Internal assessments of terrorism studies

I’ve recently been making notes on the fields of terrorism studies, civil war studies, and social movement studies, looking at assessments from both people within these fields and people outside of them. When looking at the internal assessments of terrorism studies, two things stood out.

  • The assessments are usually very negative about the field’s methodological rigour
  • They’ve become much more positive in the past five to ten years

I had already been aware of the first point. Terrorism studies has regularly been accused, by its own leading scholars, of poor research quality. As Lisa Stampnitzky has written:

It may not seem surprising that the production of knowledge about such a contentious subject would attract external critiques. What is more deeply puzzling, however, is that some of the harshest and most frequent laments have come from the practitioners of terrorism studies themselves. Terrorism researchers have characterized their field as stagnant, poorly conceptualized, lacking in rigor, and devoid of adequate theory, data, and methods.

However, I hadn’t been aware earlier of the second point, the trend towards a more positive outlook. So this post is to show how internal assessments of terrorism studies have gradually become more optimistic.

Examples of the earlier, strongly negative, assessments are easy to find. Alex P. Schmid and A. J. Jongman famously wrote in 1988 that:

There are probably few areas in the social science literature in which so much is written on the basis of so little research. Perhaps as much as 80 percent of the literature is not research-based in any rigorous sense…

Over fifteen years later, Andrew Silke reviewed the output of two core terrorism journals (Terrorism and Political Violence and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism) between 1995 and 1999, and concluded that:

Ultimately, terrorism research is not in a healthy state. It exists on a diet of fast food research: quick, cheap, ready-to-hand and nutritionally dubious…. A limited range of methodologies in data gathering, combined with a reluctance to use more rigourous analysis, has left the field with serious deficiencies in many respects. Ultimately the methods used by terrorism researchers are essentially exploratory.

In 2005 John Horgan published a book on the psychology of terrorism, extensively reviewing the literature at the time. He later reflected:

I concluded on a depressing note. The psychology of terrorism, I argued, was at best under-developed, and at worst doomed to the mercy of unrealistic expectations of those who seek quick and simple solutions to the terrorism problem. Asking counterterrorism practitioners to consider contributions from the academic literature on terrorism was, at best, a half-hearted recommendation. Yes, there was a lot of quality research out there, but the unending torrent of drivel made it ever more impossible to keep oneself afloat.

But recently there has been a shift. Within the past five to ten years, the internal assessments have become more optimistic. The same scholars who issued such damning critiques have found considerable improvement.

For example, Alex P. Schmid’s most recent review of the literature argued that:

Looking back over four decades of terrorism research, one cannot fail to see that, next to much pretentious nonsense, a fairly solid body of consolidated knowledge has emerged. In fact, Terrorism Studies has never been in better shape than now…. Terrorism Studies — despite many shortcomings — has matured.

Silke’s most recent review, covering two core journals from 1990 to 2007, also found reasons for optimism. He argued that:

There are signs that research published in recent years is less opinion-based and more rigorous in methodology and analysis…. The use of inferential statistics on terrorism data in particular has nearly quadrupled since 9/11, a trend which can only help improve the reliability and validity of the conclusions being reached by researchers.

He more recently suggested, along with co-author Jennifer Schmidt-Petersen, that terrorism studies was experiencing its golden age:

Indeed, far from being stagnant or moribund, terrorism studies is arguably enjoying a golden age. High impact articles are appearing at a rate never before seen, and the core knowledge of the area is shifting and coalescing around new research and theories.

John Horgan’s 2014 update of his 2005 study also noted the field’s improvement:

So what has changed? In the intervening 8 years, there is much to commend. For a start, the field is no longer dominated by the small handful of researchers who traditionally characterized what is now commonly known as ‘terrorism studies’ (just don’t call it a discipline). Fortunately, the increase in interest from the social and behavioral sciences has also mirrored an increase in solid, quality research output. In fact the creep of systematic, interdisciplinary research on terrorist behavior has meant that it is certainly getting easier to distinguish opinion from analysis, and snake-oil conjecture from analysis that is informed by empirical evidence.

Similarly, Peter Neumann and Scott Kleinmann recently examined the rigour of ‘radicalisation research’, which can be considered a subset of terrorism research. Their findings were also positive:

Overall, the results are not as damning as one might have expected based on Silke’s and Schmid and Jongman’s earlier surveys of the terrorism studies literature. It would not be justified, therefore, to say, as Schmid and Jongman did in 1983, that the entire field is “impressionistic, anecdotal, [and] superficial.” On the contrary, there is much to be encouraged by, not least the fact that more than half of the items in our sample scored “high” in relation to either empirical or methodological rigor, and more than a quarter (27 percent) did so in both.

They also raise issues with Silke’s critique, arguing that it uses too narrow a definition to determine rigour:

For example, Silke classifies nearly all document-based research as “secondary source,” which effectively dismisses entire academic disciplines and methods—especially historical research—as methodologically and empirically inadequate.

They also question Silke’s emphasis on the use of statistics:

Indeed, for “micro phenomena” such as terrorism and radicalization, the use of qualitative methodologies—such as detailed case studies and narratives—may, in many cases, be more appropriate and produce more valid results than the construction of large—and largely meaningless—datasets. This, of course, is no excuse for laziness and sloppy research, which—disturbingly—could be found in many historical studies in our sample. But it suggests that it would be misleading to believe that quantitative research with large datasets, which—from a strictly methodological point of view—may be cleaner and more rigorous, is necessarily also the kind of research that will produce the most relevant insights about the phenomenon that radicalization research seeks to understand. Given the “micro” nature of the subject, the lower share of studies that draw on large amounts of empirical evidence—and, consequently, the less extensive use of quantitative methods, inferential statistics, etc.—must not necessarily be a cause of concern.

So on the whole, internal assessments of terrorism studies to be more optimistic about the field today than ten or more years ago, and find huge improvement.

This view isn’t universal. Marc Sageman recently argued that the field had stagnated, prompting responses from Max Taylor, Alex P. Schmid, David H. Schanzer, Clark McCauley, Sophia Moskalenko, and Jessica Stern followed a rejoinder from Sageman. And all the assessments mentioned in this post still note extensive problems with the field. Peter Neumann and Scott Kleinmann’s assessment ended by noting that:

Yet, despite clusters of excellence, there remains a significant amount of research that fails to meet minimum standards of scholarly work. In most disciplines, having 34 percent of published research that is either methodologically or empirically poor would be considered unacceptable, yet in terrorism studies—and radicalization research more specifically—this state of affairs has been allowed to persist.

This all leaves the question of why, despite improvement, there is plenty of sub-par research. There’s a lot of writing on this,  I recommend three articles in particular.

The first is an external assessment, from the earlier-mentioned Lisa Stampnitzky, who is a sociologist who the studied the field itself. In this article she describes how terrorism studies, rather than functioning as a purely academic field, awkwardly straddles academia, the media and the state. The second is Magnus Ranstorp’s introduction to the book Mapping Terrorism Research, which provides a good outline of the field and some of its problems. The final one is Thomas Hegghammer’s conference paper on the future of terrorism studies, which gives good advice on how current researchers can help progress the field.

The year ahead

I didn’t do my usual endofyear post in December, so this is a short post to reflect a bit and look ahead.

This blog ended 2014 on a pessimistic note, and that hasn’t changed much. I was more optimistic about the terrorism threat when I began blogging in 2012. Recent years haven’t given strong reasons for hope, certainly not 2015. The year began and ended with major attacks in France which undermined expectations that the jihadist threat in the West had become reduced to amateurish plots by “lone wolves” or very small ad-hoc cells.

The attacks were also a reminder of the well-known risk that returned foreign fighters can pose. Eight of the nine terrorists who perpetrated the November Paris attacks are suspected to have trained in Syria with the “Islamic State” (IS). Tens of thousands of  foreign fighters have joined IS and other Sunni jihadist groups in the region, and even though most won’t later prove a theat to their home countries, a small portion already has. For well over a year, the group’s violence has not been confined to Iraq and Syria. It had engaged in violence in countries such Libya, Lebanon, and Egypt, and been targeting Western countries for some time.

Of course, IS isn’t the only threat. Al-Qaeda hasn’t disappeared, and its Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra remains strong. Shia jihadism is also a concern, as thousands of Shia foreign fighters have also joined the Syrian civil war (on the Assad regime’s side), and Hezbollah has perpetrated terror plots across the world. Then there is the often-downplayed threat of extreme-right terrorism, which has seen major attacks in Europe and the United States. Various separatist and extreme-left groups have also engaged in terrorism in the West, though fortunately they have rarely proven deadly in recent years and were much more of a problem in the 1970s and 1980s. And this is still only a narrow look, as most terrorism overwhelmingly occurs outside of Western countries, and there is also the terror inflicted by states.

For Australia, the main terrorist threat this century (with some exceptions) has been from extremists inspired by al-Qaeda and more recently IS. Security agencies state that they have foiled six terror plots since September 2014, which would be:

Then there have been the acts of violence. The stabbing of counter-terrorism police officers in Melbourne in September 2014, the hostage-taking and murder at the Lindt Café in Sydney in December 2014, and the murder of NSW Police accountant Curtis Cheng in Sydney in October 2014.

Some of the trials should begin this year, allowing us to see more details of the alleged activities and whether the evidence proves as strong as the prosecution hopes. The coronial inquest for the Sydney Siege will continue, and there will also be the Numan Haider inquest. So there should be a lot of information coming out this year, and probably several new arrests too.


As for myself, I plan to do some more writing on the terrorism threat, and also on problems with Australia’s response, in both its coercive and non-coercive manifestations.

However, I won’t be spending the next year focusing only on terrorism or on Australia. I’m currently doing a PhD at Melbourne University, looking at transnational support for armed movements. The PhD doesn’t fit purely into the field of terrorism studies, it also straddles the fields of civil war studies and social movement studies. I’m also planning to engage more with the broader parent disciplines of political science and international relations.

I’m currently finding the PhD to be a struggle, though PhDs are of course meant to be a struggle. I’m nearly a year in now, having started in March, and need to focus on it more. So I expect that this year I will be publishing less, but am looking forward to researching more and learning many new skills.

I’m still working at Australian Policy Online at Swinburne University. I’m also working on a small project (a literature review) at Victoria University, funded by the Victorian Social Cohesion and Community Resilience Ministerial Taskforce, which should finish by the end of January.

I had said I would write a piece on engagement between academia and government in national security matters. This has ended up getting out of control, because I’m finding the topic so much more exciting than I expected. I was planning for it to be a small blog post, but now my notes alone make up over 9000 words. It’s looking at the history of both terrorism studies and strategic studies, in the US, Australia and elsewhere. So it has become a much bigger task, and I don’t know when I will finish it.

Finally, I want to give some shout-outs to a few people whose work you should follow. Some of them are friends of mine, some are people I only know online, and all are valuable new voices who should be better known.

Matteo Vergani from Monash has a social science blog. Alex Phelan from Monash has a blog on conflict in Latin America called “More Than Wars” (she’s one of the few scholars in Australia to examine political violence in Latin America, the only other one I can think of is Cesar Alvarez Velasquez). Jaye Weatherburn from Australian Policy Online has a blog on data management, digital libraries and public policy called “kaizen”.

My external PhD supervisor, Debra Smith, now has a Vic Uni profile page. Fatima Measham, an excellent writer who has often helped me with my own writing, has a blog called “This Is Complicated” and a column at Eureka Street. Natalie Sambhi, one of the key people to encourage me to start blogging, has a blog called “Security Scholar” and often hosts the podcasts Sea Control and Foreign Entanglements.

Leanne O’Donnell, who used to work for iiNet and now writes on data retention, privacy, and other issues, has a website called “Ms.Lods”. David Wells, who has worked for UK and Australian intelligence services, has a blog called “Counter-Terrorism Matters“. Australian Army Major Clare O’Niell has a website called “Grounded Curiousity”, and a great podcast. Some other Army officers producing interesting work are Jason Logue and Andrew Maher.

Over in America, Adam Elkus is a fascinating and ridiculously prolific writer, from whom I always learn about loads of research I wasn’t aware of. For examples of his breadth, see this and this. Jennifer Williams, formerly from Brookings and now at Vox, writes great pieces on terrorism and other topics. Also check out the Jihadology Podcast created by Aaron Zelin. And I cannot recommend the Loopcast highly enough. Run by Sina Kashefipour and Chelsea Daymon, it’s easily my favourite national security podcast.

There’s many more who deserve to be added, but that’s enough for now. I hope you get a lot out of them.

It’s time for me to start working again for year, and blogging will likely continue to be sparse. Thanks very much to everyone who has been reading, and hope you have a great a year as possible.