If you want to understand terrorism, study terrorists

The other day I was reading a fascinating article in Discover science magazine on Robert Hare, a Canadian psychologist who revolutionalised our understanding of psychopathy through years of studying inmates in Canadian correctional institutions.  Some of his more famous subjects, familiar to all Canadians, include Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka.  His diagnsotic tool, the Psychopathy Check List-Revised (PCL-R, also known eponymously as The Hare), which he developed in 1980, is now the gold standard for researchers, forensic clinicians and the justice system.  His research has certainly been “hand’s-on”.

There is a line that struck me halfway through the article though.  One of Dr. Hare’s former students, Kent Kiehl, is quoted as saying: “Eighty percent of the researchers in psychopathy, some of the biggest names, have never actually met a psychopath.  They haven’t spent time with the material, if you will.”

I found this striking.  How can anyone purport to be an expert in a field without having dealt with the subject matter?  That is akin to saying you can be an world authority on African elephant behaviour despite never having left Canada.  Sounds obvious, doesn’t it?

And yet that is exactly what is happening in the rapidly expanding field of terrorism research.  I would wager that the percentage of those studying terrorism who have never actually interacted with terrorists is much higher than the 80 percent cited above.  Article after article, model after model, paradigm after paradigm have all been put forward as explanatory theories of terrorism by well-intentioned individuals (scholars, students, journalists…) despite the inconvenient fact that the vast majority of these people have ever worked in counter terrorism, participated in a terrorism investigation, or had face to face interactions with a terrorist.

The explosion in research, especially since 9/11, has been phenomenal.  Peer reviewed journals have sprung up, new sub-fields have arisen and centres of higher learning have developed whole new programmes in an effort to enhance our understanding of terrorism.  And of course, the more qualified individuals turn their attention to the problem, the better our progress in confronting terrorism should be, shouldn’t it?

Not necessarily.  If the majority of researchers have no primary data, or very small sets of primary data (i.e. where their data samples are statistically insignificant), their findings should be questioned.  It is not enough to read Dabiq magazine or a few court proceedings to gain important insight into what makes terrorists tick.  You have to engage them in conversations, either face to face (preferable) or virtually.  You cannot call yourself an expert on this particular aspect of human behaviour without doing the leg work of real data gathering.

There are fortunately  some noteworthy exceptions to this dearth of reliable research.  Scholars such as Amarnath Amarasingam and Laura Huey in Canada and Scott Atran in France have amassed impressive data from encounters with real terrorists.  When I see that kind of dedication, I take notice.

I am not trying to be elitist. Yes my career with CSIS over 15 years gave me unprecedented access to information on Canadians radicalising to violence in keeping with the Islamist extremist narrative, information that, unfortunately, will never be made public.  And yet, I am still looking for THE answer to radicalisation.  I fear it does not exist – at the very least I have not found it (and my reading of the literature agrees with me that THE answer simply isn’t out there).  I may not be have a PhD in terrorism studies but I would proffer that a decade and a half of daily information far surpasses many decades of theoretical musings.

In the end, I have two small recommendations for those in the terrorism research field.  First, by all means dedicate yourself to contributing to our collective wisdom but please work with primary data if you want to say anything meaningful. Secondly, be humble.  I can tell you that nothing pisses a counter terrorism official off more than to have an “outsider” tell us we’re doing it all wrong.  Professionals are usually open to outside input, as long as it is based on real world scenarios and does not claim to be THE answer.

I have spent more than 16 years now trying to wrap my head around radicalisation and terrorism and am afraid my journey will never end.  I welcome fellow travelers who are wise enough to realise that we have much still to learn but not so arrogant as to think they have everything figured out.  The invitation is open.


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.

2 replies on “If you want to understand terrorism, study terrorists”

The best advice I’ve read in many months on this subject. I am considering going back to school for this discipline but I’m having trouble trying to find a school that actually teaches from the very same perspective you advocate are NOT an expert until you go INTO the field downrange!

Leave a Reply