel I’d like to suggest that a lot of terrorism ‘prediction’ is equally inaccurate.

Over the past few decades, as scholarship in terrorism has boomed – no pun intended – we have seen a lot of very good work done by a variety of actors: academics, thinktanks, government agencies and security intelligence and law enforcement organisations. As a former practitioner, I have always found the most interesting, and by far the most useful, studies have been those based on primary data. This data can take the form of compilations of actual statements or propaganda by terrorist groups or a comprehensive look at all the acts carried out or modus operandi used by such groups.

Theoretical work, on the other hand, is much less important, at least in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong: there is a place for such analysis as the subject of terrorism is worthy of theoretical examination as is every other social phenomenon. It’s just that for a practitioner to be able to take this work and extract something which would help in actual counter-terrorism (CT) operations it has to ‘come down from the clouds’, i.e. not be purely academic. We work with facts, not theories.

Interestingly, I have found that some in academe and elsewhere seem to have decided that they want to be more helpful to practitioners. As a consequence there are two developments that have risen over these last twenty years or so. The first takes the form of recommendations to security intelligence and law enforcement agencies on what they should do to better fight terrorism. Needless to say that these kinds of documents do not tend to go over well with practitioners. After all, no one wants to be told what to do by those who have not ‘walked a mile’ in their shoes. Besides, this is really just hubris at heart. The vast majority of those behind these recommendations never worked in CT, begging the question what value their advice can possibly be.

RELATED: Borealis talks about how to manage the relationship between academics and practitioners

Still there seems to be this tendency to keep giving ideas to those in the field. Maybe for some scholars et al this is to be seen as more ‘policy relevant‘. Perhaps those who receive government funding to undertake their studies want to do so, or are (un)subtly told that their products must inform policy makers. I am ok with that given that policy is not the same as operations. Yes, operations are underpinned by policy of some kind but anyone who thinks they are a complete match has never worked in operations I can tell you.

The second tendency is to be predictive. Many seek to lay out their findings and conclude by adding that in their opinion this aspect of terrorism is going in this or that direction. Unlike policy relevance, I fail to see why this feeling is pervasive. None of us have a crystal ball and any attempt to boldly state that terrorist group A is going to end up as such-and-such is bound to embarrassingly fail. Why would anyone want to go out on a limb and be later seen as 100% off base?

The desire to tell the future is not limited to academics, alas. Heads of state engage in it as well and the best example I can think of is that of Nigeria. Presidents past and present constantly say with supreme confidence that the Islamist terrorist scourge in the country’s north, carried out by Boko Haram (BH) and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) will end on ______ (fill in the blank: many such statements seem to come out over the Christmas season). And every single prediction has proven baseless, as will future ones I’d wager.

Then again, ex-US President Trump also declared ISIS totally destroyed. Oops!

What is it about us humans and our need to predict events to come? Sure, this practice is as old as time, probably because being able to accurately foretell that which has yet to occur would confer advantages to s/he able to do so. This is why kings and emperors employed soothsayers, isn’t it? Knowing what will happen makes you, well, ‘king’ I suppose!

NB Product placement – Issac Asimov’s monumental Foundation series was all about this in the form of Hari Seldon and ‘psychohistory’. It is a great collection of science fiction novels I am reading – again! – from start to finish.

It is really time to stop this form of analysis.

It is not necessary and, in light of its track record, detracts from other work that is indeed useful. Why would anyone want to keep doing the same thing over and over given it is doomed to fail? Not a great career choice in my books!

So the next time you read of a confident opinion that terrorism will go from A to B do yourself a favour. Have a look, take note, and then count the days until it is proven not to be very good. I can almost guarantee that will happen – notice I said ‘almost’ since I am well aware that I cannot tell what is going to transpire!

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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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