I’ve recently been raving about the Talking Terror podcast, and how much I like its optimistic tone. The podcast focuses on some of the best terrorism research around rather than spend too much time lamenting the weaker research.
Partly inspired by that, this post shares terrorism research I’ve found particularly valuable over the past year or two.
I’ve grouped most of this research by the academic discipline it belongs to, and before presenting the list I want to make a detour to explain why that matters. Terrorism studies has always awkwardly straddled disciplines such as psychology, criminology, sociology, political science, history and law etc. It’s not unusual for a field to draw on diverse disciplines. For example the fields of civil war studies, social movement studies and security studies all do this. However, they still tend to be housed within a single dominant discipline: civil war studies is clearly at home in political science, social movement studies fits comfortably within sociology, and security studies (but not strategic studies) belongs to international relations.
In contrast, terrorism studies (though quite close to political science) has been so interdisciplinary that it doesn’t have a clear home. Thomas Hegghammer has pointed out that this contributes to the field’s reputation problem, and that this makes it important (particularly for early career researchers) to engage with their own disciplines:
… we academics should engage more with our respective disciplines, be it political science, sociology, psychology, or something else. We can keep talking terrorism across disciplines, but we should spend more time in our home departments. This means participating more in the big debates within our disciplines and publishing more in mainstream journals. …….by engaging the disciplines more, we will be better positioned to bring in new theories, methods or fresh perspectives than if we all just read the terrorism literature.
When I began studying terrorism I lacked a strong sense of how academia worked, where terrorism studies fitted in, and indeed where my own work belonged. I’ve always assumed a number of this blog’s readers are students and early career researchers themselves, so I wonder if any of you have experienced the same. For this reason I’ve divided up most of these publications by discipline, to give a sense of which aspects of terrorism different disciplines are focusing on. However, it wasn’t always a neat fit so by the end I grouped some together by their research focus.
So here is some of the terrorism research I’ve valued highly over the past couple of years, divided into criminology, psychology, sociology, political science, history, online violent extremism, countering violent extremism, and jihadism.
Two scholars from a criminological background, Gary LaFree and Michael Jensen, produced my favourite terrorism study of 2016: Final Report: Empirical Assessment of Domestic Radicalization (EADR). Whereas research on radicalisation towards terrorism sometimes fails to be cumulative, this study thoroughly mines the existing literature to find testable propositions. It then tests them against data drawn from a sample of 1600 US-based extremists, and includes both violent and non-violent extremists to allow for a controlled comparison. It does this in a much more rigorous and replicable way than many other studies.
This was the most exciting piece of research on the process of how people turn to terrorism I had read in some time. Those of us who worry about the need for greater rigour in radicalisation research should take heart from studies like this and learn from them.
Then in 2017 the Journal of Criminology & Public Policy published a series of articles discussing new data on how terrorists make use of the internet. They centre on a study of how 223 UK-based terrorists used the internet in the commission of their crimes: Paul Gill, Emily Corner, Maura Conway, Amy Thornton, Mia Bloom and John Horgan’s Terrorist Use of the Internet by the Numbers: Quantifying Behaviors, Patterns, and Processes. Gary LaFree’s entry Terrorism and the Internet, introduces and contextualises the article, while two policy essays, Susan Szmania and Phelix Fincher’s Countering Violent Extremism Online and Offline and Paul J. Taylor, Donald Holbrook and Adam Joinson’s Same Kind of Different: Affordances, Terrorism, and the Internet, respond to it.
This special issue of American Psychologist is full of fresh ideas on the psychology of terrorism, and John Horgan’s introduction is well worth reading. Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko’s contribution, Understanding political radicalization: The two-pyramids model, gives a valuable overview of the many radicalisation models produced since 9/11. They rightly highlight some of these models’ weaknesses though I’m not convinced by their solution. Kiran Sarma’s article, Risk assessment and the prevention of radicalization from nonviolence into terrorism, is the best piece I have read on the problematic idea of radicalisation indicators.
There is some valuable new terrorism research coming out of political science, particularly American-based political science (which is distinguished from political science elsewhere by its heavy quantitative focus and crossover with economics).
Jacob Shapiro’s work on the organisational dynamics of terrorist groups, particularly on the principal-agent problems that arise within them, has been a strong influence on my PhD studies. You can buy his book, but to get a general sense of his work see his recent CTC Sentinel article, A Predictable Failure: The Political Economy of the Decline of the Islamic State.
For an overview of work by scholars who take a likeminded approach, see Jacob Shapiro’s review article, Terrorist Decision-Making: Insights from Economics and Political Science. For overviews of similar literature see Todd Sandler’s The Analytical Study of Terrorism: Taking Stock, and Joseph Young and Michael Findlay’s Promise and Pitfalls of Terrorism Research.
Social network analysis became popular within terrorism studies a decade ago, but has since receded somewhat. For a valuable 2016 article revisiting this approach and seeing where it can be taken, see Steven T. Zech and Michael Gabbay’s Social Network Analysis in the Study of Terrorism and Insurgency: From Organization to Politics.
More recently, we’re really starting to see more crossover between civil war studies and terrorism studies. Just as there was a lot of crossover between social movement studies and terrorism studies in the mid-2000s (often building on the earlier work of Donatella Della Porta), I’m wondering if the next big crossover will be between civil war studies and terrorism studies. I might be getting ahead of myself, but here are a few quality examples.
Barbara F. Walter recently wrote this article, The New New Civil Wars, on the prominence of jihadist movements in modern civil wars. She also wrote this excellent article, The Extremist’s Advantage in Civil Wars, on why the most extreme jihadist movements have become dominant in so many civil wars. She shows how promoting an extremist ideology can help a movement’s leadership overcome collective action problems, principal-agent problems, and commitment problems.
Another example is this article on foreign fighters in the Journal of Conflict Resolution by Alex Braithwaite and Tiffany S. Chu, Civil Conflicts Abroad, Foreign Fighters, and Terrorism at Home. There is also the Civil Wars, Violence, and International Responses research project, which includes one of the founders of modern terrorism studies, Martha Crenshaw, who recently wrote an article on Transnational Jihadism & Civil Wars. Meanwhile Stathis Kalyvas, one of the most prominent civil war scholars, just published this article on Jihadi Rebels in Civil War.
I also found this recent article, Charity Butcher’s Civil War and Terrorism: A Call for Further Theory Building, which looks promising but I have not yet read it.
As for the academic discipline of history, I haven’t found a whole lot of new work that relates directly to terrorism. However, I greatly enjoyed Giovanni Mario Ceci’s article A ‘Historical Turn’ in Terrorism Studies?, which reviews four books that take a historical approach to the study of terrorism. I’ve also been interested in Leena Malkki’s work revisiting some New Left terrorism campaigns, How Terrorist Campaigns End: The Campaigns of the Rode Jeugd in the Netherlands and the Symbionese Liberation Army in the United States. I’m also interested in Rik Coolsaet’s efforts to add to David Rapapport’s “four waves” framework by arguing that the 1920s and 1930s saw a “separatist-fascist” wave of terrorism, which has been “overlooked in almost all terrorism research, surely because it was gradually absorbed by Italian Fascism and German Nazism”.
I struggled to think of what to put under sociology, which likely reflects that I haven’t engaged much with the discipline (except for the social movement studies side of it). Sociologist Ramon Spaaij recently co-authored, with criminologist Mark S. Hamm, a book that I’m planning to read soon: The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism. However, it might belong in the criminology section.
Some other work I’ve found valuable, but am not sure if it belongs under sociology, has been on the emotional lives of people who perpetrate terrorism. I recommend my friend Debra Smith’s article, So How Do You Feel about That? Talking with Provos about Emotion and Thomas Hegghammer’s edited collection, Jihadi Culture: The Art and Social Practices of Militant Islamists. Also see Simon Cottee’s review of the book.
So this was a difficult category. If you have any sociological works on terrorism you’d like to recommend, please do so in the comments.
We now get to the work I’ve categorised by research focus rather than disciplines.
Online violent extremism
One indispensable source of research on online violent extremism is VoxPol, who produced the study Research Perspectives on Online Radicalisation: A Literature Review 2006-2016. I also recommend similar work produced by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, including their recent paper Digital Decay: Tracing Change Over Time Among English-Language Islamic State Sympathizers on Twitter.
There is a cohort of scholars affiliated with the International Centre for Counter-terrorism (ICCT) at The Hague who have been prodigiously producing research on terrorist narratives, counter-narratives, and information warfare. Have a read of J.M. Berger’s Countering Islamic State Messaging Through “Linkage-Based” Analysis and his Deconstruction of Identity Concepts in Islamic State Propaganda, Berger and Haroro J. Ingram’s The Strategic Logic of the “Linkage-Based” Approach to Combating Militant Islamist Propaganda: Conceptual and Empirical Foundations, and Craig Whiteside’s, Lighting the Path: the Evolution of the Islamic State Media Enterprise (2003-2016).This group is producing a lot of work and I haven’t caught up with all of it, but I recommend reading it if you are writing anything on the area.
And for an overarching perspective, looking beyond terrorism, I recommend this article by Thomas Zeitzoff, How Social Media Is Changing Conflict.
Countering violent extremism
Then there’s the area of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), which refers to non-coercive efforts to reduce involvement in terrorist activity and encompasses the contested concepts of counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation. Unfortunately there’s plenty of polemical writing around on CVE, either over-hyping it (which was more common several years ago) or indiscriminately condemning it. While there are certainly balanced takes around (such this War On The Rocks piece), it’s become harder to find good literature which looks at what CVE actually involves and dispassionately assesses it.
For background, this report provides the history of the concept of radicalisation as applied to terrorism, ‘All Radicalisation is Local’: The Genesis and Drawbacks of an Elusive Concept, while this report covers the history of CVE, Does CVE Work? Lessons Learned From the Global Effort to Counter Violent Extremism.
To get a sense of what CVE currently involves, see these two reports from the European Union’s Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN): Responses to Returnees: Foreign Terrorist Fighters and their Families and Preventing Radicalisation to Terrorism and Violent Extremism: Approaches and Practices. For a rigorous evaluation of a CVE effort, see this Evaluation of a Multi-Faceted, U.S. Community-Based, Muslim-Led CVE Program.
Most of the categories above include a lot of work on jihadism, but there’s also work that deserves a category of its own. If I had to recommend one single piece as a primer on jihadism, it would be Cole Bunzel’s Jihadism On Its Own Terms.
Though not primarily focused on jihadism, I also recommend Joas Wagemakers’ Revisiting Wiktorowicz: Categorising and Defining the Branches of Salafism. Shiraz Maher’s Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea has been highly recommended to me, though I have not read it yet. Finally, the most fascinating article I’ve read on jihadism recently has been Thorsten Botz-Bornstein’s The “Futurist” Aesthetics of ISIS.
So that’s some terrorism research which has really stood out to me over the last couple of years, though there’s plenty of important research that’s missing.
For example, it was only after writing the bulk of this post that I realised a blindspot: it includes no research on gender-related terrorism research. This is quite a shortcoming as there’s been plenty of recent writing on the role of women inside jihadist organisations and the use of masculinity in recruitment narratives. There’s also been an effort to combine Countering Violent Extremism initiatives with the United Nations’ Women, Peace and Security (WPS) campaign (launched in 2000 with UNSC Resolution 1325). In 2015 United Nations combined CVE with WPS through UNSC Resolution 2242, which has prompted a surge of new research. This is all happening at a time when Australia’s national security public sphere is slowly becoming more gender-aware: there’s been the creation of an Australian chapter of Women In International Security (WIIS), the Institute for Regional Security’s Women in National Security (WiNS) program, and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Women in Defence and Security Network (WDSN).
You can expect a Murphy Raid guest post on CVE and the Women, Peace and Security campaign in the near future.
As we reach the end, one miscellaneous recommendation is this article: Terrorism Events Data: An Inventory of Databases and Data Sets, 1968-2017. I particularly suggest it for anyone about to begin research in this area and worrying about where to find useful data.
Feel free to suggest any more research in the comments section below.
And finally, I want to yet again recommend the Talking Terror podcast, where you can keep finding out more about promising terrorism research.