Resources: social science and the “Islamic State” threat

Amid all the post-Paris punditry, there’s been some excellent articles lamenting the state of political discussion on the “Islamic State” (IS) threat. Richard Cooke showed how familiar political narratives can’t easily explain this obscene violence. Osman Faruqi wrote this mainly Australia-focused piece, “Everyone’s wrong and no one knows what to do (including me)“, despairing at poorly founded solutions proposed ultra-confidently by commentators from both left and right. Similarly, Adam Elkus wrote this mainly America-focused piece on the superficial strategies proposed by both hawks and doves.

I share the despair expressed in these pieces, and propose no solution myself. Identifying bad ideas, such as shutting out refugees, is much harder than coming up with good ones.

However social science can, and should, help the wider societal effort to figure out what to do. Within academia, engagement with national security issues often remains controversial (with reason), and is relatively rare in Australia compared to the United States. But I’m firmly of the view that it’s both extremely valuable and that there’s a strong ethical imperative for it:

Social science has an implied social contract with society: In exchange for the privileges and freedoms of academic life, social science agrees to help solve problems that concern society.


And IS is, to put it mildly, a problem that concerns society. So this post provides some resources introducing what social science has to say about the IS threat.

It builds on the previous post, but with a more academic focus. The resources are all open-access.

The first place to start is these Monkey Cage posts on what social science can tell us about the Paris attacks, and what social science can tell us about IS.


These edited collections from the past two years help explain the background of IS and the broader Syrian conflict. They are particularly valuable for demystifying IS, comparing it to other insurgencies rather than treating it as something unprecedented:

The political science of Syria’s war, Project on Middle East Political Science, 19 December 2013.

Syria and the Islamic State, Project on Middle East Political Science, 1 October 2014.

Special issue on the Islamic State, Perspectives on Terrorism, August 2015.


These are some good short pieces on the “is IS Islamic?” debate:

How ISIS uses and abuses Islam, Vox, 18 November 2015.

Does ISIS really have nothing to do with Islam? Islamic apologetics carry serious risks, Washington Post, 18 November 2015.

The endless recurrence of the clash of civilizations, Monkey Cage, 20 November 2015.

ISIS, the clash of civilizations and the problem of apologetics, Medium @Aelkus, 20 November 2015.

Why it does not matter whether ISIS is Islamic, Medium @Aelkus, 20 November 2015.


These reports outline research on Countering Violent Extremism (non-coercive efforts to prevent people from becoming involved in terrorism), which is one part of the response to IS:

Does CVE work? Lessons learned from the global effort to counter violent extremism, Global Center on Cooperative Security, September 2015.

Countering violent extremism: developing an evidence-base for policy and practice, Hedayah, September 2015.

Resources: background information for the Paris attacks

The terrorist attacks in Paris have killed over a hundred people. It will probably be a while before it becomes clear who carried out these murders and how they evaded the security services. In the meantime, this post provides sources of background information to help make sense of the attacks.


On this style of urban siege terrorism:

John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, Urban siege in South Asia, Open Democracy, 9 November 2009.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Daniel Trombly, The tactical and strategic use of small arms by terrorists, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, October 2012.

David Kilcullen, Westgate mall attacks: urban areas are the battleground of the 21st century, The Guardian, 28 September 2013.

John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, Urban siege in Paris: a spectrum of armed assault, Small Wars Journal, 2 February 2015.


On French counter-terrorism:

Charles Rault, The French approach to counterterrorism, Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, 13 January 2010.

Pascale Combelles Siegel, French counterterrorism in the wake of Mohammed Merah’s attack, Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, 23 April 2012.

Frank Foley, Charlie Hebdo attack: is France’s counter-terrorism model still the example to follow?, The Telegraph, 13 January 2015.

Joshua Keating, No one in Europe is tougher on terror than France. That didn’t stop the attacks, Slate, 13 January 2015.


On the ability of IS and al-Qaeda to launch attacks within Western countries:

Clint Watts, Inspired, networked and directed – the muddled jihad of ISIS & al Qaeda post Charlie Hebdo, War On The Rocks, 12 January 2015.

Thomas Hegghammer and Petter Nesser, Assessing the Islamic State’s commitment to attacking the West, Perspectives on Terrorism, August 2015.

Syria update and new articles

The most recent Senate Estimates hearings have given us the latest official figures on Australians involved with jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq.

These are:

  • 120 Australians are currently fighting or are engaged with terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.
  • At  least  32  and  potentially  up  to  42  Australians  are  believed to  have potentially  been  killed  in  the  conflict  to  date.
  • Approximately  30  Australians  have  returned  from  the  conflict.
  • About  170  people  in  Australia  are  providing  support  to  individuals  and  groups  in  the  Syria  and  Iraq  conflicts through  financing  and  recruitment,  or  are  seeking  to  travel.

(these are direct quotes, from page 121 of this transcript)

The figure of 120 currently over there has been static for months, as has the figure of 30 having returned. But the figure of up to 42 deaths is higher than previously reported. My own count based on public sources is only 27, and it includes a few doubtful ones. So there’s likely far more going on than we can see.

Meanwhile, I’ve had two new articles out. One is this Strategist Post on the Parramatta shooting and counter-terrorism in democracies. Since then, two of the suspects mentioned in it have been charged. The other is this Eureka Street article on the dangers of using schools to address extremism.

Resources: research on Countering Violent Extremism in Australia

Anne Aly and Kosta Lucas, “Countering Online Violent Extremism in Australia: Research and Preliminary Findings” in Countering Violent Extremism: Developing an Evidence-Base for Policy and Practice, Hedayah and Curtin University, September 2015, scroll to page 81.

Many authors, “Special Issue: Countering Violent Extremism: Reorienting the Field“, Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, Volume 10, Issue 1, 2015 (gated).

Andrew Zammit, Australian Foreign Fighters: Risks and Responses, Lowy Institute for International Policy, 16 April 2015.

Cat Barker, Australian Government Measures to Counter Violent Extremism: a Quick Guide, Australian Parliamentary Library, 10 February 2015.

Kevin Mark Dunn, Rosalie Atie, Michael Kennedy, Jan A. Ali, John O’Reilly and Lindsay Rogerson, “Can you use Community Policing for Counter Terrorism? Evidence from NSW, Australia“, Police Practice and Research: An International Journal, online version published 12 March 2015 (gated).

Kristina Murphy, Adrian Cherney, and Julie Barkworth, Avoiding Community Backlash in the Fight Against Terrorism: Research Report. Australian Research Council (Grant No. DP130100392) March 2015 (gated).

Michele Grossman, “Disenchantments: Counterterror Narratives and Conviviality,” Critical Studies on Terrorism, Volume 7, Issue 3, 2014 (gated).

Roslyn Richardson, Fighting Fire with Fire: Target Audience Responses to Online Anti-Violence Campaigns, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 4 June 2014.

Shahram Akbarzadeh, “Investing in Mentoring and Educational Initiatives: The Limits of De-Radicalisation Programmes in Australia“, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Volume 33, Issue 4, 2013.

Michele Grossman and Hussein Tahiri, Community and Radicalisation: An Examination of Perceptions, Ideas, Beliefs and Solutions Throughout Australia, Victoria Police with Victoria University, September 2013.

Anne Aly, “The Policy Response to Home-Grown Terrorism: Reconceptualising Prevent and Resilience as Collective Resistance“, Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, Volume 8, Issue 1, 2013.

Basia Spalek and Alia Imtoual, “Muslim Communities and Counter-Terror Responses: “Hard” Approaches to Community Engagement in the UK and Australia“, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Volume 27, Issue 2, 2007 (gated).


Back in 2013 and 2014, I had some involvement with this radicalisation information booklet. The Attorney-General’s Department (AGD) had ultimate editorial control, but it was delivered under contract from Monash, and involved consultations with people from other institutions and some community groups. It was not intended as some sort of spot-the-terrorists guide. Then, this week it was released by the government as part of an extremely worrying announcement that teachers would be encouraged to identify whether students are potential terrorists.

Which was a big surprise.

I’m planning to write about this sometime soon, but not sure when, so this is just a post to flag it. I plan to discuss two issues:

1. Why this apparent idea of encouraging teachers to try to spot early-warning signs of terrorism is a terrible idea. There’s a real risk of Australia going down the UK path and that’s very dangerous. Australian counter-terrorism policy has been heading in a bad direction for some time, and this would likely make things even worse.

2. The big questions this whole thing raises about academic involvement with government initiatives. As readers will know, I’m not opposed at all to engagement between academia and government in the national security space. From 2010 to 2013 I was employed in an ARC Linkage Project at Monash that included AFP, VicPol, Vic DPC and Vic DoJ as partners, a period of my life I’m extremely proud of. Engagement does pose dilemmas (see some interesting discussions here, here, here and here) but can benefit society enormously. However, it’s important to be clear-eyed about the risks involved. With this AGD booklet project, I wasn’t.

More on all this later.


Update 1: I made some changes to this post on 4 October 2015. I initially wrote that the AGD “consulted with several of us at Monash”, but it turns out that wasn’t an accurate description so I’ve rephrased it. I also initially wrote that my involvement was in 2013, but realised that a community consultation I participated in actually happened in 2014, so I had some involvement in both 2013 and 2014. Also in the last sentence of the first paragraph I changed plan to announcement, as what the government announced through the Daily Telegraph is not necessarily the government’s actual plan (judging from media releases and official statements), which is another thing I want to look at in the first piece I’m writing.

A few readers have been asking when the articles are coming out. The first one should hopefully be done soon. The second article will take quite a bit longer, it’s going in some interesting directions, including looking back at academic-government engagement in the Vietnam War and even back to World War Two, and becoming a bigger task than planned. In short: first article shouldn’t take much longer, second one will.

Update 2: The first article is now published.

Australians charged under Joint Counter-Terrorism Team operations since 2013

Operation Kirtling
No charges

Operation Rathlin
Hamdi Alqudsi: foreign incursions offences
Amin Iman Mohamed: foreign incursions offences

Operation Appleby
Omarjan Azari: terrorism offences (funding and conspiracy to prepare)
Ali Al-Talebi: terrorism offences (funding)
Suleyman Khalid: terrorism offence (possession of documents)
Unnamed: control order breach
Unnamed: weapons offences
Unnamed: weapons offences
Unnamed: drug offences
Unnamed: weapons offences
Mohammad Ali Barylei: arrest warrant issued

Operation Bolton
Agim Kruezi: terrorism offences (preparation), foreign incursions offences
Omar Succerieh: terrorism offences (funding), foreign incursions offences
Unnamed: proceeds of crime offences now dropped

Operation Duntulm
Fatima Elomar: foreign incursions offences
Omar Ammouche: weapons offences
Wissam Haddad: weapons offences

Operation Hohensalzburg
Hassan el Sabsabi: terrorism offences (funding) now dropped, foreign incursions offences

Operation Castrum
Mohammad Kiad: terrorism offences (preparation)
Omar Al-Kutobi: terrorism offences (preparation)

Operation Rising
Sevdet Ramdan Besim: terrorism offences (conspiracy to prepare)
Harun Causevic: terrorism offences (conspiracy to prepare) now dropped, weapons offences
Unnamed: weapons offences

Operation Amberd
Unnamed: terrorism offences (preparation)


If I’ve written “unnamed”, this means that:

  1. There has been a suppression order on naming them.
  2. I’m guessing there might be a suppression order and playing it safe.
  3. Their charges are relatively minor and their names had not been widely splashed throughout the media, so I’ve chosen not to name them because I don’t want to increase the likelihood of “terrorism” appearing when their names are googled. They might simply be trying to get on with their lives.


Update 1: On 14 September 2015 I added that Hassan el Sabsabi’s terrorism charges were dropped. He has pleaded guilty to the foreign incursions charges.

Update 2: On 12 October 2015 I added Wissam Haddad to Operation Duntulm.

Some updates

I haven’t posted in a while, so this is just a few updates.

In early March I began a PhD in Political Science at Melbourne University, and am also now an Affiliate of the Melbourne School of Government. The PhD has meant that I have to to reduce my work at Monash and Swinburne, which will be reduced further over the next month or two.

So there might not be many posts on this blog for the near-future. I would love to be one of those people who can blog frequently while working and studying, but don’t think I am.

I won’t go into the PhD topic now, but will as my research progresses further. I’m currently  in the very enjoyable phase of exploratory reading.

T books

M books

For a while now my research has mainly focused on Australian jihadism and I’ve been wanting to move beyond that. While I will still be doing research on that, it won’t be the focus of the PhD.

In other news, I had a paper published by the Lowy Institute recently: Australian Foreign Fighters: Risks and Responses.

Executive summary

Conflicts in Syria and Iraq have attracted aspiring jihadists from across the world. Australians have joined the flow of foreign fighters to the region, raising concerns that some will carry out terrorist attacks in Australia should they return home. The record of past jihadist foreign fighter mobilisations, including Australia’s own history in this regard, demonstrates that there is a potential threat to Australia’s security. However, a range of factors will shape that threat, including how Australia responds to returning foreign fighters.

The Government’s response has mainly focused on increased resources and powers for police and intelligence agencies, but also includes an important non-coercive element termed Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) that has received less attention. CVE has been a core element of the global response to foreign fighters, and has played a role in Australia’s counter-terrorism approach for several years. However, many past CVE measures are not directly suitable for the current situation. Australia can learn valuable lessons from European countries, which have more experience in CVE and are already using such measures to address the current foreign fighter threat.

I wrote this op-ed on some of the paper’s key points.

Also, there are some new journal articles out on foreign fighters (all paywalled though):

Daniel Byman, “The Homecomings: What Happens When Arab Foreign Fighters in Iraq and Syria Return?“, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, published online 1 May 2015.

Cerwyn Moore, “Introductory Comments to Foreign Fighters Research: Special Mini-Series“, Terrorism and Political Violence, published online 5 May 2015.

Jasper L. de Bie, Christianne J. de Poot & Joanne P. van der Leun, “Shifting Modus Operandi of Jihadist Foreign Fighters From the Netherlands Between 2000 and 2013: A Crime Script Analysis“, Terrorism and Political Violence, published online 5 May 2015.

Richard Bach Jensen, “Anarchist Terrorism and Global Diasporas, 1878–1914“, Terrorism and Political Violence, published online 5 May 2015.

David Malet, “Foreign Fighter Mobilization and Persistence in a Global Context“, Terrorism and Political Violence, published online 5 May 2015.

Cerwyn Moore, “Foreign Bodies: Transnational Activism, the Insurgency in the North Caucasus and ‘Beyond’“, Terrorism and Political Violence, published online 6 May 2015.

Finally, my friend Matteo Vergani has started a new social science blog, called Why Don’t I Get Those Results? Take a look!