The best articles from 2018 on the state of terrorism studies

Articles examining the state of terrorism studies are quite common, but last year saw some really excellent and constructive assessments of the field. Three of these deserve to be much more widely read.

First example: Mark Youngman, “Building ‘Terrorism Studies’ as an Interdisciplinary Space: Addressing Recurring Issues in the Study of Terrorism“, Terrorism and Political Violence, published online 9 October 2018.

Abstract: Over the years, there have been many debates regarding the state of research into terrorism and whether “terrorism studies” constitutes an academic discipline in its own right. Such reflections, coupled with the natural evolution of what is still a relatively new area of research, have arguably led to significant improvements in quality and rigour. At the same time, the status of terrorism studies itself remains somewhat ambiguous: it is both discussed as a distinct field and simultaneously evades criticism by pointing to the difficulties of defining its boundaries. There are undoubtedly a number of advantages to forming a separate discipline, which would go some way to helping the field address some of the recurring problems that terrorism research faces. However, this article ultimately argues that scholars are better served by deliberately moving in the other direction and developing the field as a space for interdisciplinary engagement.

Mark Youngman’s article is outstanding and I strongly agree with many of its points. Youngman begins by discussing how the field straddles many different disciplines and therefore lacks a secure foothold in academic institutions. However, he argues that the field should emphatically not try to become a discipline in itself and that terrorism scholars should instead critically engage more with their home disciplines. Hegghammer made a similar argument a few years back, which I concurred with.

Youngman’s article also has a valuable section on the field’s need for greater methodological sophistication, which does not simply repeat the constant calls for more empirical research. Terrorism studies is often accused of lacking empirical data and of failing to talk directly to terrorists, but in my view these critiques are no longer well-founded and they tend to miss the point. There is no shortage of empirically-based datasets, but there are valid critiques of how some datasets are constructed. Similarly, many terrorism scholars conduct interviews with terrorists, though there are legitimate questions over whether such interviews are always conducted with sufficient rigour and methodological transparency.

So it was great to see Youngman’s article did not simply repeat the common calls for more fieldwork. He instead points out that holding interviews with terrorists (particularly in conflict zones) up as the gold standard is both unwarranted and creates currently unaddressed risks. He argues that it reflects poorly on the field when one research method as inherently superior, instead of a more pluralistic approach based on detailed discussions about which methods are best suited for different types of questions.

Youngman’s article makes many other good points. He critiques the recurrence of strawman arguments in the field, such as when the argument that terrorism is “not all about ideology” is presented as being counter to conventional wisdom, yet almost nobody actually contends that it is all about ideology. He points out the ethical risks involved in engaging the media, policy-makers and practitioners, but rightly adds that “[w]e cannot criticise state policies for being ill-informed and at the same time turn away those who seek to make them better informed”. He also notes the potential for productive engagement with civil war studies, which has increased in the past couple of years and was long overdue. However, Youngman adds an ethical argument in support of such crossover, as civil war studies appears to have “a greater emphasis on the victims and social consequences of violence” than terrorism studies has.

Second example: Bart Schuurman, “Research on Terrorism, 2007–2016: A Review of Data, Methods, and Authorship“, Terrorism and Political Violence, published online 1 March 2018.

Abstract: Research on terrorism has long been criticized for its inability to overcome enduring methodological issues. These include an overreliance on secondary sources and the associated literature review methodology, a scarcity of statistical analyses, a tendency for authors to work alone rather than collaborate with colleagues, and the large number of one-time contributors to the field. However, the reviews that have brought these issues to light describe the field as it developed until 2007. This article investigates to what extent these issues have endured in the 2007–2016 period by constructing a database on all of the articles published in nine leading journals on terrorism (N = 3442). The results show that the use of primary data has increased considerably and is continuing to do so. Scholars have also begun to adapt a wider variety of data-gathering techniques, greatly diminishing the overreliance on literature reviews that was noted from the 1980s through to the early 2000s. These positive changes should not obscure enduring issues. Despite improvements, most scholars continue to work alone and most authors are one-time contributors. Overall, however, the field of terrorism studies appears to have made considerable steps towards addressing long-standing issues.

Bart Schuurman’s article updates earlier quantitative assessments of terrorism studies conducted by Andrew Silke, which covered research published in the journals Terrorism and Political Violence and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism (and their predecessor journals) up until 2007. In doing so, Schuurman’s article does the field a great service.

When I first started reading this article I was concerned that it categorised research that isn’t based on primary sources under what I saw as the somewhat dismissive term “literature review method” (similarly Silke refers to studies that aren’t based on new data as “essentially rehashing knowledge that was already there”). After all, it can be within such work that the all-important conceptualisation and theorisation can occur. Such work is crucial and it should not be automatically looked down on, it should be judged for how well it advances (or fails to advance) the field by consolidating current knowledge, creating conceptual clarity, developing new theoretical propositions (to later be tested), and ensuring contestation. So I was worried that Schuurman’s article might make the sort of assumptions that Youngman’s article warned about, but my concern turned out be misplaced. Instead, Schuurman noted near the end of his article:

The emphasis on how a lack of primary sources in particular has had a detrimental influence on the field for decades, is not a dismissal of the value of non-empirical work. Many authors who base themselves on the secondary literature have made stellar contributions by bringing together insights from a diverse range of scholarly, governmental, journalistic, and NGO-based works. Others have analyzed existing data in novel ways, presented findings from the non-English literature, or drawn attention to countries, case studies, and historical periods that have been undeservedly neglected. Similarly, the use of primary data is not a guarantee for high-quality work; some articles use only the barest of such sources or fail to study them in depth.

The result is a nuanced and utterly indispensable article, because it finally provides an up-to-date quantitative assessment of the popularity of different research methods within terrorism studies, superseding many of the earlier assessments. The field has needed this for some time. It’s particularly valuable because it focuses not just on Terrorism and Political Violence and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, the two journals traditionally considered as the field’s core journals, but also Perspectives on Terrorism, the Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, Critical Studies on Terrorism, Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict: Pathways Toward Terrorism and Genocide, Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, the Journal of Terrorism Research  and the Journal for Deradicalization. And I agree with its conclusion, that “[r]esearch on terrorism has not stagnated; it has begun to flourish”.

Third example: Deven Parekh, Amarnath Amarasingam, Lorne Dawson, and Derek Ruths, “Studying Jihadists on Social Media: A Critique of Data Collection Methodologies”, Perspectives on Terrorism, Volume 12, issue 3, 2018

Abstract: In this article, we propose a general model of data collection from social media, in the context of terrorism research, focusing on recent studies of jihadists. By analyzing Twitter data collection methods in the existing research, we show that the methods used are prone to sampling biases, and that the sampled datasets are not sufficiently filtered or validated to ensure reliability of conclusions derived from them. Alternatively, we propose some best practices for the collection of data in future research on jihadist using social media (as well as other kinds of terrorist groups). Given the similarity of the methodological challenges posed by research on almost all social media platforms, in the context of terrorism studies, the critique and recommendations offered remain relevant despite the recent shift of most jihadists from Twitter to Telegram and other forms of social media.

Social media analysis has become quite a common approach within the field, particularly for scholars focusing on jihadist movements, so it was great to see this article disentangling some of the methodological dilemmas involved. Parekh et al‘s article focuses heavily on authentication, that is, how to know if the accounts being the research classifies as jihadist truly are being run by jihadists. The article shows how some methods currently used entail serious authentication problems, and proposes some ways to help fix this, while being entirely respectful in their critiques of others’ work. If you have even the slightest interest in social media as a research resource for terrorism studies, you should read this.

Read them!

So these three articles were all excellent, for many reasons. They did not waste much on the purported gulf between “orthodox terrorism studies” and “critical terrorism studies”. They didn’t repeat outdated arguments about the supposed lack of datasets or field interviews (indeed Schuurman’s article provided a much needed corrective, showing the actual prevalence of such approaches). These articles nonetheless did not champion the field; they instead made well-founded critiques of real and serious problems within terrorism studies, and provided helpful ways forward.

There are some unconvincing assessments of terrorism studies out there, but these three from 2018 are all compelling ones, to be placed alongside excellent earlier assessments such as Richard English’s The Future Study of Terrorism, Thomas Heggammer’s The Future of Terrorism Studies, and Lisa Stampnitzky’s Disciplining an Unruly Field: Terrorism Experts and Theories of Scientific/Intellectual Production.

Two Dutch government reports on the state of the Islamic State threat

I mentioned earlier that “I want to get back to using this blog more to share valuable resources about terrorism and national security produced by a wide range of people”, rather than just sharing my own work. I’d like to start 2019 by doing exactly that.

In light of renewed debate over the Islamic State’s supposed defeat, here are a couple of resources on Islamic State’s future. The Netherlands Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations recently released two English-language reports on the state of the jihadist threat following the Islamic State’s territorial collapse. They focus not only the threat to the Netherlands, but on the threat to Europe and the wider picture generally.

The first report is A perspective on the transformation of ISIS following the fall of the ‘caliphate’: Continuation of roles, transformation of threats. The report synthesises academic literature on the current situation. I’m sceptical of some of its concluding points, such as the argument that we are shifting to a new phase of “personal or leaderless jihad”. That argument has been made before; I was sceptical of it some years ago and remain so. But that’s just a small part of this detailed and interesting report, which discusses many elements of the Islamic State threat: returnees, home-grown plotters, the core organisation and its shift back to guerrilla tactics, external branches, funding arrangements, relations with al-Qaeda, as well as the online dimension.

The second report is The legacy of Syria – Global jihadism remains a threat to Europe. This report is shorter and is based on the intelligence from the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD). It focuses not only on the Islamic State but also al-Qaeda, and concludes that as “a result of the conflict in Syria, the movement has grown and professionalised.”

Both reports are well worth reading. I would more strongly recommend the first report than the second, as it is more detailed and informative, but the second does have the benefit of insights from information the authors of the first report wouldn’t have had access to.

Books I read in 2018

To end this year I’d like share what books I’ve been enjoying, for any interested readers. This list only includes books I’ve wanted to read from start to end, not books that I’ve just dipped in and out of (usually edited collections), used for reference (such as research methods books), or books that I began but did not feel the need to finish.

Books I finished reading in 2018:

Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, by John le Carré

A Delicate Truth, by John Le Carré

What is Military History? by Stephen Morillo with Michal F. Pavkovic

Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right, by Angela Nagle

The Navy and National Security: The Peacetime Dimension, by Dick Sherwood

The Secret Pilgrim, by John le Carré

The Navy and the Nation: Australia’s Maritime Power in the 21st Century, by Vice Admiral Tim Barrett

Terrorism in Australia: The Story of Operation Pendennis, by Peter Moroney

Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean, by Joy McCann

In Defence of History, by Richard J. Evans

Political Amnesia: How We Forgot How To Govern, by Laura Tingle

Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman, by Laura Tingle

A Little History of Economics, by Niall Kishtainy

Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, by Jonathan Taplin

Hugh Stretton: Selected Writings, edited by Graeme Davison

Books I began in 2018 and am keen to finish:

The French Art of War, by Alexis Jenni

Art of Creating Power: Freedman on Strategy, edited by Benedict Wilkinson and James Gow

The Cold War: A World History, by Odd Arne Westad

The Age of Capital: 1848-1875, by Eric Hobsbawm

The Secret World: A History of Intelligence, by Christopher Andrew

On Grand Strategy, by John Lewis Gaddis

Recommendation:

I would recommend most of the books in this list, but if I had to choose one must-read it would be Kamila Shamsie’s novel Home Fire.

Writing updates

I’ve published a new blog post on the website of the AVERT Research Network at Deakin University, where I am now blogging monthly. The post, What does Australian law say about possessing terrorist instructional material?, looks at the legal position of publications such as Inspire magazine. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a few years, ever since the failed Karabegovic prosecution, but had never written on until now.

Also, a Murphy Post from June this year, Islamic State’s virtually planned terror plots: a note on current and future research, has kindly been republished on the VOX-Pol blog.

I also have an update to make about an earlier piece. In my first AVERT post, Which Australian terrorist plots have been directly connected to Islamic State, and how?, I made a vague reference to the Omarjan Azari trial:

For example, in September 2014 a man in Sydney was arrested under the New South Wales Joint Counter Terrorism Team’s Operation Appleby. The Sydney man, who had reportedly had his passport cancelled by ASIO, was allegedly in contact with Syria-based Australian IS member.  Police alleged that the Syria-based Australian IS figure ordered the suspect to murder random members of the public in Sydney. I am being excessively vague about this one as the suspect is currently on trial. We will need to wait to see whether the allegations hold up in court.

Since then, the jury has found him guilty. I assume he will be sentenced in the coming months and hopefully more information about his case will become public.

In other news, a couple of months ago I resigned from my job at APO (Swinburne University), to focus more on my PhD. I was sad to do so. I had worked there for over seven years and it was a fantastic job, but the PhD is my most important piece of work to focus on at the moment, along with the book I’m co-authoring with Debra Smith on the history of terrorism and counter-terrorism in Australia.

Finally, I want to get back to using this blog more to share valuable resources about terrorism and national security produced by a wide range of people.

I recently read this interview with Patrick Skinner, in the CTC Sentinel, at least three or so times. Skinner is a former CIA case officer (and analyst with The Soufan Group) who decided to become a rookie police officer in his local neighbourhood of Savannah, Georgia. The humility and thoughtfulness shown in this interview contrasts so much with the political grandstanding we often see about terrorism. And he provides a pertinent warning:

I’m very aware at work every day of the potential consequences of doing something wrong to someone, for example humiliating or disrespecting them. The damage is so immediate. One bad impression will overcome 10 good experiences. I’m hyper aware of the fact that I am acting in the name of the state. And I am very, very, very hesitant to use that power until I know that I’m right. And does that mean that I’m a hesitating cop? Well, no, but it probably means I’m not gonna make a lot of mistakes. I do not want to make a mistake in the name of the state, using the power of the state. But overseas, we do that a lot. It’s not our intention. We call it collateral damage, but it’s killing innocent people or it’s raids based on bad intel. You want to avoid kicking in doors in the wrong house, which we did overseas all the time. And we kind of just missed the very large impact that has on people. I would say, exercise more caution than you think you should. You really don’t want to make mistakes. I can’t stress this enough. Mistakes made in law enforcement or CT are devastating to individuals. Mistakes in law enforcement and CT made repeatedly are devastating to communities and entire systems of justice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently, particularly in relation to the mistaken charges against Mohamed Nizamdeen. I strongly recommend reading the full interview.

ASIO’s definition of foreign interference

Just a quick post to share this image I noticed in the latest ASIO annual report, presenting their view of what constitutes “foreign interference” and what distinguishes it from mere influence:

ASIOFIchart

Countering foreign interference has formally been part of ASIO’s mandate at least since the 1979 ASIO Act, which defined in the following way:

acts of foreign interference means activities relating to Australia that are carried on by or on behalf of, are directed or subsidised by or are undertaken in active collaboration with, a foreign power, being activities that:

                     (a)  are clandestine or deceptive and:

                              (i)  are carried on for intelligence purposes;

                             (ii)  are carried on for the purpose of affecting political or governmental processes; or

                            (iii)  are otherwise detrimental to the interests of Australia; or

                     (b)  involve a threat to any person.

It was also effectively part of ASIO’s role before the 1979 legislation. ASIO’s 1949 charter and 1956 legislation did not use the term “foreign interference”, but did use the broad notion of “subversion” which among other things encompasses what is now called foreign interference. It’s become a bigger political concern in Australia in the past couple of years, due to the impact of Russian electoral interference overseas, the commissioning in late 2016 of a joint ASIO and ONA report on Chinese covert activities in Australia, and controversies like the Dastyari affair.

Foreign interference is a real threat, but not a new one (here’s an interesting article on old Soviet methods), and not something Western countries are innocent of. I’m wary of how the concept could easily be misused (it’s not hard to imagine political figures casually throwing the term around to discredit opponents) and some aspects of the new legislation. At some point I’d like to write something about the broader politics of national security and how Australia’s political debates about foreign interference share some of the same shortcomings as Australia’s counter-terrorism debates.

 

Image: © Commonwealth of Australia 2018, Creative Commons BY Attribution 3.0 Australia licence. Taken from the ASIO Annual Report 2017–18, pages 26-27.

New commentary on Australian IS plots

I have a new piece out discussing which terror plots in Australia have had a genuine and direct connection to “Islamic State” (IS), what the nature of these connections were, and what this tells us about the threat.

It’s up on the website of the AVERT (Addressing Violent Extremism and Radicalisation to Terrorism) Research Network based at Deakin University. I will be a regular blogger there, posting twelve pieces over the next year. I’m going to use it as a chance to post more regularly than I tend do here, and to keep up with current developments. Please enjoy the first one!

News on Sub Rosa and other Australian security-related podcasts

For the first time in a while, we have a new episode of Sub Rosa out.  I spoke to David Schaefer again, this time about intelligence studies and a new article of his on the future of Pine Gap.

I also want to mention a bunch of other podcasts that may be of interest, particularly as some new Australian security-related ones are out.

One of my fellow PhD candidates at Monash, Alasdair Kempton, co-hosts the On War: the Podcast. My favourite episode is the one on pirates and privateers, particularly for the stories about the SMS Emden and the SMS Seaadler, followed by the episode on soldiers of fortune.

It has a similar style to War for Idiots, a podcast co-hosted by Army officers Mick Cook and Rich Thapthimthong, which I’ve mentioned here before. Both podcasts focus each episode on a war-related concept and aim to explain it clearly to listeners, with the difference that War for Idiots aims for a military audience while On War: the Podcast aims for an academic audience.

Mick Cook’s other podcast, The Dead Prussian, has just started a new season and so far it’s great.

Those three podcasts (The Dead Prussian, War for Idiots and On War: the Podcast) are ones I listen to a lot and find heaps of fun.

There are also Australian security-related podcasts I listen to much more intermittently.

The Lowy Institute’s podcast, which is more about  international relations and foreign policy rather than just security, is particularly valuable. I don’t listen to it often but one recent excellent episode was a panel discussion on Australia, China and the fallout from the foreign influence debate. It was the most responsible and nuanced discussion of this issue I’ve seen come out of any Australian think-tank.

A similarly less directly security-related podcast is The Little Red Podcast, co-hosted by Graeme Smith and Louisa Lim, which is the most informative podcast on China and Chinese-Australian relations that I know of.

We’ve also had two new Australian entrances into podcasting, though from long-established institutions.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) now has a podcast called Policy, Guns and Money, with five episodes out so far.

The Australian National University’s National Security College (NSC) produces the National Security Podcast, with about ten episodes out.

Finally, if your interest is more in information security, there’s Patrick Gray’s podcast Risky Business and Stilgherrian’s The 9pm Edict.

As for Sub Rosa, Kate Grealy and I have several more episodes planned, but it will probably be at least a few months before we produce and release the next one.