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Strengths and weaknesses of terrorism research

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 4211 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Terrorism can be termed an ever evolving dynamic, widely disputed complex phenomenon that finds its roots in psycho-social and political realms. According to Lacquer (1999) [1] and Gordon (2004) [2] every instance or act of terrorism is inherently different and possess distinctive characteristics similar to biometrics. As stated by Gordon (2010) futile attempts have been made to form terrorism typologies according to terrorists’ methods of operations, regions of the world, organization and ideologies [3] . Based on these assertions it is evident that terrorism as a research field is unclear and still in it normative stages and as such lends itself to structured, synergized future development.

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Subsequent to the attacks of September 11, 2001 terrorism research experienced a massive influx of scholarly, semi-academic and popular writings from scholars, law enforcement personnel (both retired and active), and journalists depicting various academic, historic, religious, cultural, ethnic and social perspectives all wanting to postulate on the so called new phenomenon of modern terrorism. This apparent thrust according to Jackson (2007) [4] has led to the subject matter of Terrorism being transformed into a standalone field of study with its own dedicated journals, research centers, leading scholars and experts, research funding opportunities, conferences and university programmes.

Further, Professor Andrew Silke, Director of terrorism studies at the University of East London in an interview with The Guardian, a UK newspaper dated 3rd July 2007, headline ‘The rise and rise of Terrorism Studies’ has claimed “that if current trends continue, more than 90 percent of all terrorism studies literature will have been published post 9/11, 2001, and that a new book on terrorism is published every six hours in the English language”. [5] 

Also, in a study on ‘Terrorism and knowledge growth’ done by Dr. Avishag Gordon, Senior Information Expert in the Computer Science Library at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in 2004, using publishing databases, it was found that prior to September 2001, terrorism publications had grown over 234 percent between the period 1988-2001 [6] but post September 2001, there was an explosion of such a proportion that Dr Richard Jackson; senior lecturer in international politics at Manchester University believes that scholarly papers in the discipline have increased by 300% since then. [7] 

Cognizant of the above terrorism research environment and the continued pace of the publication of work on terrorism, this paper will provide a critical examination of Terrorism Research using current literature in order to elucidate the distinguishing aspects, deficiencies and limitations and conclude by providing ideas/ suggestions on the way forward.

During the conduct of the analysis this paper will use secondary data to draw attention to the evolution of the unrelenting pace of voluminous outputs purporting to be Terrorism Research. The approaches to the conduct of terrorism research, the challenges associated with the field, the comparison to other fields of discipline and the perception of the driving force behind Terrorism Research will all be examined.

The Definition Dilemma

Before any incision into Terrorism Research can occur and in order to establish a basis for any arguments for the development of this essay, the issue of the failure to develop a universally acceptable definition must be discussed. The definition of Terrorism is crucial and the most important foundation upon which to build because it ultimately determines the way in which this and any Research on Terrorism should be conducted.

To date there is no universal definitions of terrorism accepted by scholars, experts, journalists or theorists. So, rather than revisit the seemingly never ending debate on the definition of terrorism, the paper will adopt Bruce Hoffman’s, – one of the worlds’ leading analysts on terrorism – definition on terrorism. Hoffman (2005a) [8] defines terrorism as:

Ineluctably political in aims and motives;

Violent-or, equally important, threatens violence;

Designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target;

Conducted either by an organization with an identifiable chain of command or conspiratorial cell structure (whose members wear no uniform or identifying insignia) or by individuals or a small collection of individuals directly influenced, motivated, or inspired by the ideological aims or example of some existent terrorist movement and/or its leaders; and

Perpetrated by a sub-national group or non-state entity.

This definition was chosen because it comes from an authoritative source; it is encompassing and gives the widest possible consideration to all actors and all forms of terrorism. The definition elucidates the need to use power to coerce individuals to conformity; it also conveys the violent nature and attendant resonating fear inducing component of the strategy achieved through death and destruction; moreover, it puts the end state of the strategy into context with the aims and motives of terrorists by specifying the strong political nature. Finally the definition combines all the above inferences into a statement whereby the principal deduction can be that its expression is quite simply without doubt terrorism.

However making this definition operative in any debate is anything but easy. A major problem was that terrorism almost always has a pejorative connotation and thus falls in the same category of words such as “tyranny” and “genocide,” unlike such relatively neutral terms such as “war” and “revolution” that can be used to convey the same act. One can aspire to objective and dispassionate research, but one cannot be neutral about terrorism any more than one can be neutral about slavery and genocide. Thus, defining terrorism became an effort not only to delineate a subject area but also to maintain its illegitimacy. Even the most clinical inquiry was laden with values and therefore political issues. The very study of terrorism implied to some a political decision and or objective.

Qualitative, case-study research method has dominated the terrorism topic for many years. Since the number of first hand observations in the greater part of this work is really small, researchers have been cautious to delineate terrorism to fit the cases under examination. The undersized quantity of observations, regrettably, often disallows unreliable dubious parts of the definition. In one country, for instance, hostility against the military might take place, but in the second country it might not. In an assessment of the first country, one could vary the definition beyond civilian targets to military targets. In an assessment of the second country, one could not adjust the definition to investigate the implications of unreliable degrees from minimal to maximal definitions (Lesser, 1999).


In current research on terrorism in the political science writings, there is plenty of room to tailor the definition of terrorism to identify with its consequences. Specifically, there is no need to decide on one particular definition of terrorism; multiple definitions can be allowed and then the effects can be empirically sorted out. Empirical analysis might generate two measures of terrorism: one with civilians as the target and the second with both civilians and the military at peace time as the target. Moreover, empirical analysis may demonstrate whether results are alike or diverse dependent on the measure. And any results would have implications for future theoretical and empirical research (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2004).


Terrorism research has been noted to be somewhat self regulating, though the critiques and reviews of the field’s achievements and failures extend over the past two decades. Some of the most important reviews [9] include key theorists, experts and analysts in the field. The highlighted strengths and weaknesses are examined below:


Poor Concepts, Theories and Methods

Terrorism research has been criticized for its less than rigorous theories and concepts primarily due to the absence of a definition of terrorism [10] . This conundrum may never ever be resolved however evidence suggests that the current approach by most luminaries in the field seems to be one of sidestepping the definitional issue in favor of variance of term for its use according to the circumstances. This approach reeks of interference and points to external motivations according to purposes. The weakness that this approach portrays is reflected in limitation in the research and studies of terrorism.

Another criticism levied in Silke (2004) [11] that highlights poor research methods and procedures is the over reliance on interviews and secondary data as opposed to the outputs of primary research. Though there are benefits to be derived from these methodologies, the obvious limitations override them. If evidence that supports the use of other methodologies were present this would bolster the claim for terrorism research to be an independent discipline with its own theoretical framework. Sadly support for an eclectic approach to methodologies used is absent and thus this lack of complementarity exposes the gaps in terrorism research.

Another shortcoming in terrorism research as postulated by Richard Jackson (2007) [12] is that the outputs tend towards ahistoricity and acontextuality. This view as espoused by Jackson suggests that much of recent terrorism research ignores historical data pre September 2001 and virtually do not take into account experiences of other countries. Most modern researchers and experts tend to view terrorism ‘tabular rasa’ post September 2001 and consequently refer to terrorist activities as modern terrorism. This misnomer can easily be dispelled as terrorism existed as early as 1880. Further there remains a view that terrorism research is acontextual primarily because researchers do not look at terrorist activity within the context from which they emerged rather terrorist activity is viewed and analyzed to develop trend and pattern analysis from which extrapolation can occur.

Another related flaw as espoused by Jackson (2007) [13] is that since the events of September 2001 terrorism research tends towards exceptionalizing the experiences of the United States and Al Qaeda. Another expert Louise Richardson (2006) [14] described this tendency as ‘American “Exceptionalism”, the sense that America is different from (and implicitly superior to) the rest of the world.’ These comments suggests that terrorism researchers had delved in the field without even considering any previous relationship thereby creating a myopia linked to activities post September 2001.

In Silke (2004) [15] Research on Terrorism, Frederick Schulze notes that Schmid and Jongman (1988) identifies that though a lot has been written about Terrorism, it is not empirically based and lacks substance. In fact Schmid and Jongman note because of the lack of rigorous research based literature; the works produced are narrative, overly descriptive, derivative, derogatory and prescriptive rather than analytical. These identified flaws adequately tell a story of the quality, validity and reliability of the current research. Consequently the focus of the current terrorism research is limited to the ‘sexiest’ topics while gaps in the literature remain unexplored.

Terrorism by its very nature is interdisciplinary as asserted by Joshua Sinai in Silke (2004) yet researchers have not collaborated on much integrated work worldwide. Furthermore, interdisciplinarity and synergies amongst fields are crucial to the development and growth of a research field. Collaborative efforts bring varying perspective together that develop innovative approaches to research agendas. Moreover interdisciplinarity enhances and creates alternate pathways to achieving solutions that are sometimes elusive.

Ranstorp (2006) [16] stated that ‘In essence interdisciplinary focus and innovation will remain absolutely vital in efforts to develop a critical knowledge base in future terrorism research.’ It is obvious that for terrorism research to be able to create an expansive valid knowledge base that scientific collaboration across fields must occur. Further in the quest to be recognised as an independent field terrorism research must leverage existing knowledge pools to its advantage.

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According to Gordon (2010) [17] , for the terrorism research field to be considered mature it must go through the development stages variable that includes collaboration as a foundation principle. Yet it is apparent that in the quest for recognition that individualistic behaviours have subsumed the common sense approach of using knowledge bases and methods that exist within other disciplines.

One of the harshest criticisms levied against the field is that research priorities, projects topics and perspectives are motivated by a problem solving approach funded by governments. Consequently the general view held is that research produced on behalf of sovereign nations is tainted and state centric because of the obvious relationships. This espoused view cast doubts on the outcome of sponsored work and questions the ability of researchers to remain independent. Andrew Silke (2004) [18] has concluded that much terrorism research is driven by policy concerns and is limited to addressing government agendas. This view can at times be myopic as the effects of terrorism will always be a national issue that must be addressed by government. The consequences of any institutional financial political relationship are the risk of ascribed influence peddling. However it can be argued that such a relationship is necessary to advance any field of research. It is believed that researchers must understand that they should operate within the accepted codes of ethics and conduct and must remain independent lest their credibility and integrity become irreparably damaged.



Finally, the adhesive that should hold the terrorism research field together is the unity of focus and the concentration of effort among its luminaries. Sadly all indications are that there is a disparate approach funneled by the advancement of personal agendas. Accordingly the leadership needed to close the obvious gaps, to cross fertilize, to synergize and integrate with other existing fields remains absent while the ‘crab in a barrel syndrome’ pervades. A suggestion is for the creation of an association similar to that of the medical profession with the mandatory accreditation of individuals. This approach is seen as a viable option to guide, assess and focus the work to be conducted in the terrorism research field.


Inputs, developments and effectiveness

Terrorism researchers for years have been exploring the root causes of the phenomenon in an attempt to negate the effects of the physical and psychological violence on the wider society. According to Sinai in Silke (2004) [19] ‘researchers have through the social sciences using accepted theories and methodologies systematically identified, itemized and correlated root causes ranging from general to the specific, including those at the individual, group, societal and governmental levels. This assertion has provided support that researchers have to a comforting degree been able to understand the origins and the structural theories of terrorism thereby assuring the completion of the early developmental stages of the field of terrorism research. Though some early works have been conducted and methodologies, theories and models for understanding the phenomenon of terrorism have been proffered, additional focus on contributory apparatus and processes in which additional aspects and circumstances further act as motivators for terrorist activities are yet to be explored. As well terrorism research has not yet fully embraced and leveraged existing technologies to assist with computational and mapping challenges.

Terrorism research has been able to enhance the tracking of day to day terrorist activities with the advent of chronologies electronic databases such as the Memorial institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT). This advancement has greatly boosted the collection of terrorist activities globally. The examination of the compiled data is significant to the furthering of longitudinal studies, trend analyses, geographical stamping, establishing relationship among groups, mapping strategies employed, determining intensification or deceleration in activities, shaping effectiveness of countermeasures in different geographical location and can generally be useful in assisting with prediction and the impact on societies, be it physical, social, economical or psychological. The downside to heavy reliance on a tool such as this is the increased probability that underestimation and wrongful predictions due to the use of arbitrary criteria when inputting data. This can lead to problems associated with the ‘garbage in, garbage out’ theory.

Furthermore the dearth of knowledge generated by current terrorism research has been instrumental in assisting governments in crafting counter terrorism strategies and policies while providing the foundation for the development of emergency management, law enforcement, security and defence agencies doctrine. More specifically, at the tactical level researchers have provided practitioners with useful information on profiles, character traits, and patterns of behaviors that has allowed law enforcement, security and defence personnel to be able to detect, deter and disable attacks. Moreover terrorism research has assisted government with developing approaches to address, neutralize and manage the effects of the phenomenon of terrorism.


The way forward

The opportunities that are created by the current disarray in the field of terrorism studies are immeasurable. The gaps in existing literature and the lack of focus and unity provide fertile ground for budding researchers to sow intellectual hybrids for the harvest of a plural solution to a universal problem.

The time to adopt a more conciliatory approach that creates synergy with other established fields is now or risks the chance of disappearing into ignominy. The prudence of this approach is a greater understanding and the ability to better inform all stakeholders in the interdiction and the management of the effects of terrorism.

The thought of being the pioneer for the further development of the broader theoretical framework must continue to be an interesting prospect. The need to interrogate the core concepts of the field in order to provide satisfactory definitions and theoretical formulations must be seen as alluring.

Opportunities for the alignment of methodology and the structuring of the discipline into topic areas, the apportioning of noted gaps to scholarship must be vigorously pursued as this structured approach will create an environment that generates funding for additional terrorism research.

The upgrade in software technologies to better able researchers to understand, predict and forecast activities beckons on the horizons but the instigator is urgently needed.

A serious examination of the political and strategic roots of terrorism is also essential if current tendencies towards acontextuality and ahistoricism are to be effectively countered.

The establishment of new terrorism research journals as part of an attempt to foster a reflective and critical approach to the field is needed for encouraging the identification and exploitation of original information sources.

The need for focus and expansion beyond the state-centric orientation of contemporary research is particularly urgent to change the perception of puppetry and biases.


If the benchmark for the acceptance of whether terrorism research field has attained maturity is the voluminous contributions by scholars, experts, theorists and analysts then one can opine that the intended status has been achieved. However, when a comprehensive analysis is conducted to provide insight into a difficult subject area, it is apparent that the field of terrorism research is dichotomous and fragmented. Terrorism research is yet to be considered a complete field primarily because of key issues such as definition, the absence of a theoretical framework, a general lack of focus, variance with interdisciplinarity and the absence of a focused research agenda.

Coupled with the stated gaps and the inability to replicate and prove research studies, terrorism research as a field continues to be an elusive endeavor. Moreover, it is apparent that terrorism research has not been allowed to evolve through its developmental stages as other fields (the field was not allowed to creep before it learned to walk).

Based on the events of September 2001, the research field appeared to have been given an injection akin to ‘Somatotropin’ a forbidden synthetic human growth stimulant that has forced its maturity. This premature development which is without a solid foundation and littered with potential dangers and pitfalls is attempting to force its way into becoming an established research field, without first ‘paying its dues’. Consequently the environment has had a proliferation of works purporting to be legitimate discourse.

Further the statistics from Gordon (2004) attest to the fact that the field has seen the most single author contributions than any other field of research. This must be worrisome as the interpretations can only suggest the appearance of some cultist fad which will eventually wither.

The concerns at this time must be what will be the trigger to turn around this annoying trend? The answers lie with the experts, scholars, analysts and researchers and the ability to come together and re-focus a field that is critical to the continued existence of the global population.

The responsibilities associated with terrorism research and understanding of the importance to the decrease of the fear of terrorism to the world must be the dilutive to the greed and egotistical aura that permeate the field today.


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