Problems with Terrorism Research

There are many problems with terrorism research. I noted this recently when I was going through a heap of freshly-printed terrorism research articles. What a nightmare it is to trod through mediocre articles for hours before you finally get to the prize piece.

To help fellow enthusiasts out there, I have compiled a list of problems with current terrorism research. Here is that list (each point followed by semi-detailed breakdown):

  • Long history of academic conflict on the definition and criteria of terrorism: what terrorism is and how we identify and categorize it is problematic.

The debate on defining, categorizing and listing criteria for terrorism is ginormous. There are numerous definitions out there which creates a confusing intellectual environment to operate in. The open-ended nature of some of the definitions is problematic, as is the mixed-bag range you can select from in regards to criteria.

When beginning to look into this issue – start with the basics. Definition, criteria, common use, problematic use. What defines it? What is it made up of? What is the common use of the term? What are the problems? Doing this means that you have a solid foundation. You understanding what terrorism is, essentially. But you also understand what the inherent problems are with it as a term and its common usage and interpretation.

  • Poor data collection methodologies leading to mediocre evidence for a wide-range of hypotheses.

There are many methods of data collection. Some studies show poor academic standards with below mediocre collection methodologies. There is also a wide-range of observation (non-experimental) studies out there in which the interpreter places personal researcher bias into the mix.

Learn to scrap the garbage and recognise biases. Bias does not mean junk, it means that you need to note it and keep it in mind if it makes leaps of logic or jumps to conclusions. For example, this blog is biased when it comes to religious terrorism (rather than secular terrorism) and Islamic terrorism (rather than Christian or Jewish terrorism). Keep it in mind.

On the other hand, these tilts are okay if there is a particular subject matter with a subject matter expert who orientates his or herself around it (e.g. those who focus on foreign policy or Colonialism rather than anything else). They can and do offer a lot of expert insight that you may not find elsewhere.

  • Interdisciplinary nature creates conflicts in understanding as well as contradictory theories. This includes anything from psychology, sociology, anthropology to economics, history studies, religious studies, et cetera.

If you sat a psychologist, sociologist, historian, religious leader and economist in a room and gave them a problem, it is likely that they would tackle that problem from different points of view, based on their background and education. Some would take you in wild directions compared to that of the other sat next to him.

Take terrorism as the example. A developmental psychologist might look at a terrorists early childhood to young adulthood to present whereas a religious studies major may look into the interpretation of religious texts and the trends of radicalism within those texts. These are entirely different positions. Both may be wrong, both may be right, only one may be right.

Take poverty-terrorism link as the example. Some say absolute deprivation theory stands, whilst others say that relative deprivation theory stands. Some deny the link, some accept it, some accept it on certain conditions and some deny it on certain conditions. It helps to look at the evidence – and the methodology used to develop the evidence. But in no way should one look upon researchers as an authority on any said issue, but as a subject matter expert whose evidence should be assessed.

If you say, “Oh look, a psychologist – they know what people think, right?” and assume that they therefore intimately understand Jewish terrorism in Israel or Islamic terrorism in Bradford, England – you may be setting yourself up for failure.

  • Research is squandered by political aims and bias (e.g. poverty narrative in left-wing politics or racial-religious narratives in right-wing politics).

Terrorism is plagued by political bias and over-arching political aims. If you ask the far-left what we should do about terrorism, they may find excuses for it, e.g. justifying violence because of societal discrimination against a certain population. Whereas the far-right may blame a population, demanding bans and deportations.

This blog, for example, is ran by someone who is center-right, grew up in a Muslim community in Britain, knew al-Qaeda affiliates personally and has previously been involved in right-wing anti-Islam groups in Australia. It is in no way a neutral approach to understanding religious terrorism.

Find the middle ground. Understand both sides – understand all sides. Compare the Southern Poverty Law Centre material to that of the Quilliam Foundation to that of Islamist groups themselves like al-Qaeda. You may laugh and blow-off one of the organisations material as hogwash compared to the real-deal terrorist material itself.

  • Contradictory positions – there are many academic researchers who come to differing conclusions and thus take different positions on terrorism.

There are many contradictions that you will have to get your head around. You can either pick one side or the other, search for evidence to guide you or ignore the debate (some academic debates are unnecessary and waste your time). Sageman vs Schmid snipped from the research article below is a perfect example of this.

Sageman concluded that:

“…it is hard to escape the judgment that academic terrorism research has stagnated for the past dozen years because of a lack of both primary sources and vigorous efforts to police the quality of research, thus preventing the establishment of standards of academic excellence and flooding the field with charlatans, spouting some of the vilest prejudices under the cloak of national security.”

Yet Schmid concluded that:

“Looking back over four decades of terrorism research, one cannot fail to see that, next to much pretentious nonsense, a fairly solid body of consolidated knowledge has emerged. In fact, Terrorism Studies has never been in better shape than now.”

Did someone say contradiction? Kaching! Terrorism studies is full of theories and academic opinion that are contradictory. Welcome to interpretation hell. Your goal, as an enthusiast or researcher, should be to identify the truth – reality. If that is your goal, you will soon shred through the fictitious opinions of other academics. But take their material into account, because it affects the debate and understanding of terrorism globally.

  • Flooded with research.

Quantity has increased yet the quality is questionable. Mediocre research involves bad methodologies as I have mentioned above. But just think about the sheer scale of what a new researcher has to get through. It is a swamp. I hope you have brought boots.

Those new to the field (post-9/11) will come across thousands of citations and articles out there. Hundreds more made daily. This shows radical change in academic positions. A huge influx of new researchers into the field has caused terrorism studies to be dissected – it branches into multiple schools of thought on the issues (e.g. poverty-relationship vs religion vs politics vs international affairs vs psychology). You get the point!

But this also tells you something vitally important as an academic or enthusiast: you cannot know everything and not everything matters. For example most journalistic or media-related articles tend to repeat trends, arguments and questions related to terrorism. Extracting the tiniest amount of value from a three thousand word piece when you have heard the argument a thousand times before, is NOT worth your time.

  • Numerous biases exist.

Self-citation, in-house bias, journal bias, et cetera. It’s all there. This guy said this[1]. [1] The guy is me, 2017. Oh and did I inform you of what [2] said? [2] My friend who works with me, 2017. Watch out for this. It is especially prevalent in organisations who have shifted focus (e.g. from poverty to anti-war to radicalisation to terrorism). They create a ‘circlejerk’ for academics (remember the Sokal affair?).

For more, please see: Andrew Silke & Jennifer Schmidt-Petersen (201-5). ‘The Golden Age? What the 100 most cited articles in Terrorism Studies tell us.’ Terrorism and Political Violence DOI:10.1080/09546553.20 L5.LO64397.


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