What can the ivory tower tell us about terrorism?

Terrorism is a subject of interest like many others but what does the academic study of it really tell us? Not a lot from a practical standpoint.

Question: what do academic studies about terrorism really tell us and are they useful in counter terrorism efforts?

Answer: a lot and not much.

Maybe I should stop there. But I won’t.

I am going to have to very careful in what I write over the next 800 words or so. If not, I am opening myself up to more criticism than I usually receive for what I produce in my blogs and podcasts and I run the risk of losing some very good friends. Nevertheless, here we go.

Before moving on I should note a few things:
  • I am not an academic so I could easily be slammed for commenting on something I have little experience in;
  • While I was a terrorism intelligence analyst at CSIS in Ottawa, I devoured as much academic material as I could: my retirement in 2015 put an end to most of that as this material resides behind outrageous paywalls I really cannot afford; and
  • There is a lot of academic writing on terrorism out there and it is next to impossible to keep up on it all.

With that background I will go on to offer an answer to the question posed in the title. Here it is: terrorism research and counter terrorism practice are two very different fields that are each in their own ways valid and important but which exist in separate spheres of activity and do not need each other to justify what they do.

The genesis of this blog came from an article I read in a recent issue of The Economist, in a column called Bartelby (which bills itself as “thoughts on management and the world of work”). This particular offering was entitled ‘Clear as Mud’ and sought to explore the relationship between business management studies and actual business management. In short, it seems that much of the ‘literature’ is not clearly written, rarely based on real-world examples and not very realistic on broader applicability.

From Bartleby
In a word, mostly useless.

As an aside, when I was a manager at CSE (Communications Security Establishment) aeons ago I had a Director who was really into management studies and even had us read the Harvard Business Review. It did not work out well and had, from my perspective, next to no impact on how I managed. Truth be told, I was rarely a manager for many reasons I won’t go into so my views might not be particularly illustrative in this regard.

So what does any of this have to do with the academic study of terrorism? A lot I would submit.

Image result for harvard business review

There is no question that there is far too much material to consume, especially since 9/11. I have lost count how many journals exist on terrorism, how many conferences are held each year, how many PhDs are produced on an annual basis and now many new ‘experts’ are born all the time.

A lot of what I have read runs the gamut from “I really need to have that book/article” to ‘WTF?’ But if I go back to what I used to do for a living the unfortunate truth is that those who work in counter terrorism have neither the time nor the need to be up on the latest academic work. We had enough on out plate keeping up with the bad guys to worry about the latest framing of terrorism in IR theory. And even if we had had the luxury of reading journal articles I am fairly certain all this work would have had zero to minimal impact on our collective understanding of what we needed to do.

And even if we had had the luxury of reading journal articles, I am fairly certain all this work would have had zero to minimal impact on our collective understanding of what we needed to do.

None of this should suggest that those who toil in academe on the fascinating topic of terrorism are wasting their efforts. They are not: they are just writing and producing for a very different audience. Terrorism studies are a valid field and one that attracts a lot of interest. So all those papers and manuscripts are important contributors to a legitimate field of inquiry. They just don’t have much to do with counter terrorism.

The late Stephen Jay Gould
Different magisteria?

I would go as far as to say that terrorism studies and counter terrorism work are different magisteria, a term I first introduced way back in 2016 and one I stole from my favourite scientist/populariser of science, the late Stephen Jay Gould. He used it to distinguish religion from science but I am extending the metaphor here.

So to all my friends in academe who specialise in terrorism please continue to do so. Your work helps to inform others and is a really interesting field of inquiry. Just don’t think that what you do has a direct impact on those of us at the counter terrorism coalface do. And never try to tell us that we would do what we do better if only we applied more academic approaches: counter terrorism does not work that way. I would not think of telling you how to analyse terrorism and I expect a similar approach in return.

I would go as far as to say that terrorism studies and counter terrorism work are different magisteria, a term I first introduced in 2016 and one I stole from my favourite scientist/populariser of science, the late Stephen Jay Gould.

I have to include one more thing before I let this drop. I recently read in a newsletter that I quite enjoy – European Eye on Radicalization – a piece by an Associate Professor of Political Science at Pablo de Olavide University of Sevilla, Manuel R. Torres Soriano who, based on the bio I saw, never worked in CT – that really pissed me off.

The piece was entitled ‘How, What, and to Whom to Teach Terrorism Studies’ and contained this line: “Perhaps the most relevant contribution of terrorism studies is the fact that they compensate for the analytical limitations of counterterrorism agencies.” Prof Torres Soriano explained that CT officials are too much in the weeds of stopping terrorism to see the bigger picture, a picture that only researchers and academics can fill.

European Eye on Radicalization
I call bullshit on this.

Not only is this not true, and I base my view on having worked in CT as BOTH a strategic (i.e. ‘big picture’) analyst as well as a tactical (i.e. ‘in the weeds’) one while at CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) for a decade and a half. I, and those who worked with me, were able to see the forest AND the trees and we also had an advantage no academic can dream about: data, reams and reams and reams of real world data about real terrorists planning real attacks. And what we wrote and advised was not constrained by an artificial theoretical framework.

When all is said and done I believe we can both do our jobs and make useful contributions to our respective audiences. We have no need to compete as our audiences are different. There is nothing wrong with an agency such as CSIS having an ‘Academic Outreach’ section, one I admired while I was there, but its absence would not have any impact on operations.

Let us do our best to inform those who are interested in what we do. There is enough terrorism out there, after all, for many at the table.


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When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)

Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.

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