What is it about terrorism that makes it so difficult to study and counteract through U.S. government policy? That’s the central question CISAC Senior Fellow Martha Crenshaw hopes to answer in an upcoming book she is co-authoring with Gary LaFree, Director of the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), where Crenshaw serves as lead investigator. at the University of Maryland.
The idea for the book stems from Crenshaw’s long career in grappling with terrorism and observing how governments struggle to combat it. She has been writing and thinking about terrorism since the 1970s and is currently conducting a multi-year project mapping the evolution of violent extremist groups. However, the difficulties inherent in the topic have not much changed for academics and policymakers.
The problems start with defining terrorism, something that has bedeviled both researchers and policymakers for decades, Crenshaw told a Stanford audience in CISAC.
“We are still arguing about what terrorism means. But even if you agree on a definition, then applying it to the real world remains difficult,” she said.
Beyond semantics, the study of terrorism faces a series of hurdles inherent to the topic. An overarching social theory of the causes of terrorism remains elusive, and there is no agreement on whether terrorism actually works.
Additionally, academics have used many different levels of analyses–individual, organizational, cultural, economic, and others–but have yet to agree on which analyses bear more fruit.
Despite what you might gather from what’s said in the media, terrorism events are actually very rare. Terrorist attacks that kill large amounts of people are even more rare. “9/11 was a black swan, a highly consequential event but only a one-of-a-kind. We show why it’s the case that terrorism is very rare and therefore makes it very hard to predict any kind of trends,” Crenshaw said.
Most of the information available is about attacks that actually happened. But there are many more plots, about ten times more, than actual attacks. Crenshaw said she and her research assistants have used news media and government documents to identify failed and foiled plots against the United States, European Union, and NATO countries plus Australia and New Zealand. The plots have been coded in a dataset that she will analyze.
There are additional obstacles in the way of researchers and policymakers.
Attributing responsibility for attacks is difficult, which hampers research and government responses. “How do you know who to respond against? The concept of terrorism is mixed in with insurgency. It’s hard to think of a policy that targets one but not the other,” Crenshaw said. Terrorist organizations are very small and the boundaries between groups are extremely porous. Yet, there is not a preponderance of lone wolves.
Sometimes, the U.S. government obstructs research. Crenshaw lamented the over-classification of government documents, and drew particular attention to the designation “For Official Use Only”, which is not a classification but a designation that seems to depend on the agency using it.
“If you are analyzing illegal forms of violence there are three sources of information: governments, victims, and terrorists. Victims are difficult to find. Self-reporting is even harder and usually unfeasible. And governments are very secretive. We would like to see more transparency and openness on their part,” she said.
“I think what is being done here is really important when it comes to the question of why it’s so hard to find policy solutions for terrorism,” said Betsy Cooper, a Law and International Security Postdoctoral Fellow at CISAC, who offered commentary on the book draft to the seminar. “A lot of what is in the chapter about the state of counter-terrorism research is very important.”
“I learned a lot especially about the automation in the global terrorism database and it poses some interesting questions. Is something terrorism because we say it is or can we use objective criteria regardless of whether you see it as something else?”