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.