Resources: some background to the Christchurch massacre

This is another quick post, to share some resources relevant to the Christchurch massacre.

The perpetrator, an Australian white supremacist, murdered 50 people (so far) at two mosques in New Zealand, which is more people than were killed in most terrorist attacks in Western Europe and North America in recent decades (with some major exceptions such as Oklahoma 1995, the 9/11 attacks, Madrid 2004, London 2005, Oslo 2011, and Paris 2015). This is the largest death toll from any terrorist attack, and mass shooting, inside either Australia or New Zealand for nearly a century (since the atrocities against the Indigenous populations). The attack has left dozens more people maimed and wounded. And as terrorism is intended to, the attack has also had impact on a far wider audience than the immediate victims, traumatising entire communities.

It’s long-term political impact, in New Zealand, Australia and eslewhere, isn’t yet clear. Whether it leads to a moment of political unification rather than further polarisation, and whether it will prompt various mainstream political and media figures to repudiate the far-right and stop stigmatising Muslims rather than react unreflectively, depends on the choices people make in the coming weeks, months and years.

There’s been a lot of valuable commentary on this tragedy, but it’s still early days and there’s a lot we don’t know. So here are a some pieces of excellent research published before the massacre, which help provide context:

Jacob Aasland Ravndal and Tore Bjørgo , “Investigating Terrorism from the Extreme Right: A Review of Past and Present Research“, Perspectives on Terrorism, Volume XII, Issue 6, 2018. For an introduction to academic research on modern far-right violent extremism, this is probably the best single article to start with (it introduces a Special Issue of the journal).

J.M. Berger, “The Alt-Right Twitter Census: Defining and Describing the Audience for Alt-Right Content on Twitter“, VOX-Pol, 15 October 2018. This is one of the few quantitative studies available on online alt-right activity.

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, “A Neo-Nationalist Network: The English Defence League and Europe’s Counter-Jihad Movement“, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 14th March 2013. This report examines the transnational “counter-jihad” movement which influenced Anders Breivik and, less directly, Breivik copycats (though Breivik was also strongly influenced by more traditional extreme-right ideas).

I also would have shared Fred Halliday’s book chapter “Anti-Muslimism and Contemporary Politics: One Ideology or Many” from his 1995 book Islam and the Myth of Confrontation, but it doesn’t seem to be online.

Finally, I’ve been thinking recently about how victims of terrorism are rarely focused on in the field of terrorism studies, other than as statistics. The media has always done a much better job of conveying this human side of the story than the academy has, and social media at its best can do the same. So I strongly recommend Khaled Beydoun’s tweet thread which provides a personal story of each person murdered by this extremist.

Writing and other updates

This is another quick post for a few updates.

I recently had a chapter published in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Counterterrorism Yearbook 2019, looking at counter-terrorism developments in Australia during the past year. You can read the chapter here or my Strategist post on it here.

I recently spoke to David Wroe for this article about the United States urging the Australian government to “take responsibility” for Australian Islamic State fighters captured in Syria. At some point I want to write a post on this issue, either on this blog, or AVERT, or elsewhere, to make clear how much of dilemma counter-terrorism authorities (not just in Australia) are facing. Leaving these Australians in hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces carries a whole range of risks, but my own preference (that the government make more efforts to prosecute them here) entails serious risks as well.

In other terrorism-related news, the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor has announced a review into the citenship-stripping legislation, which is a great idea.

Finally, there are several terrorism trials currently underway in Sydney (according to the NSW Courts Registry app) which should be incredibly interesting, but I’ve seen absolutely no media reporting of them so I am guessing that there are loads of suppression orders. Hopefully some of it becomes public soon.

Resources: terrorism and counter-terrorism in New Zealand

I made a small collection of resources about the recent history of terrorism and counter-terrorism in Aotearoa / New Zealand. Sometimes this history is closely linked to developments in Australia (such as the jihadist and Ananda Marga cases), while other times it’s quite separate.

General:

John Battersby, “Can Old Lessons Inform Current Directions: Australia, New Zealand, and Ananda Marga’s Trans-Tasman ‘Terrorism’ 1975–1978“, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Published online 20 Feb 2019 (paywalled).

John Battersby, “Terrorism Where Terror Is Not: Australian and New Zealand Terrorism Compared“, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Volume 41, Issue 1, 2018 (paywalled).

John Battersby, “Policing terrorism in a void“, New Zealand International Review, Volume 41, Issue 4, July 2016 (paywalled).

Aaron Y. Zelin, “New Zealand’s Jihadis“, New Zealand International Review, Volume 40, Issue 2, April 2015.

Richard Shortt, “Raising New Zealand’s Terrorism Threat Level: Is Transparency Important in National Security?“, Salus Journal, Issue 3, Number 1, 2015.

The formal agreement to establish the Australia-New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee in 2012.

B. K. Greener-Barcham, “Before September: A History of Counter-terrorism in New Zealand“, Australian Journal of Political Science, Volume 37, Issue 3, 2002 (paywalled).

John E Smith, “New Zealand’s Anti-Terrorism Campaign: Balancing Civil Liberties, National Security, And International Responsibilities“, Fulbright New Zealand, December 2003.

The Urewara raids:

Jo Lines-MacKenzie, “Tuhoe community 10 years after the Urewera raids“, Stuff, 14 October 2017.

OPERATION EIGHT: The Report of the Independent Police Conduct Authority“, Independent Police Conduct Authority of New Zealand, May 2013.

The Rainbow Warrior bombing:

Janet Wilson, “The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior: Responses to an International Act of Terrorism“, Journal of Post-Colonial Cultures and Societies, Volume 1, Issue 1, January 2010.

Ramesh Thakur, “A Dispute of Many Colours: France, New Zealand and the ‘Rainbow Warrior’ Affair“, The World Today, Volume 42, Issue 12, December 1986 (paywalled).

Updates on terrorism court cases and parliamentary hearings

There have been a few developments in Australian counter-terrorism prosecutions and parliamentary hearings over the past month. This post helps keep track of them.

Shoma hearing

In Melbourne, Momena Shoma had a plea hearing on Tuesday 29 January. Shoma was the Bangladeshi student who stabbed her homestay host one month after arriving in Australia. She had told police that she entered Australia purely to carry out an attack in support of Islamic State (IS).

The hearing revealed that three days before the attack she messaged a friend through WhatsApp, saying that she needed “to gather more courage… to carry out his [Allah’s] blessing”. However, she is believed to have carried out the attack entirely on her own. In Bangladesh she had interacted with IS on Facebook and reportedly sought to marry a man who went on to fight for IS in Iraq, but there is no suggestion that IS directed the attack itself.

Most importantly, the hearing also revealed the trauma Shoma put her victims through. The stabbing victim, Roger Singaravelu, said that he lived in fear and was now unable work, telling the court that “I don’t believe I will ever recover,” and “I can’t escape what happened.” The court was also told that his daughter suffers flashbacks and nightmares.

Namoa and Baydeh sentencing

In Sydney, Alo-Bridget Namoa and Sameh Baydeh have been sentenced over their terrorist plot. They conspired to rob non-Muslims on New Years Eve 2015, and then to carry out further violence. They were sentenced to around four years each. These are the shortest sentences I’ve seen for anyone in Australia convicted of “conspiracy to do act(s) in preparation for terrorist act(s)”. According to the sentencing document, this is partly a result of them having renounced their beliefs and (particularly in the case of Baydeh) assisted authorities.

Azari hearing

Also in Sydney, Omarjan Azari had a sentence hearing on Friday 1 February. He the first person charged with a terrorism offence following the Operation Appleby raids in September 2014. This was when around 800 NSW Joint Counter Terrorism Team (JCTT) officers raided properties across Sydney, arresting and questioning 15 people, while 70 Queensland JCTT officers carried out raids in Brisbane.

These raids were a very dramatic event at the time. Now, IS is nowhere near as strong as it used to be and JCTT raids have become far more frequent and far less controversial, so it can be hard to remember the atmosphere of September 2014.  To provide some background:

Understanding these events requires briefly turning to the Middle East. September 2014 was a tumultuous month in the region, in which the confrontation between IS and the US-led military coalition reached a new level. By this time, IS had been able to successfully exploit the chaos of Syria’s civil war and the fragility of Iraq (as the political settlement forged to contain the outbreak of violence after the 2003 US invasion started to collapse). By June 2014 IS had conquered swathes of land in Iraq, including the million-strong city of Mosul, and declared itself a “Caliphate”. By August they conquered more territory, seized the Kurdish city of Sinjar and perpetrated acts of genocide against its Yazidi population, and were poised to expand further.

US President Barack Obama responded on 7 August by ordering airstrikes and assisting the Iraqi government and Kurdish Peshmerga to push back against IS. In reprisal, IS publicly murdered American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. On 10 September, Obama announced a broad coalition including Australia and other traditional allies to “roll back this terrorist threat” and “ultimately destroy” IS.  Following this, IS escalated its overt and covert efforts to attack Western countries. …

….

Counter-terrorism authorities watched these developments with concern. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) monitored local IS supporters and urged the government to raise the National Terrorism Public Alert. On 12 September the alert was raised from Medium to High.  Then on 18 September security agencies launched Australia’s largest ever series of counter-terrorism raids after intercepting a message from a Syria-based Australian IS member allegedly ordering supporters at home to murder a random member of the public. More than 800 federal and state police officers raided locations across Sydney and Brisbane to disrupt the suspected plot and its surrounding networks.

The intercepted call was between Omarjan Azari in Sydney and Mohammed Ali Baryelei in Syria. Baryelei was later killed in a US air strike, while Azari was charged with terrorism offences. His trial was stalled several times but eventually went ahead. In November 2018 a jury found him guilty. There has been little media coverage (I have only found two stories), but that might change after he is sentenced. Hopefully more information will become public about what appears to be one of IS’s first virtually planned plots.

At his sentence hearing, the judge remarked that “What has been striking to me … is how many persons who ­become involved in terrorism ­offences are very young, and there is an immaturity involved in it”. Unfortunately, as several of the attacks in Australia show, someone does not have to be mature to be able to cause harm and suffering.

Azari will be sentenced on Wednesday.

Parliamentary hearing on citizenship laws

Meanwhile, on Wednesday 30 January the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security held a public hearing on the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Strengthening the Citizenship Loss Provisions) Bill 2018. The bill will essentially reduce some of the restrictions on the citizenship-stripping laws introduced in 2015. This new bill will make it easier to revoke Australian citizenship from convicted (if inside Australia) or suspected (if outside Australia) terrorists.

As regular readers of this blog may know, I view the terrorist threat as real and serious, but I’m sceptical of the general trend of introducing increasingly powerful counter-terrorism laws. I expressed several objections to citizenship-stripping back in 2015, and no developments since have led me to change these views. Certainly not the Prakash fiasco, which was discussed a lot at the hearing.

A transcript of the hearing is now available.

Update 1: (added 15 February 2019) Azari did not end being sentenced on Wednesday 13 February, though the NSW Court Lists had listed his sentencing for then.

Update 2: (added 15 February 2019) The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security’s report on the new citizenship-stripping bill is now available. The committee was split, and the Labor members wrote a dissenting report (starting on page 41) opposing the bill.

Collected posts on terrorism studies and national security research

Following on from my 8 January post about the state of terrorism studies, I’ve made a collection of earlier Murphy Raid posts on terrorism studies and wider national security research.

Some of them simply list resources, others provide histories of particular fields or describe recent developments, reflecting my reading interests and ponderings at different times. I hope they’ll be useful to anyone interested in research in these areas.

Posts on terrorism studies:

Posts on national security, academia, and the public sphere:

Podcast news

Kate Grealy and I have released the first episode of Sub Rosa for 2019.

In the episode, Kate shares a presentation she recently gave at the University of Melbourne in November 2018, discussing the impact of countering violent extremism (CVE) policies on international development efforts in Indonesia. She discusses the implications of the international development sector engaging in work that has previously been conducted by domestic counter terrorism and security professionals. Enjoy it!

Meanwhile, I recently realised that the Australian Institute of International Affairs has a podcast, so I’ve updated my list of Australian foreign policy and national security podcasts:

This list only contains podcasts specifically focused on Australian foreign policy and national security, so it excludes many excellent Australian podcasts that are relevant to foreign policy and national security but are focused on either broader policy issues (such as Policy Forum Pod) or particular countries (such as Talking Indonesia or The Little Red Podcast) or regions (such as the New Mandala podcast) or themes (such as The Dead Prussian or Risky Business).

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 several 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 is treated as inherently superior to all others, 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 on 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.