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Q&A: ASU expert talks researching terrorism

February 13, 2017

A newly published report in the journal Science suggests that more field research is needed to understand the fundamental aspects of terrorism.

“There were surprisingly few who had taken the risk to spend time with the ‘terrorists’ to understand how and why young men and women became involved in such behavior and were ultimately willing to die in acts of violence against others,” said co-author Richard Davis, a professor of practice in the School of Politics and Global Studies and a Founding Fellow of Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at University of Oxford.

The report, “Challenges in researching terrorism from the field,” looks into why despite efforts from intelligence agencies, there is still so much we don’t know about terrorism.

Here he talks further on researching terrorism and how we can expect to move forward. 

Question:  How did you get involved in researching terrorism?

Answer: In 2005, I was appointed by George W. Bush to become the director of terrorism prevention at the White House after having served the secretary of Homeland Security. My responsibility as a policy director included building the national capacity to prevent terrorism over the long term. After months of working to understand what we knew within the U.S. government about these things, it became clear that our understanding was inadequate.

I came to the faculty of ASU to help the university and students have an opportunity to further the field research necessary to lessen politically motivated violence. I have found myself in good company with colleagues like Mark Woodward and Hasan Davaclu, who are also engaged in field-based research in conflict areas.

Q:  Your co-authored article describes how little statistical or clinical reliability exists for understanding terrorism or terrorists. Why do you think that there are problems with data collection?

A:  There is a great deal of terrorism research. However, very little of it is with the actual combatants in the field. Even less use empirically designed methods. Most often, terrorism research is qualitative and is done from afar.

The best science comes from going to the field and designing experiments that are theoretically motivated. The challenge is that some of these places that researchers must go are frightening. Unfortunately, there are not many researchers willing to take the risk to bring such data back to the scientific and policy communities.

Q:  Would more funding help prevent terrorism?

A:  Ideally, the U.S. government would fund research that would yield enough understanding to make troop deployment in conflict areas unnecessary. Greater understanding of armed groups, their leaders and the supporters can yield critical information. 

The idea is to see how armed groups might adapt in ways that reduce violence.

Understanding the dynamics and values that underscore the projection of violence by these groups can help us enhance policies in such ways that lessen violence and the need for direct engagement by U.S. armed forces. Furthermore, creating a less accommodative environment for an armed group is one tool to lessen their ability to project violence abroad.

Q:  The article states that the focus of terrorist research should be on youth, who make up the majority of terrorist recruits.

A: The most effective prevention programs I have seen are those that use youth to lead pro-community efforts with populations that are supportive of violent extremist groups — for example, beach clean-up in Yemen, counter-extremism in Pakistan and counter ISIS recruitment in Syrian refugee camps. 

Young people that are willing to stand in front of their peers and push non-violent means to make community change are unsung heroes.

USAID, the United Nations, the World Bank and other development agencies should further fund youth led community activism for non-violence in areas where recruitment to armed groups are pervasive.  One or two programs won’t do it; programming must be broad and deep with commitments from governments.

Q:  What should be the next steps on combatting terrorism using field research based on your groups findings?

A:  For the last 10 years, some of my research and that of my colleagues, has been on understanding how values become sacrilized (non-tradable) and under what conditions people make costly sacrifices for their values, including fighting and dying.

This research identifies the role of identity fusion of an individual to a group, sacrilized values and the strength of spiritual formidability in the willingness to fight harder than your opponents.  We believe that these studies need to be replicated in other conflict zones to better understand how we can use this information to lessen the willingness of armed groups to use violence to achieve their aims.

Answers have been edited for length

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