The problem with definitions

The scientific study of political violence, which includes terrorism and violent extremism, is a contested field. The first challenge is about the definition of the terms that define the object of study. For example, Richard English writes in a recent article:

It is often pointed out that there exists no consensual definition of the word ‘terrorism’. It is less often acknowledged that this is a common issue with other social phenomena of political significance (nationalism, revolution, empire, fascism, imperialism, colonialism). […] Should we, for example, deploy the term ‘terrorism’ to apply only to nonstate groups, or should we use it for state actors also? Again, do we define terrorism so as to include anti-colonial movements?

For those who are interested in the discussion about the definition of terrorism, we suggest the following readings:

Similarly, the terms “radicalisation” and “extremism”, like virtually all terms in this area, lack clarity and are often contested. Despite being widely used by academic and policy makers, their meaning are ambiguous and still cause major controversies and debates in the public opinion. For example, Peter Neumann writes:

At the most basic level, radicalization can be defined as the process whereby people become extremist. […] The more ambiguous part of the definition is the concept of extremism, which—according to Roger Scruton—can have several meanings. It may describe political ideas that are diametrically opposed to a society’s core values, which—in the context of a liberal democracy—can be various forms of racial or religious supremacy, or ideologies that deny basic human rights or democratic principles. Or it can mean the methods by which actors seek to realize any political aim, namely by ‘show[ing] disregard for the life, liberty, and human rights of others’. There is no agreement, in other words, about the end-state of radicalization. […] Connected to the discussion about ‘end-points’ of radicalization is the question of what—if any—relationship exists between (extremist) ideas and (extremist) action. […] As Mark Sedgwick and others have pointed out, the word ‘radical’ has no meaning on its own. Its content varies depending on what is seen as ‘mainstream’ in any given society, section of society or period of time. Different political, cultural and historical contexts, in other words, produce different notions of ‘radicalism’. […]In reality, of course, it is not about ‘either or’. No one disputes the importance of factors other than ideology in the process of radicalization. But, whatever the importance of political beliefs vis-à-vis group dynamics, social networks, grievances, personal crises and other influences in each case, beliefs and political ideas—however simplistically expressed—are usually part of the mix.

For those who are interested in the discussion about the term “radicalisation”, we suggest the following reading:

The limitations of terrorism research

Another important challenge is the nature of the data that has been used in research that has been conducted on terrorism and radicalisation so far. Even since the flood of publications that appeared in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001 scholars have been calling for more rigorous research and more collaboration with governments and intelligence community in order to better understand what leads to political violence and terrorism. As Marc Sageman put it in a thought-provoking piece:

Despite over a decade of government funding and thousands of newcomers to the field of terrorist research, we are no closer to answering the simple question of “What leads a person to turn to political violence?” […] A serious impediment to scholars, whether fully dedicated to terrorism studies or only occasionally participating in such a study, is the lack of the availability of comprehensive and reliable data. […] Government statements and leaks provide fragmentary and biased information to journalists. Unfortunately, since there is so little information, the press amplifies this patchy information to the point of distortion through an echo effect, where repeats of the claims are taken as corroboration for the original leak. One-dimensional and sensational portraits of alleged terrorists, packaged in the five-hundred-words-or-less limit of a newspaper article or a television sound bite, dominate our understanding of this phenomenon. […] Without relevant and comprehensive data, academics are condemned to be armchair investigators, extrapolating from robust studies in other fields onto terrorism research. […] To draw my point to its extreme: we have a system of terrorism research in which intelligence analysts know everything but understand nothing, while academics understand everything but know nothing. This critique is but the last of a long jeremiad going back almost forty years about the poor quality of the research in the field. […] The solution is obvious: we need more productive interactions between the two communities.

For those who are interested in the discussion about the supposed stagnation of terrorism research, we suggest the following reading:

Countering violent extremism in Australia

Scientific research on the prevention of violent extremism is an emerging field where scholars have imported methodologies and evaluation procedures from public health, psychology and criminology. The prevention, or countering, of violent extremism depends on careful interventions. These interventions are typically thought of in terms of the stages at which they occur as follows:

  • Primary, which concerns initiatives addressed to the general population that aim to build social cohesion and resilience so as to diminish the emergence of factors that might be conducive to the emergence of violent extremism;
  • Secondary, which concerns initiatives targeted at individuals who are thought to be at immediate risk of being caught up in political violence through being recruited or drawn into extremist groups or networks. Prior to the emergence of ISIS it was generally thought that recruitment and radicalisation took months and years but since 2014 has been commonly observed to occur within just weeks and months. At the same time the average age of those being groomed and befriended has dropped, with many school-aged teenagers now being targeted by recruiters, sometimes via their immediate social circle and sometimes directly via social media
  • Tertiary, which concerns initiatives directed at the disengagement, and possible eventual deradicalization, of individuals who already committed acts of violent extremism or who have been subject to arrest because they were caught up in plot that required police action to disrupt.

Most of the existing programs are in the space of primary intervention, and some programs focus on tertiary intervention. Yet, there is increasing need of secondary and tertiary intervention programs, especially in Australia. As Harris-Hogan, Barrelle and Zammit outlined:

Primary prevention programs do have a role to play. However, in low incidence, high impact, culturally sensitive areas such as violent extremism, they carry serious risks. There is little independent evaluation or evidence-based research to suggest that social cohesion or prevention initiatives have led to an actual reduction in violent extremism anywhere in the Western world. Moreover, their broadly targeted nature risks stigmatising the communities which they target. In terms of addressing the stated problem, having an overwhelming focus on prevention initiatives has meant that CVE projects in Australia have rarely directly engaged with individuals on a radicalising trajectory.

For those who are interested in the discussion about the prevention of violent extremism in Australia, we suggest the following reading:

WTAVE resources

WTAVE operates as a central repository of research and a clearinghouse for resources in the field of CVE, through the collation of information on past and current research across Australia and overseas. WTAVE interprets and disseminates information for use by government and non-government organisations.

To delve further into WTAVE resources in this website, explore the following collections: