The Stagnation of Research on Terrorism

September 11, 2001, triggered a wave of interest in research on terrorism. Hundreds of books, thousands of articles, and millions of comments have been posted on the Web. The federal government has stimulated research by infusing millions of dollars into the field. After the Boston Marathon bombings, it is time to reflect on what has been learned over the past 11 and a half years.

The surprise is that, over all, the same stale arguments about “how can this happen?” are debated over and over again—with very little new insight.

Yes, there has been some progress: Al Qaeda is no longer seen as an existential threat to the West in a clash of civilizations, and it is no longer believed to have deeply penetrated societies with superbly trained and fanatic sleeper cells.

The panic over an all-powerful organization has been replaced with the sober realization that neo-jihadi terrorists are for the most part homegrown and scattered in the West. A few have succeeded in traveling to the Middle East to connect with terrorist groups, but they are the exception and not the rule. So far as we know, the Boston bombing suspects show that successful terrorist attacks might not require hands-on training by formal terrorist organizations.

While the hysteria over a global conspiracy against the West has faded, however, there have been few new significant insights about how or why some young people turn to indiscriminate political violence. The disappointing state of the field, largely consisting of wild speculations without foundation, requires some explanation.

While think-tank researchers, journalists, and bloggers on the Internet investigate terrorist attacks, it is the role of academics and intelligence analysts to provide neutral and scholarly insights into this form of political violence. For the past eight years, I have had a foot in both communities. How well have they done?

There is no academic discipline on terrorism, so after the shock of 9/11, as federal money poured in, scholars from various fields took the bait: psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, historians, economists, engineers, and computer scientists immediately developed an interest in the topic. They tried to adapt their work to terrorism, but very few were really interested in terrorism per se.

Americans have an unshakable belief in technology, and the bulk of the original money went to “disruptive technologies” using advances in computer science to defeat an abstract enemy. Well-meaning research based on social-network analysis, data-farming, agent-based modeling, Bayesian networks, and other kinds of simulations flourished for a few years. The hope was that those cutting-edge tools would anticipate the tactics of the enemy, but they failed to deliver on their promise.

What the government did not support was the methodical accumulation of detailed and comprehensive data. As one official once said to me, “Why should I fund the collection of publicly available and free information?”

At the same time, the government expanded its own analytic capability: Thousands of patriotic young college graduates who could pass a security background investigation and a polygraph were hired by the military, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the State Department, and newly created agencies like the National Counterterrorism Center.

These young hires were to be trained in house, not through the building of large university centers like the Russian-studies centers at prestigious universities that were established at the beginning of the cold war. So most young recruits learned about terrorism on the job or at the FBI Academy, in Quantico, Va.; the CIA’s Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis, in Northern Virginia; or the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. The exception in the social sciences to this pattern are two centers on terrorism, the National Center on Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (Create), at the University of Southern California and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (Start), at the University of Maryland, financed by Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate.

The decision to separate the academic and intelligence study of terrorism were crucial to the stagnation of the field. During the cold war, there was an active interchange in Soviet studies between academe and the government. Indeed, some of the most-famous academics at times worked within the government in analytical or policy positions. That is not the case in terrorism studies, where the gap between the university and intelligence cultures has been unbridgeable.

The result is that academic research is often hampered by the government’s overclassification of research and is reduced to relying on government claims about terrorism, which are spun to the government’s advantage, or second-hand journalistic accounts based on politically motivated leaks. Basing research on such data is analogous to studying the German Wehrmacht during World War II by relying on the claims of allied public relations, politically motivated intelligence leaks, and Nazi propaganda.

The data collected in academe are incident-based databases, like Start’s Global Terrorism Database, which only crudely describe a terrorist incident but give few details. From such data, one can make statements about the frequency and distribution of attacks but learn   little about why young people become terrorists, which requires far more detailed, comprehensive, and reliable data. There should be little surprise that academic research has failed to generate any sort of consensus about the process through which people turn to political violence. Academic claims about that process are just speculation.

Ironically, the intelligence community suffers from the opposite problem. Young analysts have access to a wealth of classified information but have no formal methodological background to be able to synthesize new insights. They are under constant pressure to produce timely short pieces and have little time to read widely or reflect. The system forces them to jump from topic to topic, quickly looking for confirming evidence, and generally neglecting refuting evidence.

The whole is enmeshed in turf wars among competing intelligence agencies. The tyranny of coordinating the final report leads to a simplistic product based on the lowest-common-agreed-upon claims. Thus, the system discourages innovative thinking and encourages sticking to conventional wisdom. Furthermore, the old complaint that various agencies do not share information is unfortunately still valid, especially for continuing operations. Much information from the field does not trickle up to the respective headquarters in Washington.

The intelligence community suffers from an additional bias: Its constant focus on potential terrorist plots creates the impression that terrorism is almost constant and attacks common. In reality, neo-jihadi terrorist attacks are extremely rare—were it not for sting operations. The vast majority of young people who brag and pretend that they are tough and dangerous just talk, talk, talk … and do nothing. Small wonder that law-enforcement agencies complain that they are drowned by an ocean of false alarms, which threaten to overwhelm their resources.

The intelligence community has reached a consensus on how to distinguish the large number of wannabes from the small number of terrorists. Terrorists emerge in a two-step process. The first step is to join a political-protest community, which the intelligence community calls “radicalization.” The second is to turn to violence, or “mobilization.”

Leaving aside the fact that the latter label creates confusion within academe, which calls “mobilization” the joining of a political-protest community, the hope is to identify the signature words and behaviors of those who turn to violence. So far, to my knowledge, no consensus exists about such indicators. And none have been tested for specificity—how often they produce negative results.

That has real-life implications. Aggressive FBI field offices identify many young men based on nonspecific indicators, set them up in sting operations, and arrest them. According to Bayesian probability models, the odds that these young men would ever have turned to violence are low. But it is difficult to teach lawyers and juries Bayesian probability or insights from social psychology about how authoritative undercover officers can influence impressionable young men.

The result is that many young men are convicted, and the Department of Justice points to their conviction as justification for its sting operations and validation of its indicators. Academics could easily point out the flaws in such reasoning that send young men to prison for life.

But the gap between academe and the intelligence world prevents any meaningful exchanges of ideas. As it stands now, we are condemned to rehash the same old tiresome and irrelevant arguments that prevent us from asking key questions about the turn to political violence.

What makes a young man adopt extremist views?

How exactly does the Internet affect that transformation?

How large are pools of potential violent extremists in the West?

What triggers an extremist protester to turn violent?

What kind of signals does someone, who turns to violence, give off?

What specific signal distinguishes a violent from a nonviolent extremist?

Eleven and a half years after 9/11, we still don’t know.

Marc Sageman is a former C.I.A. operations officer and a psychiatrist and sociologist who has taught at various universities and spent the last eight years working with the intelligence community. His most recent book is Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).


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