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.

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.

Three upcoming terrorism studies masterclasses and a conference on the aftermath of ISIS

Some interesting terrorism-related academic events are coming up very soon in Canberra and Perth.

First, my intermittent co-author and podcast guest, Levi West, and his colleagues at Charles Sturt University have organised three masterclasses on terrorism studies, which have a number of international guests skyping in.

The first two classes in particular look fantastic and have great guest lecturers. Steven Tankel wrote this excellent book on Lashkar e-Toiba which I’ve drawn on in previous work, Craig Whiteside and Seamus Hughes are in my “must-read” list whenever I hear they have something new out, Sarah Phillips is possibly Australia’s top scholar covering conflict in Yemen, Mark Pitcavage does great work on the extreme right, and Christopher Anzalone is probably the person I read most on al-Shabaab. It’s rare to have this much international talent at a terrorism studies events in Australia, particularly at a teaching-focused event intended.

These classes are all taking place in Canberra this month. The first masterclass is on the history of terrorism (its coming up so try to apply soon):

History of Terrorism Masterclass 07-11 May


Followed by one on contemporary terrorism (try to apply before 10 May):

Contemporary Terrorism Masterclass 14-18 May 2018


And then one on the financing and resourcing of terrorism (try to apply before 20 May):

Terrorist Financing Masterclass 29-31May 2018


It’s a busy month. In Perth, the University of Western Australia is hosting a Conference on Radicalisation and De-radicalisation: Post-ISIS:

Three years ago, ISIS claimed a cross-border caliphate stretching over vast swathes of north-western Iraq and eastern Syria. Fascinated by its rise, Muslim youths from all corners rapidly joined its cause. After three years of shocking violence, ISIS has faced major setbacks and has been in retreat in those areas it formerly controlled. Many of its fighters have been returning. This conference brings together experts to shed light on the lessons on radicalisation and de-radicalisation in the context of the rise and apparent decline of ISIS and to offer insights into future trends. What would radicalisation and de-radicalisation look like in the future? What are the responses required? These are the questions at the heart of this one-day conference being organised by The Centre for Muslim States and Societies, The University of Western Australia. The conference will be useful for policy makers, law enforcement groups, academia, students and all those interested in countering radicalisation.

Its speakers are:

Professor Amin Saikal, Australian National University | The defeat of the ‘Islamic State’ and its impact on US foreign policy in the Middle East

Profess James Piscatori, Australian National University | The Umma post-ISIS

Professor Samina Yasmeen, The University of Western Australia | JUD, ISIS and Pakistan: future trajectories of radicalisation

Dr Richard Vokes, Associate Professor, University of Western Australia | The shifting contexts of jihadism in Sub-Saharan Africa: a comparison of al-Shabaab and the Allied Democratic Forces

Dr Ian Chalmers, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, The University of Western Australia | How have the jihadists coped with Indonesia’s de-radicalisation campaign?

Dr Leila Ben Mcharek, Research Fellow, CMSS, The University of Western Australia | Libya: a case of survival of Daesh

Dr Shehzad Saleem, Research Fellow and Vice President, Al-Mawrid Institute | Understanding ISIS’s ideology and its continued influence

Nava Ghalili, Journalist | Youth empowerment as a means to prevent youth radicalization?

Ridwan, PhD Candidate, The University of Western Australia | Transnational Islam and Threat of Radicalisation in Indonesia

Farooq Yousaf, PhD Candidate, University of Newcastle, New South Wales

This is quite a different event to the masterclasses above, but it similarly looks excellent. I’m much less familiar with the work of its speakers (except for Samina Yasmeen, Amin Saikal and Ian Chalmers), but generally the scholarly background of the speakers looks to be area studies and Islamic Studies rather than terrorism studies, which is good change of perspective (I’ve gone on a bit before about how something as complex and contentious as terrorism requires a range of approaches).

It is also extremely affordable ($50 for students, $100 for others) and it’s this Friday, so if interested you’ll need to be quick.


And in a smaller bit of news, back in February post I mistakenly wrote that Talal Alameddine would be sentenced on 2 March for supplying the handgun used to murder NSW Police employee Curtis Cheng in the Parramatta terrorist attack. He will actually be sentenced on 18 May.

Four announcements

Four bits of news relevant to readers of this blog.

First, one of the founders of modern terrorism studies, Bruce Hoffman, is briefly coming to Australia. He will give a public talk in Canberra on 30 April, organised by Charles Sturt University:

hoffman event

Second, Kate Grealy and I have released a new episode of Sub Rosa, for the first time in over a year.

I interviewed David Schaefer, who is now at King’s College London, about Australia’s dependence on US space technology and how this impacts our military alliance and the risks of conflict entrapment. Click here to listen to the episode:

Episode 13: Space technology and the US-Australian alliance, with David Schaefer

dave schaefer kingsIn this episode, Andrew talks to David Schaefer about developments in space technology and how they are changing long-held assumptions about the military alliance between Australia and the United States.

David Schaefer is currently a PhD Candidate at King’s College London. When this episode was recorded in September 2017, David was based at the University of Melbourne, working for AsiaLink and Ormond College.

We spoke about his research on how technological changes have impacted the US-Australian alliance in ways that haven’t always been widely recognised in Australia’s national security debates. We also spoke about how this potentially makes Australia’s exposure to great-power conflict more complex and ambiguous than during the Cold War, particularly in the context of US-China rivalry and the prospect that any new conflict could open with cyber-attacks against information networks shared between Australia and the United States.

Third, the Monash Gender, Peace and Security group has released an interesting new resource which maps gender provisions in peace agreements. Take a look here.

Fourth, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute is hiring a new National Security / Counter-Terrorism Analyst. You can apply here before 29 April. They have also announced openings for their six month paid internships, you can apply here before 6 May.


Security research round-up for International Women’s Day

To help celebrate International Women’s Day, this post presents a collection of security-related research by Australian women.

It covers research released in the past year or so. The list is not comprehensive, it’s a small selection of research by people whose work I happen to be familiar with, and deserves to be much larger.

Kate Barrelle
Does the Pursuit of Meaning Explain the Initiation, Escalation, and Disengagement of Violent Extremists? Aggression and Violent Behavior, Volume 34, May 2017 (co-authored with Rosleenda Ali, Simon Moss and Pete Lentini)

Helen Berents
Gender and Age in the Construction of Male Youth in the European Migration “Crisis”, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Volume 43, Number 3, 2018 (co-authored with Lesley Pruitt and Gayle Munro)

Leah Farrall
Revisiting al-Qaida’s Foundation and Early History, Perspectives on Terrorism, Volume 11, Issue 6, 2017

Michele Grossman
Community Reporting Thresholds: Sharing Information with Authorities Concerning Violent Extremist Activity and Involvement in Foreign Conflict – A UK Replication Study, CREST Research, 18 September 2017 (co-authored with Paul Thomas, Shamim Miah and Kris Christmann)

Amy King
A New Normal? The Changing Future of Nuclear Energy in China, Learning from Fukushima: Nuclear Power in East Asia, ANU Press, 2017

Sarah Logan
The Needle and the Damage Done: Of Haystacks and Anxious Panopticons, Big Data & Society, published online 27 October 2017

Sofia Patel
The Sultanate of Women: Exploring Female Roles in Perpetrating and Preventing Violent Extremism, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 13 February 2017

Alex Phelan
Engaging Insurgency: The Impact of the 2016 Colombian Peace Agreement on FARC’s Political Participation, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, published online 20 Feb 2018

Natalie Sambhi
Indonesia’s Naval and Coast Guard Upgrades and Jokowi’s Global Maritime Fulcrum, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, January 2017 (scroll to page 83)

Nina Silove
Beyond the Buzzword: The Three Meanings of “Grand Strategy”, Security Studies, Volume 27, Issue 1, 2017

Aim Sinpeng
Participatory Inequality in Online and Offline Political Engagement in Thailand, Pacific Affairs, Volume 90, Issue 2, 2017

Debra Smith
So How Do You Feel about That? Talking with Provos about Emotion, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, published online 1 June 2017

Similarly, here is a far-from-comprehensive list of Australian women who tweet on security and many other issues who I recommend following:

Jessie Blackbourn: @JessBlackbourn

Leah Farrall: @allthingsct

Kate Grealy: @kategrealy

Sarah Logan: @circt

Clare Murphy: @ClareAliceMurph

Leanne O’Donnell: @MsLods

Sofia Patel: @laramimi

Alex Phelan: @Alex_Phelan

Natalie Sambhi: @SecurityScholar

Katrina Zorzi: @kmzrz

As mentioned, the list deserves to be much larger, so feel free to suggest more in the comments. It’s also important to remember that women are generally disadvantaged in academia, so many promising scholars don’t get the opportunities they deserve.

New and promising terrorism research across the disciplines: a personal list

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.


Political science

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.

Recent podcast episodes on terrorism and Australian national security

I’ve been listening to bunch of podcasts recently, and want to share some episodes I think readers of this blog might enjoy.

Anyone interested in the study of terrorism needs to give Talking Terror a shot. It’s hosted by John Morrison, Director of the Terrorism and Extremism Research Centre at the University of East London, and focused both on the phenomenon of terrorism itself and on the academic field of terrorism studies. Each guest is asked about their own research and research by others that has strongly influenced them. Most of the guests are quite critical of aspects of terrorism studies, as many scholars are, but also optimistic about where the field is heading. I find it a fascinating and refreshing podcast. My favourite episodes are:

Episode 1: Laura Dugan
“John and Laura discuss the origins and iterations of the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), her research on moving beyond deterrence in Israel, and Armenian terrorism.”

Episode 4: Bart Schuurman
“This episode covers a range of issues including the evaluation of Dutch re-integration programmes, the role of public support in terrorism and counter-terrorism, and the individual rationales for involvement in Dutch jihadist groups.”

Episode 5: Erica Chenoweth
“Erica discusses a range of topics relating to her research and her influences. Included within this is a fascinating discussion of how Zlata’s Diary had a huge influence on her career… Erica’s career has focused on analysing political violence and its alternatives, and this is reflected in her discussion with John.”

Episode 11: John Morrison
“John Morrison has left the host’s chair, replaced by Andrew Silke, and for one episode only is the guest on the show. In this interview John discusses how his early interest in sports psychology still influences him today, his research on splits in Irish Republicanism, and his current focus on the role of trust is the psychology of terrorism.”

Also, the Blogs of War podcast, Covert Contact, has been doing a great run of episodes with Australian guests, covering issues like terrorism, warfare and information security. I’ve collected them all here:

Episode 75: Understanding and Developing Resilience To Information Warfare
Interview with Clint Arizmendi, an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow for the Australian Graduate School of Policing & Security’s Terrorism Studies program at Charles Sturt University.

Episode 76: Australian Special Operations Forces
Interview with Colonel Ian Langford, DSC (Two Bar), who has served the Australian Army and Special Operations Command, with distinction.

Episode 77: Australian Approaches to Counterterrorism
Interview with the Director of Terrorism Studies at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Levi West.

Episode 78: Australian Cyber Policy
Interview with  freelance journalist, commentator, and broadcaster Stilgherrian.

Episode 82: The Crypto Wars: Update from the Australian Front
Another interview with Australian freelance journalist, commentator, and broadcaster Stilgherrian.

Episode 85: Terrorists and Technology
Another interview with Levi West, Director of Terrorism Studies at Charles Sturt University in Canberra.


Australia’s growing online strategy-sphere

In March last year, I wrote that Australia was seeing an emerging online strategy-sphere. It’s now grown well past the point where it can be considered “emerging”.

That post discussed how, in the mid-to-late 2000s when the US had tens of thousands of troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, an online network developed of soldiers and civilians who debated military operations and strategy. My post suggested that Australia was starting to see something similar, and gave the following examples:

  • The Australian Army has started its own blog, the Land Power Forum, with contributions from many active members. As Danielle Cave points out, despite it being a government blog the posts are not simply puff pieces. There are of course firm boundaries set though, with the about page stating “Land Power Forum is not designed to re-litigate issues that have already been discussed and decided upon.”

  • Army Major Clare O’Neill has a website called “Grounded Curiosity”, including a blog and a podcast, which “aims to start a conversation with junior commanders about our future in warfare.”

  • Army Major Mick Cook has started a podcast called The Dead Prussian (referring to Clausewitz), which “aims to explore War and Warfare through discussion and analysis of military theory, historical events, contemporary conflicts, and expert interviews.”

  • Army Brigadier Mick Ryan has a Twitter account, has been writing in The Bridge (an online journal which is part of the Military Writer’s Guild) about the importance of social media for the military, and appeared on Clare O’Neill’s podcast.

  • Several Army officers recently spoke at a conference on Social Media and the Spectrum of Modern Conflict. You can watch videos of their talks here.

  • Navy Captain Justin Jones, who was director of the Sea Power Centre, has been blogging on the Lowy Interpreter and tweeting for a while (I would guess that there are other examples from the Navy, and maybe the Air Force, but most of what I have found is Army).

  • With the creation of ASPI’s Strategist in 2012, and the Land Power Forum in 2014, Australia’s institutional blogs now feature much more discussion of military strategy than before (though strategy has always been part of the discussion on the Lowy Interpreter since 2007), with both civilian and military contributions.

There have been many more developments since then. For example:

  • Lieutenant Colonel Tom McDermott and others have created a new online resource, The Cove, which describes itself as “a professional development resource for the Australian Profession of Arms.  It is designed to help military professionals sharpen their skills, connect with peers and allies, and develop new concepts and ideas for consideration.”
  • Major Clare O’Neill and others have set up the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum Australia, to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation within the military, which is described here. It was prompted by the need to better facilitate innovation within the Army, which has been recognised for some time. DEFAus is a subsidiary of a similar outfit in the United States, created in 2013.
  • Another organisation has also been created, the Postern Association, which is “the Australian Army’s new association for professional development”. It doesn’t seem to have a website yet, but these four posts (one, two, three, four) help explain what it is.
  • Army Major Mick Cook now has a second podcast, co-hosted with Rich Thapthimthong, called War for Idiots. Their review of Netflix’s War Machine is a good place to start.
  • The Army now has its own official podcast, called The Australian Army Training and Doctrine Podcast, to “explore all aspects of training within the Australian Army. From international large-scale exercises to individual training activities, find out how the men and women of today’s Australian Army work towards professional excellence.”
  • The Australian Defence Force also now has its own podcast, called Our Stories – Australian Defence Force on Operations Podcast. Its description says “ADF members serving Australia in the Middle East describe their mission and share their personal experiences”.
  • The papers from the 2015 conference I mentioned on social media and the military have now been published in a special edition of the journal Security Challenges. The organisers held a follow-up conference in March called Keyboard Warriors.
  • There continue to be many Australian contributions to the Strategy Bridge, often by Australian members of the Military Writer’s Guild.
  • Brigadier Mick Ryan has continued contributing to many of these discussions. He wrote this three-part series on mastering the profession of arms (one, two, three) for War On The Rocks, and a recent piece for Foreign Policy. He also conducted a review of Australia’s Professional Military Education, Training and Doctrine called the Ryan Report, and sometimes posts updates (from January, February, and March).
  • There are now more Australian Army Twitter accounts.
  • The Army’s own blog, the Land Power Forum, remains active.
  • Nathan Finney, a major figure within America’s online strategy-sphere, is currently in Australia as an Australian Strategic Policy Institute visiting fellow.

The term “strategy-sphere” was borrowed from this Tanner Greer post about the American version of this scene. I don’t know if the participants in the Australian initiatives I’ve listed above would consider themselves part of a “strategy-sphere”, or what other term they might use to describe their online community. But I find value in the term because it conveys how their focus is not primarily on the broad political questions of the wisdom or justice of particular wars, alliances or foreign policy decisions (though these can be considered questions of “grand strategy”).

Instead they mainly discuss questions of military strategy, operations and tactics, including issues such as leadership, logistics, training and technology. These online discussions tend to be practitioner-focused rather than policy-focused, which makes sense. Many of those involved are serving soldiers, who don’t decide whether wars should be launched but have to fight where elected leaders choose to send them.

For the broader political discussions, there’s plenty coming out of the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC), National Security College (NSC), Sydney University’s United States Studies Centre (USSC), the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), the Lowy Institute for International Policy, the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA), the Kokoda Foundation (now the Institute for Regional Security or IFRS), the Perth USAsia Centre and many other places.

But I’m finding this strategy-sphere (which does overlap with the activities of some of the above institutions, there isn’t a firm divide) particularly interesting, because it’s a much newer addition to Australia’s online national security discussions.

We weren’t seeing this five years ago (the earlier post discussed some of the reasons why), but Australia now has a substantial online community focused on military strategy and operations, including the voices of serving soldiers. It has gotten much bigger in just the past year, and I’m enjoying watching it grow.

New research on terrorism in Melbourne and elsewhere

I’ve had some new work published, as have some of my former GTReC colleagues.

My new Security Challenges article examines the idea of virtually planned terrorist attacks, and uses it to help explain the 2015 Anzac plot in Melbourne and potential future plots:

The Role of Virtual Planners in the 2015 Anzac Day Terror Plot, Security Challenges, Volume 13, Issue 1, 2017. (open access)

This case study shows how the 2015 Anzac Day terror plot resulted from virtual planning, which is an operational method the Islamic State has used widely since 2014. The article traces how the Melbourne-based perpetrator received online instructions on four components of the intended attack: choosing targets, making tactical preparations, maintaining commitment, and ensuring publicity. The article demonstrates the importance of the concept of virtual planning for understanding Australia’s current terror threat and examines aspects of the plot, particularly the involvement of a UK-based juvenile, valuable for understanding the Islamic State’s ability to initiate violence in Australia and elsewhere.

I also discussed virtual planning, and some other aspects of the IS threat, last week on Radio National’s The World Today.

Joe Ilardi has written an article on the Melbourne-based terrorist cell disrupted by Operation Pendennis in 2005, based on interviews with an undercover police officer who befriended the cell’s leader:

A Homegrown Terrorist Cell: Observations of a Police Undercover Operative, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, published online 16 June 2017. (paywalled)

On 10 October 2004, an improvised explosive device was detonated in bush land in the vicinity of Mount Disappointment on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia. A relatively small device, it was assembled and detonated by one of the two men present, a Victoria Police officer and undercover operative known as Security Intelligence Officer 39, or SIO39. The other person was the leader of a homegrown terrorist cell, who in the months preceding had assembled a group of a dozen individuals who became the subject of Australia’s largest counterterrorism investigation known as Operation Pendennis. This article, which is based on in-depth interviews with SIO39, provides unique insights into a range of activities and behaviors peculiar to this cohort. Commencing his association with the group early in its development, SIO39 was privy to some of its key evolutionary stages, from a collection of individuals meeting more or less in the open, to a clandestine body that clearly harbored terrorist intent and undertook a number of overt acts to advance its violent objectives.

Pete Lentini has also written a new article on this terrorist cell, taking a sociology of religion approach, which should be published this year:

The Neojihadist Cell as a Religious Organization: A Melbourne Jema’ah Case Study, Journal for the Academic Study of Religion, Volume 30, Issue 1, 2017. (in press)

Moving away from Australia, Debra Smith has written this groundbreaking article on emotions and terrorism:

So How Do You Feel about That? Talking with Provos about Emotion, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, published online 1 June 2017. (open access)

Participation in political violence draws on identities and world views that have been shaped and influenced by emotion. This article uses data drawn from interviews conducted with 15 former members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army to highlight some of the ways that emotion is intertwined with decisions to use violence in pursuit of a substate political goal. Six themes emerge that help to demonstrate how participant’s emotional lives have helped to build the identities, beliefs, and motivations that have led to violent acts. The study illuminates how the experience, elicitation, and management of emotions played an integral role in the participant’s trajectory towards violence.


Videos: academia and national security

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve long been interested in the relationship between academia and national security.

This post has some of my favourite videos on the topic.


The first video is of a panel discussion held last year on social science and how it can inform the future of warfare.

The Ivory Tower Goes To War: What Lessons Does Social Science Hold For The Future of War?

Panel held at the New America Foundation’s 2016 Future of War conference.

Speakers: Christia Fotoni, Christian Davenport, H.R. McMaster, Will H. Moore and Erin Simpson.

This is a largely US-focused discussion, and a really engaging and enjoyable one. Two people from this video have now taken up some prominent new roles. The panel chair, Erin Simpson, now co-hosts the podcast Bombshell. One of the speakers, H.R. McMaster, is now the National Security Advisor for the Trump Administration and has become increasingly controversial.


The next video is on the academic field of terrorism studies.

The Future of Terrorism Studies

Panel held at the Georgetown University Center for Security Studies’ Future of Terrorism conference .

Speakers: Richard English, Gary LaFree, and Arie Perliger.

The first talk in this video, by Richard English, is excellent. He starts by highlighting the three regularly cited dilemmas in the field: the lack of a consensus over the definition of terrorism, the supposedly stark divide between “orthodox terrorism studies” and “critical terrorism studies”, and the critique that the field has stagnated. But he quickly points out why these dilemmas matter less than they may appear to. He points out there’s plenty of common ground between different terrorism definitions and between the best scholars from the field’s “orthodox” and “critical” variants, that these sorts of contestations aren’t unique to this field, and that the concerns over “stagnation” are overstated. He then moves on to many more serious problems in the field, particularly a five-fold fragmentation between different methodological approaches.

Then Gary LaFree talks about statistical data-gathering in terrorism studies, and different ways the data can be used, such as to find “microcycles” in terrorism. He also talks about how all the different datasets are going to be linked with each other more, and how this could provide stronger evidence about which counter-terrorism measures work best, and how important social media is becoming for research. Then Arie Perliger talks about some of the core conceptual dilemmas involved in attempts to “profile” terrorists.

But I enjoyed Richard English’s talk the best, as I strongly agree with him about terrorism studies needing to move beyond some the debates that have bogged it down for so long, and with his warnings of new dilemmas emerging. If you don’t have time to watch the video, read this article of his here (paywalled unfortunately).


The final video looks at the development of knowledge on one particular brand of terrorism: al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

What did scholars and policy makers know about al-Qaeda and Affiliated movements before 9/11? Part 2

Panel held at the Conflict Records Research Center’s 9/11 10 years Later: Insights on Al-Qaeda’s Past and Future Through Captured Records conference.

Speakers: Dr. Thomas Hegghammer, Dr. Mark Stout, Ms. Cindy Storer, Dr. Mary Habeck, Prof Yonah Alexander.

I want to highlight a quote from Cindy Storer, a former al-Qaeda analyst in the CIA. She was part of a group of mainly female analysts (referred to as “the Sisterhood“) who were warning before 9/11 that al-Qaeda wasn’t being taken seriously enough.

In one part of the video, Storer reflects on her experiences with academics, which unfortunately weren’t positive. She suggests that academics failed to appreciate the al-Qaeda threat before 9/11, and that this fed into the reluctance in upper CIA and government levels to listen those analysts who warned of the impending danger.

Before 9/11, we tried to reach out to academia a lot, and it was hard because, nobody studied al-Qaeda. There were people who were very good understanding of terrorism. Bruce Hoffman, Martha Crenshaw, a lot of people like that we reached out to. And we were able, especially from Martha Crenshaw, to learn a lot about in general how terrorist groups work, how terrorism comes about, so to be able to put al-Qaeda into this broad context of being a terrorist organisation. But since nobody was really talking about al-Qaeda itself, comments that academics made on al-Qaeda itself generally were counter-productive. Because again, we [al-Qaeda analysts in the CIA] were a small community, we were women in an operational environment, and so it was really easy to ignore us frankly. Because people wanted to anyway, Hezbollah was the important issue and Iran and all of that, so people in the agency tended to look to “outside experts” more than to us. And when those outside experts hadn’t studied the organisation they’d say things like “well I assume it’s XYZ based on my study of whatever happened in the 1980s or the 1970s” and it was just wrong. It was wrong. And it gave people a false comfort, I think, on the policy and upper management levels, that they weren’t dealing with anything significantly different. So, that was a problem.

Now, if you had been able to marry up, that broader understanding of issues with the details that people can see in the intelligence community of an emerging threat of an emerging issue, then wow, what you could have done earlier would have been spectacular. But there are all these barriers that counter cooperation, not least of which is the restrictions placed on academics who get access to classified material. It just doesn’t work very well. And we need to find a way to do something about that problem. I should also mention there were journalists. Honestly a lot of our early outreach efforts, in terms of what we would like to read, were journalistic efforts. People on the ground seeing what was happening.

I found this interesting because academic discussions about whether to engage with the policy world sometimes start from the assumption that academics have valuable knowledge which government officials need, and less often reflect on the risk that they will provide misinformed advice and have harmful policy impacts.

It’s also interesting because terrorism scholars are regularly accused of overstating terror threats, but on some key occasions they have tended to underestimate threats, and this video suggests that academic assessments of al-Qaeda prior to 9/11 are another example (though there is rarely uniformity in the field).

Its these sorts of issues, which all of the videos touch on, which most interest me. They go to some of core questions in this area that need to be regularly reflected on:

  • How can academia best contribute to national security policy and practice?
  • Should academia even try to influence national security policy and practice, or should it not try to play any such role at all?
  • When might academia harm people by providing intellectual cover for unjust government actions carried out in the name of national security?
  • Or alternatively, when might academia harm national security by giving ill-informed advice?