When it comes to terrorism studies there are 3 important considerations: data, data, data

On at least a weekly basis I get an email or a LinkedIn message from someone, usually in Canada, who has an interest in terrorism.  Wait, let me clarify that – an interest in either studying terrorism or working in counter terrorism.  Phew!  If it were another interest I’d have to tell my friends at CSIS about them!

I try to reply to every request, either in writing or via Skype or in person and I am proud to say that on a few occasions my advice has helped someone with a decision and even led to employment in the sector.  I feel good about this as I always felt that I had landed THE dream job over my 3-decades-long career and if I can help someone else achieve even part of what I had I am happy.

Some ask about graduate studies in terrorism and I usually refer them to academics since a) I am not an academic and b) I am not the best person to advise on programs.  Luckily, I have many friends in the ivory tower world and they will graciously offer to weigh in.

For those who want to work ‘in the field’ I walk them through the options in Canada (in order of importance, at least from my perspective): CSIS, the RCMP, CSE (signals intelligence),CBSA (borders), CIC (prisons), and so on.  I offer to have a look at their CVs and how to apply.  As noted, some of my ‘groupies’ now work in counter terrorism.

The challenge for those seeking to work in the area, either to study or to counter terrorism, is a significant lack of information.  CSIS doesn’t say a lot publicly about what it does (an approach I think it should change) and CSE even less so.  As a result, young (and not so young) people are making career decisions based on very little data.  When it comes to choosing what you want to do for a period of time – maybe even 32 years as in my case – the more you know the better.

Turning back to those keen to add to our collective academic knowledge of terrorism the same issue crops up. There is simply not a lot of reputable data to use in analysis.  Those of us on the inside, on the other hand, had the opposite problem, i.e. too much data.  But if you are trying to say something meaningful, even influence policy or practice, how reliable is your analysis without access to significant primary data?  What should cops and spies (and policy makers) do with work that is highly theoretical and based on no real life cases?  I have an answer many might not like: we ignore it.  Because we are too busy putting out fires and unless there is something earthshatteringly important in yet another paper posted to a Web site that is probably behind a paywall anyway we have neither the time nor the interest in reading it.  Sorry, but that is the hard, cold reality.  I may strike some in academe as unfair and dismissive but my perspective is based on something – I hope.

Luckily things may be changing for the better.  My Dutch friend and assistant professor at Leiden University Bart Schuurman just published a piece in Homeland and Security Studies that claims more and more published academic work is using primary data.  The numbers are still small – the base rate was very low – but rising.  In other words, all this work is showing some potential of becoming (more?) relevant to those of us behind the walls of secrecy.  As Bart notes, “there is a lot of work to be done” and no room for complacency.

This is all good news and I hope Bart is right that it will get better.  Here’s to the future, a better future, of higher quality work that could make a difference.  I encourage all in this fascinating subject matter to do more grunt work, as hard as that is and will continue to be, but it is the only way to get noticed.  Trust me.  You will never have the same access and the same quality as intel services but that doesn’t mean you can’t try.  Good luck!

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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