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Ten years of Terrorism Research

Posted: 09/09/11 16:59

One of the less remarked upon legacies of 9/11 is that it spawned an entire cottage industry: the terrorism and radicalisation experts, to be found in think-tanks, academia, and journalism. I know, because I'm part of it.

There were many excellent researchers of terrorism and before 9/11. There still are. But too many of them spend their hours concocting fantastically complex models of radicalisation (the conveyor belt, the escalator, the stairway), without troubling themselves to go anywhere near a 'radical.' It has been estimated that 80 per cent of academic papers on terrorism are based on no empirical research at all - just theory and recycled evidence. That has to change.

Enthusiastic and idealistic students were, understandably, drawn to 9/11. University courses in international relations/security studies have multiplied out of control. There are now over 350 such courses in the UK producing an army of, I'd conservatively estimate, 10,000 unrealistically ambitious IR graduates each year. How many of these undergraduates do we need? What are they all going to do? Working in a local authority seems awfully drab when you'd planned on polyglotting yourself around the Middle East like Tony Blair.

Although the industry argues a lot about evidence, in truth the important questions in terrorism research cannot be decisively answered by research alone: they are political, value-driven. Why some people decide to blow other people up; what the correct balance between security and liberty is; who the government should give money to - these ticklers are beyond the reaches of mere empirics. This is nothing new, but clarity on where the evidence stops and the rhetoric starts is a must, and has often been lacking. In too many papers on terrorism, evidence is pressed into the service of ideology, dressed up as objective research.

But the industry has also scored wins. We now have a quite good understanding of Islamism (although less about other types of extremism). There are teams of Internet toshers and mudlarks that screen grab extremist material on-line and report it. And polemic is the industry's great strength. The furious commotion that accompanies new counter-terrorism policy means that every contradiction, omission, or foolishness is immediately exposed. Has any policy of a comparably miniscule size received the attention and scrutiny of Prevent? While in France, no-one seems to know or care that Algerian Imams are routinely deported to Algeria and never seen again, earlier this year Channel 4's light-hearted current affairs programme 10 O'Clock Live had a long, heated debate on control orders.

So for the next decade: experts in terrorism will be needed as the threat grows more complex and varied, and the UK is well set. But more empirical primary evidence is needed to understand what is happening; and honesty about how it is used. I promise to hold myself to that too.

 

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