Meeting Report: Empirical Research on Terrorism

Obtaining reliable data and sources in the field of terrorism studies has long been a challenge for researchers. During this ICCT seminar, experts on Australian and Dutch home-grown terrorism cases discussed how the scarcity of primary data has affected the field and showcased some new avenues for research on terrorism using these hard to come by sources.

Dr. Quirine Eijkman (ICCT) opened the seminar by noting that policy-orientated security research can only be as good as the data on which it is based. Access to reliable empirical sources including government archives and interviews with (former) terrorists has been a long-standing challenge. However, the past years have seen some important improvements in this regard. During the seminar, four speakers presented and discussed innovative ways for open-source terrorism research.

Bruce McFarlane (Global Terrorism Research Centre, Monash University Melbourne) spoke about his unique experience of being both a police officer and an academic researcher with an interest in the 2005 Operation Pendennis, which was a large-scale joint police and intelligence endeavour that interrupted terrorist plots in two Australian cities. During this operation, staggering amounts of data were collected, which presented both challenges and valuable insights for the officers involved. For example, while extensive surveillance was a drain on the resources of all agencies involved, wire taps revealed valuable information on the group’s activities and its organisational structure. McFarlane noted that the best way for academics to understand the ideology, interactions and motivation of alleged terrorists was to speak to those (in)directly involved in terrorist activities. However, there was also a need to utilise existing networks: “Just as different terrorist groups exploit their relationships with each other, policy makers, law-enforcement bodies and academics should utilise each other to maximise results”. He concluded that there are still many gaps in our understanding of the attitudes and behaviour of potential terrorists, as well as the radicalisation process and the role of online communication tools. Greater access to first-hand, empirical data and stronger co-operation between government agencies and academia would offer new perspectives and provide fresh answers to fundamental questions in terrorism research.

Dr. Lindsay Clutterbuck (RAND Europe) demonstrated how empirical data can enhance the sometimes superficial analysis of terrorism attacks in the news media.  His quantitative studies provide insights into characteristics and behaviour of UK-based violent jihadist groups. For example, the average number of members of the six terrorist cells he analysed is 6.3 people, of which more than 60 percent were born in Great Britain. His research also shows that almost half of all members of the cells under analysis have travelled abroad for training purposes prior to carrying out an attack, and that the recruitment of family members or close friends to the group is a common pattern in these violent, jihadist-minded groups. A further notable factor shows that over one-third of those members in groups carrying out attacks in Dr. Clutterbuck’s dataset are re-engaged Muslims, while ten percent had converted to Islam. The two alleged perpetrators of the recent Woolwich attack in London generally fit these patterns, except for the fact that most jihadist groups tend to encompass a greater number of participants.

Bart Schuurman (Centre for Terrorism and Counter Terrorism, Leiden University) echoed many of Mr. McFarlane’s observations: lack of access to empirical sources has meant that many terrorism-related publications “talk amongst themselves” and lack detail as well as factual accuracy. There are numerous obstacles to obtaining information, such as identifying and gaining trust of terrorists for interviews, accessing intelligence information and police files, verifying information, avoiding bias and processing large amounts of data. The implication of accessing reliable empirical data became very evident in the Dutch Hofstadgroep case, where many “why” and “how” questions still remain unanswered. Rare access to police files and other primary data has allowed Mr. Schuurman and his colleagues to debunk some of the myths surrounding the Hofstadgroup case and has provided new insights, particularly regarding the rise and subsequent development of this home-grown jihadist group.

Mr. Petter Nesser explained different ways in which he has gathered reliable open-access data. Especially judicial documents, leaked interrogation documents, interviews with (former) terrorists and jihadist websites provide valuable information for terrorism researchers. He also highlighted the importance of empirical data in explaining motivational factors and different types of terrorism.  In his opinion, one of the main indicators of terrorist behaviour is an individual’s connection to an organised community and/or religious authority that preaches violent messages. “I do not necessarily see the Hofstad group as a home-grown one, but rather as a group within the broader framework of al Qaeda-inspired networks in Europe. One can even ascertain parallels between the Hofstad group and lone-wolves”.  During the question-and-answer session, Dr. Clutterbuck added on the topic of home-grown terrorism that “one has to be careful  when choosing the term home-grown: the catalyst for so-called home-grown terrorism is often an overseas experience. People who have physically travelled to places like Pakistan and Somalia tend to develop a new mind-set which goes beyond merely sitting around and talking”.

Read the Background Note accompanying this event: Moving Terrorism Research Forward: The Crucial Role of Primary Sources by Mr. Bart Schuurman & Dr. Quirine Eijkman.